Maybe it’s time we looked more closely at the stories show business tells about itself.
HBO’s Entourage, Showtime’s Episodes and Ray Donovan, NBC’s Smash, and FX’s historical Feud: Bette and Joan are just some of the TV series that have shown powerful men (and occasionally women) behaving badly in the entertainment business. We may have gotten as used to such portrayals as we have to characters who treat human beings (nearly always women) as interchangeable collections of body parts, but these stories don’t have to be about Harvey Weinstein to paint a portrait of an industry that can’t be as shocked as it pretends to be by the allegations of sexual harassment, and worse, against the veteran producer.
Any culture that worships success as much as this one is ripe for abuse, and if we’ve seen more fictional depictions of women throwing themselves at famous or powerful men than we have of such men coercing women to have sex, it may be because so many stories are told from a male point of view. Or because shows about show business are generally meant to entertain, not outrage.
Certainly we’re meant to be amused by producer Stu Beggs (Stephen Tobolowsky, The Goldbergs), the former Californication character who appears in the two-episode premiere Sunday of White Famous as the racist, sexist face of supposedly liberal Hollywood.
A new Showtime comedy from Tom Kapinos, who also created Californication, and Jamie Foxx, on whose experiences it’s said to be based, White Famous stars Saturday Night Live veteran Jay Pharoah as Floyd Mooney, a stand-up comic whose chance encounter with a slightly inebriated and wildly inappropriate Beggs leads to career opportunities Floyd’s wise enough to be wary of.
After a video of their conversation goes viral, the producer complains about the “culture of outrage” that’s forcing him to make amends.
“Am I sorry?” he asks. “Oh, yes. I am so sorry — I wish the whole thing never happened. It’s unfortunate. And it really interferes with the business. People seem to be so angry with me right now out there. The PC army is gathered, I’ve been dragged to the center of the virtual town square, my pants have been pulled down, and I am being publicly shamed. It’s no picnic.”
White Famous displays considerably more self-awareness than, say, Entourage — an eight-season celebration of bro culture that hasn’t aged well — but skewering Hollywood’s racism doesn’t let White Famous off the hook for capitalizing on its sexism. Floyd may be uncomfortable when his first meeting with his hero, Foxx, includes an ample view of the naked woman straddling the Oscar-winning actor (and White Famous executive producer) — but probably not as uncomfortable as I found watching Foxx the character treat her as a prop, dismissing what they’re doing as “research.”
It’s the kind of sight gag that these days leaves me gagging. It also might not be the best introduction to White Famous, in whose first three episodes I otherwise found a lot to like.
Pharoah is funny and sweet as Floyd, who’s still in love with his ex-girlfriend Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) and torn, professionally, between staying true to his ideals and doing what might be best for their son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis, This Is Us). He also models some seriously evolved TV fathering when he advises Trevor, who has his first crush, against taking his cues from Hollywood.
“Do I just grab her and kiss her?” his son asks.
“No, no, no, no, don’t do that,” Floyd says. “Don’t do anything like that.”
“But that’s how they do it on TV.”
“Yeah. But that type of stuff gets you thrown in jail. Or in the White House.”
Or maybe even kicked out of the company you helped found.
You could see how Weinstein might not have seen this coming until it was too late. It’s not just that his power, and his payoffs, had managed to keep so many women so quiet for so long. It’s that he’d been known, even joked about, for lesser forms of abusive behavior, insulated by success from the need to behave decently to people less powerful than he was. (Though it turns out that Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 joke about nominated actresses no longer having to “pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein” wasn’t so much a joke as a dig at the producer for his behavior to Ted actress Jessica Barth, one of the women quoted in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece on Weinstein.)
HBO’s Entourage actually had a Weinstein stand-in, Harvey Weingard, a profane, ill-tempered producer played by the late Maury Chaykin. (“Harvey’s [a jerk] to work for, but he’s a genius. Everything he touches turns to Oscar gold,” Debi Mazar’s publicist character, Shauna, says of Weingard.) The fictional Harvey, ironically, is never shown engaging in any kind of sexual behavior, inappropriate or not, even while appearing in an episode, set in Cannes, in which another wealthy man blithely orders a bikini-clad woman to service one of the main characters, who happily goes off with her.
What’s her story?, I wonder now.
Episodes, the show-business satire from Bala Cynwyd’s David Crane (cocreator of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You), ended its run on Oct. 8 with all its major characters — including Friends star Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc — seemingly having survived five seasons of the kind of workplace-centered sexual shenanigans that would give most human resources departments fits (including a harassment complaint against a female executive), but that never got Weinstein-level ugly.
And given that the season began with LeBlanc, as host of a game show called The Box, being caught in a compromising position with a female contestant on the show’s Big Brother-like live feed — and becoming even more popular as a result — I wouldn’t look to Episodes for real-life consequences. It’s a comedy, and even its most irredeemable character, producer, former network chief, and serial philanderer, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow in a part he once described as “an amalgamation of so many power brokers in L.A.”), is hard to hate.
Smash, one show that did acknowledge that the casting couch might be more than a historical artifact, had an episode early in its second season, written by Philadelphians Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, in which Broadway director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) was accused of sexual harassment by a group of dancers. He seemed more surprised than viewers could have been, given what they’d seen of Derek’s behavior with the ingenue Karen (Katharine McPhee) in the show’s pilot.
So it’s interesting to see Davenport turn up as a network executive in White Famous, fawning over Floyd (“Diversity’s really important to me right now”) while treating his young assistant, whom he addresses as “darling,” with a creepy solicitousness.
“Oh, thank you,” he says, as she delivers him something. “Loving that green skirt. Matches your eyes. And thank you for wearing the shoes I asked you to.”
I hope that’s meant to make my skin crawl. Because now, more than ever, it certainly does.
White Famous. 10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime.