Arts & Culture » Television

Navigating past 'The Red Line'

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Noah Wyle as Daniel Calder on "The Red Line." Photo: CBS-TV
Noah Wyle as Daniel Calder on "The Red Line." Photo: CBS-TV  

We've been thinking about CBS' new series "The Red Line" since it debuted. Executive produced by LGBT-friendly director Ava DuVernay and out gay man and owner of the Arrowverse on the CW Greg Berlanti, this is a show built on queer input. As we have said for years in this space, when we are behind the camera, our stories are in front of the camera.

"The Red Line" is one of our stories. The series opens with a married gay male interracial couple, Daniel Calder and Dr. Harrison Brennan, played by Noah Wyle ("ER") and Corey Reynolds ("The Closer"), having the kind of phone conversation every married couple has. Harrison is about to get off shift at the hospital. Daniel, a high school teacher, is home with the couple's teenage daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale).

Harrison stops to get milk at a convenience store on the way home. There is a robbery, he is mistaken for the robber and shot to death by a white police officer, Paul Evans (Noel Fisher). The lives of everyone involved will never be the same as one more police shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop in Chicago headlines for weeks.

The incident brings another figure into the story: Jira's birth mother, Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi), an up-and-coming politician in the hardscrabble world of black Democratic machine politics. Tia wants to reach out to Jira, even though the adoption was closed and she, then a teenager, had chosen to give Jira up because she knew it was best for the child. Tia is married with a young son, and the revelation of her past might very well sunder her chances against an entrenched establishment pol.

But Jira has never felt more alone in her blackness, with her surviving father seeming to be unmoved by the tragedy, when he is really just trying to hold it all together for Jira. And Tia sees the girl she gave birth to, who is on the TV news headlining the story, as needing her now that the man Tia give her daughter to is dead.

Jira asks Daniel if he will give the adoption agency permission to let her search for her mother and he refuses, saying the one thing he's sure of is that he will not allow her to be hurt by someone who didn't want her. That refusal intensifies the strain between them.

"The Red Line" is a complex story with a lot of gray areas. It's reminiscent of Netflix's stellar "Seven Seconds," which tells a similar story of white cop/unarmed black victim/underlying gay storyline. While there cannot be enough of these stories, given how outrageously common these incidents are, the framing of the relationship between Daniel and Jira seems to call the validity of gay families into question.

In point of fact, Tia is not Jira's "mom." She's the woman who gave birth to her. For the 17 years of Jira's life, her parents have been Daniel and Harrison. So Tia's consistent exclamation that "I'm her mom!" gets wearing early on. The series kills off Harrison in literally the show's first 10 minutes, so there is no time for the viewer to see what his relationship was with Jira, nor what the dynamic of the three of them, two dads and daughter, was.

This cheats the viewer and makes Jira's sudden desire to meet her birth mother feel jarring. Shouldn't she be bonding closer with Daniel? The way the arc is presented in the opening episode, it's as if Daniel just moved in a week ago, rather than co-parenting Jira for years. While the viewer readily understands that Jira is suddenly made to feel fear for her own safety as a black girl in a white-dominant world, is that the sole reason she wants to connect with her birth mother? Or were there underlying issues she had with being the daughter of a gay male couple? Or were there simply issues over not having a mother, but two fathers?

These questions are raised by the plot structure and the writing, which position the lead characters as Daniel and Tia, both of whom are interesting and complicated, but not wholly likable. We wanted Jira and Daniel to be ever-more-tightly bonded over the loss of husband and father. We wanted Tia to be the one searching, not Jira. But we didn't write the story.

The race question is obvious: Black lives matter. The frequency with which unarmed black people of all ages (Tamir Rice was only 12; Chicago's Laquan McDonald only 17) are murdered by police is a national shame we have yet to address at the federal level. "The Red Line" presents a sympathetic Paul Evans, a young guy who only ever wanted to be a cop. But why did he shoot so quickly? Why didn't he demand that Harrison drop to the floor or give him a chance to survive, even if he were the robber, which he was not? These are questions that may or may not be answered over the course of the series, but we see in Evans a man roiling with conflict. As he's back on the street with a Latinx officer, we also see that he's prone to reaching for his gun when the suspect is black. His friends on the force are all white, and the segregation of the squad is apparent.

