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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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‘Interview with the Vampire’ returns in triumph

Long-awaited season 2 continues to get story exactly right

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Assad Zaman and Jacob Anderson star in 'Interview with the Vampire.' (Photo courtesy of AMC)

When AMC debuted its long-awaited series adaptation of “Interview With the Vampire” – Anne Rice’s seminal proto-postmodern horror novel that set the stage and paved the way for a decades-long literary franchise that has kept millions of readers, queer and straight alike, passionately engaged since first reading its thinly veiled allegorical document of life as a being with heightened awareness on the edge of human existence – in 2022, we were among the first to sing its praises as a triumph of narrative storytelling,

We were not the last. The series, created by Rolin Jones in collaboration with Christopher Rice – the original author’s son and a successful horror novelist in his own right – and the late Anne Rice herself, was one of its season’s best-reviewed shows, earning particular praise for its writing, in which the queer “subtext” of Rice’s original works was given the kind of unequivocal full weight denied to it in the Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise-starring Neil Jordan-helmed film adaptation from 1994. 

Though purist fans of the original boom series took occasional umbrage to some of the show’s leaps – changing the historical period of the story to illuminate themes of racism and deepen its resonance for those living as “others” on the fringe of society, and making the book’s protagonist, Louis Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson), a closeted Black Creole man in early 20th-century New Orleans – the series won most of its naysayers over by its season finale. It delivered a deliciously subversive, unapologetically queer interpretation that remained true to Rice’s original gothic re-imaginings while expanding the scope to encompass social and cultural factors that have become central to the moral and ideological conflicts that plague us in the first quarter of the 21st century.

To put it bluntly, the show’s willingness to embrace the story’s countercultural queer eroticism and place its transgressively amoral “moral compass” front and center was more than enough to smooth over any nitpicking over faithfulness to narrative detail or tone that might otherwise have kept Rice’s legion of acolytes from signing on to the new-and-contemporized vision of the book that Rollins built as the foundation for his daunting project.

Now, after a buzz-tempering delay borne of last year’s actor’s strike, the series has returned for its second season. And we’re happy to assure you that its feet hit the ground running, keeping up both passion and narrative momentum to pick up the story with electrifying energy after leaving off (at the end of season one) with the shocking murder and seeming elimination of Lestat (Sam Reid), the exquisitely amoral “rock star” vampire who served as both protector and lover of Louis, and the departure of the latter and his perpetually juvenile “daughter,” Claudia (Bailey Bass) on s quest to find others like themselves.

Fans of the book might, in fact, find new reasons to take exception to the show’s adaptation, which, as in season one, makes significant departures from the original narrative. After moving the story’s setting forward by roughly half a century, Louis and Claudia’s secretive sojourn now takes place in the traumatized landscape of post-WWII Europe, and spins a scenario in which the two ex-pat vampires, navigating their way through the perils of Soviet-occupied Central Europe after the fall of the Nazi regime, spend time in a refugee shelter while investigating rumors of old-world vampires who might provide a link to their “family history.”

When we rejoin this pair of relative fledgling vampires, their undead existence is a far cry from the decadent elegance they enjoyed in the New Orleans setting of season one. Enduring a near-feral existence as they make their way through a war-ravaged landscape, they find no shortage of prey in the aftermath of the Third Reich, but the “creature comforts” of their former “afterlives” are now only a memory. Louis is devoted, as always, to Claudia (now portrayed by Delainey Hayles, presumably due to scheduling conflicts for original actor Bass, who is set to reprise her role from “Avatar: The Way of Water” in the next installment of filmmaker James Cameron’s high-dollar sci-fi franchise), but remains haunted by his vampire maker and former lover Lestat, whose undead corpse remains buried on another continent but whose charismatic presence manifests itself in his private moments, nonetheless. In the first episode, the pair have used their supernatural wiles to journey into the “old country” long associated with their kind, tracking human tales of monstrous terrors in the night in hope of connecting with more of their kind. Louis, as always, struggles with his compassion for the mortal beings around him, while the more savage Claudia simply sees them as prey, and holds little hope of finding other vampires, if they even exist. For her part, Claudia has forgiven – but not forgotten – his refusal to ensure Lestat’s demise by burning his body, and is now solely focused on finding others like her.

