The Dangerous Naïveté of Coastal Elites

Before any of its characters appear on-screen, HBO’s Coastal Elites introduces itself with a genteel red font that bears a striking resemblance to The New Yorker’s proprietary typeface. Within minutes, viewers are introduced to Miriam (played by a characteristically engaging Bette Midler). A former New York City public-school teacher, Miriam delivers breathless denouncements of President Donald Trump directly into the camera, pausing only for enthusiastic asides about NPR tote bags and the joys of being Jewish. She yearns for a simpler time when the political climate was more civil: “Those people from Nebraska and Ohio and Alabama—I’d fly over them, but I’d wave!”

If Miriam sounds familiar, it’s because she’s supposed to: She and her four monologuing co-leads are meant to be a collective embodiment of American liberalism gone wrong. Their provincialism is the real ill plaguing the country, Coastal Elites argues—never mind the ravages of COVID-19, the steady violence of a racist criminal-justice system, or the worsening threat to voting access. The film, which airs tonight, instead fixates on the problem of ambient divisiveness and offers naive takeaways. If the headstrong liberals of California and the Northeast corridor would simply listen to the everyman of the heartland, Coastal Elites posits, perhaps we’d all be a little less hysterical.

In the film’s view, America is in the throes of a partisan disagreement—a dinner-party conversation gone awry. As political statements go, this one’s not just trite; it’s also glaringly out of step with the national mood. Less than two months away from a potentially catastrophic election, is it really unreasonable for someone like Miriam to be upset by a president who intentionally downplayed the danger of the coronavirus and who won’t commit to accepting defeat if his opponent is voted in? Like many other tone-deaf Trump-era satires, Coastal Elites misdiagnoses the dangers facing the country.

[Read: ‘Space Force’ tells a terrible joke about America]

Coastal Elites’ flaws begin with its uninspired screenplay and blandly written ensemble. In addition to Miriam, the characters represent slices of the political spectrum, but mostly lean left. Mark (Dan Levy) is a gay actor living in West Hollywood, whose fears and frustrations about the state of the world are overshadowed by his career woes. Callie (Issa Rae) is a philanthropist whose familial wealth and prep-school ties to Ivanka Trump endear her to the current administration. Clarissa (Sarah Paulson) is a meditation influencer attempting to film an episode of her YouTube show about not “allowing political trauma to poison your bliss.” Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever) is the lone counterweight to the liberals’ histrionics, a Wyoming nurse who flew to New York City to volunteer at the height of its medical emergency.  

The heavy-handedness and caricature make more sense when you consider that Coastal Elites was originally envisioned as a theater performance. The playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick first conceived of his story for the Public Theater in New York, where the smash hit Hamilton premiered in 2015. But in its tone, format, and subject matter, the Jay Roach–directed HBO film evokes all the patriotic kumbaya-ism of the Lin-Manuel Miranda production with none of the fun or artistic payoff. Coastal Elites enters a radically different political climate, one in which both the optimism of the Barack Obama years and the media’s patronizing post-election attempts to understand the “white working class” feel woefully dated. Political and moral divides have grown more intractable. Exhortations to read Hillbilly Elegy have come and gone. So, too, have many political pundits’ belief that comedy is an effective way of criticizing the Trump administration.

[Read: Understanding America’s moral divides]

Still, the production history of Coastal Elites sheds light on the film’s intended audience: the Miriams of New York City and its environs, the self-flagellating liberals who might be willing to let a play at the Public Theater lecture them for an hour and a half. Such viewers might even feel a sense of catharsis following the moral flogging. Despite its political shallowness, one can imagine the appeal of watching Coastal Elites in its original setting. Monologues performed for an intimate audience can be electric even when the material itself is banal.

Though the HBO special can now reach viewers around the country, of all political stripes, it still seems to target the same narrow demographic. The film’s five monologues, which feel like a series of high-resolution YouTube clips, are tied together with snippets of the president’s distasteful one-liners (including the infamous line from the Access Hollywood tape). No Trump-supporting, independent, or conservative-leaning characters appear except as foils to help illustrate the narrow-mindedness of the main subjects. Clarissa, for example, questions her contempt for her MAGA-hat-wearing relatives after her conservative father admits that he was offended by the president’s comments about Senator John McCain. With these kinds of simplistic anecdotes, Coastal Elites undercuts its own attempts to humanize the people that so-called elites disdain.

In reducing heartlanders to static symbols of the “real America,” Coastal Elites neglects to tap into the genuine dread and terror felt across the country, not just in blue states. By all accounts, the United States is in unprecedented peril. And great satire has often arisen from grave circumstances. The director Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, drew its absurdist comedy from the real-life fear of Cold War nuclear proliferation. The black comedy alchemized Americans’ existential anxiety into something both ridiculous and tangible. (The film’s release was also delayed by a year following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, out of deference to national mourning.) Dr. Strangelove gave people a new language for their fear, channeling nebulous worry into a story line about a literal “Doomsday Machine” and jokes about “precious bodily fluids.” By rendering the prospect of nuclear catastrophe as far-fetched and ironic, Dr. Strangelove ultimately soothed many viewers.

[Read: Watching ‘Hamilton’ is like opening a time capsule]

Granted, Trump-era satire is remarkably difficult to create, and many writers have lamented its demise altogether. Coastal Elites does little to disprove that conclusion. The special doesn’t meet the current moment, much less offer new ways of thinking or talking about Americans’ failures to understand one another. Even with the A-listers populating its cast, Coastal Elite’s monologues are profoundly boring. They play like a montage of drama-school shorts and made me sympathetic to casting directors who spend their days poring over audition tapes. Presented through the sterile filter of an HBO special, the one-note writing of Coastal Elites can’t be sufficiently lifted by the boundlessness of Midler’s familial warmth or the comedy of Paulson’s skittish demeanor.

If Coastal Elites didn’t fancy itself a treatise on the state of American political discourse, these artistic offenses might be more forgivable. Producing quarantine-era entertainment is no small feat; it’s understandable that a recent work might feel unfinished, given the barriers to normal filming. But Coastal Elites isn’t just removed from the cohesion and glossiness of HBO’s pre-pandemic productions. Fronted by celebrities whose experience of the current turmoil is often uniquely insulated, and woven together with inflammatory speech from the person charged with running an ailing nation, the production registers as a long laugh at the expense of its viewers. Haven’t we suffered enough?

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