Arts & Culture » Television

Queens of the television night

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle in NBC's <i>Hairspray<br>Live!</i> Photo: NBC-TV
Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle in NBC's Hairspray
Live!
Photo: NBC-TV  

Tis the season to be striving for some small glimmers of joy. There's scattered sightings of Hillary Clinton in the wild, as seen on SNL 's brilliant The Hunt for Hil sketch starring our fave lesbian comedian, Kate McKinnon. There's Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, without whose dry humor we would be drinking heavily every night. But it's dark here on the 24/7 news cycle in the midst of the impending Trump Administration â€" or should we say Junta, as every other Cabinet pick is a general? (Remember when Trump said he knew more than the generals?) We're not sure why more folks aren't scared by positions formerly held by civilians being given to the military, but then if folks had been calling Trump out for the past year (looking at you, mainstream TV media, who gave Trump nonstop free publicity for a year), we might not be where we are now.

We were shocked-not-shocked to see Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (DINO-HI) on Jake Tapper's The Lead on Dec. 8 talking about how great it was to have all these military folks in civilian roles, after meeting with Trump for a possible position in his Administration. Gabbard's spot on the show was rather brief, so she didn't have a opportunity to deliver one of her homophobic rants, but we're sure she'll be back. The MSM loves those pretty fascists-in-Democrat-clothing.

Speaking of fascists, which we assume we'll be doing for the next four years, the face of Trump's team, former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who did more to get Trump elected than anyone by reining him in during the final weeks of the campaign and delivering anti-Hillary slams on TV 24/7, said on Dec. 7 that women should stay home with their husbands and kids, and out of the White House. Conway told the audience at Politico's Women Rule event on Dec.7 that it would be impossible for her to serve both in the Trump White House and as a mother to her four children, all of whom are under 12. (Conway's husband is a partner at a major law firm.)

Setting feminism back even further, Conway told the audience, "I do politely mention to them the question isn't would you take the job, the male sitting across from me who's going to take a big job in the White House. The question is, would you want your wife to," Conway said. "Would you want the mother of your children to? You really see their entire visage change. It's like, oh, no, they wouldn't want their wife to take that job." Cue Mad Men. Call us crazy, but we think women can do it all. As the first female campaign manager of a Republican presidential candidate, Conway should know better.

Tomi Lahren, political talk show host and one of the coterie of petite blonde conservative women who populate cable TV news, was on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Nov. 30, whining about how "liberals" should have been giving Conway plaudits as a feminist icon for being the first female campaign manager to get a candidate elected. (Donna Brazile was the first African American to manage a campaign: Al Gore's run in 2000; Susan Estrich was the first woman to run a presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis in 1988. Robby Mook was the first gay man to run a presidential campaign, for Hillary Clinton this year.)

Lahren's appearance on Noah's show is a must-see. Noah localized the anger of many progressives and Democrats on that episode, and Lahren fought back on her own show on Dec. 7, saying she was "liberals' worst nightmare." We actually are pretty sure that's Trump, but we expect to see lots more of rising conservative superstar Lahren in the coming months. Alas.

Although we spend way too much time watching CNN and MSNBC and seething, we have been fleeing regularly to non-political TV for relief from, well, reality. So we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and cried as the stick tree turns into that really overdone gay tree. Somehow that just made us sadder.

We watched Hairspray Live!, and that ultra-gayness helped a lot. The NBC special was the fourth in a series of live musicals on NBC. While it had the same hit-and-miss quality as the others (The Wiz was best), the hit made the miss not-so-terrible. We weren't keen on having former Glee star Darren Criss (Blaine) running circles around the lot between scenes. That felt forced and jarring. We weren't sure why Criss, who has a far better voice than Derek Hough, wasn't in the production playing Corny Collins.

Hairspray has real resonance in these days of race-baiting and white-nationalist rising, dealing as it does with issues of race and segregation ("Negro Day!"), so the political aspect was key. Alas, some of the pivotal lines in the show that delve into racism were delivered somewhat flatly, and changes in the script diluted some of the power we remembered from the play and the film.

Who were the standouts in the Dec. 7 production? The show's writer, Harvey Fierstein was just tremendous as Edna Turnblad. At 62, Fierstein is still kicking like a gay 20something. Kristin Chenoweth, one of our fave LGBT allies, was spectacular as Velma Von Tussle. Ariana Grande was superb as Penny Pingleton. Martin Short was Martin Short, always playing himself but always delivering, as Wilbur Turnblad. Derek Hough was cute as hell, but not strong as Corny Collins. Newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad was fine, but she was no Rikki Lake, and her line delivery was often more question than assertion, which flattened some of the key segregation points.

Queen of the night was Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle, the vocal star of the show. Whenever we recall that she came in seventh on American Idol in 2004, our head explodes. Hudson has one of the great voices of her generation, and she just gets better as she gets older. She's only 35, same age as Beyonce. Re-watching her in Dreamgirls over the holidays will give you comfort and joy.

Speaking of fabulous voices, Fox premiered Star Dec. 14, another must-see creation from out gay director Lee Daniels, who brought us the Emmy-nominated, queer-heavy Empire . (Not for the first time do we ask how is it Fox has such edgy programming while it's promoting the Worst Politics Ever? Fox also has more shows with majority black casts than any other major network. A conundrum.) Star is a very different vehicle from Empire. It's much darker and reminiscent of Daniels' work on the big screen, like Precious and The Paperboy .