Of course, the adventures of these two undead companions are only half the equation in “Interview With the Vampire.” The past is, as always, merely a flashback, as Louis relates the story of his afterlife experiences to mortal journalist Daniel Molloy (Eric Bogosian). In the present, the skeptical Molloy casts doubt on the truth of his memories, forcing the vampire to re-examine them as he goes. Perhaps more interestingly, in the long game of a series which, if it comes to full fruition, will eventually encompass the entire Rice vampire saga, these contemporary scenes give us a look at the relationship between Louis and Armand (Assad Zaman), revealed in the season one finale to be not a mere servant in Louis’ household but a centuries-old fellow vampire who is now Louis’ lover and companion.

Fans of the books, of course, know that Armand plays a significant role in the story of the past, too, and while we won’t spoil anything, we can say that history begins to unspool as season two progresses – but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, what we can say is that season two’s first episode, while it may veer away from the familiarity of Rice’s original tale in service of reimagining it for 21st-century audiences, continues the first season’s dedication to breathing thrilling new life into this now-iconic, deeply queer saga; superb performances all around, an elegantly cinematic presentation and literate writing, and a lush musical score by Daniel Hart all combine to sweep us quickly and irresistibly into the story, making us not just fall in love with these vampires, but want to be one of them. 

That, of course, is the gloriously sexy and subversive point of Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles,” and this long-awaited series continues to get it exactly right.

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Watch ‘Feud,’ if you like glam and wit doused with betrayal and regret

New series focuses on Truman Capote and NYC socialites

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‘Feud’ features NYC socialites known as the ‘swans’ and airs on F/X and Hulu through March 13. (Photo courtesy of FX)

Nothing is more of a pick-me-up in the doldrums of winter than a fabulously acted, incredibly stylish feud. Complete with Champagne flutes and a splendiferous mid-century ball at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. Especially, when it’s part of the ouevre of queer TV producer and creator Ryan Murphy, whose beloved shows include  “American Horror Story,” “Glee” and the anthology series “Feud.”

Season 2 of Feud, “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” which premiered on Jan. 31, will air weekly on FX through March 13. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.

“Feud’s” powerhouse cast, which delivers stellar performances, includes: Tom Hollander as Truman Capote along with Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloe Sevigny and Calista Flockhart as Capote’s swans.

Demi Moore plays Ann Woodward, a socialite who Capote falsely said intended to murder her husband. Molly Ringwald portrays Joanne Carson who befriended Capote when nearly no one  would take him in. The role of CBS chairman Bill Paley fits the late Treat Williams like a glove.

Hollander makes Capote seem like a brilliant, flawed, cruel, sometimes kind, human being, rather than a “fairy” caricature. 

Jessica Lang does a star turn as the ghost of Capote’s mother. Gus Van Sant directs most of the episodes of “Feud.”

“Feud” is based on Laurence Leamer’s book  “Capote’s Women.” Playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz adapted Leamer’s book into the miniseries “Feud.”

“Feud” is the story of how acclaimed queer author Capote, after becoming their best friend betrayed his “swans.”

“The swans,” were the rich, beautiful, New York society women who confided their secrets (from their insecurities about their looks to their husbands’ infidelities) to Capote. 

These “swans,” who took Capote into their inner circle, were: Babe Paley (wife of CBS chairman Bill Paley), Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), socialite Slim Keith (ex-wife of Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward) and socialite C.Z. Guest.

“You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say,” Capote, once said.

His swans didn’t agree with Capote’s dictum.

Capote’s betrayal of the swans occurred in 1975. That year, “Esquire” published “La Cote Basque, 1965,” a chapter from Capote’s much anticipated novel “Answered Prayers.”

