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‘Umbrella Academy’ and Elliot Page elevate trans representation

Netflix hit a subversive metaphor for America itself

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Elliot Page in ‘Umbrella Academy.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

There’s been a lot of bad news over these last couple of weeks, and there’s no way to sugar-coat it. The conservative Supreme Court seems determined to roll back the clock to an era when rights belonged only to a privileged few, and that’s just one current in an endless stream of worrisome developments that make watching the news enough to give even the most optimistic among us a sense of, well, impending doom.

Still, in such overwhelming times, it’s crucial to remind ourselves that good things happen, too, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows; and even in an easily catastrophized set of circumstances like the one we’re facing now, there’s a cultural moment taking place that deserves to be acknowledged — and you don’t even have to turn on the news to see it, because it’s on Netflix.

In 2019, when the streaming giant premiered its adaptation of “The Umbrella Academy,” Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s Dark Horse comic book series about a dysfunctional family of superhero siblings, it was already at the forefront of the industry in terms of LGBTQ representation in its lineup; with two queer characters among its leading cast, the new show was no exception. Well-received by critics, the series was also embraced by fans, becoming one of Netflix’s most-streamed titles of the year. A second season debuted in 2020, further expanding the tale’s queer storylines and meeting with similar success.

Now, after a pandemic-slowed production schedule, the much-anticipated third season has finally appeared, and it’s a ray of positivity in our current sea of woes. The reason has nothing to do with the show’s wild-and-wooly fantasy narrative about bickering superheroes time-hopping from one narrowly averted apocalypse to another — although as with all the best fantasy stories, it’s easy to draw a few notable parallels with real life. Indeed, it’s a real-life parallel that gives this season its real significance — and it’s only there because of Elliot Page.

Page has been part of “Umbrella Academy” since the beginning, and is the show’s biggest “name,” but when he came out as trans in 2020, his presence in the cast took on even more importance. How the series would handle his transition suddenly became the most important question on the minds of the show’s creators – especially since, as showrunner Steve Blackman recently revealed, the scripts had already been written. To their great credit, the show’s creative team handled things right; they brought in trans writer Thomas Page McBee, who worked with Page and Blackman to craft a rewrite that would allow Vanya Hargreeves, Page’s already-established character, to transition in the story, too.

The result is perhaps a bigger success than any of them – or of us – might have expected. On the surface of it, the change is executed without much ado. Early in the season’s first episode, Vanya simply shows up at a family meeting and announces that he is now Viktor, and that’s that. His siblings accept him, and everyone just moves on to the business of figuring out how to save the universe from yet another existential threat.

Wisely, however, the show doesn’t merely make the change and then move forward as if nothing has really happened. Viktor’s new gender identity may have nothing to do with the main plot, but it is clearly pertinent to himself and his siblings, and we get to watch these relationships adjust as they process the change. These moments are small, but important; it’s a testament to the show’s excellent writing that each character meets the moment in a way that’s in keeping with their own unique persona. That none of them chooses to be unkind makes for good “behavior modeling,” certainly, teaching audiences by example how to approach similar encounters with transitioning loved ones in their own lives — but it also rings true within the narrative itself, underscoring the deep loyalty to each other that repeatedly emerges as this not-as-broken-as-they-think family’s most valuable asset in its fight against universal destruction. After all, when you’re facing the end of the world, what hero has time to argue about pronouns?

The show, too, gives both Page and Viktor ample opportunities to experience those little “aha” moments that are so much a part of transitioning into a more complete, more authentic version of oneself. From the self-discovery of seeing himself in his first “boy” haircut, to the expansion of empathy he feels for the struggles faced by his siblings, to his ability to just be, at long last, comfortable enough in his own skin to dance with complete abandon despite the impending end of the world – all these and more are nuances that don’t NEED to be there, but were nevertheless included by choice. “The Umbrella Academy,” violent and irreverent as it may be, has never been shallow, but in its determination to present a positive and authentic transition experience and honor that journey for the character, actor, and audience alike, it sounds new and unexpected depths, and it’s all the better for doing so.

It’s worth pointing out some other reverberations that Viktor’s transition sets off in the overall premise of the show. He is after all, part of an ethnically diverse family whose members all struggle to overcome the childhood trauma they experienced under the supposed care (really exploitation) of a narcissistic adoptive father, a man with all the earmarks of a white imperialist colonizer who rationalizes his abuses in the name of the greater good. Damaged, divided, and combative, they’ve long since grown disillusioned with the old man’s vision, yet it continues to shape their lives and their behavior as surely as if it were in their mutated DNA. Add to this the fact that the apocalypses they keep having to avert tend to be of their own creation, and it’s hard not to see “The Umbrella Academy” as a subversive metaphor for America itself – yet one that is enlightened enough to embrace Viktor Hargreeves (and his other queer sibling, the pansexual fan-favorite Klaus, played by Robert Sheehan) with complete acceptance.

Clever allegorical touches aside, it’s this season’s pitch-perfect, elegantly drawn transition of Viktor that elevates the series to historic status. It does what no show has ever done before: it gives us a character that fans already know and love, in whom they are already invested, and then they let us see that character come out as their authentic self. From Edith Bunker’s doomed drag queen friend Beverly on “All in the Family,” to Pedro Zamora’s presence in “The Real World,” to Cam and Mitch’s long-running gay marriage on “Modern Family,” game-changing queer representation on popular television shows has played an immeasurable but undeniable role in advancing LGBTQ acceptance in our culture; Viktor Hargreeves is just such a character, a benchmark in trans representation that feels like the harbinger of a sea change to come, despite the ominous threats of our seemingly unhinged SCOTUS.

“The Umbrella Academy” can’t save us from the impending apocalypse in our own world, but maybe it can supply us with the hope we need to do it ourselves.

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Television

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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