TV Reviews

The Worst COVID Inspired Media Made So Far

These tone deaf creations missed the ball completely

Johns Hopkins recently discovered that the COVID-19 pandemic currently "kills an American every 107 seconds."

But as the virus enters this brutal second wave, some creatives are already moving to profit off the latest American tragedy. It remains to be seen whether Grey's Anatomy and This Is Us will strike the right tone while implementing the pandemic into their scripts, but from blockbuster movies to stand alone TV shows, a lot of people are creating COVID content from scratch.


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"What is your definition of being happy?"

In the second episode of Netflix's latest true crime docuseries, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Stephen Ziogas, Aaron Hernandez's childhood friend, can't imagine what drove his friend to commit first-degree murder. He says, "I think the biggest misconception is he was someone who had everything and threw it all away. From what we know now, can you ever really define that he was happy?" In June 2013, the New England Patriots tight end had fame, wealth, a devoted fiancee, and his first child on the way. Looking back on what followed, Ziogas adds, "He did everything that, in that storybook setting, would make you happy, but obviously he was still hurting."

The three episodes of Killer Inside create a rare, objective look at Hernandez's life, mostly built from audio recordings of Hernandez's phone calls while in prison, security footage from his own home, testimonies from his criminal trial, and interviews with his close friends and former teammates. While those close to him describe him as playful, teasing, and full of life, they also discuss his childhood traumas from his physically abusive father, his long history of anger issues and violent outbursts, and his struggles with his sexuality.

aaron hernandez ABC News

In June 2013, the body of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-professional football player, was found in the street with wounds from six gunshots. In what was described as a particularly messy crime, Hernandez murdered Lloyd with motives that are unclear to this day. At the time of his trial in 2015, prosecutors argued that Lloyd was targeted because he'd spoken to people disliked by Hernandez while at a bar in Boston. But friends and photographs paint a friendly relationship between Lloyd and Hernandez, who were respectively dating sisters Shayanna and Shaneah Jenkins. The men bonded over their love of video games and smoking (Lloyd's nickname was the "blunt master").

Why did the beloved New England Patriot murder Lloyd, who was set to become his brother-in-law? The docuseries doesn't offer a clear answer, because those answers ultimately died with Hernandez when he hanged himself in his jail cell in 2017. Hernandez killed himself with his prison bed sheet on the same day his former NFL team visited the White House to celebrate their fifth Super Bowl win.

The series taps into the power of personal testimony mixed with compelling video and audio evidence to unfold a mind-boggling backstory, including a second criminal charge Hernandez faced on top of first-degree murder. He was charged and tried for fatally shooting two men in a car outside of a nightclub in 2012; his lawyer, Jose Baez (noted for defending Casey Anthony), successfully cast doubt on his involvement, resulting in a not guilty verdict. In fact, Hernandez was described as having high spirits prior to his death, with the double-murder charges dropped and an appeal of his life sentence with no parole in the works.

Aaron Hernandez

In the larger picture, however, Hernandez was clearly at odds with his own identity, with jarring contradictions causing rifts in both his personal and professional lives. He complained that the Patriots organization "try to ruin all your fun because that want you to only be business [sic]," even asking to be traded in 2013 and struggling to bond with his teammates, who viewed him as impulsive and "immature." He idolized his abusive father, Dennis Hernandez, as "a good man" who was "also really wild," but he resented his mother, whom he felt abandoned him after his father's death. He makes a belligerent call from prison, yelling, "I was the happiest little kid in the world, and you f***ed me up. I had nobody. What'd you think I was going to do? Become a perfect angel?" He grew up attending a safe, "typical American high school" but fostered a bad boy image, keeping company with violent criminals while professing his love for the Harry Potter series to his fiancee and close friends.

And then two issues are weakly covered–disappointingly so–in the third episode of Killer Inside: Hernandez's sexual history, which involved allegations of childhood molestation and represssed homosexuality, and its connection to his perpetual anger; and Hernandez's confirmed brain damage incurred from playing in the NFL. The series' tepid handling of the issues create an abrupt ending, with more emphasis on humanizing Hernandez, a convicted murderer of at least one man, while giving incomplete consideration of how trauma impacted Hernandez's psychology.

