Jane Campion gets weird(er)

I could watch Elisabeth Moss do anything. A few years ago, at the height of her fame as proto-feminist Peggy on Mad Men, Excedrin started rerunning an old commercial she did for them, and it’s utterly unlike anything else you might see on TV selling something; she could be doing a monologue from A Doll’s House about aspirin. This summer, her turn as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale was exceptional, a performance of every emotion available, of a prototypical modern feminist who is trapped as a chattel in a misogynistic dystopia. Weeks after that show’s season finale, she has returned as the determined and deeply damaged Detective Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s unnerving, disturbing, and gorgeous Australian police procedural. And, of course, Moss is amazing. She’s having a year as good as Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman are; coincidentally Kidman is in Top of the Lake and is, also, amazing.

The new season took four years to show up, and it takes place not too long after the events in the first, when Robin broke up a pedophilia ring in New Zealand after various physical and psychological traumas. Robin wasn’t whole in New Zealand, and back in Australia, the mess of that case and her messy past are haunting her, subtly in her waking life and violently in her sleep. Her fuse is short and her tolerance for bull very low. Her response to the casual sexism of the men in the police department is a seething restraint, and she relies on outbursts and beer to deal with it all

To Robin’s annoyance, a needy fan in the department, played with sly comedic brilliance by Gwendolyn Christie, is assigned as her mentee and partner. Miranda is the near opposite of Christie’s iconic Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones; Miranda is clumsy and unsure and undisciplined, and her lightness allows us respite from Robin’s almost relentless agony. When they are assigned to deal with a horrific crime – a suitcase full of the ravaged body of an Asian prostitute washes up on Bondi Beach – Robin is drawn to the horror, and Miranda is horrified, if dutybound.

Meanwhile, a middle class 17-year-old Australian white girl named Mary (Alice Englert) is in love with an older, and very creepy, German man named Puss (David Dencik), who taught the victim and her friends English. At first Mary seems to be rebellious, acting out because her mother Julia (Kidman) has left her father Pyke (Ewen Leslie) for another woman. But then it becomes clear that Mary is more than just contrary; Julia, enraged and upset recognizes this, but Pyke, pretending to be OK with everything, denies Mary’s deeper problems. And then we discover that Mary and Robin (and in turn, Robin and Julia and Pyke and Puss) are connected, and it’s both narratively hard to believe and emotionally inevitable. Kidman, dotted with freckles and her front teeth given a wide gap, makes Julia unsettling to watch; she’s angry and terrified and jealous and confused.

Campion, who won an Oscar for writing The Piano, writes troubled women better than anyone else alive, and Robin, Mary, Miranda and Julia are indelible and difficult and entrancing. They’re so real as to almost be terrifying, but Campion seems to be doing more than showing the sad, agonizing result of violence, poverty and misogyny. She is showing us how they all survive, some better than others, sometimes with great struggle. Moss, who has created a body of work on TV in the last decade depicting how women can maneuver, escape, and even excel in terrible situations, is the perfect vessel for Campion’s vision.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Directed by Jane Campion
Written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Alice Englert and Nicole Kidman
On Sundance TV and Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Emotional realism isn’t easy to watch

It is likely that if you are reading this, you were either bullied in high school for not conforming to conservative gender roles or you consciously conformed to such roles so that you wouldn’t be bullied in high school. You may have gone the extra mile and bullied other kids to show how much you were not the kind of kid who should be bullied. Or you may have been bullied so severely that you contemplated or even attempted suicide.

It’s not just queer kids, out or in the closet, obviously. It can be just about anyone. Being bullied is strongly correlated with suicidality, and perhaps counterintuitively, as is being a bully. After falling for many years, suicide rates have been rising for teenagers overall, slightly for boys but dramatically for teenage girls. Over the last 15 years, for girls 10-14, it’s 300 percent higher, and for girls 15-24, it’s 50 percent higher.

