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SPRING ARTS 2018 TV: Small screen delights

‘Rise,’ ‘Roseanne’ reboot, ‘Handmaids’ return pepper TV season

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spring television, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of the ‘Roseanne’ reboot. (Photo courtesy ABC)

The spring 2018 television season may lack some of the sparkle of last year’s schedule, but there are still some new offerings and returning favorites that LGBT TV fans may want to watch.

On March 27, the outspoken Roseanne Barr returns to network television in a continuation (season 10) of the ground-breaking show that bears her name. Most of the original cast will be back. John Goodman returns as Dan Connor (one of the show’s early promos made fun of his return from the dead). Lecy Goranson, Sara Gilbert and Michael Fishman return as the Conner children. In an interesting twist, Sarah Chalke, who briefly replaced Goranson as Becky, will return to the series as a middle-class woman who hires Becky to be her surrogate.

Many of the guest stars will also return, including Roseanne’s lesbian friend Nancy Bartlett (Sandra Bernhard), Roseanne’s African-American neighbors, Natalie West as Crystal and Johnny Galecki as David Healy. The new cast will also be rounded out by several grandchildren. It is not clear if Martin Mull and Fred Willard, whose characters were married on the show, will return.

Early reports from the set say that the series will address the support of both Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Conner for Donald Trump; the death of Becky’s husband Mark Healy — actor Glenn Quinn died in 2002; and that Roseanne’s youngest son Jerry Garcia Conner will not appear because he is “out on a fishing boat.”

“Rise” on NBC has caused controversy even before its premiere on March 13. The series is loosely based on the nonfiction book “Drama High” by Michael Sokolove which tells the true story of high school drama teacher Lou Volpe, who came as gay later in life. Some media outlets have accused producer Jeff Katims with “straight-washing” Sokolove’s book, but the Writers Guild of America has ruled that Katims should be listed as the creator of the television series, instead of saying he “developed” the show from Sokolove’s book.

The show does focus on the drama teacher, played by Jordan Roth, as a straight family man, but Katims adds several LGBT characters, including Michael (played by trans actor Ellie Desautels), a transgender student at the high school; Simon (Ted Sutherland), who is exploring his own sexuality after being cast as a gay character in the school’s production of “Spring Awakening;” and, Volpe’s married lesbian sister-in-law. The cast also includes Rosie Perez as a fellow teacher Volpe and Auli’I Cravalho (the voice of Moana) as a student.

Meanwhile on Paramount, “Heathers” will premiere on March 7. Based on the iconic 1988 movie starring Wynona Ryder, the “pitch-perfect black comedy anthology series” is set in the present day. The story still focuses on “good girl” Veronica Sawyer, along with her boyfriend JD and “the Heathers,” a vicious clique who ruthlessly control life at Westerburg High. This time, however, one of the Heathers is played by a man. Shannon Doherty, one of the cinematic Heathers, will make a guest appearance.

Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox) and Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) in the small-screen version of ‘Heathers.’ (Photo courtesy Paramount)

On April 25, a year after the first episode of season one aired, season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will premiere on Hulu. The entire main cast will return, including Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred, Ann Dowd as the terrifying Aunt Lydia, openly lesbian actress Samira Wiley as June’s best friend Moira and Alexis Bledsel as the lesbian Handmaid Ofglen, who was formerly known as Emily. New cast members include Clea DuVall as Emily’s wife, openly lesbian actress Cherry Jones as June’s mother, Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence and Marisa Tomei.

Samira Wiley returns as Moira in season two of ‘The Handmaids Tale.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

Working closely with novelist Margaret Atwood, writer Bruce Miller has continued to expand the world of Gilead, a dystopian vision of the United States after a theocratic regime has taken power. Fertile women, known as Handmaidens, are forced to be surrogates for the Commanders and their infertile wives; women who resist are forced to clean up toxic waste dumps known as “the Colonies.” Details about season two are sparse, but it is known that there is a large state funeral and that some scenes are set in the horrific Colonies.

And, on April 13, Netflix will reboot a classic sci-fi series, but without an iconic character generally assumed to be gay. In the original “Lost In Space,” Dr. Zachary Smith was played by Jonathan Harris with a delicious campy flair. In a fascinating gender swap, Parker Posey take over the role of the nefarious stowaway. In another interesting casting move, Ignacio Serricchio will claim the role of Major Don West created by Mark Goddard.

In addition, several returning or continuing shows continue to include LGBT characters, although generally in supporting roles.

Season two of “Jessica Jones” returns to Netflix on March 8 (International Women’s Day). Part of the Marvel Comic Universe, the series is grounded in a feminist sensibility with strong women on both sides of the camera. The series stars Krysten Ritter, who was nominated for a Dorian Award from the LGBT critic’s group GALECA, and Carrie Anne Moss as Jones’ lesbian boss Jeri Hogarth.

‘Jessica Jones’ returns to Netflix. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

“Black Lightning,” which premiered on the CW in January, is based on the DC comic about a family of African-American superheroes. Cress Williams plays the title character and Nafessa Williams plays his daughter Anissa Pierce, a crime-fighter who is developing her superpowers under the name of Thunder.

Fox’s airline comedy “LA to Vegas” debuted in January to weak reviews and strong ratings, but it has made a star of Nathan Lee Graham who plays gay flight attendant Bernard. The openly gay actor played Miss Understanding in the original Broadway cast of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and was recently presented with the Jose Esteban Munoz Award from CLAGS: the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The award is given to an LGBT activist who promotes queer studies outside of academia.

Some of the other shows that continue to feature members of the LGBT community include “Dynasty” with Nicollette Sheridan joining the cast as Alexis; Tig Nataro on Amazon’s “One Mississippi”; the rebooted “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”; “The Bold and The Beautiful” where Kayla Mosley heats up the set as transgender woman Maya Avant; “Supergirl”; Lena Waithe’s “Chi”; the popular ABC comedy “Modern Family” which was recently renewed for a 10th and final season (although there are talks of a spinoff); and “Grown-ish,” a spin-off of ABC’s “Black-ish.”

There’s also “Call the Midwife” (PBS), “Valor” (the CW), “Madam Secretary” (CBS), “The Fosters” (Freeform), “Riverdale” (the CW), “Portlandia” (IFC), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC), “How To Get Away With Murder” (ABC), “Arrow” (the CW) “One Day At A Time” (Netflix) and “Jane the Virgin” (the CW).

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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