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Mj Rodriguez first trans performer nominated for a Lead Acting Emmy

“Rodriguez’s nomination is a breakthrough for transgender women in Hollywood, and a long-overdue recognition”

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Mj_Rodriguez in 2019 (Photo by kathclick via Bigstock)

LOS ANGELES – “Pose” made television history once again on Tuesday morning with the announcement that Mj Rodriguez, who played the role of house mother Blanca through all three seasons of the beloved FX series, has received a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 73rd Annual Emmy Awards.

It’s the first time in the history of the Television Academy’s prestigious awards body that a transgender performer has been recognized with a nomination in one of the leading actor categories.

The Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk/Steven Canals-created series, which follows the lives of several characters involved in the New York Ballroom culture during the 1980s and 90s, has been an Emmy contender since its first season, when it was nominated for Primetime Emmys as Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

It won the latter award for actor Billy Porter, who was nominated again for the show’s second season, and on Tuesday snagged his third nomination in the category.

Porter’s win in 2019 made him the first openly gay performer to receive the award in that category.

In addition to the two acting nods, “Pose” was nominated for the second time as Outstanding Drama Series. The show also received nominations for its hairstyling, makeup, prosthetic makeup and costumes (categories included in the Primetime Creative Arts Emmys, which are presented in a separate ceremony), bringing the total nominations for the show’s three-season run to 20.

“Pose” was also honored with a special Television Academy Honors award at the 2019 Emmys, for “impactful” television.

In response to Rodriguez’ nomination, GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis released a statement:

“Michaela Jaé (Mj) Rodriguez’s Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series is a breakthrough for transgender women in Hollywood, and a long-overdue recognition for her groundbreaking performance over the past three seasons of ‘Pose.’

Additionally, the show’s nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, as well as Billy Porter’s third nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, mark a historic show that undoubtedly raised the bar for trans representation on television and changed the way viewers around the world understand the trans community.

As over 40 leading LGBTQ organizations pointed out in our open letter about POSE to Emmy Award voters, representation matters. Congratulations, Michaela Jaé, Billy Porter, and the entire POSE team – the world is standing with you and applauding your talents.”

The letter mentioned by Ellis refers to an open letter released by GLAAD in June, signed by 40 leading LGBTQ organizations encouraging Emmy Award voters to show their support for “Pose,” and specifically for the transgender and nonbinary actors – Michaela Jaé (Mj) Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross – who lead the groundbreaking show.The complete list of nominees for the 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards can be found here.

"Rodriguez's nomination is a breakthrough for transgender women in Hollywood, and a long-overdue recognition"
The city of Grozny in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Authorities have sent gay men in the semi-autonomous Russian republic to secret prisons that have been described as “concentration camps. (Photo by Alexxx1979; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Also groundbreaking was an Emmy nomination for David France‘s “Welcome To Chechnya,” the human rights documentary that explores a genocide campaign being waged against LGBTQ people in the tiny Russian satellite nation of 1.4 million people.

Since 2017, Chechnya, led by Russia’s Ramzan Kadyrov, has executed a campaign to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens, overseeing a government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute them and enlisted their families to kill some.

The documentary follows a group of Russian LGBTQ activists who, at great peril to their own lives, take matters into their own hands, creating an underground railroad to something like freedom.

The documentary uses groundbreaking technology to protect the anonymity of its subjects while exposing Kadyrov’s evil.

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‘And Just Like That’ ditches preachiness to become addictive TV

Second season wraps Aug. 24 with Samantha Jones cameo

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The returning women of ‘And Just Like That.’ (Screen capture via HBO)

“Do you know where your children are?” New York TV station WNYW asks the parents in its audience every night.

This isn’t a worry for Charlotte York Goldenblatt (Kristin Davis) or Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker) two of the main characters featured on season two of “And Just Like That,” (AJLT), the “Sex and the City” reboot, airing weekly on Max through Aug. 24. Their children (from elementary school kids to teens) are safely ensconced at a posh summer camp. While their off-spring are away, Charlotte, who back in the day ran an art gallery, is having sex so good it’s like fireworks on the Fourth of July with her husband Harry (Evan Handler), a highly successful divorce lawyer.

Lisa, a distinguished documentarian filmmaker, and her husband Herbert (Christopher Jackson), a wealthy investment banker who’s thinking about running for New York City comptroller, devote themselves to their work. And to enjoying the rare treat of having a drink at a swanky bar by themselves (sans children).

Meanwhile, corporate (turned human rights) lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) knows all too well where her son Brady (Niall Cunningham) is. He’s living with Steve (David Eigenberg), his dad, in their Brooklyn townhouse. Miranda’s relationship with Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez), a nonbinary, bisexual, Mexican, Irish comedian who’s making a TV sitcom pilot with Tony Danza (playing himself), has brought Miranda, Steve and Brady into therapy.

Carrie Bradshaw, writer, (Sarah Jessica Parker), Seema Patel, a hot real estate agent, (Sarita Choudhury) and Dr. Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman), a Columbia Law School professor, are so busy grieving, having exit-out-of-grief sex and mourning stolen Birken bags that they wouldn’t have time for children. Nya is divorcing her musician husband Andre Rashad (LeRoy McClain) after many years of marriage because he wants kids and she doesn’t.

Yes! It’s summer in the city, “And Just Like That,” the fab ladies are back! With less sizzle than in “Sex and the City,” but still fun watch. No matter how hard the writers try, no amount of additional characters could make up for the absence of Samantha Jones, the utterly fabulous PR maven, who was an integral part of “Sex and the City.” Even the highly talented Samantha Irby, a bisexual producer and writer of AJLT, couldn’t create a character as captivating as Samantha, who is slated to make a cameo in the final episode.

