The first person we see in “Coastal Elites” — and for more than 20 minutes, the only person we see in “Coastal Elites” — is Miriam, a passionate retired teacher played by a flustered, silver-haired Bette Midler. Pleading across a table directly to the camera, which in this case represents a sympathetic cop, Miriam tells her side of the story that landed her in this interrogation room. Her furious bewilderment bleeds through every word — most especially any word relating to the president, a “him” whose name she dares not say even as she curses it. Miriam jokes that she’d fill in the religion question on the Census with “The New York Times” instead of “Jewish”; she hates Republicans almost as much as she loves her NPR tote bag. At this latter admission, she grins wide. “Don’t you do it, officer,” she faux-mocks. “Don’t you make fun of my tote bag!”
Miriam’s winking nod to that fact that she’s the platonic ideal of a righteous Democrat boomer is, it seems, meant to set up Paul Rudnick’s script as the self-aware “satire” it professes to be. Originally written to be performed as a play at New York City’s Public Theater, “Coastal Elites” aims squarely at the hearts of exhausted liberals who might be relieved to see their all-consuming, Trump-focused rage reflected onscreen. (That Miriam gasps about the idea of canceling her Public Theater membership confirms the specific audience Rudnick assumes he will still have even on HBO; that she’s now played by Midler, whose social media is a steady drip of anti-Trump outrage, is a calculated, canny bit of casting.) And yet, “Coastal Elites” isn’t nearly introspective enough to get past its semi-ironic title to say anything new about the people or feelings it’s trying to examine. It’s a well-meaning expulsion of liberal angst that should appeal to its key demographic of people who subscribe to “The Borowitz Report” and still laugh at jokes about Trump’s true love being his daughter Ivanka, but few others.
“Coastal Elites” features five separate monologues running about 15 to 20 minutes long and set within a different month of this year — though in a confusing twist, it does not unfold in chronological order. A single actor sitting in a single location delivers each section directly to the camera by, a smart (and perhaps necessary) approach for a play turned COVID-19 era television production. There are occasionally some obvious cuts that interrupt the single-take flow, perhaps because a single 20-minute take ultimately proved impossible. But for the most part, Jay Roach’s directing is straightforward, if expected. Watching “Coastal Elites,” it’s strange to know that it so insistently labels itself a satire when it’s so painfully earnest in practice. The moment when Miriam tells the officer “I am the wall — so lock me up,” for instance, it’s not played for laughs, but as a declaration of true patriotism.
Miriam’s inability to stop thinking about Trump and his administration gets a later echo in Clarissa (Sarah Paulson), a frustrated YouTube meditation guru who interrupts her own livestream to talk about how her entire Midwestern family wants to Make America Great Again. The second speaker, a conflicted actor played by the wonderfully expressive Dan Levy, talks to his new therapist about navigating a fraught audition to star in a gay superhero movie. It’s interesting enough, until he swerves into a tangent about Vice President Mike Pence’s homophobia that feels more like a recitation of MSNBC bullet points than lived-in exasperation.
The third monologue belongs to wealthy non-profit director Callie (Issa Rae), who’s video-calling her boarding school friend about running into their old classmate, Ivanka Trump, at the White House. As this part ostensibly takes place in June, Callie’s story about the “blonde cloud” begins with a brief acknowledgment of the protests against police brutality unfolding outside her window. Rae sells this jarring transition, and every downright weird twist that follows. But it feels like the script checking off a “sure yes, Black Lives Matter protests also happened this year” box as a courtesy rather than real interest in the issue at hand. So much of “Coastal Elites” is about Trump’s historically catastrophic administration, and yet, so little of it engages with the actual damage it has caused.
The only exception to the rule about all the subjects running on Trump-induced fumes is the final monologue — which not coincidentally, is the only one written explicitly for television after the possibility of a Public Theater run disappeared. Set in April — therefore jumping back in time from Clarissa’s penultimate interlude, for some reason — this section allows Wyoming nurse Sharynn (Kaitlyn Dever) to share her story of working in a New York City hospital during the height of the coronavirus crisis. She’s tired, overwhelmed and traumatized. She’s also an independent voter, but thanks to a particularly inspiring diehard Democrat patient, not for long. Ending on this note is at once confusing and saccharine; it’s an admission that the world in which Rudnick first wrote “Coastal Elites” is not the one in which it’s now airing, and a fantasy of how that might still pan out for fed-up liberals come November’s election.
As with everyone else tasked with the job, Dever performs her part admirably. But neither she, nor anyone else on “Coastal Elites,” can quite shake the two-dimensional approach of the script with which they’re working. Some viewers may find catharsis in its unabashed anger at the world today; others may realize they can find the same material on the Twitter timelines of their snarky local #resist enthusiasts and cable pundits for free.
“Coastal Elites” premieres September 12 at 8 pm on HBO. (90 minutes.)