The agony and the ecstasy of St. Camille
In which I lose it over another dinner party from hell, celebrate horror as a vehicle for social commentary, and question if theater is the right place for heterosexual romance.
|Louis Peitzman||Apr 19, 2019||3|
The personal is political, someone who isn’t Kyle Richards once said. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star was too busy desperately trying to defuse tension by reminding everyone that you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion at the dinner table. I’m sure there are plenty of things Kyle would have rather talked about on the truly infuriating last episode of RHOBH, like, for example, that baffling go-kart she’s driving around Beverly Hills like Rosalina. (It cost over $29,000! You could use that money to buy a pair of Dana-slash-Pam’s sunglasses.) But I’m talking around what actually happened, which is that Rinna broke the unspoken Housewives rule of pretending these series exist in an alternate, apolitical universe and started talking about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. And Camille, who has spent years trying to make everyone forget that she’s wretched, decided to show her entire ass by defending Kavanaugh and, however indirectly, calling Dr. Christine Blasey Ford a liar.
Before we dive into this, a little context about the role of politics on the Real Housewives franchise. Mostly, we don’t talk about it. Not because we follow Kyle Richards’ teachings on conflict avoidance — these shows thrive on conflict, after all — but because talking about politics is a surefire way to alienate viewers. The cast members’ political leanings are not exactly a secret, between individual Housewives making their politics known or Andy Cohen accidentally tweeting about their party affiliations. And yes, on occasion, politics do come up: The Real Housewives of New York City sadistically gave us an entire episode devoted to Trump winning, and the women of The Real Housewives of Atlanta have spoken about their support for liberal causes on the show. But those casts are mostly left-leaning, whereas the cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County, for example, is almost entirely conservative. The audience for these shows is more politically diverse than you’d expect, but Bravo’s viewership certainly skews liberal, which is why we don’t hear Teresa Giudice talk about ICE deportations of people who aren’t her husband.
Politically speaking, RHOBH is a mixed bag — be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of evidence as to who was With Her, because that way lies madness — and I honestly never expected the show to go there. But god bless Lisa Rinna: I haven’t exactly sided with her merciless campaign to destroy LVP this season, but I am absolutely in favor of not ignoring an important and heavily politicized national conversation about sexual assault just because that’s not standard Housewives behavior. And kudos to Rinna (and Teddi!) for unequivocally expressing their support for Dr. Ford. I don’t want to know if Denise Richards feels differently — my heart can’t handle that — but I prefer her sitting there and chewing her food to Kyle frantically trying to change the subject, and telling Camille she’s entitled to her opinion. Incidentally, Camille’s opinion that if a woman says she was sexually assaulted at 15 and didn’t tell her parents, it must not have happened, is not an opinion so much as factually inaccurate bullshit that ignorant people spew, thereby enabling a world where it’s harder for women to come forward and be believed.
It’s not even clear why Camille felt so strongly about this, to the extent that she took Rinna’s Kavanaugh bait — which, for once, I think was inadvertent — and ran with it so shamefully. I don’t know how closely her politics align with Kavanaugh’s, although I doubt she’s as far to the right as he is. This seemed to be so much more about projection, but for the life of me I can’t understand what she thinks she’s been falsely accused of, because Kyle calling her a fucking liar is… not on par with a sexual assault accusation. Yes, the internet was very mean to Camille throughout Season 1, but that’s largely because Camille was an asshole. (I do have sympathy that she had to deal with the awful things said about her by Kelsey Grammer, who is a bigger asshole.) While I can forgive the Housewives for much of their abhorrent behavior, Camille’s bullshit is beyond the pale for me. You think I’m ever going to root for a Kavanaugh defender to get upgraded back to full-time cast member? In this climate? Anyway, this is the most I’ve liked Rinna all season, but the real hero here is her 90-year-old mother Lois, who didn’t survive an attack by a serial killer to have to listen to Camille cry because she identifies with Brett fucking Kavanaugh.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills wasn’t the only politically-minded piece of television I watched this week. I caught up on last week’s installment of The Twilight Zone, “Replay,” which was a smart, terrifying, subversive episode that gave me more faith in the reboot series — I was slightly iffier beforehand — and served as a powerful reminder of the importance of amplifying black voices in horror. In “Replay,” Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) is dropping her son Dorian (Damson Idris) of at college when she inadvertently discovers that her camcorder has the power to rewind time. When they’re pulled over by a cop (Glenn Fleshler), Nina rewinds as the situation escalates — but no matter how many different tactics she tries to evade him, Officer Lasky finds a reason to harass them. It’s obvious from the get-go that he won’t be satisfied until he’s murdered Dorian, who is unarmed. They replay alternate scenarios over and over again, but nothing Nina does can protect her son from the cop’s relentless brutality. The subtext is not subtle, but then, The Twilight Zone has never been subtle.
