Arts & Culture » Television

Uncovering a culture of harassment

by Victoria A. Brownworth

"Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators" author Ronan Farrow. Photo: Courtesy the subject
"Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators" author Ronan Farrow. Photo: Courtesy the subject  

Russian assets. Conspiracy theories. Shady deals in Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul and Beijing. No, we're not talking about a new Netflix original series like USA's "Treadstone," just the past week on the tube as Trump and his cohort try to take down the republic while a small band of superheroes — Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and yes, Hillary Clinton — try to stop them.

It's difficult to find a scripted TV series as compelling as the devolution of the Trump presidency being live-streamed every day. When the Acting Chief of Staff yells in a press briefing to "Get over it!" about the President of the United States doing a quid pro quo with a foreign country to get dirt on an opposition candidate, it's pure cliffhanger-til-next-week's-episode stuff.

Yet it's essential for self-care that we take a break from the endless scandals. There is only so much mental bandwidth we can or should give over to Trumplandia.

Gay wunderkind Ronan Farrow returned to the small screen this week while plugging his new book, "Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators." The book details Farrow's quest to uncover the real story of movie mogul and accused serial rapist Harvey Weinstein, a story for which Farrow would later win the Pulitzer Prize. Farrow won his Pulitzer not at NBC where he worked and began the research for his story, but at The New Yorker, because NBC quashed his story.

As the title implies, Farrow's tale reads like a spy novel, and the interviews he has been giving have been riveting. On ABC's "Nightline," Farrow spent the episode leaning forward and speaking in his soft, compelling voice about the culture of sexual harassment, assault and even rape that permeated NBC, making his quest to unmask Weinstein, who was connected to all the major figures at the network, nigh on impossible.

Gloria Steinem says of Farrow's work, "We've been reading about sex scandals beginning with Harvey Weinstein, but only Ronan Farrow, who reported them, tells us how women's voices were discredited and suppressed for so long."

That is the meat of the story Farrow is telling in TV interviews, the sheer volume of women victims and what happened to them when they tried to speak out. Farrow's investigation is chilling.

Farrow is a mesmerizing figure — he has much of his actress mother Mia's ethereal beauty honed into a chiseled, 1940s-style movie-star handsomeness. As he told ABC correspondent Linsey Davis, his tale of intrigue, cover-ups and the web of deceit spun by the most powerful men in Hollywood and TV, it felt deeply, provocatively personal. Within the story he told Davis was his apology to his own sister, Dylan, whose accusation against their father, Woody Allen, he had previously viewed with skepticism.

But as Farrow told Davis in this gripping story, NBC execs used that against him to try and quash his story, asserting that it tainted his reporting.

Farrow's investigation of Weinstein kept coming back to NBC itself and to his own bosses. One of the stories Farrow uncovered was the alleged rape of NBC reporter Brooke Nevils by former NBC "Today" anchor Matt Lauer while the two covered the Sochi Olympics. The reveal is huge. Nevils had previously remained anonymous. That so many women told Farrow their tales of assault and harassment speaks volumes about his capacity to elicit truth from those he interviewed.

Lauer refuted Nevils' allegation, claiming what Nevils described as an anal rape for which she repeatedly denied consent was in fact consensual. (Most of us know that anal sex requires some prep as well as full consent.) Nevils has no reason to lie: she was already given the standard pay-out NBC apparently has for sexual harassment and assault cases, which are, according to Farrow, commonplace.

Farrow's book dropped on Oct. 15. On Oct. 17, former NBC anchor Megyn Kelly was giving her own interviews about the network and its treatment of women. On Oct. 18, a group of prominent women newscasters, Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, Greta van Susteren, Linda Vester and others, delivered a letter to NBC's parent company, Comcast, demanding an investigation. Eleanor McManus and Addie Zinone of the San Francisco-based Press Forward also signed the letter. Press Forward is an organization of women journalists whose mission is to make newsrooms safe for women and free of sexual harassment and assault.

Vester accused former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw of sexual misconduct, and Zinone accused Lauer of sexual misconduct. Both women previously worked at NBC. Farrow says Brokaw told him to lay off the story.

Watch the Farrow "Nightline" interview at ABCgo. It's phenomenal. Farrow is extraordinary, and his telling of the tale absolutely riveting. The work he has done for victims is nothing short of breathtaking.

This is just a random segue, but on Oct. 18 we witnessed a moment on CNN when Trump opened his rally in Dallas, Texas with "YMCA." Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews tweeted out video of massive numbers of middle-aged straight white people dancing to the gay bathhouse cruising theme of the 1970s. The clip was aired later on CNN to incredulity. You cannot make this stuff up. Every day a new reveal.

Not all TV is political, of course. Or is it? Why does "The Family Guy" have a series of running "jokes" about character Ida, a trans woman, who is, of course, voiced by a male actor, Seth McFarlane? (Ida is depicted as a long-haired blonde with a very masculine face, in case you don't "get it" right away.)

When we just had Spirit Day and Pronouns Day, we have to ask: Why in any series, particularly now when trans people are under such threat from the Trump administration and even Democratic candidates are discussing violence against trans women, would a show decide to make their one trans character the continual butt of inappropriate commentary and jokes? This is not humor, and when the main audience for this show is teenagers, it sets a tone about trans people that makes transphobia the norm. This isn't "edgy," it's cringeworthy and harmful.

"This Is Us" is the antithesis of "The Family Guy" in its treatment of Tess' (Eris Baker) newbie lesbianism. In the new fall season Tess chooses a short, gender-nonconforming hairstyle that unnerves her mother, but we can see why she wants it. But as this oh-so-well-written series details, coming out is an ongoing process. Tess reveals to foster sister Deja (Lyric Ross) that she thought she could just start in her new school being her gay self and having it all fall into place.

It hasn't. She is struggling; she thought coming out to her parents was the hardest thing she would ever do.

The slow development of this aspect of Tess' life has been powerful as much for how the people around Tess react to her lesbianism as for Baker's nuanced performance. Being a young black lesbian has challenges. "This Is Us" doesn't pretend they don't exist.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is the longest-running prime time drama. There are a few reasons the series is still on the air after 21 seasons. One is Mariska Hargitay. Hargitay plays lead detective Olivia Benson, whose backstory is she came to SVU to help victims like her mother — her mother was raped, her father the rapist. Olivia's entire life has been defined by her origin story.

The other reason "SVU" has lasted so long is the brutal fact that a rape happens every few minutes in America, and in real life victims rarely get justice — only five in every 1,000 rapists gets convicted. Victims want to see rape victims get justice, and most of the time on "SVU," they do
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"SVU" tells stories "ripped from the headlines," and there are few stories more germane than those addressed in the Oct. 17 episode. New Detective Katriona "Kat" Azar Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder of "True Blood") and Fin (Ice-T) delve into the case of Evangeline Miller (Kira McLean), a 13-year-old Ohio girl who had been reported missing, but had turned up in New York, and was discovered panhandling by Kat and Fin.

Evangeline's story is revealed at the hospital: She's pregnant and has been abused for two years by her stepfather. She had run away to New York to get an abortion. But in 2019, as a minor, abortion isn't a choice Evangeline can make when her fundamentalist Christian parents refuse permission.

The episode has wild plot twists, with each successive turn reminding us of what is at stake for people born with uteruses under the Trump administration, and how critical reproductive rights are. Sen. Kamala Harris noted at the Oct. 15 Democratic debate that, after six debates and town halls, no one had raised the issue of abortion and reproductive freedom. The moderator promptly called time and that was it, making Harris' point for her. This riveting episode of "SVU" was a grim reminder of how often girls and women are victimized by rape and incest, and how just as frequently the state further punishes the victim.