(Capote never completed the novel. An unfinished version was published after his death.)

The “Esquire” story, set in the restaurant where Capote often lunched with his “swans,” hurt and infuriated “the ladies who lunched.” The details revealed in the “Esquire” story were so personal and thinly veiled that the “swans” felt readers would easily identify them.

“Feud” depicts the bonds of friendship that frequently exist between hetero women and queer men. Capote gave his “swans” the love and attention their spouses failed to provide. Babe Paley called Capote her “second husband.”

For Capote, an outsider because he was gay, “the swans” provided acceptance, association with high society (which he both loved and despised) and material for his writing.

Capote became estranged from the “swans” right after the “Esquire” story was published.

“Feud” goes back and forth in time. At first, this is a bit disconcerting. But, soon, it keeps things moving, and provides fascinating glimpses into Capote and the “swans.”

Bill and Babe Paley think Capote is the “other Truman” (Harry Truman) when they meet him in the 1950s.

In the 1970s, after the “swans” have shunned him, Capote is a washed-up, alcoholic, drug-addicted has-been. (Capote died in 1984 at age 59 of liver disease.)

The third episode is the stand-out of “Feud.” In 1966, Capote was at the height of his power after “In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction” novel, had been published to much acclaim and commercial success. To celebrate, Capote threw a Black and White masquerade ball. The ball, to which Capote invited 540 guests, was the most famous party of the 20th century. Katherine Graham of The Washington Post was the guest of honor.

The episode is shot as a (fictional) documentary of the ball. Shot in black and white, it’s visually stunning. We see interviews with some of the “swans,” who are ticked off, but trying not to show it, because Capote had led them to believe they would be the guest of honor.

Watch “Feud,” if you like glam, hats, white gloves, cocktails and wit doused with betrayal and regret.

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Rough and sexy ‘Open To It’ explores lighter side of polyamory

Take a break from prestige cinema and enjoy this new TV series

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Tim Wardell and Frank Arthur Smith explore polyamory. (Photo courtesy of OutTV)

With Hollywood’s big awards season launching into full swing, January tends to be a month all about the movies – especially for people whose job it is to see them all and write about them. It’s a pleasure, of course, if you love cinema; but let’s face it, most of the award-hopeful films getting the spotlight as the new year turns tend to be pretty serious stuff. Everybody needs a break from that, once in a while.

That’s why we’re happy to take a brief pause from the whirlwind of “prestige cinema” to take a look at something that doesn’t feel quite so heavy, and the fact that it’s available in small doses on your screen-of-choice at home – via queer streaming service OutTV – makes it even more appealing. Oh, and it’s also sexy, which doesn’t hurt.

Cut from a similar cloth as some of the edgier “wacky sitcoms” enjoyed by Gen X-ers and Millennials in their younger years – but with a spicier, more diverse flavor to bridge the three-decade gap in our cultural evolution and infuse things with a more Gen-Z-friendly perspective – and assembled as a long-form narrative told in short (about 10 minutes) installments, “Open To It” is the creation of writer/actor/director Frank Arthur Smith. He stars as Greg, a previously repressed gay man now living the dream in West Hollywood as half of a loving, committed relationship with his partner, Cam (Tim Wardell). Though Cam (a self-proclaimed “former slut”) is happy to have settled into comfortable monogamy, Greg is curious to explore the more free-wheeling sexual lifestyle he denied himself in the past. The solution, of course, is for the couple to experiment with the possibility of opening up their relationship, which is where we meet them as the first episode starts: anxiously awaiting the arrival of Princeton (Jason Caceres), a sexy twink they met on Grindr and invited to join them for their first-ever threesome.