It’s all quite sad and, for those of us who suffered in high school (and later), it’s upsetting. So why would we want to binge on a Netflix series about bullying and suicide? 13 Reasons Why, based on the bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher and created by gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, is certainly a drama about a girl who is bullied and then kills herself. It is meant to be an instructional and cautionary tale. It is as earnest as Heathers was satirical, but it is much more than an overlong version of the lame documentary Bully. It’s sad and fascinating and disturbing and enraging and occasionally funny, romantic and cathartic. It has a fantastic soundtrack, and it’s beautifully shot. It’s also flawed. The show has been the subject of extensive social media chatter for the last two weeks for all of those reasons, with even its haters watching the whole thing. I did so in 24 hours, even as I knew how much it manipulated me more than a narrative is supposed to.

The plot is structured by a smart gimmick. Beautiful teenage Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has committed suicide and before she did so, she recorded her 13 reasons across seven and half cassette tapes. Each reason is focused on a different person who did something, something either horrific or just petty, leading her toward the decision. Each person is given the tapes, told to listen in order, and then pass them along to the next. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is the 11th side, and the show focuses on his experience listening to them.

A sweet, “good kid” (as his parents say more than once), he keeps almost all of his emotions sublimated, including his love for Hannah. He speaks to no one about the tapes except the other people on them. Some of them are his friends, but most of the kids are their school’s “popular” kids, and they do dreadful things to each other to remain popular, get ahead or prevent everyone from knowing their secret shames.

Hannah gets it the worse, but it’s not clear how reliable she is a narrator and not clear why some of the things that she claims to have set her on a course for suicide wouldn’t do so for anyone but someone who is already suffering from a mental illness. Research shows that 90 percent of people who commit suicide have an underlying mental health disorder, but the story allows Hannah to blame her suicide entirely on other people. It’s a bit much: One deserves to go to jail, and a few are dreadful people, but at least eight of the 13 were simply careless, at worst petty.

I guess some of why I kept watching was that I wanted to see who was really at fault. The narrative is propelled by numerous mysteries, from what Clay did to get on the tapes to who is on them to what was Hannah’s final straw. It’s also propelled by the unbelievable claim that Clay is too upset to listen to the tapes all in one sitting – unlike everyone else, who did it in one sitting – which gives him the opportunity to make the rest of the kids nervous, enraged and dangerously suspicious and the one big reason there are 13 full episodes of the show.

Despite this ridiculousness and despite how dreadful most of the kids are and how devoid of consciences at least three of them are, the show is engrossing and enveloping in a way that only the best teen-focused dramas are. In movies like The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, or Thirteen, the emotional realism of adolescence is depicted by exceptional and artful acting, writing and directing. The latter includes such luminaries as Oscar-winners Tom McCarthy and Jessica Yu and indie legend Gregg Araki. Minnette is crushingly good in his grief and his love and Langford is luminous and fragile. Alisha Boe is heartbreaking and enraging as Hannah’s conflicted and damaged frenemy Jessica (Tape 1, Side A), while Brandon Flynn portrays Justin (Tape 1, Side B) with a pathetic and dangerous masculinity with a rarely allowed sensitivity. What 13 Reason Why does best is to show how complicated adolescent emotions are, how easily teenagers damage and are damaged, how easy technology amplifies bullies and bullying, and how hard it is to escape unscathed.

13 Reasons Why
Created by Brian Yorkey
Based on the novel by Jay Asher
Directed by Gregg Araki, Tom McCarthy, Jessica Yu and others
Starring Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford and Alisha Boe
Whole series streaming on Netflix

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Laugh, cry, furious, proud


Emily Skeggs as Roma Guy in When We Rise

When I heard that ABC was going to do an eight-hour miniseries about the gay rights movement – a sort of Roots for the gays – I was shocked. Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing Milk, was shocked, too, when he found out ABC was asking for LGBT-themed pitches. But he went to the meeting and proposed When We Rise, which took ABC’s primetime schedule the week after the Oscars (the one that ended with the first gay-themed Best Picture winner). It was an incredible investment of resources to an unflinching and honest portrait of the messy, upsetting, tragic, uplifting and subversive lives of LGBT Americans.

The series isn’t as groundbreaking as Roots and not as artful and sublime as Milk, but it’s a damn fine docudrama that should make you laugh and cry, make you furious and make you proud. If you missed when it was on live, you’re in luck: It’s sitting on Hulu in perpetuity.