Rumors about Hernandez's sexuality persisted both during and after his life, with one inmate coming forward after Hernandez's death to allege that they were lovers in prison (he is not interviewed in the series). One childhood friend recounts discovering his own bisexuality when he and Hernandez would sexually experiment in high school. He affirms, "He [Aaron] wasn't ashamed of who he was. Aaron was proud of his sexuality. It was just, he couldn't say anything—at the time, there was no one in the NFL that had ever broke this news."

aaron hernandez

However, throughout the docuseries, Dennis Hernandez's severe homophobia is starkly outlined next to his son's admiration of him, underlining the recurring theme of troubled and toxic masculinity in Hernanez's violent outbursts. Additionally, one of Hernandez's lawyers, George Leontire, says that Hernandez confided in him about being molested by a male babysitter as a child (his older brother, DJ Hernandez, has publicly corroborated the story of abuse). Leontire says that he, as a gay man, felt bad for his client: "Aaron asked me if I felt or believed that someone was born gay...Aaron had a belief that his abuse as a child impacted his sexuality. That was one of the things that he held onto as to why he, in his mind, has this aberrant behavior." And then, most egregiously, in 2017 one reporter named Michele McPhee published an unconfirmed story that Odin Lloyd was targeted because he'd caught Hernandez with a man. She was interviewed on a popular Boston sports radio show, where the hosts openly mocked Hernandez about being the Patriots' "tight end." Two days later, Hernandez hanged himself.

Aaron hernandez Netflix

In the last minutes of the Killer Mind, we learn that Hernandez's family donated his brain to science with shocking results. In 2017, the same year of Hernandez's death, former NFL player Fred McNeill became the first living patient to be accurately diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a form of severe brain damage resulting from repeated head traumas. As the disease develops in four worsening stages, symptoms range from memory loss, confusion, depression, and dementia to violent mood swings and suicidal ideation. Shortly after Dr. Bennet Omalu first discovered the disease in professional football players, a study examined the brains of 111 deceased players; 110 were confirmed to have CTE. Examination of Aaron Hernandez's brain showed "the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron's age," with degeneration well into stage three, comparable to a player well into his 60s.

Hernandez's turmoil over his sexuality is not framed as an excuse for his actions, but overall, the series' tepid handling of the issue creates an abrupt end to the matter, with incomplete consideration of how this impacted Hernandez's psychology. In all likelihood, the combination of childhood trauma, internalized shame, and brain damage created the double loss of life surrounding the Aaron Hernandez case. Odin Lloyd's family has forgiven Hernandez, but the senselessness behind the crime makes its unsettling loss feel frozen in time. In a suicide letter addressed to his lawyer, Baez, Hernandez wrote, "Wrong or right — who knows — I just follow my natural instincts and how it guides me."

FILM

The Best Netflix Comedy Specials of the 2010s

It was so bad, it was funny.

Everything in life is funny.

Remember that the next time you feel creeping alarm about climate change, impeachment proceedings, or Brexit. As George Carlin once said, "There's a humorous side to every situation. The challenge is to find it." But in the age of Twitter and op-eds about bad dates with comedians, it's hard to keep track of what's funny and what's cringey. In the last decade, we've been treated to all variations. From critics lamenting that Hannah Gadsby's emotional comedy isn't "real" stand-up to Dave Chappelle returning to say exactly what's on his mind regardless of the political climate, our cultural understanding of what constitutes comedy is currently in flux.

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MUSIC

Taylor Swift Says Big Machine Won't Let Her Perform Old Songs at the AMAs

The pop star accused her ex-label of preventing her from performing her old music.

The battle between Taylor Swift and her ex-label, Big Machine, continues.

Earlier this year, Swift was involved in a high-profile dispute when Big Machine was sold to Ithaca Holdings LLC, the media holding company run by big-name music businessman Scooter Braun. When Swift signed to Big Machine as a teenager, she also signed away the rights to her masters—a.k.a. original recordings of her songs. These masters, spanning all the way from her 2006 debut to 2017's Reputation, are now owned by Braun, who Swift claims has bullied her relentlessly throughout her career. Masters ownership disputes are as old as record labels themselves, but when a star as omnipresent and indelible as Swift voices her own "worst-case scenario" experience, it's hard not to criticize how the music industry functions financially.

