Arts & Culture » Television

Real grifters, real artists, real scandal

by Victoria A. Brownworth

"Real Housewife of New York" Sonja Tremont Morgan. Photo: Courtesy the subject
"Real Housewife of New York" Sonja Tremont Morgan. Photo: Courtesy the subject  

Is it safe to go outside, now that we know what will happen when The Big One hits San Francisco? Or is this what "Netflix and chill" was made for? We know if there's a way for Trump to make those tectonic plates shift, he will. And what's happening Out There that can't be happening on your sofa with an array of adorable friends, drinks with cute umbrellas, and those tapas and amuse bouche you've been meaning to make from the new season of "Iron Chef Gauntlet?" "Chef's Table" is so good and it will prep you for pastry, which is one of the gifts of the world, even in the End Times.

The gym? So overrated. Pass around some cans from your After the Big One Hits stash, and everyone can lift while watching the new season of "Real Housewives of New York." Just remember, Til Brunch Do Us Part.

Let's stop here for a minute, because the person you want to take notes from when The Big One hits is "RHONY" Sonja Tremont Morgan, she of the "Where's that champagne-pink Roux rinse for the dog, bitches?" Morgans. Sonja, who manages to get everyone to give her something, take her somewhere, make her comfy, stay at their posh place, raid their closets. Watching her operate her high-end grift is mesmerizing. But Sonja is also an object lesson in how not to behave, so take notes this season, because snarking your friends about being fat or needing some work around their eyes is not the way to go on the downside of 50 when the End of the World could be right around the corner.

So what else do we want to watch? "Drag Race Thailand" is coming to America on WOW May 4. You know you want that sissy walk. Will you really need those subtitles?

High Art and the World Outside are slapping us to learn more, between Nat Geo's "Genius: Picasso" and "One Strange Rock," yet more reasons to stay in. And now let us praise Famous Men. "Genius: Picasso," which premiered April 24, is spectacular. Where Nat Geo's "Einstein" at times felt like work and not a little punishing, "Picasso" is mesmerizing.

Antonio Banderas is why. At 57, Banderas, who was nervous about portraying Picasso, exudes heat and passion from the small screen. Banderas, who came into prominence on the big screen playing gay for Pedro Almodovar, has always been a heartthrob. As Picasso, Banderas makes us understand exactly why people stripped naked for the painter on first meeting, why women fought over him, why he was larger than life. Alex Rich, who plays the young Picasso, is achingly beautiful, if differently spirited.

In the era of #MeToo, "Picasso" doesn't sidestep the artist's long and checkered history with women. He is abusive and controlling, he uses women and throws them away. Picasso epitomizes the man attempting to recapture his youth with younger and younger partners. It's the complex part that we must always address with great artists who have ugly personal lives. How do we watch Polanski's brilliant films, listen to Wagner, read Tolstoy, view Picasso's art? It will forever be a quandary.

Yet as this depiction explicates, Picasso is also the perfect artist for these times. As we battle creeping Fascism, he faced it head-on in Franco's Spain. What "Picasso" illumines is how art is an essential piece of resistance. Picasso facing down the Fascists is as real as it gets.

The single most dramatic moment of our art-loving lives was the day we turned the corner at MOMA, brought there by our art history professor who had a crush on us and we on her, and there was "Guernica" in all its huge monochromatic drama. That was like nothing we had ever experienced in a museum, nor have we since. There is no other painting like it on earth, nor will there ever be. The debate over whether art can still be art if it is political begins and ends with that painting in its huge, overwhelming, exacting, painful, extraordinary magnificence. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. "Picasso" makes the case for that painting being the pivotal statement the artist makes against Fascism.

Thus for us, "Genius: Picasso" is a return to sense memory of a sort. As we watch the older Picasso, we wonder what happened to that young revolutionary, the one who was taking on the world. But then we see it. And so must you. "Genius: Picasso" is TV for these times, and Banderas and Rich both bring the full range of the artist's life in their individual portrayals of his life.

When you're done with Picasso, move on to the second seasons of HBO's "Westworld" and Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," which premiered April 22 & 25. Politics and art will continue to be interchangeable under the current regime, and both these series are archetypal for these times.

If you missed Season 1 of "Westworld," go binge it. Season 2 really is contiguous to the first. But the dystopian world of the amusement park where anything goes and retribution is not in play just feels so right for now. This is the most-watched series in HBO history, so that tells you something about its impact.

On the distaff side is "The Handmaid's Tale," which is a preview of what life would be like if Trump is impeached and Mike Pence is POTUS. Be careful what you wish for. Life in a dystopian theocracy never works out well for women and The Gays.


Final Scandal

The second year of the first term of Trump seems like a bad time to end "Scandal," but as the show's creator Shonda Rhimes said on April 19 as the series finale was mere hours away, in this climate, everything that had once seemed over-the-top on "Scandal," is now happening in real life in Washington. We're not ashamed to acknowledge that we sobbed through much of that final episode, which was as near-to-perfect as a series finale can get. Rhimes said on "Jimmy Kimmel" after the finale that she was literally re-writing that very day to get that finale down right. Stevie Wonder, whose music has filtered through all seven seasons of the series, wrote an original song for the finale. That's how big it was.

"Scandal" was iconic, groundbreaking, nothing-like-it-before TV. "Scandal" changed the TV landscape, and if you never watched it, if you thought perhaps it was a "West Wing" derivative or an escapee from Lifetime, we urge you to Netflix and chill all seven seasons, because it is revelatory.