But the sophomore season of “And Just Like That” has its share of style and juice. How can you resist a series that, in the seven episodes that have aired to date, has given us a (fictional) Met gala and a “cum slut?”

The first season of AJLT spent much time trying to make “Sex and the City” (SATC) more diverse.

It succeeded in many ways. Che, Seema, Lisa and Nya, the new featured characters of color, have intriguing stories. They have good chemistry with the original SATC characters. Yet, it sometimes felt heavy-handed and joyless.

The current season of the show, mostly, dispenses with the exposition and preachiness of season 1. In this season, sex and glam fashion are back in the city.

The episode of “AJLT,” when Charlotte becomes Harry’s Kegel coach to help him with his “dust balls” when he can’t ejaculate and Carrie talks of “Casper, the friendly cum,” is nearly as good as SATC’s “funky spunk” episode.

The women on AJLT are fab. But one of the most enjoyable characters is Anthony Marantino (Mario Cantone), who runs the Hot Fellas bakery. In one hilarious scene, he turns to his BFF Charlotte when he desperately needs to find a Hot Fella to appear with him on Drew Barrymore’s talk show. This being AJLT, Charlotte instantly finds a hot Italian poet who more than fits the bill. Dressed in his Hot Fellas uniform, the poet’s “package” is so great, that looking at him makes Barrymore sweat.

In another scene, Lisa, wearing a dress (designed by Valentino) with a huge train that won’t fit into a cab, has to walk 10 blocks to the Met Gala. “It’s not crazy,” she says to Herbert, who’s holding her train, “It’s Valentino.”

“And Just Like That” isn’t prestige TV. It’s more important: it’s addictive entertainment.

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LGBTQ critics announce winners of Dorian TV Awards

Wanda Sykes, Jennifer Coolidge among honorees

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Jennifer Coolidge in ‘The White Lotus.’ (Photo courtesy of HBO)

They don’t get as much fanfare as the Emmys, but the Dorian TV Awards – presented annually by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics – have been offering an important queer perspective on the best in the year’s television for a decade and a half, and they’ve just picked their latest round of champions.

On June 26, GALECA announced a slate of winners for the 15th Annual Dorian TV Awards that represented an even mix of high-profile hits and under-the-radar gems. HBO’s final season of “Succession” was a winner, taking the prize for Best Drama while series star Sarah Snook won Best Drama Performance. ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” star Quinta Brunson’s widely praised mockumentary following a clique of idealistic Philadelphia school teachers, took Best Comedy Series.

Less in line with mainstream Hollywood priorities, perhaps, many other awards went to an assortment of under-seen standouts. Amazon Freevee’s audacious prank show “Jury Duty” was named Best Reality Show, with Max’s absurdly snarky showbiz satire (and sadly, now-cancelled) “The Other Two” winning as Best LGBTQ TV Show and HBO comedies “Somebody, Somewhere” and “Los Espookys” taking Best Unsung TV Show and Best Non-English Language Show, respectively. Director Andrew Ahn’s cinematic “Fire Island,” Hulu’s smart queer spin on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” penned by star Joel Kim Booster, scored as Best TV Movie or Miniseries.

GALECA voters seemed to favor dry-but-witty women in most of the performance categories; Bridget Everett of “Somebody, Somewhere” was awarded Best Comedy Lead, Jennifer Coolidge for Best Supporting Drama performance for her instantly iconic return trip to “The White Lotus,” and Ayo Edebiri of FX on Hulu’s restaurant comedy “The Bear” for Best Supporting Comedy performance. The trend extended to the award for Best TV Musical Performance, which went to Ariana DeBose for her well-intentioned but controversial rap tribute to Angela Bassett and other nominees at the BAFTA Film Awards last March.

Other noteworthy wins: Satirist Ziwe Fumudoh’s (also recently cancelled) Showtime series “ZIWE,” a mix of commentary, sketch and topical interviews, received the Dorian for Best Current Affairs Show – its third win in the category; HBO Max’s female superhero series “Harley Quinn” was named Best Animated Program.

Horror was also a running theme, with Shudder’s documentary “Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror” (from TV mastermind Bryan Fuller) taking the Dorians for both Best TV Documentary and Best LGBTQ Documentary, and HBO’s apocalyptic limited series “The Last of Us” impressing GALECA voters as the year’s Most Visually Striking TV Show.

Season Two of Apple TV+’s musical spoof “Schmigadoon!” was named as Campiest TV Show, an award unique to the Dorians, though that might go without saying.

In other honors, the GALECA membership gave Coolidge another win by naming her as TV Icon of the Year, an award whose past recipients include Christine Baranski and Cassandra Peterson (a.k.a Elvira). Elliot Page, whose superhero character Viktor Hargreeves came out as trans in the most recent installment of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” was named as the year’s LGBTQIA+ TV Trailblazer, an award given to entertainment figures who create “art that inspires empathy, truth and equity.” He joins the ranks of former winners Michaela Jaé Rodriguez and Jerrod Carmichael.