But Twilight Zone aside, part of what’s so brilliant about horror as a vehicle social commentary is that the heightened reality allows for a level of directness that wouldn’t necessarily work in other genres. And employing this space — which has not traditionally been welcoming to black creators — to reflect the real-life horror of racist police brutality and the shooting of unarmed black men is especially powerful. “Replay” uses its high-concept plot to depict a shameful reality, exposing, among other things, the myth that simply “following the rules” will protect black people from police violence. This may not be a radical concept to some of the show’s audience — it shouldn’t be to anyone paying attention — but it’s not anything I’ve ever seen in the genre and it feels genuinely transgressive. Police officers in horror are almost always portrayed as inept, but this is the first time I can remember seeing a racist white cop as the unstoppable psycho killer. He is Michael Myers with a badge, and it’s fucking chilling. I won’t spoil the climax because I want those who haven’t seen “Replay” to watch it, but it’s less the expected Twilight Zone twist and more a satisfying articulation of the episode’s themes.
The episode’s director, Gerald McMurray, also helmed The First Purge. I’m fascinated by the Purge series — the films and the TV show — because what started as a home invasion thriller with a fairly nonsensical concept slowly morphed into a surprisingly deep exploration of race and class. This is the kind of horror that excites me, and I’m glad that the genre is expanding to include more marginalized voices who can tell these stories. The influence of Jordan Peele, who of course also developed and hosts the new Twilight Zone, can’t be overstated. The incredible success of Get Out taught a powerful lesson that I hope producers keep in mind. “Replay” feels like another step forward, even if it’s on a much smaller scale. I can’t wait to see what’s next for McMurray, and for the episode’s writer, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. And I hope that this new Twilight Zone follows in the tradition of the original series by continuing to push the envelope and expose uncomfortable truths about humanity. The anthology format is also a great opportunity to include writers and directors who have been underrepresented in horror for too long — POC, women, and queer people among them.
But back to straight white people for a moment. Actually, that’s not fair. I want to talk about Burn This, a piece of theater written by Lanford Wilson (a gay playwright) that includes a gay character played by a gay actor (Brandon Uranowitz). That having been said, the central plot is a fucked-up love story between Anna (Keri Russell) and Pale (Adam Driver), and let me tell you, I have never understood heterosexuals less. Anna is mourning the sudden death of her roommate Robbie when she meets Pale, Robbie’s older brother. Despite the fact that Pale is an unpredictable, coke-addled, racist, homophobic mass of chaotic energy, Anna is drawn to him, and the two have an ill-advised, grief-fueled sexual encounter the first night they meet. Fine, they’re both going through it and I buy that they’d fall into each other’s arms — especially since, in this production, Pale is thrillingly large. But at some point, maybe during intermission, Anna and Pale are in love with each other, and the play turns out to be surprisingly sincere about their romance. I get why they’d fuck, but I can’t understand why these people would even like each other.
This wasn’t my first time seeing Burn This, technically speaking. When I was a senior in high school, my AP English teacher devised activities to keep us occupied after the AP test. One of those was breaking us up into groups and having us put on truncated versions of plays of her choosing, all of which were completely wrong for 17-year-olds. I mean, it was honestly as though she found a list of age-inappropriate shows to pick from: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, What the Butler Saw (which required one student to be in her underwear the whole time), Equus (I mean, my god), and yes, Burn This. I don’t remember much about Burn This — I was too busy learning my lines as George in Virginia Woolf, even though we weren’t required to be off-book — but I do remember the poor kid who was saddled with Anna’s boyfriend Burton’s snowy blow job monologue. Of course, we were 17, and we all handled it maturely.
Did Burn This make sense to me then? I’m sure I wasn’t paying enough attention. It definitely doesn’t make sense to me now, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the play. The cast is strong, particularly Driver and the perpetually underrated Uranowitz. (Is Brandon Uranowitz underrated? We’re not showering him with Tony Awards, so yes.) I’m glad that Russell got to make her Broadway debut. But why Burn This? And maybe this is just a me problem — maybe I don’t get it. Maybe there is a grounded emotional core here that I fully missed. I’ve just seen so many plays (and movies and TV shows) in which messy, borderline abusive men are somehow irresistible, and it’s, well, gross. That’s not to say that I’m not here for portraits of complicated, sometimes shitty people; I just have a hard time engaging with a love story that places them front and center. I don’t want to rag on Burn This too much — I’ve seen far worse revivals this season. But as with all revivals, I hope we continue to ask, “Why this?” and “Why now?” If the answer is just, “Because a notable movie/TV actor wants to do it,” let’s go back to the drawing board.