No more TGIT (That God It's Thursday) with "Scandal" flanked by "Grey's Anatomy" and "How to Get Away with Murder." ABC and Rhimes have created "Station 19," a firehouse/EMT spin-off of "Grey's" that now sits in that pivotal center hour where "Scandal" once sat. It has good things in it, from strong roles for women of color to a gay fireman. But it is not "Scandal."

"Scandal" felt like our own. Not just because we had started our journalistic career in Washington, covering the White House, then the U.S. Supreme Court, but because Olivia Pope, the fixer Kerry Washington brought to vivid real life, was the woman all of us wanted to be when we grew up.

Olivia "Liv" Pope, with her team of misfit gladiators, her coterie of broken people whom we recognized as real because we know them, always knew how to do the right thing. Liv took us into the gray areas of real-world politics, the places where the sausage is made. Liv's own history was crazy sketchy, but it was how she could be who she was. If she hadn't been raised by a terrorist mother, Maya (Khandi Alexander), and a father, Eli Pope (Joe Morton), who put pieces of the past together at the Smithsonian by day as curator of antiquities, but ran a covert ops layer of the CIA, B613 by night, Liv would not have known how to be who she was.

There was a core romance, of course. Liv and the President, Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn), she worked to get elected. The heat of their love affair threads through all seven seasons. They break up. They make up. They have deviant sex everywhere. They are all wrong and all right at the same time. It's real love, messy and complicated. He's married, they have issues. He leaves his wife, she's still afraid to commit. But always that heart beats through season after season, even when they are not together. We root for them, we want them to make it.

Then there is Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), the gay chief of staff who wanted to be president, but whose gayness held him back. Just as there has never been a character on prime time TV like Olivia Pope, a black woman lead around whom everyone else is the satellite, there has never been a gay character like Cyrus. Cyrus being so central to the plot and so openly gay is as groundbreaking as Olivia being a black woman. This is the subversive quality of "Scandal" that made Rhimes' genius as a showrunner shine so brightly. Rhimes created these two characters, a black woman and a gay man, propelled them onto center stage and left them there for seven seasons to show what it is to be a black woman and a gay man in the halls of power, where there has never been a place at the table for either.

All the things that happen to Cyrus are localized around homophobia: external, internal. Cyrus is brilliant, but more than any other TV character except "Breaking Bad" Walter White, his brokenness turns to a bitter kind of badness, wrecks the person he was meant to be. Cancer and no universal health care did it to White. Homophobia did it to Cyrus.

But Rhimes gave him a life that he could love. He had a husband, a child, a second husband, a lover, another lover. We saw him literally stripped bare in one iconic sequence as he and his first husband tried to save their marriage with brutal naked honesty. We saw him living a sexual life, not the neutered existence gay men on network are relegated to. His passion for men was not an afterthought, it was at the core of his being just as his lust for power was there.

Cyrus is in many respects Liv's foil. They start as friends, confidants. He brings her in to help him turn Fitz into a president, and they conspire together to make that happen. They are monsters. But we don't really believe that. They are inhabitants of the gray areas of real life, and they navigate around the edges of dark and light with facility.

Much will be said about the impact of this show on the TV landscape because of Washington's dynamism and the ground she broke for other black women to become lead characters. How to envision "Scandal" without her toughness and vulnerability, her passion and her steely resolve? Washington made us see all the facets of Olivia Pope: her badassery and her deep desire to one day head off to Vermont with Fitz and live happily ever after.

If Washington hadn't been so very good and Pope hadn't been such a brilliantly written character, "Scandal" would have been another one-season wonder. But instead it became a cult and critical favorite. Without Olivia there would never have been "How to Get Away with Murder's" Annalise nor "Empire's" Cookie.

Yet "Scandal" wasn't an exercise in political correctness, it was an exercise in subversion, in saying the unsayable. Maya and Eli Pope were the truthsayers of blackness in this series. The things each had to say about what it is to be black in America would drive Trumpers into their bunkers and make white liberals itch to say, "Not all white people." The soliloquys each delivered resonated in ways that made black America cheer and white America squirm. Eli delivers a speech in the last half-hour of the series finale that is breathtaking in its scope, and what he reveals about his role in the government is cataclysmic.

As the series ends, there is no clean nor careful ending. But Shonda Rhimes gave us an ending we could believe in. In the world she created for us, which presciently saw where we were headed as a nation, the women get to win, just a little. The centrist woman president takes the Oval with a black woman who was once her nemesis propelling her forward. The swirling powers of white male destruction are, if not vanquished, at least sent reeling back into the shadows.

"Scandal" gave us drama for seven seasons. It was palace intrigue writ Shakespearean large. What was different from other series about politics was that the key players were people like us who never got to say their own lines before Rhimes wrote them. "West Wing" showed us the dailiness of politics, but in that dailiness nearly everyone was a white man.

Rhimes wrote what we live, and she gave it to us. "Scandal" was never neat nor tidy. The messes Liv was left to clean up were always as complex as the realities of politics. Sometimes things worked out the way we wanted. Sometimes they did not.

With the finale, "Scandal" is now history. But those characters Rhimes wrote for us - Olivia Pope, Cyrus Beene, Mama Pope and Papa Pope, each of the gladiators, Fitz and Mellie - will resonate for years to come. This is one of those series that will end up in graduate school theses and academic journals because it was a pivot, a civil rights moment for women, for black people, for gays. It feels like a lot to hang on a TV series, yet "Scandal" was up to that job of breaking ground, making waves, and leaving viewers just a little shaken week after week. So for the ephemera of reality TV, the breadth of historical bio series, the warning klaxon of dystopian dramas, and the heart and soul of those series that move us forward as a society - for all of that, you must stay tuned.

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