The Wilde Wit Award, designated by GALECA for “a performer, writer or commentator whose observations both challenge and amuse,” went to Wanda Sykes, the venerable comedian whose year has included memorable roles in “The Other Two,” Hulu’s “History of the World: Part II,” and Netflix’s “The Upshaws,” as well as voicing a charater in HBO Max’s “Velma.” After all those, she triumphed with a Netflix stand-up special – “Wanda Sykes: I’m an Entertainer,” featuring her takedowns of everyone from Kyrsten Sinema to MAGA conservatives afraid of Critical Race Theory.

It’s worth noting that out of the 18 programming categories, HBO (and Max) won nine, with Hulu (including FX on Hulu) and Shudder each grabbing two – a clear victory for streaming platforms over traditional network TV.

For those unfamiliar with the Dorians, in addition to its TV awards GALECA (originally founded in 2009) also honor the best in film and – starting this year – Broadway and Off-Broadway Theatre. They bring recognition to excellence in these three fields at separate times of the year, chosen from mainstream and queer+ content alike by a voting body of over 480 active critics and journalists. Via the Dorians, the group endeavors “to remind bullies, bigots and society’s currently beleaguered LGBTQ communities that the world has long appreciated the Q+ eye on everything entertainment—not only on hair and clothes.” The organization also advocates for better pay, access and respect for its members, especially those in its most underrepresented segments, and sponsors the Crimson Honors, a public college criticism contest for women or nonbinary students in the QTBIPOC rainbow that awards scholarship funds provided by film and TV review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes.

Entertainment and media fans can find out more and support the members and causes of GALECA by following @dorianawards on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – and of course, by visiting GALECA.org.

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‘Casa Susanna’ reveals 1950s underground safe haven for trans women

PBS doc tells story of LGBTQ history that has long been invisible

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(Image via PBS)

In the 1950s and 1960s, you could lose your job, scorned by your neighbors, arrested and/or institutionalized, if you were openly trans or cross-dressed in public.

Yet, during this draconian – anti-queer time, an underground network of transgender women and cross-dressing men found a safe haven in a modest house in the Catskills in New York. For a few days, they could live in this house, known as Casa Susanna. There, they could fulfill their dreams and discover their true selves. In a rare reprieve from hiding, they could meet other people like themselves; and live and dress as women.

“Casa Susanna,” an engrossing, moving documentary, which aired on June 27 on PBS’s “American Experience,” offers a revealing look into this underground network. The doc, directed by filmmaker Sebastian Lifshitz (“Wild Side,” “Little Girl), and executive produced by Cameo George, tells the story of a chapter of LGBTQ history that has long been invisible. “Casa Susanna” will stream on PBS platforms, including pbs.org and the PBS App, through July 26.

The documentary uses a trove of color photos of the people who sought refuge at Casa Susanna, archival footage and personal remembrances to tell its story.

The photos of life at Casa Susanna were found by collectors Michael Hurst and Robert Swope at a New York flea market. In 2005, Hurst and Swope published the photos in a book titled “Casa Susanna.”

Queer icon Harvey Fierstein wrote a play “Casa Valentina” that was inspired by Casa Susanna. The play was performed on Broadway in 2014.

In the documentary, we learn about what queer life was like at Casa Susanna from four people who were there in mid-century.

This isn’t a fast-paced, action-packed doc. But, it’s far from a “teachable moment. Watching “Casa Susanna” is like seeing photos of long-lost relatives.

The 137-minute doc’s slow pace is captivating. “Casa Susanna,” now, is just a few empty buildings. But in its heyday, it pulsed with queers.

In other places in the Catskills, hetero Borscht belt comedians entertained. At Casa Susanna, trans women and cross-dressing men performed. Not always as showbiz stars. Often, they dressed as who they wanted to be: ordinary women such as housewives.

The most moving story is that of nonagenarian Katherine Cummings. At the film’s beginning, Cummings, a trans woman, visits the old Casa Susanna buildings. Though, all that’s visible are the facades of empty buildings, she recognizes the theater where trans women and cross-dressing men performed decades earlier. Cummings was born in Scotland in 1935, and raised in Australia. Born as a man, she moved to Toronto. From there, she went to Casa Susanna to meet people like herself. While she lived as a man, she was named John. As John, she married and had three children. Cummings died in 2022. The documentary is dedicated to her.

“People used to love to be here,” Cummings says, “They had total freedom. A total chance to be themselves.”

Another elder, Diana Merry-Shapiro, a trans woman born in 1939, tells an engaging story. She was born in an Iowa farm town and later lived in California and New York. During her life as a man, Merry-Shapiro, then named David, married a woman and was a cross-dresser. After the marriage ended in divorce, she had gender affirmation surgery. She then married a man. After that marriage broke up, she was a computer programmer at Xerox. She married Carol, a woman, in the 1990s. The couple live in New York.

Another of the documentary’s storytellers, Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, cisgender and president of Daw Books, is, at times, refreshingly angry. Donald Wollheim, the science fiction writer, was her father. A cross-dresser, he along with his wife (Betsy’s mother), went to Casa Susanna. This was kept secret until Betsy’s mother was dying. Betsy reveals that her father sometimes was abusive toward her. She believes this may have been because he had to be closeted about his cross-dressing.

The fourth storyteller, Gregory Bagarozy, a cisgender, hetero man, is personally connected to Casa Susanna. The (now-deceased) Marie Tonell, who co-owned Café Susanna with her spouse (the late) Tito Arriagada, was Bagarozy’s grandmother. Arriagada, first a cross-dresser, later lived as a trans woman named Susanna Valenti.

If you’re sensitive to language, be warned. Often, the people who tell their stories in “Casa Susanna” use terms that were said in the 1950s and 1960s. Words like “transvestite” and “transexual,” which aren’t used today, are used.

