‘Coastal Elites’ Zooms From Stage to Screen

Issa Rae in HBO's 'Coastal Elites'
(Image credit: HBO)

Coastal Elites airs on HBO Sept. 12. The network calls it a “socially distanced comedy.” It offers five monologues from characters played by Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson and Issa Rae. Each one appears on the screen by themselves, and vents about culture, politics and the pandemic. 

Paul Rudnick wrote Coastal Elites and Jay Roach directs. It was initially intended for the Public Theater in New York, before the pandemic and current battles for racial equality happened. “It was always intended to be right now, and to be as honest as we could possibly get it,” said Rudnick. 

Much rewriting happened. 

Midler plays a teacher in New York, speaking from a police station after attacking a man in a MAGA hat. Dever plays a nurse from Wyoming who flies to New York to volunteer at a hospital. Levy portrays an actor in Hollywood, videoconferencing with his therapist about a gay superhero role he’s up for. Paulson plays a YouTube personality filming a meditations series. Rae’s character is a philanthropist whose network leads her to a White House visit.  

Roach said Midler was on board even back in the stage production days. “It’s like it was written for her,” he said. “It just seemed like Bette Midler to me.”

Each actor shot their one-act scene from home, with Rudnick and Roach following on Zoom. “It was sort of like directing on a space station,” said Roach. 

While the characters are isolated, their soliloquies touch on themes many are experiencing in this weird year. “Paul’s monologues connect with something everybody is going through in some way or another,” said Roach. “How they are coping is so heartbreaking and traumatizing and darkly ironic and absurd.”

Roach said the performers prepared endlessly, and were inspired by each others’ performances. “They were terrified about being the weak link,” he said. “They all stepped up in the most exciting way.”

Multichannel News called Coastal Elites “unique, witty, provocative and often funny.” HBO said the show “explores our current world of deeply divided politics and the universal pursuit of human connection.” 

The show runs just short of 90 minutes. Rudnick and Roach exec produced with Jeffrey Seller, Flody Suarez, Scott Chaloff and Michelle Graham.

I asked Rudnick and Roach if Middle America might avoid the program due to the title. Rudnick likes that the name is “provocative.”

“Anyone who comes to it with an agenda or a sense of defensiveness will, God willing, be surprised,” Rudnick said. “I hope they’ll be wildly entertained. These are people who are funnier and quirkier and have more angles and detours to them than they ever expected.”

He said the big names in the cast should hopefully draw a broad audience. “I hope people will be very pleasantly surprised and shocked,” said Rudnick, “at how much they laughed.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.