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Arts & Culture » Television

Lavender Tube :: Broadening the TV Landscape

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in 'Fleabag'
Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in 'Fleabag'  

While we hold our collective breath to see how many of us women, people of color and LGBT get to die under Trumpcare, the Television Critics Association is giving us a high five. It's not health insurance or Medicaid or, heaven forfend, single-payer, but we'll take any nod to the not-just-str8, not-just-white, not-just-male world we live in, thanks.

One aside about the News You're Not Seeing: Why did we hear absolutely nothing on CNN, MSNBC or any network news about Sen. Dianne Feinstein's and Sen. Kamala Harris' alternative Senate health care bill? (We're on record as saying Harris is the likeliest and best contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination.) Seems like someone other than us should have noted it. Not just because California has more people than about 15 of those red states combined plus the economy that's keeping those same states afloat, but because Feinstein is one of the lions of the Senate.

Feinstein's also the only woman to have chaired the Senate Rules Committee and Select Committee on Intelligence. She's been in the Senate for 25 years. Someone should have bothered to talk to her about hers and Harris' bill. Someone. It's almost as if women are being silenced. Almost.

But we digress. Back to TCA 2017 and the glorification not just of fantastic TV, but of some of those key women and actors of color we've told you about in recent months.

"This was truly a landmark season for diversity in television, and the TCA nominations reflect this. Our members have chosen a variety of series that celebrate and represent a wide spectrum of performances," said TCA president Amber Dowling.

Landmark because the more women, people of color and LGBT get behind the camera, the more our lives will be reflected in front of the camera. Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Lee Daniels, Jill Soloway, John Ridley and Oprah have all changed the face of TV in recent years by broadening the landscape to include us.

The TCA noms included the phenomenal Carrie Coons, who made history with a double nomination for individual achievement in drama for her very different turns in two of our fave quirky, dark, what-was-that series: "The Leftovers" and "Fargo."

That category really signals what a year it was for women. Every nomination is female except for the stellar Sterling K. Brown, who left us sobbing every week in NBC's best new drama, "This Is Us," as the son of a complicated black gay musician and white adopted mother. In addition to Coons, both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon were nominated for their very different yet pitch-perfect portrayals of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Ryan Murphy's "Feud: Bette and Joan." Also in the category are Nicole Kidman for "Big Little Lies," Claire Foy for "The Crown," and the incredible Elisabeth Moss for "The Handmaid's Tale."

The comedy category is similarly female and men of color. Two standouts for us are Aziz Ansari for "Master of None," which we love, and Donald Glover for "Atlanta," which we also love but aren't quite sure why it's in the comedy category. Kristen Bell in the very underrated "The Good Place," perennial fave Julia Louis-Dreyfus for "Veep," Issa Rae for "Insecure," and the phenomenal Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the wild "Fleabag" round out that category.

We don't know whom to root for among these fabulous picks, but we do know you have to put these shows on your binge radar if you somehow missed them. Just thinking about Sterling K. Brown's Randall makes us want to watch (and sob) through all 18 episodes of season one of "This Is Us" again. Brown's Randall is the very antithesis of toxic masculinity with his devotion to his wife and daughters, his complicated relationships with the three men in his life - his birth father, his adoptive father and his adopted brother. We see him searching for his birth father, William (played with heartbreaking nuance by Ron Cephas Jones), we see him being the perfect dad and husband, we see him having a panic attack in the corner of his office as his carefully constructed black-man-in-a-white-corporate-structure world begins to crack open, we see him aching for his losses even as he tries to hold onto all that he's gained.

Every one of these actors deserves an award for their performances, and Brown has already won an Emmy for his, but just recounting these scenes, we think he's the odds-on favorite.

In the comedy category we have to go with Waller-Bridge. Her Fleabag is such an extraordinary character in a year of amazing female comedic bits. She's arch, caustic, gritty, smutty, hilarious, sad. She's the comedic flip of Brown's Randall. If there's one comedy performance we would not want to have missed this season it is hers. She's brilliant. Go binge.