Though some of the storytellers in the doc, later, were in same-sex relationships, in mid-century, Casa Susanna didn’t welcome gay people. This is part of the extreme homophobia of the time of the Lavender Scare, Bagaroxy says.

“Casa Susanna” is a fascinating window into hidden queer history.

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Short-form ‘Smothered’ is long on laughs

Indie sitcom features longtime gay couple who can’t stand each other

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Jason Stuart and Mitch Hara in ‘Smothered.’ (Photo courtesy Boom Baby Productions/Modern Artists)

We all know at least one couple who can never seem to get along. Whenever we spend time with them, no matter the occasion or setting, they can’t help taking jabs at each other and triangulating everyone who will listen to them into their volatile dynamic. We might sympathize with them, like them, or even love them, but we can only stand to be around them in small doses.

Which is why “Smothered,” an indie-made sitcom about a longtime gay couple who can’t stand each other and spend virtually every minute of screen time saying so in the most hateful ways possible, sounds like a terrible idea.

Created, written, and produced by its two stars, Jason Stuart and Mitch Hara, it’s the story of Ralph and Randy, a Boomer-aged married pair whose decades-old love appears to have fizzled out long ago. Apart from being gay and Jewish, they don’t have much in common, and they seem like total opposites; Ralph (Stuart) is a needy romantic still clinging to his fantasy of a happy-ever-after marriage, while Randy (Hara) is a vain and unapologetically shallow serial cheater who eagerly jumps at any opportunity to spit venom at his nebbish-y spouse. To call their relationship dysfunctional would be putting it lightly – for one thing, fighting with each other also turns them on, which leads to some amusingly uncomfortable moments – but even if it weren’t, they would still be insufferable. Why would anyone want to watch a show that essentially consists of nothing but these two sniping at each other?

That’s not a hypothetical question, because people do want to watch it – enough so, in fact, that after becoming an acclaimed hit on Amazon Prime in 2020 (due in part, undoubtedly, to the pandemic-driven need for a constant flow of easily-accessible home entertainment content), Stuart and Hara’s meagerly-budgeted, DIY-style comedy not only got the green light for a second season, but conducted a successful GoFundMe campaign to deliver it. It drops this month on Amazon Prime, Revry, and all major streaming services, with slicker production values and an expanded cast that includes recognizable guest stars.

So how did this happen? One reason, certainly, is that the show’s short-form structure – most episodes are approximately 4 to 10 minutes long – lets audiences consume it in bite-sized chunks and step away in between segments if needed. The second reason, however, is that it’s wickedly funny – which makes those little breaks not only unnecessary, but unlikely.

In the first season, “Smothered” established a format in which its two anti-romantic leads spent each episode hashing out their differences in front of an ever-changing parade of therapists – none of whom are able to last more than one session with them. It was a gimmicky-but-clever conceit that allowed the couple’s story to be told through both of their own filters while providing a great platform for Stuart and Hara, whose elaborate verbal sparring flows like a river of shiny-but-jagged jewels. Ralph and Randy are firmly established as hateful from the beginning of episode 1, and proceed to show us just how over-the-top their hatefulness is until we love them for it in spite of ourselves.

With the second season – and an expanded budget – the show breaks free of its self-imposed boundaries to become less of an exercise in “variations on a theme” improvisational comedy and more closely resemble a traditional sitcom. Picking up where the previous season left off, Ralph and Randy are finally resolved to get a divorce, but after a financial catastrophe and a subsequent brush with the law, they can’t afford it; furthermore, to qualify as residents in a new subsidized housing facility for LGBTQ elders, they must be a couple – so they are forced to continue living together. There are still a few therapists (or, in some cases, surrogate therapists) in the mix, but this time around we get to see the couple’s interactions with other characters and experience their life together first hand instead of only through the catty and quippy recaps with which they would regale their couples counselors in season one.

It’s a positive move, allowing the show to grow wider and avoid the pitfalls of sticking to a formula with enticing-yet-finite possibilities. It also allows the characters to become more fully drawn; they’re still just as horrible, but somehow, by experiencing things with them instead of only as a barrage of comedic zingers, they become more human to us, more relatable. The things we saw in them that reminded us of ourselves were part of why we laughed at them in season one, but now they are the things that help us begin to like them a little, and maybe even – can it be so? – root for them to get over themselves and rekindle the love for each other that obviously still burns inside them.

Another benefit of opening up the show’s format is the freedom to add characters who can stick around to become part of the story, like the uber-butch lesbian manager of their new housing facility (pioneering queer TV veteran Amanda Bearse in a hilariously tongue-in-cheek performance) or the hunky Latino chef (Bryan Quiros) whose coming between them might just be the thing that pushes them back together again. The biggest boon, however, is the opportunity it gives Stuart and Hara to deepen their characters, to let go of their comic ferocity – just enough of it, at any rate – and simply be real, once in a while. It makes a big difference, because while season one was a solid, funny, and deliciously snarky good time worth bingeing over a night or two, season two has evolved enough to let us see, a little more clearly, that it also has a heart. Considering that short-form narratives are still often disregarded by many audiences over their presumed insubstantiality, it’s no small feat when one proves such prejudices to be unfounded.

