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Omar, Netflix’s Elite, & Queer Palestinian representation

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia

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Elite (2018)/Netflix

By Sa’ed Atshan | ATLANTA – Elite, the Spanish Netflix original series released in 2018, has now become a worldwide sensation. Created by Carlos Montero and Dario Madrona, Elite follows the lives of teenagers and classmates at Las Encinas, a fictional private school for wealthy children from Spain and other countries.

There are several students from lower socio-economic backgrounds on full scholarships, and the series explores their intersecting experiences in the community. Over the course of the five existing seasons, taboos are boldly displayed on screen: from racy sexuality, to rape, abortion, drugs, alcohol, crime, murder, and corruption.

While this may be too much for many viewers, the provocative themes, attractive actors, love triangles, extensive scenes of partying, compelling cinematography, and the psychological thriller aspects of the series have galvanized fans in Europe and beyond. Merely a month after its release, Netflix revealed that Elite was streamed by over 20 million accounts. It has since secured a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has become one of the most successful shows globally. 

Alongside the superficial elements of this show lies a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the central characters’ inner worlds and the profound issues with which they grapple. This includes the salience of class and inequality in society, the power of education for social mobility, immigration, racism, and xenopohobia, the role of law in attaining or evading justice, feminism and the struggle for women’s rights, the prevalence of internalized and external homophobia, the command of technology, social media, and surveillance on our lives, and the effects on young people of having to grow up and mature too quickly. 

I was particularly captivated by the character of Omar, played by a Spanish actor with the same first name: Omar Ayuso. While many of the characters who appear in the earlier seasons do not return, Omar is present for all five seasons thus far, becoming central to the overarching narrative.

His Palestinian background is emphasized in the script and on screen and this is huge for the mainstreaming of Palestinians in Western popular media. Omar’s gayness is also clearly highlighted, bringing queer Palestinian lives to the screen in a formidable manner. 

While Omar Ayuso was not one of the most experienced actors and is not the most talented of the actors in this series, his character undergoes a transformation that is powerful and compels audiences. His dark features are handsome, with a signature unibrow, and his attire becomes more and more colorful and expressive, and his bodily comportment more comfortable, as he grows more secure in his own skin. 

We learn that Omar comes from the Shanaa family and is the son of Palestinian Muslim immigrants to Spain who own a small grocery store outside of Madrid. One of his sisters ran away from home to escape their conservative parents and his other sister, Nadia, is also a central character in Elite.

Omar and Nadia’s father is overbearing. Like their mother, Nadia wears the hijab. The mother is soft-spoken and unassuming in many ways, yet Nadia is a force to be reckoned with who aspires to balance pleasing her family with being true to herself. Nadia is brilliant and academically-driven, earning a scholarship to Las Encinas, even as Omar is distracted initially with drug-dealing and working for his family’s business.

After coming out as gay to himself, his family, and the broader community, he movies out and severs ties with his parents, secures work as a bartender, and receives a scholarship to attend Las Encinas. Omar embraces his sexuality and finds a way to lead a life that feels authentic. 

Elite challenges the Islamophobia of Spanish and Western societies, representing both the homophobia that Omar must endure alongside the racism that he experiences as an Arab in Europe. Spain’s long history with the Moors, the Inquisition, and modern migration from North Africa has made its relationship to the Middle East and Islam quite fraught.

The show does not romanticize Omar’s Palestinian immigrant family and it captures the even more dramatic delinquencies of many Spanish and European families. The audience cannot help but juxtapose how Omar’s parents desperately try to preserve notions of tradition, ethics, and honor from their homeland of Palestine amidst a broader landscape of decadence and moral decay in Western contexts.

Omar disavows elements of both the former and latter, while embracing elements of each, and he emerges as a moral compass in the show. His integrity and compassion are palpable and at one point he articulates an aspiration to become a social worker in the future. 

The love that Omar shares with his serious boyfriend, Ander, is beautifully portrayed as well. Though they certainly grapple with their own set of challenges, the chemistry and soulfuness between them is one of the highlights of the show.

Elite (2018)/Netflix

After Netflix posted a romantic photo of Omar and Ander on their Instagram page, it was met with homophobic comments, and Netflix laudably responded simply with a chain of rainbow emojis. 

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia. Netflix has done the global queer Palestinian community right by developing the character of Omar in this manner. Whether or not he appears in season six is yet to be announced, but even if not, he will have already captured countless hearts and minds.