Finders 'Keepers'

The TCAs have some other intriguing nominations, but the one series we somehow forgot about that the nominations reminded us of is "The Keepers." As Dowling noted about winnowing down the nominations in a plethora of fantastic TV, it's become harder and harder to cram all the worthy viewing into each column.

"The Keepers" is definitely worthy viewing, nominated for outstanding achievement in reality programming. The Netflix series debuted last month, and the seven-episode documentary is both thriller and social commentary. The story of the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, who taught at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in 1969, is reminiscent of "Making of a Murderer."

The series investigates why Cesnik may have been murdered, and if her killing was part of a cover-up of sexual abuse by a priest at the school and his connections in the Baltimore Archdiocese. The series moves between the 1969 murder, revelations of sexual abuse in the 90s, and the current investigation, as well as efforts by the Maryland State Legislature to expand the statute of limitations on sexual abuse.

Spike TV's new original series "The Mist" is everything we needed for summer. It debuted June 22, and if you missed the first episode, they repeat on Saturday afternoons, so set the DVR. We've always loved Stephen King, but admit his seething against Trump and their Twitter fight has made us even more of a devotee. "The Mist" is prime King: Terrifying, full of social commentary, exemplar of Hell as a Small Town. Within the first five minutes we were introduced to a main gay character, and with just a one-liner here and another there, a stage was set for a small-town crime. Then the mist rolled in.

Alex (Gus Birney) is straight, and Adrian (Russell Posner) is her best gay friend. They do everything together like, well, girlfriends. Their households are juxtaposed: He's sitting at the dinner table with his parents and asks if he can be excused to go to the game. His father glares at him. His mother sighs. He asks again. Dad gets up, tosses his plate on the counter and leaves. Mom says, "You know your father can't hear you when you're wearing make-up." Oh.

Alex's family is looser, on the surface. Her mother, Eve (Alyssa Sutherland), has just been put on leave from her teaching job for talking about safe sex, showing how to put a condom on a banana and suggesting oral sex as an alternative to intercourse. So when everyone is at the football game and Adrian is quipping to Alex about the players' bodies, her mother is being glared at by the mothers who signed the petition to have her ousted.

Post-game, Alex is invited to a party by the football player she's interested in, but Eve says she's too young (she's on the verge of turning 17), causing an altercation with Dad, Kevin (Morgan Spector). At home, Kevin tells Alex she can go to the party after her mother goes to sleep, but she has to take Adrian, and she can't drink.

When Alex takes Adrian to the party, things go bad almost immediately. He turns up the music, they dance, so obviously cooler than the other teens at the party. But Adrian, a slight, fey boy who yearns for a love affair with one of the tight ends, gets shoved by one of them and called faggot. Alex's would-be guy, Jay (Luke Cosgrove), steps in before Adrian is bloodied.

Jay offers both teens a drink, Alex says she can't, and then things go bad. Really, really bad. And that's before the mist rolls in, replete with some flesh-eating bugs and something else unseen. This is what happens when we ignore climate change. Birney is compelling as Alex, Posner is a welcome relief as a recognizably gay-maybe-bisexual teen (unlike some we've seen on the tube recently), and the stuff that happens in the fog is, well, gruesome.

BBC America's gripping "Broadchurch" returned for its third and final season on June 28. Back are Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). It's now five years after the murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer, and the small town on the Dorset coast is still riven from the fallout of that gruesome crime. The final season of "Broadchurch" is as much about the aftermath of crime as it is about the new crime that is the pivot.

Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh) is a 49-year-old shop worker, and has a sketchy local history. But when she is brutally raped, the town is stunned anew by what its citizens are capable of. Complicating the investigation into Trish's rape is the leftover anger and grief of David Latimer's death. In small-town Broadchurch, Trish's counselor is Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker). And it was Ellie's husband Joe who killed the boy after his obsession was revealed. Joe was acquitted and has moved away, but the breadth of the sadness and shame lingers. This new crime opens old wounds. It also exposes a disturbing sexual undercurrent in the town, and a culture of toxic masculinity that threatens everyone and shocks Hardy as he and Ellie search for the rapist.