We don’t want to scare you away, though. Heart or no, it’s also still a fast-and-furious onslaught of bitchiness and bad behavior that will have you cringing and laughing at the same time. Likewise, while it makes a point of diversity and inclusiveness among its widened cast, it also delights in flagrantly stepping over the line into “politically incorrect” territory, skewering contemporary oversensitivity with the kind of irreverent generational humor (confusion over pronouns, anyone?) and campy stereotype that might raise a few hackles among viewers too young to remember the days when such transgressive comedic flourishes were one of our greatest weapons against the cookie-cutter conformity of the hetero-centric mainstream.

In any case, “Smothered” seems unconcerned with offending people – in fact, it almost seems to delight in doing so – and never lets any kind of “agenda” take the focus away from the absurdly vicious love/hate dramedy going on in the middle of it all. With Stuart and Hara’s playful chemistry, sharp writing, and finely-tuned acting carrying most of the weight, that’s more than enough reason to cast off any preconceptions you might have and take a dip in the “short form” pool. In this case, the water’s fine.

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For musical fans, the TV series of the spring is ‘Up Here’

A refreshing new addition to a genre that can never get enough love

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Carlos Valdes and Mae Whitman in ‘Up Here.’ (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

Love stories are never out of season, but if there’s any time when they feel more welcome than usual, it’s in the early blossom of spring. 

We’re not talking about just any love stories here, but the kind of sappy, feel-good tales of romance that most of us scoff at but secretly dream of living for ourselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same people who enjoy that oft-maligned sub-genre also tend to be fond of musicals, and if that sounds like you – especially if you’re a nostalgic Millennial or an older Gen-Z-er with a fondness for the Disney classics of the ‘80s and 90s – then congratulations: you’re the target audience for “Up Here,” Hulu’s new series about the young love on the cusp of Y2K!

A musical romance set in the waning days of 1999 New York City, it follows Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes), two misfits chasing their dreams of success who fall in love and discover that when it comes to finding happiness together, their greatest obstacle might be themselves – or at least, the personified memories that live inside their heads, giving elaborately orchestrated and impeccably arranged voice to the treacherous world of embarrassments, obsessions, fears, and fantasies that influence their behavior and their choices.

It’s not exactly a new concept. From “Herman’s Head” to “Inside Out” and countless other iterations in between, the eminently relatable idea of a “committee” inside our minds – often made up of people whose presence in our past left a significant mark – commenting on and trying to influence every detail of our lives has provided plenty of fuel for onscreen entertainment. It might be a trope, but whether it’s played for laughs or for serious contemplation (it’s almost always a mix of both, though the ratio may vary widely), these stories always give us food for thought.

“Up Here” is no exception, but it hones and targets its appeal by delivering that meal with a heaping side of musical meta-commentary. Developed and adapted by Steven Levenson with married songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, it’s based on a 2015 musical by the latter – a married pair responsible, either together or individually with other writing partners, for composing the songs of “Avenue Q”, “Frozen” and “Coco”, along with several other massively successful musical entertainments of the past decade or so. Combined with the track record of Levenson (who wrote the book for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hanson” and the screenplay for 2021’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!”) and co-Executive Producer Thomas Kail (director of 2020’s filmed “Hamilton” and showrunner for the acclaimed FX bio-series “Fosse/Verdon), the Lopez knack for upbeat, stirring, and infectiously clever pop-inflected songs gives the show more than enough promise to ensure any serious musical fan will be on board to at least give it a chance.

When they do, they’ll likely be hooked from the start by a quirky, tongue-in-cheek tone that somehow manages to strike a sustainable balance between self-aware parody and sincere exploration of an art form which, frankly, ends up being the butt of a lot of jokes from those immune to its stylized charms. Musical fans know what we’re talking about, and we feel their pain – but we can’t help also appreciating the more cynical worldview that often makes the genre seem more like feel-good pablum than serious artistic expression. Still, regardless of one’s personal taste for musicals, it’s hard not to respect an approach that acknowledges the inherent absurdity of the format while still committing itself unapologetically to honoring the optimistic romanticism that makes it so irresistible for a legion of die-hard aficionados – many of whom, at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, happen to be queer, an additional perspective that will surely help the show’s tale of romance between two square pegs in a world full of round holes land even closer to home for a substantial percentage of its viewing audience.

It’s also hard not to be won over by the performers, who seem to gleefully embrace – and rightfully so – the opportunity to show off all their triple-threat chops onscreen, not to mention the chance to sing material from the two-time-Oscar winning Team Lopez. Whitman, a former child actress and voice performer who successfully transitioned into “grown-up” roles (most notably opposite Christina Hendricks and Retta on the dark TV crime comedy “Bad Girls”) and came out as pansexual in 2021, turns her unconventional appeal into an anchor for the show’s sometimes far-flung wildness; she wins our hearts by the end of her first scene, and she only becomes more endearing from there. Valdes makes a perfect counter to her offbeat underdog energy, the “Lion King” to her “Little Mermaid”, a swoon-worthy sensitive good guy in disguise who can’t help wearing his heart on his sleeve even as he tries to blend in with the douche-y finance bros in his workplace. Katie Finneran, John Hodgman, Andréa Burns, Scott Porter, Sophia Hammons, and Emilia Suárez comprise the ensemble of voices inside the lovers’ heads, each of them embodying real people with backstories of their own – which affords them all an occasional spotlight moment and allows for plenty of subtle nuance in their performances as they serve as a literal chorus for the “dramedy” at hand.