Star features Queen Latifah as Carlotta Brown, an Atlanta beauty-shop owner shepherding three young singers into show biz. Benjamin Bratt plays Jahil Rivera, a talent manager way down on his luck and looking for a sure thing. There are a plethora of big-name recurring stars, including supermodel Naomi Campbell, Tyrese Gibson, Lenny Kravitz and Terence Howard, on loan from Empire . Newcomer Jude Demorest plays Star Davis, a smart-assed 17-year-old singer determined to break out of her horrible life in foster care in Pittsburgh. Her sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady), is in foster care in Harrisburg and also a budding singer. Ryan Destiny plays Alexandra "Alex" Crane, a rich girl trying to break out of her life and into music. Think a really edgy start to Destiny's Child here, as Star is most definitely the Beyonce character who is going to make it big after she ditches the other two, but that's a couple seasons from now if this show lasts.

The backdrop is bleak as hell. Star is in a nightmare scenario, and so is her sister. Majority working-class in America is black, and Daniels delivers it in all its harsh reality here. Pittsburgh and Harrisburg are depicted in all their blue-collar misery. If you've been blessed to escape foster care but know it has to be ugly, Star reinforces that impression. After a sudden and stunning act of violence, the three girls leave Pennsylvania and flee to Atlanta. The Davis girls have a godmother there, failed singer Carlotta. Atlanta becomes the stage for the trio to propel themselves onto the stage. Jahil is eager (maybe too eager) for a win. The girls are his ticket out of the shadows and into the limelight. Carlotta both aids and restricts that rise, and that conflict is one of the many gritty elements of the show.

Star isn't Empire. Folks looking for a spin-off won't find it. Queen Latifah is, like Taraji P. Henson, larger than life on the small screen, but her Carlotta is not to be confused with Henson's Cookie, even if they share some of the same pent-up rage. Carlotta has different axes to grind, and the landscape of Star is much more gritty than that of Empire. Here you'll find a very different black world: the barbershop anchor in a community, the seedy clubs where singers get their rise, the backstage drama that may or may not propel a singer forward. We would watch Queen Latifah in anything, so we were ready for Star. We were surprised at how very different it is from Empire, but not unhappily so. It reminds us of Daniels' versatility as a director, producer and show runner.

 

Triple threat

One of the best new shows of the fall season is NBC's This Is Us, which we love in a way we never were able to love Parenthood. TIU is also a complex familial drama with some humor and a lot of interconnected relationships. But TIU is more about love and redemption, and is far more satisfying. It has a built-in poignancy that never engages itself in either pedantries or mawkishness. It's the real deal. (Spoilers ahead.)

Part of the reason for this is the incredible cast, led by Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, the father of triplets; and singer/actress Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson, mother of the triplets. The show veers back and forth between the 1980s as the kids grow up and the present as they have just celebrated their 36th birthdays. One of the triplets dies during the complicated birth, and the obstetrician convinces Jack to adopt a baby left at a firehouse that night to fill the place of the third baby. Plot twist? The baby is black.

The two birth siblings, Kate and Kevin, are always pushed a little to the background as Jack and Rebecca overcompensate for being white parents of their black child, Randall. For his part, Randall never ceases the search for his black father who left him at that firehouse. On his 36th birthday, he finally finds him.

There are many turns to this tale of mismatched siblings. Kate (Chrissy Metz) is hugely fat, weighing in the 600-lb. range. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is a pretty-boy hunky actor best known for a comedy series called The Manny, where he is mostly shirtless. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is one of those money-makers who does something with stocks that no one understands. The acting is dreamily good. Brown is extraordinary as the buttoned-up, over-achieving black man with the perfect life, wife and daughters, who has a secret that threatens that perfect existence.

When Randall finds William, his birth father, played with extraordinary restraint and simmering pathos by Ron Cephas Jones, everything changes. On the season finale, William was revealed to be gay. For the entire season we'd noted that the only thing wrong with this show was no gay characters. And now one of the most pivotal is the gay one. And his lover, Jessie, is played by none other than the extraordinary gay actor Denis O'Hare (American Horror Story). The two re-meet at a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous early on Christmas Eve, where William tells a story and then, several rows behind him, another man, Jessie, tells his story. The revelation that each has spoken about the other is visited upon William's face as Jessie talks. It's shocking.

William is dying of cancer. Jessie says he wants to spend the remaining time with him. When they show up together at Randall's, one of Randall's young daughters explains to him as he and his wife Beth (Susan Kelichi Watson) are trying to figure out who Jessie is to William that it's like a story she read at school about two dads: Grandpa is gay.

This Is Us layers itself with the nuances of real life in ways that are breathtakingly real while also super-subtle. William, a jazz musician, is playing the piano. Jessie is standing back watching him, his expression a mix of love, longing and loss. The girl, a child of the 21st century, sees this; her parents do not. There's a lot of sadness in This Is Us, but also a lot of joy. The season finale on Dec. 6 ended with a cliffhanger crescendo we never saw coming.

So for brilliant acting, the Sturm und Drang of "alt-right" politics, and occasional festive holiday fare like The Great Christmas Light Fight (which continues on ABC right up till Christmas), you know you really must stay tuned.

 

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