When We Rise starts in 1972 with young activists converging in San Francisco and ends in 2013 with them celebrating marriage equality at San Francisco City Hall: Cleve Jones, a gay teenager from middle-class Phoenix becomes Harvey Milk’s aid and the founder of the AIDS Quilt; Roma Guy, a Peace Corp veteran, starts the San Francisco Women’s Building, raises a daughter with her longtime partner nurse Diane Jones and helps usher in citywide health care; and Ken Jones, a black Navy officer and Vietnam veteran runs a homeless center, becomes an addict, and then a central figure of the progressive queer church City of Refuge. All are real people who participated in the making of the series, which is officially “suggested by” Jones’ recently published memoir.

Cleve is played by Austin P. McKenzie as a young man, then Guy Pearce. Emily Skegs and then Mary-Louise Parker are Roma, with Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths as Diane. And breakout newcomer Jonathan Majors and then Michael Kenneth Williams are Ken. (Various other historically important people are played by Ivory Aquino, TR Knight, Dylan Walsh, Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad and Rosie O’Donnell.)

Clockwise: Austin P. McKenzie as Cleve Jones, Jonathan Majors as Ken Jones, Guy Pierce as Cleve Jones and Mary Louise Parker as Roma Guy, and Whoopi Goldberg as Pat NormanWhile the resemblances between the younger and older actors are minimal at best, with Cleve’s making the most sense and Roma’s almost none, the suspension of disbelief is earned over the eight hours of extraordinary plot both historical and melodramatic. As the three young activists get involved in local queer politics, they crisscross each other and find their voices, fall in and out of love, fight the power and each other, and then confront the epic tragedy of AIDS. The four of them survive, the men do it just barely, and then they all experience various forms of catharsis.

That all of these things happened over such a short period of time is amazing, but Black shows how organically they occurred, accidents of history abutting brilliant activism and masses of love and anger. He does not shirk the truth: There is gay sex, gay bashings, deaths from AIDS and fury at the people who let us suffer and die. Black’s dramatization occasionally takes shortcuts, both historical and emotional, and a few times the action feels forced and the tears manipulated. I cried through most of the second four hours: the deaths, the marriages, the redemptions. When I posted that on Twitter, Black liked it: He wanted me to cry.

I’m not sure if everyone will cry while watching When We Rise. Those of us who lived through it will likely have profound emotional reactions: the depictions of the events are true enough to, for lack of a better term, trigger floods of memories.

If we’re lucky, however, people who didn’t know it was all happening or weren’t born early enough to participate will see When We Rise and learn something, feel something and develop the empathy, understanding and anger needed to make sure we don’t go backwards. You should watch it, and you should watch it with the people who need to see it.

When We Rise
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Directed by Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant and Dee Rees
Starring Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Kenneth Williams
On Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Please watch me

Thomas Ward, Caitlin Stasey, Josh Thomas and Debra Lawrance in Please Like Me

In October, the little watched cable channel Pivot shut down. Few people noticed, and even though this is the sort of thing I do notice, I didn’t find out until one of its shows, the Australian import Please Like Me, debuted its new season on Hulu. At first I was happy, because I don’t get Pivot but I do have Hulu, and Please Like Me is my favorite TV show. I’ve called it the gay love child of Girls and Louie, as frank and maybe more funny in its examinations of gay sex, chronic depression and the agonies of adulthood. It is a masterpiece of the New Golden Era of TV, but it is criminally under-watched. Hulu could change that! Then I found out the problem. Without Pivot, Please Like Me doesn’t have funding for another season. This may change, but the comments the show’s creator and star Josh Thomas has been making do not express much optimism. Season Four may be Please Like Me’s last. [Update: It’s over, per Josh Thomas. Sad face.] And among its six episodes are some of the best half hours of television of the last several years.

Please Like Me is a half-hour, single-camera comedy that revolves around Josh, a wise-cracking gay twentysomething living in Melbourne. He shares a small house with his dog John and straight, long-time best friend Tom. John is played by Josh Thomas’ dog John, and Tom is played by Thomas Ward, Thomas’ long-time best friend. Josh’s flighty, sweet Mum, played by Debra Lawrance, is bipolar and attempted suicide in the series’ first episode; Josh comes out, to one’s surprise, to his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) and to Tom in that episode, too. Also around is Josh’s gruff but loving father Alan (David Roberts), who has a baby with his much younger Thai girlfriend Mae (Renee Lim). Aside from Claire, who ends up dating Tom as well, Josh and Tom’s various relationships have major roles, the most important being Josh’s neurotic boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) and Tom’s sweet and quirky girlfriend Ella (Emily Barclay).