As for the material itself, “Up Here” boasts an extremely polished, sharply cinematic aesthetic that goes a long way toward softening any resistance to its musical conceits – and making up for a song score that, while solid and suited to the purpose, is largely devoid of the sort of standout “earworms” that typically score big points for musical fans. At times reminiscent of a goofy send-up like “Schmigadoon”, at others more a reverent homage to the screen musicals of classic Hollywood, and at still others approaching the sublimely deconstructed anti-romanticism of French auteur Jacques Demy’s ‘60s masterpieces, it benefits from a refusal to fall back on its potential for camp value – though it occasionally leans hard in that direction, on purpose – by keeping us emotionally invested in its two appealing leads. It also makes sure to keep a healthy balance between musical fantasy and everyday reality, limiting the big, splashy production numbers to 2 or 3 per 30-minute-ish episode.

Probably the most intriguing aspect of the series, however, is its narrative structure, in which it shows us things through the experience of one of its characters – including their inner dialogues with their respective mental critics and commentators – and then replays them from the perspective of another. Again, it’s not an innovative concept, but it makes for a musical that has the space to go deeper than the not-entirely-accurate preconception of the genre as insubstantial “fluff” might deem possible.

Is that enough to make it appealing for people who don’t like musicals? It would be tempting to say yes, but there’s no denying that “Up There” is a show designed for a certain type of audience. If that DOESN’T sound like you, it’s probably best for you to skip it. For the rest of us, however, it’s a refreshing and surprisingly thought-provoking new addition to a genre that, for our money, can never get enough love.

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The Kelly Clarkson Show: Unique LGBTQ+ youth summer camp

Camp Brave Trails is a LA-based summer camp creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to foster leadership skills & celebrate their individuality

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Jessica and Kayla, Camp Brave Trails Los Angeles-based summer camp co-founders and partners join Kelly Clarkson (Screenshot/YouTube)

BURBANK – On Friday’s show, the founders of a camp for LGBTQ+ youth join Kelly to discuss the camp and their vision. Camp Brave Trails is a Los Angeles-based summer camp creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to foster leadership skills and celebrate their individuality.

Co-founders and partners Jessica and Kayla share how the camp focuses on leadership workshops and mental health programs, while also offering all of the traditional camp activities you would expect.

Also appearing are Camper Ben and their mom Kathleen share how the camp helped Ben find their confidence and passion for fashion design after losing their father to COVID in 2021.

LGBTQ Youth Summer Camp Celebrates Individuality & Fosters Mental Health:

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A song of love & courage for Grandpa Ray- American Idol 2023 

“It’s a big relief to stand here and be proud and say I’m gay and there’s nothing wrong with it- my grandson, he’s my rock”

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Jon Wayne Hatfield with his grandfather Ray on American Idol (Screenshot/YouTube ABC Entertainment)

NASHVILLE – Hailing from Goshen township in Clermont County, Ohio, 21-year-old Jon Wayne Hatfield’s American Idol audition song is dedicated to Ray, his grandpa and best friend, who recently came out as gay.

The song, “Tell Me Ray,” helped Ray believe more in himself and shed lifelong insecurities: “It’s a big relief to stand here and be proud and say I’m gay and there’s nothing wrong with it,” Ray says. “My grandson, he’s my rock.”

Grandpa Ray sits on the piano bench during Jon Wayne Hatfield’s moving audition, which gets a standing ovation from the three Idol judges, country superstar Luke Bryan, pop star Katy Perry, and R&B pop superstar Lionel Richie.

An Original Song Of Love And Courage For Grandpa Ray by Jon Wayne Hatfield:

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Trans trailblazer helps queer the sci-fi genre in ‘The Peripheral’

Alexandra Billings on increasing representation in Hollywood

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Alexandra Billings in ‘The Peripheral.’ (Photo courtesy Amazon Prime)

Alexandra Billings has been a pioneering trans performer several times over, but she tells us that her recurring role as Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer in “The Peripheral” – Amazon Prime’s series adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 book of the same name – is a more personal first for her.

“I love science fiction! This is really my bag, and I’ve never done anything like it before!”

Created by Scott B. Smith, who co-executive produced the show alongside “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show is a mystery-thriller set not just in one future but in two. Beyond the depressingly prescient dystopian one inhabited by protagonist Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) lies another, from which the surviving remnants of humanity employ advanced computer technology to reach back and alter the past. The stakes are high – there’s an apocalypse involved — and a complicated, “Black Ops”-style secret war going on between factions struggling for control makes them even higher. Even for someone who doesn’t look for these things, the allegorical comparison with our own world is impossible to miss; but then science fiction, done right, has always been a prime genre for making social, cultural, and political commentary – and author Gibson, widely credited with creating the whole “cyber-punk” sub-genre, knows how to do it right.

Billings recently spoke with the Blade about the show, among other things. Our conversation is below:

BLADE: It’s refreshing to see you in something like this. We’re not used to seeing such strong representation in these kinds of stories.

ALEXANDRA BILLINGS: Usually, if trans characters were in sci-fi in the past, we were plugged in – they were cisgender characters that trans people played and then they turned trans. But Lowbeer is written as a trans woman. That was extraordinary, and it was thrilling to me.

BLADE: She’s a very strong presence.

BILLINGS: She’s kind of a guide, and she also has great power – not mystical power, or magical, but intellectual. And that’s one of the wonderful things about this show that I want to stress – it’s very female-centric, very female-heavy. There’s gender identity that is addressed, there are women of color that have great power and great strength and intellect. These are smart, witty, competent, capable women. No female depends on any other power except their own to be able to survive in the world of this story, and I think that matters, too.

BLADE: Did you ever imagine you would be playing a part like this in a mainstream Hollywood project?

