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Midler steals the show in HBO's Trump-bashing 'Coastal Elites'

Midler steals the show in HBO's Trump-bashing 'Coastal Elites'

Bette Midler

Bette Midler steals the show.

It’s been a tough few weeks for President Trump’s image, with Bob Woodward’s book, Michael Cohen’s book and Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article collectively questioning his behavior and leadership.

The onslaught of negativity continues at 8 p.m. Saturday with the premiere of HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” a 90-minute socially distant satire from Paul Rudnick that stars Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Daniel Levy, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Dever.

It excoriates the president, his wife, Melania, his daughter Ivanka and Vice President Mike Pence with lengthy monologues from all five actors playing characters from around the country who detest the president and his administration.

Trump supporters undoubtedly will view it as another example of Hollywood’s over-the-top liberalism and even feel it is mistitled. They might title it “Liberal Elites.” Those supporters should steer away from “Elites” unless they want to throw things at their set and shout, “This is an outrage, I am canceling HBO.”

Trump haters who can’t fathom how his supporters can ignore all the recent revelations may die from laughter, especially watching Midler’s performance.

Politics aside, all the actors likely will get Emmy consideration. But Midler steals the show in a lengthy opening monologue as a New York City widow describing an encounter with a MAGA-hat-wearing guy that landed her in an interrogation room.

In the first of five monologues, Midler plays a liberal Jewish woman who loves NPR, Broadway plays, mornings with bagels and the New York Times (the printed newspaper, not the online version which she calls “like having sex with a robot”) as much as she detests everything about Trump.

Midler is an extremely tough act to follow, as her character Miriam describes everything from sending confused tourists to “The Lion King” to her inability to stop cursing during the Trump years.

The monologues that follow are clever but aren’t as funny and don’t have as much bite. And the final monologue goes more for poignancy than laughs.

Levy (“Schitt’s Creek’) plays a gay actor who tells a therapist he is ultimately inspired by Pence’s opposition to LGBT equality to maintain his pride in an audition to play a gay superhero even if it costs him the role.

Issa Rae

Issa Rae stars in "Coastal Elites."

Rae (“Insecure”) plays a wealthy former boarding school classmate of Ivanka, who unsuccessfully tries to explain to a clueless, vain first daughter who practices being photographed by tabloids and has never heard the word “no,” why people hate her.

Paulson (“American Horror Story”) plays an exasperated meditation expert who heads to her family’s Wisconsin farm to deal with Covid-19 and finds it difficult to deal with her MAGA hat family members (even the family dog wears one) before ultimately discovering there are closet Joe Biden supporters, too.

Dever (Netflix’s “Unbelievable”) plays a Wyoming nurse who comes to New York City to volunteer when Covid-19 cases spike and is crestfallen when a patient she adores loses her battle. Dever performs the final monologue in a low-key way that makes the end even more powerful.

Rudnick, a playwright whose film credits include “Stepford Wives” and “Addams Family Values,” said in a videoconference interview with TV critics last month that “Elites” was originally planned to be done onstage as an HBO special.

The pandemic forced the actors to shoot the monologues from home, which Rudnick believes will make the audience “emphasize even more (with the characters) maybe than they would have if it was on stage.”

He added he started writing the “Coastal Elites” more than a year ago before the pandemic arrived.

“When I realized that everyone I knew was angry and heartbroken, and on every side of the political divide and passionately involved in the political process, and concerned about the future of our country,” he explained.

“I was trying to figure out a way into that material, into that level of emotion. And these monologues sort of burst forth. These were people who demanded to be heard, who had stories. And ultimately that so lent itself to this format because when you have this extraordinary group of actors and you're with them one-on-one and you watch their faces and you see how hilarious and deeply moving they are, it feels like exactly the right form.”

Though he wrote it pre-pandemic, Rudnick said he was able to adapt and weave in the pandemic and the Black Lives Matters protests into the material.

“It was less a question of adapting than just staying open and seeing, oh my God, how much the stakes just kept getting so incrementally higher, even when you didn't think they could get any higher.”

“I looked at it as really an opportunity,” he added. “Usually there is such a long time span between the time you write something, and film it, and then have it to the world. In this we were always in the moment. And so it was a weird sort of gift.”

Director Jay Roach said Midler, a frequent Trump critic on social media, provided a gift by jumping to do it, with all the other actors following her.

Levy added there was a fine line between his experiences and that of his “Elites” character.

“Having walked into many a casting session being told to kind of up the gay, if you will,” said Levy. “ So, it was really significant for me to sort of go through that as an actor, because it was having to kind of mine my own experiences, in order to sort of bring them into his.”

Rudnick isn’t sure if there will be a second edition of “Elites.”

“God only knows, but we are so few days away from an election, and the world remains in such tumult and such chaos and such craziness, that there will always be more to write about,” he said. “I mean there's always the question of, ‘does reality outstrip satire?’ And we're way past that. So I will keep reacting, and I can't wait to see what will happen next. I'm terrified of what will happen next. Who knows who will be able to go back to school, or back to work. So there's way too much material out there.

“But I would hope that, should there ever be a second season, we would not all be in little boxes. It would become shocking. I think we're all now so used to reacting at such a great distance, and with such care, that it's going to feel like a trip to Mars, if you're suddenly in the room with everybody else. And it will be an adventure.”


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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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