HBO’s ‘Coastal Elites’: Okay, We’re Guilty. But You’re Guiltier.

David Hinckley
Sep 12, 2020 · 4 min read

In the middle of America, even in places that don’t love Donald Trump, the term “coastal elites” is rarely spoken in admiration.

To oversimplify only a touch, the term suggests certain groups of people on the West Coast and in the Northeast think they’re smarter, more cultured and just generally better than everyone else.

Coastal Elites, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, captures some of what’s true and some of what’s not true about that perception.

Coastal Elites, which was written as a stage play and migrated to television when Covid-19 made the stage no longer an option, consists of five separate monologues, each by a character speaking from a coastal location.

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Midler, Rae, Levy, Paulson, Dever.

This format made it easy to shoot the production remotely and the production has a top-line cast: Bette Midler as Miriam Nessler, a New York City schoolteacher; Dan Levy as Mark Hesterman, a gay actor in Los Angeles; Sarah Paulson as Clarissa Montgomery, a healing-through-meditation YouTube guru; Issa Rae as Callie Josephson, a New York philanthropist with family money; and Kaitlyn Dever as Sharynn Tarrows, a nurse from Wyoming who flew to New York to help overwhelmed hospitals in the early days of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, all the performers nail their characters. Less consistent is the material, which at times rambles all over the map and more than once flies right out into the ether.

Writer Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach clearly would like viewers to emerge both with some sympathy for these characters, who except for Dever’s Tarrows and Rae’s Josephson are pretty neurotic, and at the same time some understanding why they exasperate millions.

Midler kicks it off as the quintessential loud, brassy New Yorker, full of passionate assertions as she slowly gets around to explaining why she’s just been arrested.

Hint, and not really a spoiler: It has to do with Donald Trump, whom she doesn’t like.

No one here much likes Donald Trump, or his family, which if anything will probably make Trump fans all the more determined to support him. That’s one of the widespread consequences of coastal elitism.

Paulson’s Montgomery talks about going home to visit her Middle American family and having to flee, literally, because the whole clan can’t stop loving Trump.

A twist at the end of her monologue changes her mood slightly, though it doesn’t much change the numbers.

The rants of Midler’s Nessler notwithstanding, the harshest Trump criticism comes from Rae’s Josephson, and it’s directed not at Don, but his daughter Ivanka, who comes off as shallow, calculating and disingenuous.

Levy’s Hesterman has the lightest Trump touch, since he spends most of his hilarious monologue talking to his therapist about the moral dilemma of whether to accept a high-profile, potentially star-making gay role that he fears could come off as demeaning.

Dever’s monologue as Sharynn Tarrows has a central Trump component because one of her patients is another coastal elitist who doesn’t let a serious case of Covid-19 keep her from enumerating all the things she doesn’t like about the president.

Tarrows herself focuses more on the sheer exhaustion of working at the epicenter of a pandemic, juggling inadequate resources as patients continue to flood the facilities.

It’s a touching recitation, and it’s the one most likely to engage a wide range of viewers. While her Trump-hating patient plays a prominent role, the rest of Tarrows’s reflections on the eve of returning to Wyoming have a strong and mostly apolitical resonance.

None of the actors here cracks many smiles, because they’re not telling jokes. The humor lies in the dramas they either find or create in the world around them. If Midler’s Nessler borders on caricature, it could also be argued that she’s doing what 70% of the world does. She’s just doing it louder.

Beyond distrust and dislike of Trump, Coastal Elites doesn’t have a lot of connective themes. With the exception of Dever’s Tarrows, the characters feel like they could have been drawn out of a hat, chosen at random from among hundreds of candidates to represent some aspect of coastal elitism.

Best guess: Coastal elitists themselves will watch this and say yeah, we can be ridiculous at times, but we’ve got the basic ideas right. Those on the other side are likely to just shake their heads.

Coastal Elites won’t bring us all together. It does give us an interesting dramatization of one more corner of our times.

David Hinckley

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

David Hinckley

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

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