Over the first three seasons, Josh has grown up considerably, fully embracing his sexuality, managing his mother’s mental illness, and settling into a job running his own gourmet food cart. He’s also still occasionally selfish and foolish and his reliance on jokes gets him in trouble with just about everyone. Tom, meanwhile, is still a man-child with no direction and fickle morality. The beginning of the fourth season has Josh tentatively settled into his relationship with Arnold, and Tom is planning to move in with Ella. Alan and Mae have repaired their relationship, and Josh’s mother seems to be stable living with her friend Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), who she met while in a psychiatric hospital. Things start going awry on a camping trip for Hannah’s birthday, and by the end of the season, Josh, Tom, Mum, Hannah and Alan are put through the ringer on their way to epiphanies of various sizes.

Thomas, who writes or co-writes every episode, is particularly adept at what is known as a “bottle episode,” which usually focuses on one setting and only regular characters. Season Two’s brilliant Scroggin focuses solely on Josh and Mum as they hike a park in Tasmania; I put it on the same artistic level as Mad Men’s Nixon vs. Kennedy and The Suitcase or Seinfeld’s The Contest. Season Four has two bottle episodes. The camping trip for Hannah’s birthday is the setting for Porridge, and Thomas and Ward weave old and new threads into a hilarious and sad ode to misplaced expectations. Josh takes his parents to an expensive and pretentious dinner in Degustation, partly to cheer up Mum, and almost the entire episode takes place at the table as the three share stories, reveal secrets, make jokes and get angry. I laughed so loudly while watching it my neighbor knocked on my door to ask if I was OK. The fifth episode of the season starts out as a typically silly sex-and-neuroses story and then the second half is a bottle focused on shocking grief.

Josh Thomas and Debra Lawrance in Please Like Me

While much is resolved by the end of the season, and I’ve read some critics say that it would be a fine place to end the show, there is too much undone and unsaid to satisfy me. Of course, I can’t stand to lose characters that I’ve grown to love. I’m still not over the last episodes of Six Feet Under, Lost, or Mad Men. With Please Like Me, however, if enough people watch it on Hulu, it might return. Hulu’s head of content Craig Erwich has left the door open: “We’ll have to see. I wouldn’t rule it out. Let’s see how Season Four goes, what the fans think of it and how it is, and then also where the producers [want it to go], but it’s certainly always an option.”


Please Like Me

Created by Josh Thomas

Starring Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward and Debra Lawrance

On Hulu

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The Normal Heart is no longer dated; it’s timeless.

When Larry Kramer premiered his play The Normal Heart off-Broadway in 1985, his agonizing, angry autobiographical story about the AIDS epidemic in New York City and the few activists desperately trying to help their lovers and friends hit like the city like an emotional meteor. While a very few theater critics were able to see through the anger and desperation and criticize the play for its occasional polemical two-dimensionality, most people who saw it experienced it like Kramer’s alter ego in the play Ned Weeks did AIDS: enraged and distraught. Kramer, who helped found both Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT-UP, is arguably the least subtle of modern American civil rights heroes; he makes Malcolm X seem like a cranky assistant principal. But of those heroes, only Marin Luther King, Jr. was as great a writer. Whatever dramaturgical problems the play had, Kramer wrote speeches for his characters that were powerfully eloquent enough to mobilize audiences to turn on the city that had long sheltered but had ultimately failed gay men. (It’s doubtful that New York’s closeted Mayor Ed Koch could have prevented the AIDS from becoming an epidemic, but it’s inarguable that his selfish, terrified inaction made it worse for New Yorkers infected with HIV.)

You’d think with a figure like Larry Kramer and a play so powerful and celebrated and a topic so immediate and dire, The Normal Heart would have been filmed quickly. But two things intervened: Kramer’s irascibility scared the bejesus out of closeted Hollywood, and Barbra Streisand, who held the rights to the film for more than a decade, thought the cinematic narcissism called The Mirror Has Two Faces was more important for her to make. It wasn’t until a celebrated 2011 Broadway revival of the play that the combined forces of HBO and Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) finally managed to begin filming.

