Getting real: HBO's 'Coastal Elites' redefines normal with on-screen quarantine

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Rachel Jones / TV Media
Dan Levy stars in "Coastal Elites"

Dan Levy stars in "Coastal Elites"

As the coronavirus began to turn most of our lives upside down, producers and writers were pushing on to keep the biz alive with pandemic-themed creations, including the comedy film "Coastal Elites," which premieres Saturday, Sept. 12, on HBO.

"Coastal Elites" showcases some interesting characters led by multiple award-winning actor and vocalist Bette Midler ("The Glorias," 2020), alongside A-list actors Sarah Paulson ("Glass," 2019), Kaitlyn Dever ("Booksmart," 2019), Dan Levy ("Schitt's Creek") and Issa Rae ("The Lovebirds," 2020). When 2020 rolled in, a series or film about locked-down family members and friends set against the backdrop of a global pandemic would have struck viewers as apocalyptic and escapist, but these days it's much closer to reality than anything else on television.

Just a few days after health authorities declared COVID-19 a pandemic, one of the film's executive producers, Hilary Weisman Graham, proposed the idea of remotely producing and shooting an anthology series. Her colleagues were intrigued, and the idea eventually culminated in the production of "Coastal Elites," which features five unique stories of people living across America during the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a longtime New York City public school teacher who ends up in police custody. Dever's character is Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse from Wyoming who volunteers at a New York hospital. Meanwhile, Levy plays young actor Mark Hesterman, who undergoes video counseling as his career and personal issues spiral out of control. Paulson is an inspiring YouTube personality named Clarissa Montgomery, and Rae plays Callie Josephson, a well-connected philanthropist gunning for a top government position. As shutdowns keep these characters isolated, the five individuals respond to their new normal with a roller coaster of emotions, experiences and laughs.

Not only is the industry fighting to provide original programming despite crippling production shutdowns, it's also serving up highly relevant content that reflects this unprecedented time in the world, helping viewers survive their own personal struggles, and maybe even providing new insight into the plight of others.

While Midler was happy to accept the project, she's admitted that she can't help thinking about how unusual it is. Filming separately from each other in offices or homes with a bare-bones crew, the experience was isolating, and the seasoned actor has revealed that it had her feeling very existential.

Midler also described the filming process as emotionally cathartic, as her character's scenes called for impassioned venting about politics -- especially relevant in such an uncertain election year. Midler identified strongly with the character and felt like the script was written for her. She states that the bizarre working conditions are proof of how tough an impact the pandemic has had on the entertainment industry.

Bette Midler as seen in "Coastal Elites"

Bette Midler as seen in "Coastal Elites"

Similarly, Paulson felt anxious and even paranoid as she would see people roaming around her yard and around her house for months during the shooting process. Both actors admit to having thoughts about what's next for them in a business that was once described as "recession-proof." Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the film industry continued to thrive, but now, for the first time in Hollywood history, everyone, at some point, was out of work. The industry is not invincible after all.

Will any of this strike a chord with viewers? It depends on what they're looking for. "Coastal Elites" is an in-your-face, realistic take on how the world is handling the tensions of the pandemic.

When it comes to visual stimulation, "Coastal Elites" may not offer much, but that doesn't mean audiences won't be engaged. Mentally and emotionally, the film might be just what the doctor ordered, as it presents the day-to-day situations and challenges that common people deal with, along with witty, poignant dialogue. Viewers may just see themselves in these characters.

Designed for the New York Public Theater, the script was written by American playwright, novelist, screenwriter and essayist Paul Rudnick. His plays have been staged on and off-Broadway, and across the globe. After reading the author's article in the New York Times, "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," American critic Ben Rantley described Rudnick as the country's funniest stage writer today.

Aside from Graham, "Coastal Elites" is also executive-produced by Rudnick, Jeffrey Seller ("Rent," 2005), Flody Suarez ("8 Simple Rules"), Scott Chaloff and Jay Roach, who also directed the movie.

While Roach has a slew of box-office hits on his resume -- the Austin Powers series, "Mystery, Alaska" (1999) and "Meet the Parents" (2000), to name a few -- his most recent success was 2019's "Bombshell," which was nominated for three Academy Awards. This is also not his first collaboration with HBO. He directed and produced the cable channel's political drama films "Recount" (2008), "Game Change" (2012) and "All the Way" (2016). So far, he has earned four Primetime Emmy Awards out of six nominations.

If the pandemic and quarantine life have given you a whole range of emotions, watching this one-of-a-kind film may give you something to connect with. Tune in on Saturday, Sept. 12, when "Coastal Elites" premieres on HBO.