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Sa’ed Atshan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020)

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For Gaiman fans, ‘Sandman’ is a ‘Dream’ come true

Netflix series offers fantasy space where all feel welcome

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Tom Sturridge makes a dreamy Morpheus in ‘The Sandman.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

For the millions of fans who have embraced Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and its darkly beautiful, queer-inclusive mystical universe since it debuted in comic book form more than three decades ago, the arrival of a new Netflix series based on it is a very, very big deal – even if, for the uninitiated, it might be hard to understand why. After all, the streaming giant has already unleashed such a vast array of LGBTQ-friendly fantasy movies and shows that one more, welcome though it may be, hardly seems like anything new.

As any of the above-mentioned fans will quickly tell you, however, “Sandman” is not just any fantasy series. Initiated by DC Comics as a revival of an older comic book of the same name, it was handed over to Gaiman – then still a budding writer of comics with a few promising titles under his belt – with the stipulation that he keep the name but change everything else. The comic series he came up with went on to enjoy a 75-issue original run from 1989 to 1993, an era when an expanded literary appreciation for such works gave rise to the term “graphic novel”, and it joined “Maus” and “Watchmen” among the first few comics to be included on the New York Times Best Seller List. Arguably more important, it also generated a huge and diverse fan following, and its incorporation of multiple queer characters and storylines has inspired subsequent generations of comic book creators to envision new and inclusive fantasy worlds of their own.

Despite that success, it’s taken 33 years for it to finally be adapted for the screen. Beginning in the late ‘90s, attempts were made to develop “The Sandman” for film, but though a few scripts initially managed to win Gaiman’s approval, creative differences inevitably led to a dead end, and the Hollywood rumor mill began to buzz that the story was ultimately “unfilmable” – until 2019, when Netflix and Warner Brothers (parent company to DC Comics) officially reached a deal to bring it to the screen as a series, with Gaiman fully on board and a creative team in place that was determined to faithfully adapt the much-loved original for a contemporary audience.

The show that came from that decision, which premiered on Netflix Aug. 5, makes it clear that the long wait was more than worth it.

“The Sandman” of the title refers to the story’s leading figure – Dream (known also as Morpheus, among other names), one of seven elemental siblings whose mystical realms overlay and intertwine with the human world. As ruler of the dream world, he holds hidden power over all mankind – until a human sorcerer manages to trap him and imprison him on Earth for more than 100 years. Finally freed, he returns to his kingdom to find it in disarray, and he sets out to restore order and undo the damage done – a quest that will require him to enlist the aid of numerous (and sometimes less-than-willing) allies, both human and immortal, to save the cosmos from a chaotic force that has been unleashed in his absence.

Like any good myth cycle, it’s both an epic story and an episodic one, making it a much better fit for the long-form storytelling capacity of series television than for any of the one-off film adaptations that it almost became. In his sweeping, unapologetically allegorical saga of the ever-dueling forces within our human psyche, Gaiman uses broad strokes in composing his plot, recycling and reinventing timeless motifs and themes while relying on our comfortable acceptance of the familiar tropes of myth and magic to get us all on board; the narrative is a massive structure, but it’s not hard to follow the basics. Where “Sandman” becomes complex – and exceptional – is in the details Gaiman gave himself room to explore along the way, the human moments caught in between the monumental cosmic drama. 

It’s these parts of the story that have made his graphic novel iconic, more even than its gothic melancholy or its layered personification of primal forces into complex human archetypes; it’s there, too that he was able to explore a broad and diverse range of human experience, including many queer characters in a time when comic book literature was far from a queer-friendly space. It’s these things that made Gaiman’s comic a touchstone for a wide spectrum of fans – and they would have been the first things that would have been jettisoned had any of the potential “Sandman” films seen the light of day. Because Gaiman has held out for so long to make sure it could be done right, series television has finally given him the chance, as co-creator and co-executive producer (alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg), to make it happen.

The big-budget Netflix production values certainly help, too, allowing the striking visual aesthetic of the comic – in which even the horrific can be exquisitely beautiful – to come thrillingly alive. The show’s many baroque and gruesome deaths bear testament to that, as does a fourth episode sequence when Morpheus’s quest requires him to descend into a Hell that evokes the macabre beauty of Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s “Inferno,” the very landscape itself made up of the writhing and tormented souls of the damned. The artfulness of this show’s scenic design lingers in the memory, appropriately enough, like images from a dream.

