Any West Wing fans out there? I'll be honest. I never understood how a show where people walked around a building delivering speeches kept winning Best Drama at the Emmys up against The Sopranos, one of the finest TV dramas ever made.
I have two theories. One is that The West Wing appealed deeply to a lot of people (especially Hollywood types) who believe that politics boils down to someone going on television and just dazzling America with a speech. Oh sure, somebody still has to write the thousand-page bill and get it to Capitol Hill, but basically being President, or Senator, or city councilman — but mostly President — boils down to giving inspiring talks. You’re the Game Changer who gets everybody Moving Together in the Right Direction.
That’s one theory, and for a long time that was my take on The West Wing’s popularity among the cogniscenti. I still think it’s a useful explanation, but I’ve come around to another theory in recent years. At a time when Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh were at the peak of their influence, The West Wing was catharsis for millions of liberal Democrats who hated talk radio hosts, hated Newt Gingrich, and in later seasons, hated George W. Bush. And they just wanted to hear someone sticking it to those guys.
This would explain the most famous West Wing clip of all time. It’s from a 1999 episode and features President Bartlet using his superior Scriptural knowledge to humiliate a Dr. Laura-like radio host:
And to think Martin Sheen’s co-stars actually wondered why he was earning six times the pay they were.
That clip is so old that half the people watching it today probably have no idea that “Dr. Jacobs” was based on Dr. Laura Schlessinger, or even remember who Dr. Laura is. (She was a popular syndicated host who just marked the tenth anniversary of cancelling herself after using the N-word 11 times on her show.) Clearly, though, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin knew who she was, and knew his audience knew who she was. So, inspired by something someone forwarded him, he wrote a scene where Bartlet “owned” Jacobs.
Ownership, though, is very much in the eye of the beholder. You may post on your Facebook feed a video of AOC “owning” or “destroying” a Republican critic, but to your Uncle Phil this is further proof that you suffer from TDS, or Trump Derangement Syndrome. (Before TDS it was ODS and before that it was BDS which will get very confusing if Joe Biden wins.) In this depressing construct, people don’t actually want their Uncle Phil or their hippy-dippy neighbor lady to see the error of their ways, because then who would they lob sarcastic memes at? Whose cage would they rattle? Who would rattle their cage?
I should confess that this is all a long lead-up to what will be a very short review of Coastal Elites, an uneven, at times suffocating set of sanctimony from screenwriter and novelist Paul Rudnick that drops today on HBO and HBO Max. Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, and Sarah Paulson take turns delivering monologues about Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Mike Pence, and Trump’s America that — I hope I’m not oversimplifying here — refuse to acknowledge the humanity of anyone in a MAGA hat.
We’ve been talking lately about HBO losing its identity because HBO Max is mostly made up of corporate siblings’ shows that don’t look or feel like HBO. Coastal Elites does not have that problem. It is entirely a product of the same Manhattan culture that's been the backdrop for decades of HBO fare, from Sex and the City to Betty. With its close-up shots and static stock backgrounds, it's designed to evoke a play done by Zoom call, though the rants have the cooped-up feel of an apartment dweller with WNYC on all day.
On his website, Rudnick tries to put the best face on Coastal Elites — “I wrote it to reflect everything we’ve all been going through over the past four years: the rage, anxiety, heartbreak and passionate concern for the future of our country” — but really, just look at his Twitter feed. That’s all you need to know.
At least until you get to the final monologue, delivered by Kaitlyn Dever, the miracle woman of Netflix’s Unbelievable, which the academy really should just give all of its Emmys to this year. While the other four play aggrieved, politically savvy “coastal elites,” Dever plays an ordinary nurse from Wyoming who, she explains, flew to New York at the peak of the pandemic because New York needed help… and it wasn’t Wyoming. Her heartfelt story — in which one of the previous ranting characters plays a part — almost redeems this angry, not-funny-enough exercise in pre-election catharsis.
Actually, I’ll go so far as to recommend Coastal Elites, based just on Kaitlyn Dever’s performance. Better watch it fast, though. Like the soon-to-be-released West Wing Get Out the Vote reunion special, this thing will have a shorter half-life than this year's flu vaccine. Watch it as a snapshot of this time when fear was the dominant cultural mood — people afraid of getting sick, terrified of going broke, and convinced that the other side was going to steal the election and plunge the country into eternal darkness. Hopefully we’ll look back on all of that someday and laugh, just before firing up The Sopranos for the tenth time.
Coastal Elites premieres on HBO Saturday September 12th at 8:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.