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COVID-19, corrupt politics, the reemergence of Jim Crow-era racism, climate change and practically everything else in the news feels as if it were ripped from a dystopian Ray Bradbury novel. And many of us have coped with the horror of 2020 by venting to one another: Like-minded family and friends have kept this nation afloat, albeit divided, through the worst year since 2019, when we thought things couldn’t get any worse.
Now HBO’s channeled all that raw anxiety into “Coastal Elites,” a five-part, 120-minute special presentation built around intimate testimonials from five fictional characters who are based in Los Angeles and New York.
Call them liberals, Democrats, anti-Trumpers or just plain fed up. They’re losing their minds and this awkward, uneven, funny and sometimes moving program from satirist and playwright Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach (“Recount,” “Bombshell”) attempts to capture the progressive zeitgeist.
Starring Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Dever, and premiering Saturday on HBO, "Coastal Elites" opens with a self-description that demonstrates the unconventionality of our times — and this production.
The words "Five heart-tugging monologues," are typed out, then struck through. "Five unhinged rants" is also floated, then deleted. The show settles on: "Five desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new normal."
Shot during this summer's stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, “Coastal Elites” is part theater, part video conference. Each character sits alone in a room and speaks directly into the lens, addressing an invisible listener on the other end of the camera as they recount whatever Trumpian misdeed drove them to spill their guts.
Their stories seem unrelated to one another other until a great reveal at the end that ties the narrative together, but it takes some work getting there. The production, or “special presentation,” is as clumsy as it is poignant. Each segment was of course shot separately due to the restrictions of the pandemic, and while that setup lends an authentic quality to some of the confessionals, it makes others feel forced by comparison.
Part one, “Lock Her Up,” features Miriam Nessler (Midler), a politically engaged widow who ends up in police custody. Sitting at a desk, a plain room behind her, the longtime teacher in the New York City public school system explains that she’s never broken the law before. It’s the state of the country, under Trump, that drove her to the brink. She's going to bed in a "rage" and waking up in a "panic attack."
She's lived through plenty (Watergate, for example) and never felt disdain for the folks in the middle of the country. “Maybe we weren’t buddies, but we didn’t despise each other. That’s what he did.” While her vitriol is believable — “I’m Miriam of Arc because I stand for something!” — she often presents like a shallow composite of a feisty Jewish grandma. She loves the theater, hates Trump’s ugly buildings, brags about her lawyer son and lives for the print edition of the New York Times.
The same goes for aspiring actor Mark Hesterman (Levy). He's based in L.A., of course, and is the subject of the second interview, “Supergay.” Like the production's other segments, his words are prompted by troubling remarks delivered by members of the Trump administration. Mark’s chat with his psychotherapist is an indirect reaction to homophobic comments made by Vice President Mike Pence.
The performer has just tried out for a role as the first major gay superhero in a Hollywood feature, an avenger “who fights racists, sexists and homophobes.” But the problem with Mark is that his dialogue dips into diatribe too often, diluting the first-person delivery. His session ends with a powerful message of resilience, however, and it's aimed at the Oval Office: “You have no idea what you’re up against.”
The best segment of "Coastal Elites" is “The Blonde Cloud," starring Rae as Callie Josephson. She's a well-connected philanthropist chatting via FaceTime with a former prep school classmate, discussing a recent encounter with another former student, Ivanka. It’s the show's best piece of writing, and performance. Callie recalls her early impressions of Trump's daughter: “At first I thought she was a floral arrangement … a floating princess.” Then, when she describes a recent visit to the White House with her own very rich father, she says the place felt “abandoned, like a bankrupt casino” and that Ivanka greeted her “with the perfect air hug.”
Essentially, Callie provides perspective on the Trump family obsession with media optics, which often end up highlighting their white privilege in the process: “[He says he’s] done more for Black people than any other person in history. What does he want? A thank-you note?”
The humor throughout "Coastal Elites" saves it from becoming too strident, because, really, the last thing we need is more partisan misery porn about the hopelessness of 2020.
Paulson plays YouTube personality Clarissa Montgomery, who is live-streaming the 28th episode of her "Mindful Meditations" show. She hopes her words will “soothe and enlighten you, and allow you to watch CNN without screaming at your partner. …” But despite the new-age music and digital backdrop of a flowery meadow, she succumbs to her own rage over the upcoming election, her Republican family’s support of Trump, and their refusal to believe the coronavirus is real. It's hilarious and biting, and the hippie pacifist ends up lionizing John McCain.
The finale features a young nurse from Wyoming who flies to New York to volunteer at a hospital at the height of the area’s COVID-19 crisis. Sharynn Tarrows (Dever) is exhausted after a 14-hour shift, and her testimony is so moving it redeems some of the weaker aspects of “Coastal Elites.”
There’s of course nothing fair and balanced about the perspective of this HBO special. It’s an indictment of Trump through and through, one meant as a cathartic outlet for those who’ve run out of fresh ways to express their exasperation, fear and dismay in the darkest of times.
Can you blame them?