HBO, like most networks these days, has its own take on a socially distanced comedic satire about the times we all find ourselves in. Coastal Elites spotlights five people and their stories as they grapple with politics, culture, and the pandemic. For some, their lives were just starting to head somewhere exciting, for others, they are trying to help themselves and others find a sense of calm and meaning in a once in a lifetime event generations will be reading about in history books. But they are all left with ample time to reflect on their lives up until they were changed forever.
In a very meta turn of events, before Coastal Elites became a television event for HBO, it was originally intended to be a play at New York’s Public Theater, but just like its five main characters, life changes. Each character is intended to represent someone’s real-life experience amid the coronavirus pandemic. Granted, though this has an “everyman” tone to the story, all of the characters do live up to the film’s title. They are coastal elites through and through. They all live in either New York or Los Angeles and, with little exception, they all either come from money or work in entertainment.
While they are written as “real people,” each character is not a true story written for the screen. There is a lot about each of them that is very true-to-life though. Their Upper West Side apartment or house in the Hollywood Hills might not be the thing that we relate to, but we can all relate to the confusion, frustration, and exhaustion that has come out in full force this past year. Within each character’s story, there are elements of truth and the human condition in 2020.
Miriam Nessler (Bette Midler)
Upper West Side retired public school teacher Miriam Nessler loves three things: her students, the New York Times, and the theater. We meet her in a bit of a predicament. While in a Starbucks, Nessler is triggered by memories of her deceased husband when she sees a man in a MAGA hat. In response, Nessler rips the hat off the man’s head. She is pleading with a police officer — represented by the camera — after the incident that lands her in an interrogation room.
Nessler’s story isn’t one that draws from a particular headline or viral moment, but she embodies liberal fatigue. While not everyone would agree with tearing off someone’s MAGA hat, the feeling of a prolonged internal scream is relatable.
Mark Hesterman (Dan Levy)
Mark Hesterman is a young actor in West Hollywood who is on the cusp of his big break. Or at least he was before coronavirus hit. As he has a videoconference appointment with his therapist, he reveals that he is experiencing a peak moment of stress both in his career and in his personal life. Prior to the pandemic, Hesterman was navigating the strenuous audition process for a role he believes could make his career as the star in the first superhero film with an openly gay lead.
In February 2020, which feels like a lifetime ago, one of the stars of Marvel’s upcoming superhero film The Eternals confirmed that for the first time in over a decade of Marvel movies, there will be an openly gay superhero, Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry. So while Levy’s character didn’t have the same experience, it echoes an important moment in representation that did come up earlier this year.
Callie Josephson (Issa Rae)
The daughter of a billionaire, Callie Josephson is a well-connected philanthropist who went to prep school with none other than First Daughter Ivanka Trump. While catching up with an old boarding school friend, Josephson mentions running into Trump at the White House. Inspired by this blast from the past, she then recounts an uncomfortable experience when she became Trump’s image-improving Black friend. As she recollects this, she thinks about what it meant to be complicit, referencing Kanye West at one point.
While we don’t know much about Ivanka Trump’s friends back when she was in school, we do know that she went to an elite boarding school on the East Coast called Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. A former classmate spoke to Refinery29 in February 2019 and attested that Ivanka was nice, had plenty of friends, but also believed she was an exception to the rules which, for her, involved having a car on campus when no other student was allowed to have one.
Clarissa Montgomery (Sarah Paulson)
Clarissa Montgomery is a wellness Youtuber who is filming her next Mindful Meditations video meant to soothe, inspire, and heal her followers. It turns out, she might just need that meditation as much or even more than the people who subscribe to her channel. Her guided meditation spins out of control into a rant about her recent visit with her Trump-loving family.
With everyone spending months in isolation, YouTube reported a 500 percent increase in viewership, and 55 percent of those increased hours were people looking for peace of mind through guided meditation videos.
Sharynn Tarrows (Kaitlyn Dever)
Sharynn Tarrows is the only character in this film who isn’t from a coastal state, even if she is delivering her monologue from the northeast United States. The Wyoming nurse flew to New York to volunteer at a hospital amid the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. She’s overworked, exhausted, and the last thing she wants to talk about after a day of treating patients is politics. However, one patient may have convinced her to change her mind.
Tarrows isn’t based on one particular nurse or frontline worker, but countless medical professionals traveled from around the country to volunteer at the epicenters of the coronavirus. According to a report from the New York Times in April, when New York said it was in desperate need of medical aid, 90,000 people responded.