Another layer to this feud arose publicly yesterday, when Swift published a lengthy post to her social media explaining that Braun and Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta are allegedly preventing her from performing material from her first six albums on television (for those catching up, that's everything predating August's Lover). Swift is going to be named the Artist of the Decade at this month's American Music Awards, and she was planning on celebrating the honor by performing a medley of her career-spanning hits. Swift said Braun and Borchetta consider this "re-recording" those old songs, something she's apparently not allowed to do until next year.

In her post, Swift also spilled the beans about a documentary Netflix has in the works about her. She alleged that Braun and Borchetta were refusing the use of her older music in the film, although she claims the documentary doesn't mention the two men or Big Machine. "Scott Borchetta told my team that they'll allow me to use my music only if I do these things: If I agree to not re-record copycat versions of my songs next year (which is something I'm both legally allowed to do and looking forward to) and also told my team that I need to stop talking about him and Scooter Braun," Swift wrote. "The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you'll be punished."

Big Machine published a response to Swift's post, saying "at no point did we say Taylor could not perform on the AMAs or block her Netflix special." Well, neither did Swift. She never implied that she wasn't allowed to perform on the AMAs or be featured in the documentary: all she's asking for is the rights to the music she's been writing since she was a teenager. They dodged the specificities of Swift's concerns, claiming that they had been cooperative in the process but that Swift owed millions of dollars to the company. The statement never explicitly denies Swift's accusations. Her publicist, Tree Paine, also tweeted that "an independent, professional auditor has determined that Big Machine owes Taylor $7.9 million of unpaid royalties over several years."

"Taylor, the narrative you have created does not exist," Big Machine wrote. "There is nothing but respect, kindness and support waiting for you on the other side. To date, not one of the invitations to speak with us and work through this has been accepted. Rumors fester in the absence of communication. Let's not have that continue here. We share the collective goal of giving your fans the entertainment they both want and deserve."

Sure, part of Swift's personal brand as a public figure has included the tendency to be a little overdramatic, but she's also one of the most successful artists of all time; Is it too much to ask that she be allowed to perform the music she wrote without jumping through legal hoops? If Big Machine has truly "continued to honor all of her requests to license her catalog to third parties" as they claim in their statement, wouldn't they be able to find a way to let Swift perform her old music during an awards ceremony specifically honoring her success over the past decade? There's clearly a discord here that should raise apprehension in all artists and labels moving forward: Let the people who write music own that music. It's incredibly disheartening when the pursuit of profit, in a creative industry especially, becomes more important than morals and integrity.

FILM

Are You Less Privileged Than Chelsea Handler?

Is Chelsea Handler woke now? Absolutely not.

How should a white person talk about racism?

More specifically, how should a wealthy, famous white woman talk about white privilege? In Chelsea Handler's new Netflix documentary, Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea, she makes a go of it using an uncharacteristic amount of self-conscious confessional mixed with her signature bawdy humor and, most effectively, a generous amount of silence. She interviews disparate groups of black students, activists, and comedians, as well as conservative Republicans and white liberals, all in pursuit of her well-documented quest: "I'm clearly the beneficiary of white privilege, and I want to know what my responsibility is moving forward in the world that we live in today where race is concerned."

Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea | Official Trailer | Netflix youtu.be


If the documentary were marketed as the story of Handler's personal evolution from the low-brow comedian who wrote the New York Times #1 Bestseller titled Uganda Be Kidding Me to a civically-minded and socially conscious Woke™celebrity, then Hello, Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea would work. The 64-minute runtime would be candid exploration of one white woman's privilege and how she found American fame and success through a nuanced blend of excellent luck, a loud mouth, and hard work.

And to be fair, that story comprises about one-third of Handler's documentary. The rest affirms the obvious, which Dr. Laura Smith of Columbia University describes simply: "One of the parts about being a white ally is realizing that every single thing that you have to say about racism, all the people of color you know already thought of it a long time ago, and they've lived it out." Handler travels between the high and low ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, meeting with professors, activists, students, working class people, Bel Air Republicans, a white southern rapper, other comedians, the young, and the old all in pursuit of answers: How can she be a better white person? What should a conversation about white privilege look like? Who should be having those conversations?