Since we already mentioned the word “wacky,” it’s probably not too hard to guess that things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Instead of a hot, steamy evening of pushing their sexual boundaries, the two experience a farcical disaster that, for most of us, might be considered a worst-case scenario. That, of course, establishes a formula that more or less repeats in each successive episode, as the show’s plucky lead couple determinedly keeps trying to expand into the brave new world of polyamory despite one hilariously awkward sexual debacle after another, complicated even further by the persistent Princeton, who wants more in spite of the less-than-ideal circumstances of their first encounter, and the well-meaning but intrusive couple next door (Elsa Aranda and Reggie Thomas as, respectively, a bisexual wild-child and her prudish lesbian partner), whose efforts to be supportive somehow all seem to have the opposite result. Add to this mix Cam’s overprotective Drag Mother (Laganja Estranja), and you have a recipe for queer comedy of the most chaotic kind.

Beginning its life on the film festival circuit, where the first few episodes made the rounds and became an audience favorite, “Open To It” racked up millions of online views, prompting OutTV to pick it up as a series — and affording Smith and his crew the budget to complete the rest of the season. With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that the opening handful of episodes are a little rough around the edges, though it doesn’t take long before you see the actors gaining confidence and relaxing into a natural rhythm. Even in their clunkiest moments, though, these early chapters manage to convey the blend of over-the-top (and definitely NSFW) absurd humor and cheerfully unfettered sex-positivity the show is going for with its comedy-of-errors storyline, which is enough to make us want more, and watching both the players and the characters they portray develop helps the second half of the season blossom further into itself.

In the show’s press material, Smith says his idea for the series came from his weariness over shows about queer life with “self-sabotaging protagonists” and “a downtrodden tone,” which often tended to take something of a judgmental tone about “polyamorous or otherwise non-monogamous relationships.”

“I wanted to make a sex- and relationship-positive show that normalized gay JOY,” he says. “Sexy swingers, monogamous married couples, people having a ‘50 Shades of Grey’ tie-up night — all are welcome and celebrated in the world of ‘Open To It.’”

Whether or not the series succeeds in “normalizing” anything, it certainly makes a determined effort to depict it. It’s a show about sex, centering on characters exploring their sex lives, and it’s not afraid to take us as far as broadcast standards will allow. That boils down to LOTS of sex scenes, some of them looking almost as if they could be judiciously-cropped excerpts from somebody’s OnlyFans content, which might seem more gratuitous than they are if everything else in the show felt like an excuse to show lots of sex – but, perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t.

While the show (and its main characters, for the most part) may seem fixated on sex, its progression leads inevitably to an exploration not just of the mores and manners of a polyamorous world, but of navigating a relationship through it. And while things may seem drawn in broad, cartoonish strokes in the first episodes which have dropped since the show’s OutTV premiere on January 2, developments as the season progresses turn characters that might seem at first like stereotyped caricatures into more complex, unexpected, and refreshingly open-minded individuals, all learning – or maybe, making up – the rules as they go along.

It’s that willingness to go deeper — all while keeping things light and as near to ridiculous as possible without becoming pure anarchy — that ultimately helps “Open To It” pay off. To be sure, the writing, especially early on, sometimes borders on the clumsy and contrived, more nervous exposition than tone-setting introduction, and the tropes it embraces (more in fun than as reinforcement) about queer “types” and relationships might occasionally be off-putting to viewers looking for a more nuanced approach. Yet in the end, and in surprising ways, the show finds a way forward that promises to expand each of its queer “stock” characters — the repressed gay child acting out sexually as an adult, the too-good-to-be-true sexy-but-smart boyfriend, the tough-loving and “tea”-spilling drag queen, the opposites-attract cliché of the lesbian couple next door — into more fully fleshed-out, complex individuals.

With three more episodes in post-production, and “much more to come,” according to Smith, it appears we’ll have a chance to watch that process continue. And while it may not be the kind of slick-and-polished fare that bigger-budget streaming services use to attract queer viewers, there’s something about its raw-and-unvarnished quality that makes it feel a lot more sincere than most of them — even if it doesn’t make the cut when the next “awards season” rolls around.