Still, it’s all just scenery without the players, and “Sandman” assembles a top-drawer cast capable of bringing Gaiman’s characters to life with the level of depth they deserve. Tom Sturridge makes for a compelling leading figure, capturing the titular character’s complex mix of coldness and compassion without ever losing our loyalty; he’s supported by an equally talented ensemble of players, including heavyweight UK stalwarts like Charles Dance, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and Stephen Fry among a host of less familiar faces, and there’s not a weak performance to be found among any of them.

As to whether the show’s writing does justice to the original, different fans will surely have different opinions. The story has been remolded to fit the modern world, and many elements of the comic have been reconfigured in the process. This is particularly true in terms of representation; though queer characters were always a part of the “Sandman” universe, the comic debuted 34 years ago, and much has changed since then. In bringing the story to the screen, the author and the rest of the creative team have brought things up to date, bringing more nuance to its queer representation even as it expands it wider, and reimagining many of its characters to reflect a more diverse and inclusive vision of the world. Inevitably, these choices may upset some die-hard fans – there’s already been the inevitable toxic outcry against the show’s gender-swapping of characters and the decision to cast actors of color in roles originally depicted as white.

Still, for those who loved the original for providing a fantasy space where ALL could feel welcome – exactly the way Neil Gaiman intended it to be – it’s hard to find a reason to complain.

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Television

NPH is ‘Uncoupled’ in new Netflix sitcom

Show lampoons queer NYC social scene’s mores and manners

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Neil Patrick Harris stars in ‘Uncoupled.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Summer of 2022 might just go down in history as “The Summer of the Queer Romcom.” With movies and shows like “Heartstopper,” “Fire Island,” and “Anything’s Possible” already gracing our screens, and upcoming projects like Billy Eichner’s much-anticipated “Bros” still on the horizon, it seems like Hollywood is trying to make up for all those years of content in which LGBTQ people were only allowed to be shown as tragic victims or comic relief  – when we weren’t being erased altogether, that is – by giving us a glut of the kinds of happily-ever-after stories we never got to see about ourselves. It’s about time, and nobody is complaining.

Still, with all these feel-good romances heading our way, it was inevitable that we would eventually get something that looks at the flip side of that coin – a story about breaking up. What we might not have expected, however, is that it would be a comedy.

“Uncoupled,” the new Netflix series from Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman, is exactly that. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as Michael, who – as a successful Manhattan real estate broker with a close-knit group of friends and a 17-year loving relationship with the handsome Colin (Tuc Watkins) – seems to be living every gay man’s dream. He gets a rude awakening, however, when Colin, on the eve of his 50th birthday, blindsides him by abruptly packing up his things and moving out of their apartment, leaving him to face two nightmares he never saw coming – the loss of a person he believed was his soulmate, and the reality of being a 40-something single gay man in New York City.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it alone. His business partner and confidante Suzanne (Tisha Campbell) is at his side to walk him through the painful stages of dealing with a breakup, as are his two closest friends, TV weatherman Billy (Emerson Brooks) and high-end art dealer Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas). While it’s true that none of them are exactly qualified when it comes to giving relationship advice, he needs all the help he can get – especially when he begins to awkwardly fumble his way back into a dating scene that looks a lot different than he remembers.

As written by Star and Richman, with director Andrew Fleming at the helm, the show’s deep dive into the funny side of breakups doesn’t have much time for tears and regret. Playing out in the upscale, glamorous world of New York’s high gay society, it keeps the tone light and lifted, moving beyond the heartbreak as quickly as possible and setting its sights on the rich comedic territory to be found in the frolics and foibles of the privileged set. It’s a milieu that should come as no surprise considering that co-creator Star is the man responsible for “Sex and the City,” not to mention “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place,” all of which banked on similar currency. Indeed, it’s easy to see Michael and his trio of compadres as natural successors to the iconic gal pals of “Sex and the City” – more diverse and openly queer, perhaps, but recognizably kindred in spirit.

Star’s co-creator brings his own pedigree into the mix, too. As an executive producer and writer on “Modern Family” (and similar duties on shows like “Frasier” and “Wings” before that), he doubtless has much to do with the whip-smart sitcom sensibility that both undercuts the show’s “guilty pleasure” appeal and enriches it. Indeed, much of the fun of “Uncoupled” comes from its lampooning of the queer social scene’s mores and manners – the shallow obsessions with youth and hotness, money and status, and all the other interpersonal dynamics that enable us to judge each other – and letting us laugh at the attitudes and pretensions we love to hate about ourselves. It allows us to let its characters off the hook, and ourselves, too, by reminding us that we are all only human, and that humans are sometimes ridiculous.