Their stunningly good production of The Normal Heart is arriving more the 29 years after the play’s premiere. In that time GMHC became an entrenched bureaucracy and ACT-UP rose and fell and protease inhibitors made HIV a manageable illness like diabetes in wealthy countries and those countries have helped make it so for millions in poor countries and gay marriage is legal in 17 states and it is Supreme Court decision away from being the law of the land. Honestly, we don’t need The Normal Heart the same way we did in 1985. While the play was written as contemporary political theatre, it can’t be that now. Now, it is just history. This would seem to ensure than the film would be less than what the play was, but the opposite is what has happened. Kramer’s adaptation of his own play not only makes it work better for the expansive power of film, but it also fixes the particularly dated features of the play, tempering the anachronistic prevention arguments, deepening once flat characters, and expanding the story from its local specifics into a more universality. The Normal Heart is no longer dated; it’s timeless.

Kramer’s alter ego is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a neurotic gay writer unlucky in love and critical of gay men’s shallow promiscuity (and thus disliked by many of them). It is 1981, and his friends start getting sick and then dying, and based on the expertise of a cranky, wheelchair bound doctor (Julia Roberts), he helps organize a group of gay men to do something. In the play, the organization is unnamed, but in the film, as in reality, this organization is GMHC, now one of the country’s largest AIDS service organizations. While attempting to get The New York Times to write more about the disease, he meets Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a beautiful fashion writer, and they quickly fall in love. Meanwhile, Ned and his GMHC partners worry and grieve about their lovers and fight and fight about tactics and personalities, with Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) representing the WASPy conservative accommodation-minded opposite of Ned’s confrontational Jew and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) as their sweet, smart middleman. The stakes are powerfully raised with Felix reveals to Ned that he has a Kaposi sarcoma lesion growing on his foot. Between Felix’s illness, Bruce’s opposition, and the disapproval of Ned’s brother Ben (Alfred Molina), Ned is in a constant state of agony – and righteousness. The end of the story is pre-ordained by history and circumstance, and you will cry.

Kramer’s screenplay reorders scenes, deletes several expository AIDS 101 monologues, gives Roberts one extra minute to earn more sympathy, and greatly expands Tommy’s character. Based on Roger McFarlane, Kramer’s close friend and the first executive director of GMHC who went on to run multiple other AIDS organizations, Tommy was a small but key character in the play. In the film, he comes to represent the pragmatic, responsible, moral good that came from the idealistic and fraught early fighting between Ned and Bruce. Parsons, who has won three Emmys for The Big Bang Theory and is possibly the great comic actor of his generation, shows that he is as versatile and powerful as the film’s star Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo, to his credit, has never been as great on screen, despite brilliant performances in You Can Count on Me and The Kids Are All Right, and he is funny, heartbreaking, annoying, and very sexy. Performing a character created to be cried over, Bomer is obvious, but good. Roberts’s casting was maligned by some purists, but her cold, angry performance is flawless.

The biggest surprise for viewers not familiar with New York theater is Joe Mantello, best known now for his direction of, among other major Broadway shows, Wicked. As Mickey Marcus, one of Ned’s best friends, Mantello erupts in the third act of the film with the greatest of Kramer’s speeches, a barnburner of rage and agony. Like Parsons and Bomer, Mantello is an out gay man, and they join several other famous out actors – including Stephen Spinella, Denis O’Hare, and BD Wong – in a largely out gay cast. That would have been impossible in a film shot during the 1980s.

While Kramer and the cast are responsible for much of the film’s success, I have to give director Ryan Murphy his due. I think he’s the most overrated producer and writer in television. Whatever Glee’s charms, it’s wildly inconsistent and occasionally unwatchable, and American Horror Story is sadistic misogyny as low-brow art. I was terrified of what he would do to such an important work like The Normal Heart. But the film, despite being a little long and edited occasionally too bluntly, is beautifully directed, with scenes tautly staged and occasionally gorgeously shot. And when everyone in a cast delivers such consistently great performances, it can’t be simply their natural talent. Murphy directed them, and the film, to greatness.

The Normal Heart
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Larry Kramer
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons
Premiering on HBO on May 25 at 9pm