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‘Fellow Travelers’ mixes queer love, politics for sexy history lesson

A relationship enduring across the years despite resistance and betrayal

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Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey star in ‘Fellow Travelers.’ (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

In a time when every streaming platform is falling over itself to present the newest “must binge” series, the phrase “Event TV” really has no meaning.

Yet once upon a time – just a few decades ago, in fact, when three major networks and a handful of cable companies highlighted every season with “hot topic of the day” shows from “Roots” to “The Band Played On” – it was something television viewers expected, a standard part of the small-screen line-up that inevitably generated ratings and provided a cultural touchstone (or at least, a good topic of discussion in the break room at work) for millions of people. If that era were still going on today, “Fellow Travelers” would be a perfect fit for the category.

Adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, Showtime’s sweeping eight-episode historical romance, which premiered with its provocative first episode on Oct. 27, checks off all the necessary boxes to pique the zeitgeist of our time. Presenting a fictionalized-but-authentic narrative that weaves real-life history into an intensely intimate love story spanning decades, it touches on issues of hotbed importance to our modern world while spinning an irresistible tale of forbidden romance – tempered by hard reality – that both blends into and epitomizes the lived reality of a generation.  

To cement its status as a show that is not to be missed, it casts gay heartthrobs Matt Bomer (“Magic Mike,” “The Normal Heart,” and any number of Ryan Murphy projects) and Jonathan Bailey (“Bridgerton”) as the star-crossed couple at its center, whose love plays out across a period of queer American political experience that spans from the deeply closeted pre-Stonewall era of 1950s America to the cultural trauma of the AIDS epidemic.

Simultaneously telling both the beginning and the end of its story, “Travelers” moves back and forth through time as it follows the love affair between two gay men – war hero turned government man Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Bomer) and political idealist Tim Laughlin (Bailey) – through three-and-a-half decades of American history. Juxtaposing the story of their increasingly enmeshed relationship – alongside that of a queer couple of color, a Black journalist (Jelani Alladin) and a gender-bending nightclub performer (Noah J. Ricketts) – with the years-later saga of their reconnection after a devastating betrayal has torn them apart, its dominant throughline is tied to the underreported (though irrefutably documented) history of homophobic discrimination by the U.S. government that began with the McCarthy “Red Scare” era purge of known-or-suspected homosexuals employed within government service. Perpetrated under excuse of the presumed security risk associated with anyone participating in a “deviant” lifestyle, it was a targeted propoganda campaign that would eventually culminate in the debacle of the nation’s indifference to AIDS and the rising death toll that was taking place in plain sight.

It’s not the first show to tackle this subject matter; America’s response to AIDS, and the deeply ingrained cultural homophobia that laid unabashedly behind it, has been explored so much that it has become almost a thematic trope. As to the topic of queer life in an environment where “passing” as straight is purely a matter of survival, it’s a subject as relevant to queer existence in much of the world today as it has ever been, which we’ve rightly seen reiterated time and again. But given the current push in American politics to erode the hard-won advancements of the LGBTQ community toward acceptance and equality, it’s hard to complain about a show that wants to explore it on our screens yet again.

Even so, it’s also hard not to go into “Fellow Travelers” without noting the common ground it shares with other dramatic narratives covering the same ground – especially, perhaps, playwright Tony Kushner’s seminal and now-iconic Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America,” with which it invites comparison by virtue of its inclusion of real-life poster boy for internalized homophobia Roy Cohn (played here by Will Brill) and its focus on closeted characters working within the U.S. political establishment – and wondering if it will have anything new or noteworthy to say.

Based solely on its first episode, you might be prodded toward even more skepticism; establishing itself with a broad strokes and a glossy tone, it feels a bit like an old-school tearjerker, evoking the Douglas Sirk-ish social melodramas of its (predominantly) vintage setting even as it moves from past to future and back again. It’s stylish, even lovely, but seems built on a distancing artifice. And its romantic leads, the characters to which we are supposed to attach ourselves, might be hard to swallow – for some viewers, at least – simply because they are gay men seemingly content to live their real lives under cover while working for a governmental system that facilitates their oppression. To put it simply, it all feels a little too “Hollywood.”

Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the show draws us in. Though at first we might think it tends toward the shallow, drawing on familiar formulas and offering up two thinly drawn protagonists in hopes we’ll accept them simply because they are played by a pair of impossibly handsome leading men, the ideas it presents are important and the history it documents illuminates a past that has remained obscured for far too long, so we’re willing to jump on board. Besides, those leading men are not only very handsome, they have a winning chemistry together, and the authenticity of the casting pays off by delivering a queer screen couple that feels genuine – and that’s not just because of their unapologetically sexy love scenes. Even if their story doesn’t quite make sense to us yet, we want to see more of them.

That’s a very good thing, because as the series moves along, the tone changes drastically. Though the world of episode one is full of blithe denial and resignation to a status quo that might make our hindsight bristle, it’s a world that quickly changes as things progress, a point driven home by the show’s time-jumping framework. The oppression gets worse, the danger gets real, and the effect those things have on the lives of these two men – one a seemingly amoral pragmatist who has accepted and embraced a closeted life as a condition for success and the other a passionate “true believer” naïve enough to fall under the spell of a right-wing political ideology – has an impact. They change, they make choices and suffer consequences; in other words, they deepen, and as they do, the show does too.

That’s because show creator Ron Nyswaner, despite making some changes from the novel, understood the throughline at its core and held tight to it in building the series. Ultimately, “Fellow Travelers” is not a story about politics, or social causes, or any of the other weighty issues that shape its trajectory. It’s a story about love, enduring across the years despite resistance, opposition, and betrayal; whether it ends happily or not – and you won’t get any spoilers here – it is lived passionately. Because of that, we care, and because we care, those big ideas land even more soundly.

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Kardashian carries her weight in ‘AHS: Delicate’

Show’s 12th season faces hurdles before we’ll know whether it lives up to the promise

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Emma Roberts and Kim Kardashian star in ‘AHS: Delicate.’ (Photo courtesy of FX)

The biggest question around the 12th season of “American Horror Story” has nothing to do with the plot, which means it won’t count as a spoiler if we answer it right off the bat: Kim Kardashian’s acting is just fine.

At least, that’s true through the first episode; future installments may require a reassessment of her skills, and perhaps that will add an additional layer of suspense to the proceedings as the story unwinds – a “hook” that might be a big part of the reason the reality show “famous-for-being-famous” celebrity was cast for this season in the first place. Whether her performance ends up being a triumph or a train wreck, it’s guaranteed that millions will want to watch it, and she herself would likely be the first to endorse that kind of sensationalist strategy to boost audience interest in the newest season of a show that has been around longer than many of its fans have been old enough to watch it. Ryan Murphy’s uber-gay, aggressively transgressive horror anthology may once have been “must-see TV” – but after more than a decade of thrilling, edgy concepts that were just as likely to fall apart into an anticlimactic mess as they were to build to a coherent conclusion, it has become more of a “guilty pleasure.”

Before you come for us and call us “haters,” rest assured we’re not dismissing the power and genius of “AHS” both as a show and as a brand; camp and horror have always been deeply intertwined, and Murphy’s trope-driven premise for the series has never shied away from leaning into that connection. The absurdity of its cobbled-together plots, contrasted with the histrionic over-seriousness of their presentation, is precisely what allows it to drive home its blatantly metaphoric commentary on whatever cultural or social themes it happens to be addressing. At its best, it has been electrifying, provocative, insightful TV, and at its worst, it has been painfully obvious, exploitative schlock that loses steam long before it sloppily ties all its threads together for a season finale, but either way, it has never failed to keep its audience coming back for more. Clearly, it has a power that lies beyond imposed standards of artistic quality, and it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that power comes from the show’s deeply progressive heart, which invariably and relentlessly exposes the hypocrisy, deviousness, cruelty, and oppression of a programmed and homogenized social order – with particular emphasis on the experience of those who dare to be outliers from that imposed norm, making it a perennial favorite with the queer demographic as much as its unabashedly gimmicky stunt casting of pop culture icons like Lady Gaga (and Kardashian, of course) to draw queer eyes faithfully to the screen for 10 weeks each autumn.