As in the two previous seasons of this exquisite and brutal series, everything is pitch-perfect, from the anguished performances to the haunting musical score by Olafur Arnalds to the beautifully wrought script.

The much-anticipated FX drama "Snowfall" premieres on July 5. The baby of John Singleton, the series is set in Los Angeles in 1983, and revolves around the first crack cocaine epidemic and its impact on the culture of the city. The series follows the stories of several characters whose lives are doomed to intersect: 19-year-old drug dealer Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), who is seeking power and props; Mexican wrestler Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who is entangled in a drug-running crime family; CIA operative Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), who has a complicated past and is involved with the Nicaraguan Contras; and Luica Villanueva (Emily Rios), the daughter of a Mexican crime boss.

Singleton was the first African American and youngest person (he was 23) to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award for his 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood." Singleton says "Snowfall" is very much a story from his own youth in Los Angeles. The series is sprawling, and the story is one we both know and don't know. Idris is strong as Franklin, and the other main players give solid performances, but there seems to be a lot of backstory to get where we're going. It was difficult not to think of the faster pace of "Atlanta," the more compelling characters (and tighter direction and writing of Ava DuVernay) of "Queen Sugar," or the more blood-and-guts drug crime-family story of "Queen of the South" when viewing the opening episodes. But we have always admired Singleton's work, so we'll keep you updated. But in a hot summer of great TV, this may be one to set aside to binge later.


Zoo Story

"Zoo" returns to CBS (yes, CBS) for a third season on June 29. This James Patterson thriller with its climate change, animals gone wild, what-did-they-do-to-that-DNA-on-the-island-of-Dr.Moreau plot has been a guilty pleasure of ours since its first season in 2015. It's perfect summer viewing: Lots of really good and surprising scares, an international plot, good-looking characters (including the odd gay one) involved in making the world either a much better place or a total corporatist hell hole. The special effects are tremendous, and the series has a big-screen quality to it that makes one's living room feel like Saturday at the cinema.

"Gypsy" premieres on Netflix June 30, and Naomi Watts is brilliant as Jean Holloway, the pansexual shrink who has some boundary issues and gets way too involved with her patients. Also returning for a fifth season is "The Fosters" (July 11, Freeform), because we do need to have Stef and Lena back with an LGBT family drama to keep us grounded.

For frolicsome fun, ABC's "Boy Band" is an enjoyable romp, with 30 cute boys competing for the chance to be another NSYNC, Backstreet Boys or Jonas Brothers. Everyone can sing, which is a blessing, and everyone is adorable, and there's still a lot to be said for eye-candy.

Finally, America's dad's rape trial ended in a hung jury after 52 hours of deliberation last week. Bill Cosby's attorney announced this was a vindication when it was anything but, especially as jurors began leaking the information that the final tally was 10 to 2 for conviction. On June 23, Cosby's attorney Andrew Wyatt declared that Cosby would be beginning a series of town halls in July to warn young men how not to be accused of sexual assault, and what to look for in potential accusers.

According to Wyatt, Cosby said young men, especially athletes, need to "know what they're facing when they're hanging out and partying, when they're doing certain things that they shouldn't be doing." Like drugging women and raping them?

Cosby and his attorney seem to forget that depositions were part of the trial in Pennsylvania, and Cosby acknowledged buying and using Quaaludes and other drugs on his alleged victims. So the simple town hall is: Don't drug women. Don't rape women.

Cosby will always be the black actor who firmly broke TV's color barrier. Alas, he will also be the man accused by more than 60 women of sexual assault, from young wannabe actresses to black supermodel Beverly Johnson.

So for the Sturm and the Drang, the intense dramas and the edgy comedies, Stephen Colbert in Russia and daily life lessons from the national news, you know you really must stay tuned.