‘Coastal Elites’ review: The HBO special vents about Trump, while raising the bar on quarantine TV


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The theatrical aspect of this feature-length production reflects its journey from the Public Theater in New York, where it was conceived, to HBO, evolving to weave the coronavirus outbreak and into the material. Writer/satirist/playwright Paul Rudnick has teamed with director Jay Roach, whose resume of HBO political movies includes “Recount,” “Game Change” and “All the Way,” as well as the Fox News expose “Bombshell.”

Creating best-seat-in-the-house intimacy, Roach has let his extraordinary cast do the heavy lifting, employing modest edits and spare backgrounds to showcase their performances, adding to their rawness and power. Rudnick also shrewdly bookends the piece in a way that heightens its emotional impact, identifying the month when each monologue takes place to chart the course of the pandemic.

This is merely one of several productions shot during quarantine, including Freeform’s “Love in the Time of Corona” and the upcoming anthology “Social Distance” and “Connecting…” on Netflix and NBC, respectively. Filmmakers are becoming more adept at operating within those strictures, but it’s going to be difficult to top the theatrical electricity that “Coastal Elites” generates.

The opening salvo is actually set before coronavirus shut down US society, with Bette Midler’s Miriam, a New York liberal, explaining the circumstances of her arrest to an unseen officer. The scenario, not surprisingly, involves her animosity toward the president (who she steadfastly refuses to name.)

Issa Rae in 'Coastal Elites.'

Before Trump, she suggests, conservatives were tolerable — or at least, she could pleasantly “give ’em directions to ‘The Lion King'” when encountering out-of-town visitors in Manhattan. Now, the sight of a “MAGA” hat in her beloved New York City is enough to provoke a visceral response. “We’re all so tired,” she laments.

An outspoken Trump critic off screen, Midler divinely sets the table for the next three chapters, which each feature a member of the “coastal elite” representing different constituencies: A gay actor (“Schitt’s Creek’s” Dan Levy) whose most recent audition for a superhero role has been complicated by Covid-19, addressing his therapist via video conferencing; an African-American woman (“Insecure’s” Issa Rae) who attended prep school with Ivanka Trump, sharing an anecdote about a recent encounter; and a YouTube personality (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in meditation and healing, grappling with a return to see relatives in the heartland.

Finally, there’s Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever), a young nurse who has come to New York to help during the height of the outbreak there — a scene she describes as “surreal” — a sobering and emotional finish if there ever was one.

Rudnick pulls no punches. Each of these distinct voices bring a different perspective to the central thesis, highlighting facets of what has so antagonized those who oppose the current administration.

The presentation opens with onscreen script that refers to the characters as “people barely coping with the new abnormal.” It’s impossible to separate any of this from politics, and “Coastal Elites” doesn’t pretend to try. But strictly from a dramatic standpoint, Roach, Rudnick and their stars have coped with it beautifully, in a production that probably won’t leave like-minded viewers feeling any less tired, but which does a splendid job of reminding them why.

“Coastal Elites” premieres Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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