Yet even if queer subtext is a big part of what makes “AHS” tick, the series doesn’t always place its focus – as it did in last year’s grim AIDS allegory, “NYC” – on overtly or exclusively queer subject matter, and for its newest season – “Delicate”, the new season adapted from Danielle Valentine’s novel, “Delicate Condition” – the venerable FX tentpole series full-heartedly embraces a feminist milieu. The story wastes no time in evoking questions and concerns about the rights of women to maintain autonomy over their own hearts, minds, and bodies. Led by “AHS” veteran Emma Roberts – who, though Kardashian has been granted the most press attention, is the season’s central character, and brings her to life with likable charm and compelling intelligence – it tells the tale of Anna Alcott (Roberts), a blossoming movie star trying to conceive a child with her supportive-yet-controlling partner Dex (series newcomer Matt Czuchry), who finds herself haunted by bizarre visions and unexplainable phenomena as she undergoes IVF treatment from a high-end fertility clinic.

Episode one launches the plot with the series’ usual blend of stylish panache and unapologetic pulp by subjecting its heroine to a mysterious nocturnal incident, opening into an extended flashback that establishes a back story that will presumably be crucial to the events to follow. Juggling newfound success and fame with her commitment to starting a family, Anna is plagued by strange anomalies that lead her to question her own perceptions, and begins to suspect she is being targeted by a stalker (or stalkers) with potentially sinister motives. When these strange occurrences begin to affect her behavior, she finds herself ever more isolated from the skeptical Dex, who both coddles and condescends to her, and who may or may not still be obsessed by a the memory of a dead fiancée. She also becomes increasingly paranoid that she is being terrorized and manipulated by everyone around her – including her doctor (Denis O’Hare) and her recently acquired publicist (Kardashian), who exert conflicting pressures on her as she tries to navigate both her “real” life and the career she’s on the cusp of creating. By the time the episode comes full circle and returns to the mysterious incident with which it opens, it seems clear than Anna’s hopeful journey toward motherhood is happening at the center of some sort of arcane conspiracy.

Like most previous seasons of “AHS,” “Delicate” starts out with promise. Conjuring and weaving together key themes from classic films from “Gaslight” to “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Stepford Wives,” it leaves little doubt programming of women to make them conform to male-defined fantasy – and from the biblically coined notion that their gender is forever “cursed by God” to be punished for Eve’s “original sin.” From what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that Murphy and writer/showrunner Halley Feiffer aim to frame that archaic perspective as a deliberate and coordinated effort to render women into expendable, easily managed accessories in a male-dominated world. That is certainly not a new concept, but one that is arguably more important to explore in the America of 2023 than ever before. And though the season’s inaugural entry is too busy with exposition to give us much in the way of potent frights or shocks, it also provides flashes that hint at a season full of the kind of grotesque body horror that has always been a hallmark of the show.

Still, even if Kardashian – perfectly cast, by the way, as Anna’s publicist and confidante, whose savvy for promotion makes her into one of her industry’s leading names but who may also somehow be involved in the forces pushing her client toward a dark fate – can manage to meet the success of a few surprisingly good initial reviews, there are still a lot of potential hurdles for “Delicate” to jump before we can know whether it lives up to the promise from which so many previous seasons have fallen short. 

It hardly matters, though; no matter how it plays out, the show is sure to strike a chord with all the loyal “AHF” fans, and those who are less devoted will probably still find much to keep them interested in the series’ signature gruesome-but-elegant aesthetic, no matter what.

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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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