In service of that, “Uncoupled” has a stellar cast that not only has the comedic chops to sell its farcical goings-on but the nuance to go a little deeper. At the forefront, of course, is Harris, who deploys the confidence of a seasoned sitcom star to give us a fully realized leading character, and whose eternally boyish looks and persona have aged just enough to make him an ideal centerpiece for a story that is, in many ways, about growing up. Campbell more than holds her own next to him – their BFF chemistry makes them one of the more interesting platonic pairings in recent television memory – and Brooks and Ashmanskas turn their roles into much more than mere side characters. It’s a likable cast, across the board; yet the show’s most impressive acting turns might just come from two of its recurring supporting players – Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Hardin as a high-profile (and high maintenance) real estate client, and Broadway legend André De Shields as Michael’s elderly-but-regal neighbor – who bring some much-needed weight to the proceedings and make their scenes among the most memorable of the season.

Still, all the superficiality on display does sometimes wear thin, and some viewers might begin to wonder if Michael and his friends really are as vapid as their priorities often make them seem; and while all the characters get some hard lessons as the season progresses, it’s by no means certain they will learn from them, and these moments can feel like lip service in a show that sometimes seems to celebrate self-absorbed vanity even as it satirizes it.

Still, Star and Richman know their audience, and they’re not interested in wagging fingers at them. “Uncoupled” is not meant to be social criticism; it’s about learning how to live again when your heart gets broken. To that end, instead of turning Colin into just another stereotypical hated “ex” to be treated as an enemy and subjected to bitter scorn, or simply letting him leave and forgetting about him, they keep him in the picture. They never let us forget that their series, ultimately, is about a relationship; it may have changed, but it still exists, and there are overlapping threads between two lives that can never quite be untangled. That’s a decidedly un-shallow level of understanding, handled with a refreshing lack of maudlin sentiment or rancor, and it’s more than enough proof that the show has much more going for it than just shallow characters, sexy situations, and soapy plot twists.

More than that, it makes us interested in seeing where things might go in season two.

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Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Blade congratulates KTLA on its L.A.-area Emmy awards

The Governors Award went to KTLA’s Gayle Anderson for her substantial contribution to television broadcasting in the greater LA area

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Courtesy of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Blade congratulates KTLA 5 for its Emmy award wins this past Saturday. Of particular note was the 74th Los Angeles Area Emmys Governors Award to longtime KTLA journalist Gayle Anderson.

When presented with the Governors Award by the Television Academy and Los Angeles Area Governors Award committee, Anderson appeared to be stunned.

“I just want to take it all in for a minute, OK?” Gayle whispered as she received the honor. “Thank you.”

The 74th Los Angeles Area Emmys Governors Award to longtime KTLA journalist Gayle Anderson

The award is presented once a year to an “individual, company or organization that has made a substantial contribution to television broadcasting in the greater Los Angeles area,” according to the Television Academy.

“It’s not work to me,” she explained to KTLA after her acceptance speech. “It’s just, I’m going to school every day and I’m learning something new every day. I love working stories I know nothing about and I learn.

“I’ve got some new stuff I’m going to learn next week in fact,” she revealed. “So it’s kind of exciting and I don’t know why it’s drawn this kind of attention, but yikes!”

“There is no one like Gayle Anderson and we all know it at KTLA,” said Assistant News Director Kerry Brace. “She is so important to us. She’s a huge member of our family and she’s so important to the community. She really tells the stories that capture people’s hearts and she gives people the information that they need. So, we love you Gayle.”

Gayle wasn’t the only winner of the night.

KTLA’s series “Breaking Bias: Race in America” won in the crime/social issues category, which awarded our Frank Buckley, Cher Calvin, Kimberly Cheng, Gene Kang, Elyse Madison, Chris Pace and Summer Yu with a statue for the evening.

The series “California Leavin’” won for business/consumer new story, which awarded gold to Pablo Chacon, Brian Choo, Jessica Holmes, Adrian Huerta and Leila Shalhoub.

The KTLA 5 News at 11 was awarded Best Evening Newscast.

Best Public Service Announcement was awarded to KTLA’s Garry Ashton, Matt Mary, Robert Matthews and Estella Medina for the You Were Born to Shine Campaign.

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