"The Red Line" isn't an easy story to watch. White viewers will squirm at the facts of daily racist micro and macro aggressions people of color must navigate just to get through an average day. Gay viewers will question whether it's truly possible to be seen as parents equal to straight parents, families equal to straight families. There are many competing and discomfiting narratives in "The Red Line," which is struggling at times to be as woke as possible. But these storylines, which also include Jira's non-binary bestie and another man of color who likes Daniel, make it engrossing, if not easy viewing.

DuVernay said of "The Red Line," "This series is made for people who may just be entering into thinking about these issues. It has emotional value for folks that are more passionate about them, but it's also a primer for everyone to start thinking about how all of our lives intersect around issues of race and police."

Dark star

We grew up in one of those "No, you can't watch TV, read a book!" households, which was good for early college admission, but bad for Trivial Pursuit games. We didn't begin watching TV until the 90s, so there's a lot we missed. "Married with Children" is a series we never saw even one episode of, so we don't have the long history with Christina Applegate that some viewers have. Which is fine, because we come to Netflix's new dark, darker, darkest dramedy "Dead to Me" completely virginal about her as an actress. Having just finished binging three seasons of Netflix's stellar "Bloodline," with "Dead to Me"'s other star, Linda Cardellini, we were primed to see her in something else. So primed.

Wow, is this series good. It's so good, you might need to just watch the whole thing (10 episodes) right away. (We once watched the whole of Rainer Maria Fassbinder's 931-minute "Berlin Alexanderplatz" over the course of a weekend at the Film Forum in New York, so 10 episodes is nothing for us.)

"Dead to Me" is described succinctly by Netflix as being about "a powerful friendship that blossoms between Jen, a tightly wound widow, and Judy, a free spirit with a shocking secret." The series is the baby of Liz Feldman, lesbian comedian, director, writer and more, who spent some years on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and created "2 Broke Girls" and a slew of other things. Feldman is funny. Dark, arch, hilarious funny. "Dead to Me" is the best thing she's ever done, and she's done a lot of really good stuff.

"Dead to Me" has the same tonal quality as "Fleabag," and is just as out of the realm of the ordinary. This is a buddy story at heart, with a touch of queerness and an even bigger touch of anomie. Jen Harding's (Applegate) husband has been killed in a hit-and-run. She is left with their big house, their kids and a huge rage over his sudden passing. She meets Judy Hale (Cardellini) at a bereavement group. They bond in surprising ways, and Judy soon becomes part of Jen's life. Maybe.

"Dead to Me" likes a pivot, and Feldman's vision is so unexpected, you will be surprised at every turn. Spoilers are altogether too easy with this series, so don't let anyone talk to you about it till you've seen it. Five stars and a bazillion thumbs up.

Jimmy Fallon has done some fabulous political skits over the years on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." The former "SNL" player and writer has now launched a Short Form Series, "Beto Breaks the Internet," wherein Beto O'Rourke (played by Fallon) produces a series of videos on six different social media platforms in order to get out the word about his 2020 run for the White House as he tries to beat Pete Buttigieg. The plan is to go viral and re-vamp his flailing candidacy. The initial list includes YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, MySpace (yes, MySpace) and TikTok.

The videos will be available on The Tonight Show YouTube page as well as BetoBreaksTheInternet.com, a parody site that NBC says explains fake Beto's "thesis" for the project.

The concept is hilarious, pivoting off Beto's tendency to overshare. In one video, for example, Beto whispers as he tried to record an ASMR video that "makes people feel calm." This includes the sound of his heart beating 600 times a minute, which, he declares, impresses even hummingbirds, and doctors say he lives in a constant state of exhilaration. He admits it's the first time in his life he ever has whispered, and riffs on how hard it would be to be a librarian, then talks about the Dewey decimal system.