Retribution TV is a guilty pleasure, and USA's new series "Treadstone," based on Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne series, has a lot of that going on. Created by Tim Kring ("Heroes," "Touch"), this is the kind of old-school action series that gives the viewer the satisfaction of seeing the good guys outmatch the bad guys and punch a few fascists and Nazis along the way. We need this, right?

USA describes "Treadstone" as focusing on a "CIA black ops program known as Operation Treadstone, a covert program that uses behavior-modification protocols to turn recruits into nearly superhuman assassins. The first season follows sleeper agents across the globe as they're mysteriously "awakened to resume their deadly missions." We love those superhuman assassins.

The series opens in 1973 with a Vietnam veteran, J. Randolph Bentley (Jeremy Irvine), being captured by Soviet agents. Not just captured, though; reprogrammed by KGB officer Petra (Emilia Schüle). The torture scenes are gripping and scary, and we know our guy has to get out.

He does escape, turning wildly violent and breaking free of his captors and getting back to American custody. But the drama is just beginning. The brainwashing he's been through is extensive — the psychotropic cocktails and reprogramming have had a profound effect.

USA likes these thriller series. We hate-watched "The Purge " not just for the lesbian storyline, but for the retributive justice that is missing in times like ours. "Treadstone" is built upon that same premise and promise. Everything you need is here: a conspiracy, evil government forces, beautiful hot people trying to stop Evil from predominating and Good to at least keep its head above water. With Brian J. Smith ("Sense 8"), Tracy Ifeachor ("The Originals") and Omar Metwally ("Mr. Robot").

Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is stunning in the new EPIX series "Godfather of Harlem." The series "tells the true story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who in the early 1960s returned from 10 years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he forms an alliance with preacher Malcolm X, catching Malcolm's political rise in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart."

This series has so much packed in it. Reminiscent of "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Wire," "Godfather of Harlem" is created by Chris Brancato, who also created "Narcos." The scenes of a bombed out Harlem, Bumpy's fight to get his daughter off heroin, the mix of grinding black poverty and mob control of drugs all coalesce for enthralling TV.

This series is incredibly good, driven by stellar performances and the riveting crossover stories of the mob and the rising black political movements led by Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, who is eerily evocative of the politician) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito in a sardonic and gripping performance). White supremacists meet black supremacists. What could go wrong?

The scenes between Whitaker and the great Vincent D'Onofrio as Vincent "The Chin" Gigante are breathtaking in their taut power. As Bumpy meets with Malcolm and Powell, we see how the sausage is made. "I have guns." "I have soldiers." It's not pretty, but it is a side of history we rarely get to see as stories get refined and tidied up for public consumption. The political is very, very personal in "Godfather of Harlem," and this is a black history lesson few are familiar with.

The cast is filled with award-winning heavyweights, including Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, and Katherine Narducci ("The Sopranos"). Sorvino is an especially menacing Frank Costello. Deric Augustine is a young and angry Muhammad Ali, and Clifton Davis is the problematic figure of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam. If you don't have EPIX, you can get the app, well worth it for this series and for the spy thriller series "Berlin Station" and the neo-noir series "Perpetual Grace," both with award-winning casts.

Finally, because yes, it really is all political after all, if you haven't yet binged Ryan Murphy's fabulously queer "The Politician," get thee to Netflix. The only thing we can say about this series that hasn't been said enough is, how long until Season 2? Ben Platt is superb, Gwyneth Paltrow is the mother from hell, Jessica Lange is Jessica Lange, and even Martina Navratilova has a recurring role as Paltrow's lover. Janet Mock is one of the series' directors. It's not perfect, but it definitely is fun.

So for the Rashomon of D.C., the feints of our heroes as they lure in the bad guys, and the ever-present relief of cooking shows when the mental bandwidth gives out, you know you really must stay tuned.

"Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators" author Ronan Farrow. Photo: Courtesy the subject

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