BILLINGS: Oh no, God, no. When I first came to Hollywood, there were five of us, basically, me and Candis and Laverne and Trace Lisette, and a couple of other people, and that was it. Every time there would be an audition for a trans person – which was usually one of us in the hospital, or going to the hospital, or getting ready to go to the hospital, or something that had to do with the hospital – we would always meet each other. We finally just formed a little brunch club, we were like, ‘Let’s just get together after the next audition and go out. We might as well have food.’

Back then, there was just no concept of the transgender experience, because trans people were not writing any of these shows. You can’t have someone who’s never been through a lived experience pretend that they’ve lived that experience, it doesn’t make any sense. Now, with more trans writers, more trans producers and showrunners in Hollywood, things are starting to change. But this was a shock. I was shocked when I heard about this character, and really shocked when I read the script. It really is brilliant.

BLADE: That’s just one aspect of the show that feels forward-thinking. Don’t you think the whole concept of a future world influencing our present day really strikes a chord with the rise of a younger generation that is primed and ready to take the wheel?

BILLINGS: I think what this show does is that it shines a light. It’s a reflection of a human experience that is happening politically, globally, which is the takeover of righteousness, of our idea of what is helpful to the community – and what isn’t.

We have a whole shift that is happening in the United States right now, which is a younger generation – the Gen Zs – saying ‘I don’t like the way a lot of the country talks about female empowerment, I don’t like what you’ve done to take away autonomy for female bodies or choices, I don’t like the way you talk about gender. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t like, so I want you out.” It’s why this ‘blue wave’ happened – because of them. There was this whole conservative movement before the midterms that was supposed to, like, take over, and it just fizzled out and died. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

BLADE: Let’s all hope you’re right. There’s such a disheartening backlash in some pockets of our country over queer rights in general. We still even have fight to preserve marriage equality.

BILLINGS: We have this whole group of people out there talking about ‘traditional marriage.’ That means nothing. I want to tell them, ‘Nothing exists inside that container – how far back do you want to go when you say ‘traditional’, do you still want to be able to vote? Stop being an idiot.’ 

BLADE: As someone on the battle lines, what would you like to see for the future of trans representation?

BILLINGS: We need to begin to have conversations that are so normalized about the transgender experience that we no longer talk about the transgender experience. We need to have an over-abundance of trans and nonbinary stories, of trans and nonbinary writers, producers, directors, creators, innovators, telling their own stories – so many of them that the cis-white-heteronormative patriarchy finally needs to step aside. That’s what needs to happen.

BLADE: That seems like a hard sell to the people still holding onto the reins of power.

BILLINGS: When I say things like that, all of Hollywood takes a huge intake of breath. They think it’s impossible. They can’t conceive of that to be true because they think, ‘What about MY stories? What about me?’ As if there was a shortage of those.

Look at Candace Cameron, who quit Hallmark and just came out and said, ‘I’m going to honor traditional marriage on my new channel, and those are the stories I’m going to tell.’ What she’s saying is, ‘These two heteronormative cisgender people are the norm, that’s what we’re going to draw a circle around. Those are the only people that are going to be represented, that’s what we’re telling every single queer youth on the planet is the thing to be.’ That’s the message? So everybody else needs to move aside? That doesn’t make you a trailblazer, it makes you a coward.

BLADE: There’s another “C word” that comes to mind.

BILLINGS: (Laughing) That too.

You can watch “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime.

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‘American Horror Story’ goes full gay in ‘NYC’

Anthology features leather daddies, divas, baths, and gruesome murders in 1981

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Russell Tovey stars in the new season of AHS. (Photo courtesy FX)

It’s hard to believe that “American Horror Story” is now more than a decade old – yet at the same time, it feels like it’s been on the air forever.

Arguably the signature accomplishment of gay entertainment mogul Ryan Murphy, who’s been behind some of the most acclaimed, controversial, and campy programming of our contemporary era, it’s a show that has met all three of those descriptors – often at the same time – while bringing a legion of die-hard fans back for more each season. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but Murphy’s “AHS” juggernaut has managed to keep itself going for 11 years thanks to its anthology format.

It has also, from its inception, been one of the queerest shows on television.

This might be stating the obvious, considering that Murphy typically includes multiple queer storylines in each season and employs a host of out queer actors, not to mention maintaining an unabashedly queer sensibility in the show’s aesthetic and bringing in the occasional iconic diva. We only bring it up here because for its latest installment, which premiered with two episodes on FX last week (just in time for Halloween), “American Horror Story” has gone “gayer” than ever.

Titled simply “NYC,” it’s set against the backdrop of 1981 New York and focuses squarely on the city’s thriving gay community. As anyone with even a basic knowledge of queer cultural history already knows, it’s a heady time and place for a gay man to be – but it’s also a time and place on the cusp of soon-to-descend devastation.

For most of the show’s characters, however, AIDS is not even a blip on the horizon, at least not yet. Instead, they’re facing a different kind of plague: a wave of grisly murders, targeting gay men, has left a growing pile of dismembered bodies in its wake, and to make matters worse, the NYPD seem uninterested in doing anything about it – or rather, most of them do. Patrick (Russell Tovey), a closeted police detective, has been cautiously pressing his superiors to take the situation more seriously, but it hasn’t been enough to nudge them into action; it also hasn’t been enough for his lover, Gino (Joe Mantello), an out-and-proud journalist who has made the mysterious killings into his paper’s No. 1 cause, and for whom Patrick’s refusal to share information about the case for fear of being “outed” has become a sore spot in their relationship.

