Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

As the dystopian world turns


Darren Criss as killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Photo: FX
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The new year has got off to a rollicking start. We've had a what-climate-change winter cyclone in the East, fires in California are still burning, and it's snowing in Florida. Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury" registered a higher Seismic impact in the Beltway than last week's earthquake in the Bay Area. The tell-all shook up Washington, got Trump in a tizzy, and gave us, thanks to the unfettered access former chief strategist and Breitbart head Steve Bannon provided, some alarming new images of a president whose grasp on, well, anything is limited at best.

The beginning of the new year was good news for CNN. We watched CNN see out the old year with Don Lemon kissing his boyfriend on live TV on his New Year's Eve show, and Andy Cohen proving he's no Kathy Griffin, he's apparently better. On Jan. 5 CNN released their ratings for New Year's, and Anderson Cooper's gay pairing with Cohen was a huge hit: viewership was up a full 8% from last year. Lemon's broadcast with Brooke Baldwin was also up from last year, putting CNN in first place for the 12:30 a.m. EST lineup. The new year also gifted Rachel Maddow with more dirt on the Trump/Russia scandal than ever, to keep her in the top slot on cable news, deposing Fox News.

And, surprise! As authoritarian rule gets comfy, AG Sessions (be sure to catch Kate McKinnon's latest on "SNL") announced Jan. 4 he was going after both legalized marijuana and Hillary Clinton. To quote a song from our youth: Same as it ever was.

It is into this tempestuous new year that some fabulous TV is debuting (we cannot wait for Ryan Murphy's sumptuous "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story") even as the news gets more dystopian. A bizarre spectacle at the Jan. 4 White House press briefing had Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders standing between twin screens of Trump, who was in the next room. It was very "Hunger Games."

That image came even as CNN was breaking the story that a noted Yale psychiatrist, Dr. Bandy X. Lee, had met with a bipartisan group of Congresspersons from both the House and the Senate on Dec. 5 & 6. In an interview with CNN on Jan. 4, Lee said, "Lawmakers were saying they have been very concerned about this, the President's dangerousness, the dangers that his mental instability poses on the nation. They know the concern is universal among Democrats, but it really depends on Republicans. Some knew of Republicans that were concerned, maybe equally concerned, but whether they would act on those concerns was their worry."

The interview with Lee came less than 12 hours after Trump had tweeted a provocative claim to North Korea that his "button" was bigger than Kim Jong Un's "button," referencing their respective nuclear capabilities. Lee explained she had been asked to return to Congress to meet with more of the leadership to further discuss perceptions about the President's mental acuity.

CNN gave the caveat, "Lee made it clear that she is not in a position to diagnose the President, or any public figure, from afar. But she said that it is incumbent on medical professionals to intervene in instances where there is a danger to an individual or the public. She argues that signs the President has exhibited have risen to that level of danger." To which we can only say, "We told you so in 2016 well in advance of the election." But there will be more. Lee has been invited back to speak. According to CNN, Lee is also an expert on studying and predicting violence.

Lee told CNN, "Mr. Trump is showing signs of impairment that the average person could not see. He is becoming very unstable very quickly. There is a need for neuropsychiatric evaluation that would demonstrate his capacity to serve."

Lee, who has never registered with a political party, is scheduled to hold a briefing at the home of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) later this month with other members of Congress, and is scheduled to speak at Rep. Jamie Raskin's (D-MD) town hall in Maryland. Raskin has introduced a bill, the "Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity Act," which would utilize the 25th Amendment to create a "body" to discern whether the President is fit to execute the powers and duties of the presidency. What's truly shocking is that a year into the worst presidency of our lifetimes, this news was barely a headline.

If Trump is removed from the presidency, will Ellen DeGeneres take his place? While we'd love to have our first woman POTUS be a lesbian, we're pretty sure the only new plan for 2018 the daytime diva has is her new game show, "Ellen's Game of Games," which debuted on NBC Jan. 2.

Trump's son Eric thinks Ellen is up to something far more nefarious that will undermine his father's presidency. Starting the new year vying for least bright bulb in the Trump pack that consists of Ivanka, whom Steve Bannon described as "dumb as a brick"; and Donald Jr., whom Bannon called "treasonous"; Eric asserts that Ellen is running America's "Deep State" shadow government. We were confused by this because we thought Hillary Clinton was running the shadow government set in place by Barack Obama.

Eric Trump was given a Twitter algorithm that suggested he follow Obama, Hillary and Ellen, and he took it as a conspiracy dictate from the Deep State, rather than the usual three suggestions based on one's most recent follows or tweets to a specific account.

Over the past year Sean Hannity and others on Fox News have falsely asserted that Obama is operating another government deep within the Washington Establishment, where Hillary is the "shadow president." Eric, who has been easily confused in the past and has been viciously lampooned by "SNL," assumed that the addition of Ellen to his algorithm meant she was taking over for Hillary, who Vanity Fair suggested needs to take up knitting.

DeGeneres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama in 2016 for her work on LGBT equality. She has said Trump is not welcome as a guest on her show. In an interview with "Today" host Megyn Kelly, DeGeneres said, "I can't have someone [on my show] who I feel is not only dangerous for the country and for me personally as a gay woman, but to the world. He's dividing all of us, and I think I don't want him on the show."