At one point he pulls out a "secret ponytail" from his punk rock days and brushes it into the mic. (Hair brushing is among ASMR listeners' fave sounds.) He explains that having a secret ponytail reminds people he's "not like a regular candidate." In another video, in which Fallon's Beto is sitting with his silent wife Amy, he says the question he's asked most is if he can beat Donald Trump. He says, "Heck yeah! I'm like if your friend's hot dad had the energy of a golden retriever. Ruff!" All of these videos are funny. The Instagram is possibly the best, but we admit, we watched all of them several times.

Among the most riveting TV this week was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) shredding the credibility of Attorney General Bill Barr at the Senate Judiciary Hearings. No other member of the Judiciary Committee controlled their questioning as well as she did, nor was able to reduce Barr to stuttering, stammering, and finally, silence. When he couldn't answer one of her salient questions, she offered him multiple choice answers in an acerbic takedown that became a Twitter meme within the hour (our own tweet of it went viral).

Our fave headline about the exchange came from Vanity Fair: "Kamala Harris Guts Barr Like a Fish, Leaves Him Flopping on Senate Floor." Slay, queen, slay.

Harris' awesomeness was followed by Speaker Pelosi doing her best aggrieved-at-the-assault-on-the-Constitution exasperation as she held a press conference May 2 to assert, "What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America is not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That's a crime." The Speaker's press conference aired live on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and C-SPAN. "He lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law." Asked whether Barr should go to jail, the Speaker responded that "there's a process involved here." Indeed there is.

Meanwhile, the Democrats running for president were all jockeying for screen time in a week that saw the same mainstream media that effed America in 2016 doing its best to make the same egregious errors for 2020. The misogynist black-balling of women candidates from the Sunday and other pundit shows, while highlighting 0%ers like the right-leaning Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), is a disgrace.

ABC, CBS and NBC seem to have already decided that former Vice President Joe Biden is the nominee, now that he's finally in the race after teasing a run since 2015. In a bizarre display of fealty, all the major networks have featured interviews with Biden. "GMA" even did a sit-down with him and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden — something they never even did with Hillary and Bill Clinton after she became the first female nominee in American history.

Why this TV cred matters is that Biden already has 100% name recognition, while rising stars like Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) do not. We did a three-week survey of the various TV shows that spotlight candidates, and the six women candidates had been shut out of every one. There was also almost no MSM reportage of the groundbreaking She the People presidential forum founded by Aimee Allison. The April 24 forum was the first of its kind: progressive women of color grilling the candidates on their positions.

In 2016 & 18, black women proved themselves to be the Democratic base and especially the progressive base of the Democratic Party. But the MSM missed She the People as it has missed the groundbreaking policy being churned out by the four women senators running for president.

Allison herself was interviewed by various networks, and in a week that saw yet another white nationalist shooting at a California synagogue as well as an arson at a mosque, Allison told PBS, "Women of color want solutions to rising white nationalist violence, and we will not settle for less."

One candidate not wanting for MSM coverage is Pete Buttigieg, whose run as the first openly gay presidential candidate has been welcomed by middle America in ways we never could have envisioned. While Mayor Pete, as the South Bend, Indiana official is affectionately called, is very much a centrist, we have to say, seeing him kissing his husband Chasten on stage and on camera all across the most homophobic areas of the country has left us verklempt every time. And the last time we saw a Time magazine cover devoted to queers was when Ellen came out in 1994, when Buttigieg was 12. Chasten giving interviews about being homeless after he came out to his family and his experience of sexual assault is pretty groundbreaking stuff. So even if Buttigieg isn't your political cup of tea, the tea this couple is spilling is changing the national narrative.

So for queer narratives, stunning sitcoms, sizzling takedowns and the usual Sturm und Drang, you know you really must stay tuned.

Noah Wyle as Daniel Calder on "The Red Line." Photo: CBS-TV

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