The stalemate may be about to give way, though. When a young man named Adam (Charlie Carver) shows up at the station to report his roommate’s disappearance after a night of cruising in the Ramble, Patrick breaks his silence at home and tells Gino about the incident, encouraging him to pursue the story and giving him a lead to follow, and embarking on a clandestine investigation of his own; likewise, Adam, resolving to find his missing friend after having his concerns dismissed by the police, traces a scrap of a clue to Theo (Isaac Powell), a rising-star photographer, and his art dealer boyfriend Sam (Zachary Quinto), whose dark secrets may or may not be connected with the murders. Meanwhile, somewhere in the “gayborhood,” a killer still lurks, and the body count continues to climb.

If you’re thinking that the story – written by Murphy and frequent creative collaborator Brad Falchuk – is an allegory in which the hunt for a fictional serial killer (a favorite “AHS” trope) is used as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, you’re probably not wrong. That doesn’t mean that AIDS doesn’t exist in this “AHS” version of the early ‘80s; a side story featuring epidemiologist Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd), glimpsed only briefly so far, has broached the subject of the disease, and it seems likely to become a big part of whatever endgame the show’s creators have in mind.

That endgame is anyone’s guess. “AHS” has a reputation for throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks; almost every season has left the gate with a provocative premise and an intriguing bundle of ideas – and while some have thrillingly lived up to their potential and others have devolved into a self-indulgent mess (though viewers’ assessment of which is which may vary wildly, depending on which viewer you ask), even the best of them have usually allowed at least one or two threads to trail off and disappear. “NYC,” at this early stage, could go either way or land somewhere in between.

Admittedly, it shows a great deal of promise. Obviously thrilled to explore a seminal moment in queer history, the series seems to delight in the sights, the sounds, and the happenings of early-‘80s Manhattan. There are scenes in the historic baths, complete with a singing diva (Patti LuPone, of course) to entertain the boys in between hook-ups; an artist-turned-impresario (Gideon Glick) throws a massive party in an abandoned pier-side warehouse, where everybody who’s anybody (or ever wants to be) gathers for a drug-and-disco-fueled night of art, fashion, and hedonistic fun; a Quentin Crisp-ish queer elder (Denis O’Hare) holds court in a dimly lit dive, and macho men engage in aggressive frottage at the leather-and-levi bar a few streets over. It’s the kind of vivid and nostalgic period recreation that Murphy’s productions have become famous for – detailed, colorful, immersive, and just glossy enough to make it feel like a fondly remembered dream – and it’s one of the pleasures of watching the show.

At the same time, there’s something unsettling about watching this Tarantino-esque distortion of a history that strikes such a deep chord in the queer imagination. With a main storyline that seems akin to a true-crime rewrite of “The Normal Heart” and a gallery of background characters that are clearly reimagined versions of real-life figures like Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Victor Hugo and more, Murphy and Falchuk’s audacious (some might say sensationalistic) approach to melding LGBTQ heritage into a pop-culture horror narrative – and one the evokes William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 thriller “Cruising,” at that – might hit a little too close to home for audiences who see this particular real-life chapter as horrific enough without fictional embellishment.

Still, as “AHS” has proven many times before, it’s not afraid to disturb its fans – and that doesn’t just mean with gore and shock value, though there’s always plenty of that. Its horrors are rooted in our social zeitgeist, in our traumatic memories and in the vast uncertainty of our life in the here and now. 

“NYC” – coming as it does at a time when anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and homophobic ideologies make the hard-won advancement of our community feel all too precarious – is no different. Thus far, no overtly supernatural elements have emerged (though that may change), but by invoking specters that continue to haunt us, hovering in the shadows around our safe spaces until they can leap out and catch us off guard, it’s a ghost story, nonetheless.

It even has the potential to be a good one, if Murphy and company can continue to reach the bar they’ve set for themselves with the first two episodes. Judging from the “AHS” track record, they have a roughly even chance.

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For Years to Come; irreverent romantic gay dramedy coming soon

Gay man who falls in love with his dead mother’s nurse, while struggling to reconcile with his elderly father…who’s secretly a porn director

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James Patrick Nelson stars in 'For Years to Come' (Screenshot/Vimeo)

HOLLYWOOD – For Years to Come is an irreverent romantic dramedy about a gay man who falls in love with his dead mother’s hospice nurse, while struggling to reconcile with his elderly father…who’s secretly a porn director.

The new half-hour TV pilot directed by Micah Stuart will premiere on the festival circuit in early 2023. Writer-creator James Patrick Nelson stars opposite film/TV veteran Richard Riehle.

Stuart, an Emmy nominated editor, writer and the director, who is based in Los Angeles, released the trailer Saturday ahead of the film festival circuit premiere early next year:

For Years To Come Trailer from Micah Stuart on Vimeo.

Creator and star actor James Patrick Nelson sat down with me in an interview on my RATED LGBT RADIO show a year ago to talk about this project and highlights from his career.

“Limited representation fuels internalized homophobia” asserts Nelson.  “How do queer people learn to cherish the remarkable nuances of our identities if we rarely see nuanced, authentic portraits of ourselves on screen?”

As an award winning film maker, James has set a creative target for himself and others in the industry regarding LGBTQ characters: they need to be “richly complex, multi-faceted human beings, with endlessly diverse and distinct experiences, and we deserve to be seen, for all that we are.”

On the show we discussed this objective and queer representation in film up until now.  Plus, we will talk about his newest project, For Years to Come.

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Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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