NEW YORK – One of the most visible LGBTQ journalists and MSNBC’s most popular primetime anchor, Rachel Maddow, has negotiated a new multi-year contractual deal with parent company NBCUniversal according to Business Insider magazine Sunday.
Maddow’s decision to stay with the network also included developing new projects.
The openly out 48-year-old lesbian anchor had been mulling leaving the coveted primetime nightly broadcast for several months when her contract expired in 2022. The Daily Beast reported on August 12, while the star host has occasionally entertained other offers in the past, she has in recent months increasingly expressed openness to exiting when her deal ends, citing a desire to spend more time with her family and the toll of hosting a nightly program since 2008.
It was widely reported that Maddow was considering starting her own media ventures but had instead hired super-agent Ari Emanuel to negotiate a new deal after months of considering options from would-be suitors Business Insider reported.
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‘Fellow Travelers’ mixes queer love, politics for sexy history lesson
A relationship enduring across the years despite resistance and betrayal
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.
Kardashian carries her weight in ‘AHS: Delicate’
Show’s 12th season faces hurdles before we’ll know whether it lives up to the promise
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.
‘And Just Like That’ ditches preachiness to become addictive TV
Second season wraps Aug. 24 with Samantha Jones cameo
“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.
LGBTQ critics announce winners of Dorian TV Awards
Wanda Sykes, Jennifer Coolidge among honorees
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.
‘Casa Susanna’ reveals 1950s underground safe haven for trans women
PBS doc tells story of LGBTQ history that has long been invisible
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.
Short-form ‘Smothered’ is long on laughs
Indie sitcom features longtime gay couple who can’t stand each other
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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”
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:
Trans trailblazer helps queer the sci-fi genre in ‘The Peripheral’
Alexandra Billings on increasing representation in Hollywood
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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