Being a comedian first and foremost, DeGeneres used the incident to poke at the entire Trump family in a hilarious monologue that began, "First, which one is Eric? Did he kill the elephant or the cheetah?" She told her audience, "Apparently I'm part of some secret government conspiracy called the 'Deep State.' It's supposed to be a group of people that are trying to undermine Donald Trump, which is ridiculous because no one undermines Donald Trump more than Donald Trump."

Addressing Eric specifically, she said, "I'm honored you think I'm powerful enough to be part of a government conspiracy. I'm sorry to disappoint you. I am not part of the 'Deep State.'" She had no time to be shadow president when she already had such a busy schedule, including her new game show. "I've got my gay agenda meetings on Mondays. On Wednesdays, Beyonce and I host an Illuminati brunch." She also referenced tabloid rumors about her and her wife Portia, "Portia and I on the weekends are trying desperately to have a baby, so I can't. I don't have the time."

If we can't have Ellen as POTUS, we can at least have some good LGBT TV. On Jan. 3 the spin-off of ABC's hilarious "black-ish" debuted on Freeform (formerly ABC Family, but far-right extremists complained that the increasingly pro-LGBT content was anything but family-oriented). The new sitcom, "grown-ish," stars the oldest Johnson child, Zoey (Yara Zahidi), as she starts college away from home.

We knew this show would be good because Zahidi is a terrific young actor, and her deadpan delivery has charmed us since "black-ish" debuted in 2014. In the first episode, Zoey's friend Nomi (Emily Arlook) comes out as bisexual. What else will happen as Zoey negotiates race, sexuality and gender in the place where many of us felt free to be our authentic selves for the very first time? Worth watching.

What would the new year be without RuPaul? His latest, "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 3" premieres on Jan. 25 on VH1. Be prepped for Trixie Mattel, Shangela and Chi Chi DeVayne to snap diva their way through another season, along with a cavalcade of other stars and wannabes.

"Black Lightning" premieres on the CW on Jan. 16. We need the first black superhero on the tube, and we need his lesbian daughter just as much. We love Lena Waithe. We love having an out, black, gender non-conforming lesbian on TV. Waithe, who won a primetime Emmy for her writing in "Thanksgiving," the most emotional coming-out story we've seen in years on "Master of None," is branching out. Her new solo series on Showtime, "The Chi," debuted Jan. 7 and is a provocative must-see. It will remind many of the best of "The Wire." The opening episode is rich and deeply emotional. It's beautifully shot. The acting is stellar. Waithe's writing is luminous.

"The Chi" is about ripple effects of gun violence and killing on a community, Chicago's South Side. Three men are featured: an aspiring chef, Brandon (Jason Mitchell); a teenage father, Emmett (Jacob Latimore); and a drifter named Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). "Moonlight's" Alex Hibbert plays Kevin, and Yolonda Ross plays Yada. Waithe told Variety she based many of the series' characters on herself and others close to her, and that it feels very personal. "I grew up hustling my mom and her friends, and seeing things maybe too soon that I shouldn't have."

Waithe wants "The Chi" to "put some humanness behind the headlines" about Chicago's headline violence. She wants to portray her hometown from "a very human, honest and grounded perspective." One element of "The Chi" that will resonate is how adept Waithe is at portraying the range of black women in the community: the mothers, girlfriends, aunties, and grandmothers. There is breadth, verve and oh-so-much heart in these characterizations. "The Chi" is destined to be another series we wait for all week.

FX has been promoting "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story," Ryan Murphy's latest creation, for months in sumptuous, super-saturated color. These promos have been visually stunning, even as the undercurrent of violence has never been more than a blink away, reminiscent of a Helmut Newton photo montage.

Last season's "Feud" was tremendous, but "Versace" is brilliant. It is Ryan Murphy's piece de resistance. It is the most breathtakingly real of all his creations and the gayest. It is an exquisite exposition of two lives running in parallel: that of the designer and that of his killer, serial murderer Andrew Cunanan.

In an opening scene, a detective asks Versace's partner Antonio D'Amico, whose white shirt is stained with his lover's blood, "But who was [Versace] really?" D'Amico takes a breath and says, "He was a genius." Every scene plays like this, like grand opera, yet never over-the-top. It's a balance that Murphy has not always been able to achieve, but when he has, the results have been perfection.

The cast is seamless. Darren Criss plays against type as the tortured killer Andrew Cunanan, in the role of his career. We were never fond of Criss' bland Blaine on "Glee," but here he sears through the story, projecting Cunanan's mix of beauty and sociopathy with ease. Criss takes us deep into Cunanan, who developed shifting personae from the time he was in middle school, changing both his look and his affect to attract those he wanted in his orbit. Cunanan was also a life-long fabulist, and Murphy has written that deftly into the role.

Murphy told EW Criss was his only choice for the role after seeing him on Broadway in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." "I just knew he could do it," Murphy asserted. "More than that, I knew that he was superhungry and ambitious. When I saw 'Hedwig,' I knew he was capable of great darkness."

Come for Criss, stay for Ricky Martin (Versace's partner Antonio D'Amico), Edgar Ramirez (Versace) and the sublime Penelope Cruz (Donatella Versace). Icing? Matt Bomer will direct the eighth episode. Premieres Jan. 17 on FX. Not to be missed.

So for a TV news countdown to the 25th Amendment, a gay shadow president, and some serious takes on LGBTQ lives past and present, you know you really must stay tuned.


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