‘Coastal Elites’ Is a Cathartic and Insufferable Anti-Trump Rage-Fest
Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever rant in the new HBO special presentation about their inability to stomach life in 2020 under “the new abnormal.”
The first line of dialogue you hear in Coastal Elites is Donald Trump bellowing, “We will make America great again!”
Cheers from supporters are followed by his infamous “I’m a very stable genius” proclamation and a medley of other headline-making lines: The grab ’em by the pussy quote. Lock her up. “Nobody respects women more than Donald Trump.” The injecting-disinfectant treatment plan for COVID. The defense that more whites die from police violence than Black people.
In other words, the pitch that the HBO special presentation, which airs Saturday, Sept. 12, may be the most anti-Trump scripted programming to air on a major network yet is there from the start, so buckle up or change the channel.
The “socially distanced comedy” was originally developed for the stage at the Public Theater and then pivoted to a TV project that shot over the summer during quarantine and was updated to respond to current events in real-time.
The people involved might argue that the series of five monologues, slam-dunk acting showcases for Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever, is more a reflection of the frame of mind of a certain subset of Americans at this particularly volatile moment in time. Sure, it’s that. It’s also a Molotov cocktail thrown at the White House in the form of witty discourse.
Written by playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach, the social satire begins by introducing itself as “five heart-tugging monologues,” before crossing that out and spelling, “five unhinged rants,” and then crossing that out too and finally writing, “desperate confessions from people barely coping with the new abnormal.”
Each performer unloads their frustration about the state of the country at a specific point of 2020, beginning in January and taking us through the summer, the pandemic shutdown, and Black Lives Matter protests. Each individual flame in the dumpster fire gets a moment in the sun here: MAGA hats, conspiracy theories, George Floyd, Kanye West’s trip to the White House, Ivanka’s complicity, hydroxychloroquine, queer rights, representation in Hollywood, John McCain’s legacy, and New York City’s coronavirus body count.
A lot of it is very funny. Some of it is heartbreaking. But it’s the kind of thing that is definitively being preached to the choir, and some of that choir may be tired of hearing it.
The actors perform to-camera, each monologue shot to look like a continuous take. Watching the material come alive from the actors in the kind of long, uninterrupted shots that rarely exist anymore makes up for any fatigue you might feel with the bland aesthetic of remote productions that have been staged and aired during shutdown.
Still, Coastal Elites is more enjoyable when you think of it not as a TV show, but as a play. Preferably one viewed off-Broadway after reading a rave in the Times, taken in next to an elderly couple from the Upper East Side who nod “wow” after each zinger and gush “that was profound” during a break of Trump-bashing applause. In other words, where the lack of nuance plays to a standing ovation rather than exasperated scrutiny.
It’s a satire and does expose the ridiculousness in the extremity of progressive and militant coastal elites. But it doesn’t lampoon their righteousness. In fact, it elevates and celebrates it. It’s the twinkling piano keys at the end of a Very Special Episode, proverbially soundtracking the monologues with a sincerity and earnestness that undercuts the satirical bite.
These are five actors doing some incredible performing here.
You can only imagine the glee with which Bette Midler dove into playing Miram Nessler, a New York City widow whose husband died of a heart episode upon learning that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, and who spends her days bringing The New York Times Business section in her NPR tote bag to drink a latte at Starbucks before taking in a matinee at the Public. “The Census, when it asks for religion, I don’t put Jewish. I put The New York Times!” Yes, she’s a type. She’s that type.
Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame plays Mark, an up-and-coming actor in need of an emergency therapy session. Because his normal therapist is still recovering from COVID and has a lingering cough that’s too distracting, he is trying out a new one, only vaguely apologizing that the last-minute appointment is causing her to miss her friend’s drive-by baby shower.
He’s an out-gay actor—”sometimes I say gay and sometimes I say queer, and sometimes I just show people a picture of myself on Halloween in high school dressed as Julianne Moore in The Hours”—who, right before the shutdown happened, was in final callbacks for his big break playing the first openly-gay superhero in a tentpole studio film. After seeing a speech being delivered by Mike Pence, he pledges to maintain his integrity as a gay man while going after the role.
Insecure’s Issa Rae is a philanthropist named Callie Josephson, winded from a day of Black Lives Matter protesting and organizing bail funds, who recounts her history with Ivanka Trump, who she went to boarding school with and who surprises her with an offer to help the administration.
Sarah Paulson is a YouTube personality who has a breakdown in the midst of one of her Mindful Meditations filmings, spurring her to recount the story of how she flew home to quarantine with her family when the pandemic started, only to discover her siblings all sporting MAGA hats and her mother listing the coronavirus alongside a slew of other political hoaxes.
And Kaitlyn Dever, the stunning rising star from Unbelievable and Booksmart, plays a nurse who flew to New York from Wyoming in April to help frontline workers. Struck by a connection to a special patient, she’s struggling with how to process the rising death toll, how to be human in the face of tragedy, but also somehow soldier on and stave off an emotional meltdown.
That each monologue doubles as a venting session that so many of its target audience wishes they could get off their chest, or at least articulate with as much cleverness, is an arguably pleasant experience. The relentlessness, though, borders on irritating.
Coastal Elites is both cathartic and insufferable. It’s provocative and annoying. It’s full of clever insight, yet it also might as well be a banshee cry in an echo chamber. As the talking points and rants ring in your ear, you might start to wonder, what is the purpose?
Yes, it’s gratifying to have your rage and frustration vocalized, to feel seen. That the piece vacillates between vilifying and infantilizing Trump supporters might be fun, too. And there’s the timing of its airing. Whatever decorum or benefit of the doubt major networks once had about airing overtly political programming is gone. There’s no use in tip-toeing around the rage. But to what end?
There are several times when the actors just start screaming “fuck you!”: at MAGA supporters, at Trump, at Ivanka, at the world. It feels good. Yeah! Fuck all of it!
Is there value in saying that? Arguably, yes. Coastal Elites, or any piece of pop culture, doesn’t have to provide answers. It can just voice the spirit of a moment. The spirit of this moment is certainly some loud fuck yous.
But another spirit of the moment is the frustration of there not being a road map. Coastal Elites is the equivalent of five mad-as-hell people screaming, and then staring at you as they catch their breaths. You don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do. You understand the scream, of course. You’ve let it out yourself. But the recognition doesn’t absolve the frustration. What happens in the silence once the scream comes out?
The writing in Coastal Elites is smart. It seems to be in on the joke. When you have Bette Midler regaling us with the time she stole a MAGA hat off a Trump supporter, ran away from him through the streets of New York City and up the steps of the Public Theater shouting, “This is the Public Theater! The home of Hamilton, Shakespeare in the Park, and A Chorus Line! You have no power here!,” you have to believe it’s in on the joke.
But how many smart takes elucidating our pain can we stomach without someone prescribing a treatment plan? At some point, the punchlines start to leave a bruise.