USA TODAY TV Critic Kelly Lawler discusses her big takeaway from the 72nd Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
I love Bette Midler as an actress, but I don’t want to watch a TV show where her character is suffering through COVID-19.
HBO on Saturday airs “Coastal Elites” (8 EDT/PDT), a special filmed entirely in quarantine about people living through the pandemic. The film features back-to-back monologues by five characters: A fiery liberal Jewish New Yorker (Midler); a gay, up-and-coming actor (Dan Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”); a rich Black woman (Issa Rae, “Insecure”) who knows Ivanka Trump; a YouTube star (Sarah Paulson, “People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) quarantining with her conservative family; and a Wyoming nurse (Kaitlyn Dever, “Unbelievable”) who flies to New York to help at the height of the city’s outbreak.
I don’t know about you, but I am simply not interested in watching a TV show about life during the pandemic. It’s too sad, too angering, too exhausting, too soon. And it will still be too soon for a long time.
Kaitlyn Dever plays a Wyoming nurse who travels to New York during the pandemic in HBO’s “Coastal Elites.” (Photo: HBO)
“Coastal” isn’t the first TV production to tackle the pandemic, nor will it be the last. Freeform in August aired the four-episode “Love in the Time of Corona,” a series that followed couples and singles dealing with quarantine. CBS’s “All Rise” filmed a pandemic-set episode in quarantine last spring.
Returning shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” will add coronavirus storylines as they creep back into production, and new series set during the pandemic are in the works, including Netflix’s “Social Distance” (due Oct. 15), filmed in quarantine, and a remote workplace comedy being developed by “The Office” producers Ben Silverman and Paul Lieberstein that has yet to find a network home.
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The old adage that art reflects life seems apt here, and it was only a matter of time before an event as humanity-altering as a global pandemic filtered its way into popular culture.
But this isn’t the first time that such milestones have been tapped into by Hollywood. This has happened historically: Major films about wars were released during conflicts, like “Casablanca” in World War II; or soon after, like Vietnam War films including “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.” Director Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,” about one of the planes highjacked on 9/11, opened in April 2006, less than five years after the terrorist attack.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is different from anything any of us have lived through. This experience is so vast, so global, so deadly and has affected every individual in some way that attempting to make entertainment about it is a daunting task, even with the benefit of hindsight. And we don’t yet have hindsight while in the middle of it. Even the best artists among us are not yet equipped to comment on something we’re still hazily experiencing as we log on to work from home every day.
“Coastal” and “Corona” are prime examples of the problem with COVID TV. Like cinema, the medium offers an escape for people in times of trauma. Therefore, if your TV is show is going to cover the coronavirus you have two choices: Make it light to provide entertainment and escapism, or lean into its darkness and create something just as (or even more) depressing than the nightly news.
Nicolette Robinson and Leslie Odom, Jr. in “Love in the Time of Corona” on Freeform. (Photo: Freeform)
With pretty people, fake TikTok videos and a sunny disposition, “Corona” clumsily takes the first path, and the resulti is a cringeworthy series that is difficult to sit through. The first episode opens with Leslie Odom, Jr. (“Hamilton”) donning goggles, rubber gloves, coveralls and a bandanna to go grocery shopping, a moment played for humor. But grocery shopping right now is not remotely funny. Feeding their families is difficult for many Americans right now. Supermarket workers are risking their lives every day, sometimes harassed by customers angered by mask requirements.
HBO’s “Coastal” is even more infuriating. Meant to be a satire of the rich, “elite” political Left, the series makes fun of them but offers an infantilizing imagining of conservatives from a liberal point of view. The suggestion, for instance, that President Trump insulting John McCain is the only thing that would sway Trump supporters to vote for someone else feels like a liberal fantasy rather than the pulse of America.
Written by playwright Paul Rudnick (and originally conceived as a stage play that had nothing to do with the pandemic), it’s hard to identify the target audience, considering its absurdities are equally offensive and distasteful to both ends of the political spectrum.
Bette Midler in HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” a comedy from HBO that was filmed entirely in quarantine. (Photo: HBO)
Stories of the pandemic are half-baked and feel tacked on in “Coastal,” which otherwise is more interested in political debate. But the special is misguided in its exploration of the crisis we are living through. Dever’s monologue is entirely about COVID, and while the actress is accomplished in her delivery, the script is egregiously shallow. I don’t know what it’s like inside a hospital during an outbreak, but I’m not sure it’s quite like this. The story Dever tells has very little to say about the pandemic, about politics or even her character.
Art about current events can be vital, gripping and have a profound impact on the course of history. Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” at the height of McCarthyism. “M*A*S*H*” was ostensibly set in the Korean War, but was really a commentary on Vietnam, still raging when the film was released in 1970.
But so far, nothing current COVID shows have had to say about 2020 feels particularly illuminating. And while Americans fight to get through each day – to help children learn virtually, to work on the front lines but stay safe, to seek a new job or unemployment insurance, to fight to save lives in an ER – seeing fictional characters live through a glossier, Hollywood-filtered version of the pandemic is simply unappealing.
Art may imitate life, but life right now is pretty awful. We don’t need our TV shows to remind us just how bad it is.
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