You had to figure we'd be getting COVID-era programming sooner or later. Not just programming created during the pandemic, but programming about the pandemic. Freeform's Love in the Time of Corona premiered a few weeks back, Netflix's Social Distance is on the way, and this week it's HBO's turn, with the TV movie Coastal Elites, from writer Paul Rudnick and director Jay Roach.
Filmed remotely by its five principal cast members while in quarantine, Coastal Elites follows a handful of characters living in New York City and Los Angeles (the titular coastal elite towns) as they deal with the anxiety-inducing topics of Trump-era politics, culture, and the pandemic.
Whether or not you're yearning for programming that reminds you quite so aggressively of These Times We're Living In, there's a definite curiosity factor when it comes to a project like this.
So who are these A-Listers lining up to play stressed citizens of Fake America? And what kind of characters are they playing? Let's break it down:
"The Divine Miss M" has been enjoying a period of high visibility lately, starring in the most recent season of Ryan Murphy's The Politician and now appearing in Coastal Elites as Miriam Nessler, an outspoken New Yorker who appears to be in a police interrogation after aggressing someone wearing a MAGA hat. Midler's not a native New Yorker, but rather a native Hawaiian, but she made her bones early in her career by playing the gay bathhouses of NYC in the 1970s. Her music career flourished and her acting career followed suit. She's a two-time Best Actress Oscar nominee, for The Rose and For the Boys, and she recorded the hit song "Wind Beneath My Wings" for her film Beaches in 1988. She played a witch in Hocus Pocus and an ex in The First Wives Club, and she'll play Bella Abzug opposite Julianne Moore's Gloria Steinem in director Julie Taymor's upcoming The Glorias.
Sarah Paulson, queen of television, is fresh off of her performance in Mrs. America opposite Cate Blanchett, and she's only a week away from the premiere of her new Ryan Murphy series, Ratched, on Netflix. Paulson, Emmy Award-winner for American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and star of too many iterations of American Horror Story to count, plays Clarissa Montgomery, who is desperately seeking to find some peace of mind amid the insanity swirling around her. In addition to her work on TV, Paulson has also appeared in films like Ocean's 8, Bird Box, and The Goldfinch.
Twenty-three-year-old Kaitlyn Dever is incredibly young to be as veteran an actress as she is. Her breakthrough performance in the FX series Justified in 2011 at all of 15 years old set the standard for what's already an exciting career. She stole scenes opposite Brie Larson in Short Term 12 and Keira Knightley in Laggies, and then for anyone who wasn't already paying attention, she delivered a 2019 one-two punch in the teen comedy Booksmart and the Netflix limited series Unbelievable, two roles that couldn't have been more different yet still benefited from Dever's committed portrayals. In Coastal Elites, she plays Sharynn, a small town nurse working the front lines of the COVID pandemic.
2020 Emmy nominee Dan Levy is taking his moment and running with it. The son of celebrated comedic actor Eugene Levy, the younger Levy co-created, wrote, and starred in Schitt's Creek, a humble little Canadian comedy that crossed over to the American audience and built up enough steam that it's an Emmy fave this year. Before Schitt's Creek, Levy was a host on MTV Canada. He'll soon star alongside Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in the romantic comedy Happiest Season. In Coastal Elites, he plays Mark Hesterman, a neurotic queer actor struggling to keep his career afloat with America shut down.
Issa Rae parlayed her Awkward Black Girl YouTube series into big-time success as the creator and star of HBO's Insecure, for which she's received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy. In film she's starred opposite Regina Hall in Little and Kumail Nanjiani in The Lovebirds, the latter a studio film that was moved to Netflix due to the pandemic. On Coastal Elites, she plays Callie Josephson, who seems to have a whole story to tell about her interactions with Ivanka Trump.
Playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Paul Rudnick found acclaim in the early '90s with his off-Broadway play Jeffrey, about a gay man living and trying to find love during the AIDS crisis. Rudnick adapted his own play for the 1995 film version. He did uncredited script work on The Addams Family, The First Wives Club, and even had his name taken off the script for Sister Act at his request. Subsequently, he's written the scripts for Addams Family Values, In & Out, Isn't She Great, Marci X, and The Stepford Wives.
Jay Roach's road to becoming HBO's go-to guy for documenting very recent American history has been a winding one indeed. His niche for a long time seemed to be blockbuster broad comedy, having directed the Austin Powers franchise and the first two Meet the Parents movies. Then, in 2008, Roach was approached to direct Recount, the HBO film about the 2000 presidential election controversy between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The film was a big hit, and four years later, Roach directed Game Change, based on the Mark Halperin and John Heilemann book about the 2008 election, and centering on the McCain campaign's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Both films won Outstanding TV Movie at the Emmys, and Roach won Outstanding Director for both as well. He most recently directed the big screen Fox News exposé, Bombshell.
Coastal Elites premieres on HBO Saturday September 12th at 8:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.