Handler faces her own discomfort asking those questions early on, when she's "put in [her] place" by a group of USC students. She attends an open mic coordinated by Jody Armour, a law professor who invites her to participate in their discussion and performances of spoken word about the topic of white privilege. In the first reminder of many throughout the documentary, one audience member points out that the solution is "deeper than a documentary," while another holds Handler accountable for her self-promotional intentions and her privileges as a successful, white comic. "Feel free to edit this out, because I'm embarrassed to be here with you," the student says, "because this is just another example of white privilege. What are you going to do with it other than come into this space and take?"

Handler calls the exchange "intense" but welcomed based on her approach to race and privilege these days, which is simply: Chelsea Handler is one lucky b*itch. The documentary opens with clips of Handler's comedy over the years, including plenty of short-sighted commentary, from fetishizing black men to saying "political correctness is the handicap of any real conversation and I hate it" in her generally maligned 2016 Netflix docuseries episode, Chelsea Does Racism. Handler reckons with her past problematic takes in candid interviews filmed throughout her Bel Air mansion. Her progress can be summed up in her opening words: "I was white, I was pretty, and I had a big mouth and for some reason, that was rewarded in Hollywood." In other words, she got away with a lot—and was even rewarded for it—because of her white privilege.

The most compelling part of the documentary is her delve into her past. "Until doing this film, I didn't realize all the things that I'm guilty of that I've never been arrested for, that black people do get arrested for," she says. At 16, she found herself flunking out of high school and living with her black boyfriend, Tyshawn, who began dealing drugs and with whom Handler was pulled over multiple times while she was also in possession of drugs. She recounts how each time he was arrested she was let go. After becoming pregnant twice, Handler's middle class family forced her to stabilize her life, putting her into an alternative high school which allowed her to graduate "right on time." In the span of the documentary, Handler ends up visiting her ex-boyfriend for the first time in decades; she finds out that after his arrests he never regained his promising future from when he was a teenager with multiple offers to attend college on football scholarships. Instead, he spent 14 years in jail for armed robbery.

Handler is clearly well-intentioned in this special. She earnestly seeks out open discourse with people of color and white people to flesh out the reality of white privilege: "We need to talk to people who are white and stop asking Black people to solve our problems because it's a white person's problem." And when confronted with less informed white people who would only utter the phrase "white privilege" with air quotes around it, she shows genuine frustration. A young woman in a man-in-the-street interview says, "It's not something I see very often," to which Handler responds, "But would you see it if you're white?"

So is Chelsea Handler woke now? Absolutely not. Among other things, she exclusively interviews black and white people, as if to reaffirm the false binary that racism is only an issue between black and white people. As an aspiring "white ally," Handler has continued to promote and discuss civil rights activism, taking to Twitter to promote "Chelsea Handler's Action Center" run by Countable, "the first digital platform that activates, engages and retains your [company's] audience...not once, but every day, on your terms."

She recently posted, "Will you join me in showing up for racial justice? Learn more about @WP4BL, a white anti-racist collective and the Los Angeles affiliate of Showing Up for Racial Justice, and start taking action!"


But despite her good intentions, Handler mostly re-affirms that a demoralizing amount of ignorance exists in America. As she told Jimmy Kimmel while promoting the special, "It's not about how you mean it, it's what that person takes it as." She was speaking about the sensitivity training she had to undergo after a woman at the USC open mic complained about her behavior during filming. She apparently touched the black woman's butt while hugging her after an impressive performance. As Handler told Kimmel, she had no intention of offending the woman, who later enlightened the comedian that black women have been fetishized for their hair and asses for too long and Handler had no right to touch her body. It's a prime example that Handler had little to no understanding of white privilege before filming. "I always thought it was a certain group of people that get into Harvard or Yale or that have rich parents," Handler admits to Kimmel. "It's a privilege just to have white skin in this country, it's a privilege just to go into a grocery store and not be stared at, it's a privilege to get pulled over and not worry if it's a life or death situation."

That anecdote echoes one of the special's flashes in the pan of near-enlightenment. When speaking to wealthy, white, self-described conservative Republican women, Handler gives a simple example of white privilege: She's never been pulled over and felt in danger from the police officer. One woman, a Republican political consultant, is silent for a moment before commenting that she's never considered that before; in fact, only moments prior she had denied the existence of quote-white privilege-unquote. In that new light, the woman admits that "it is a problem" and even says "I don't think there's any way we could deny that." But in a telling moment, her friend asks her if by "it" she means "white privilege" and she says no; she means "black dis-privilege."

CULTURE

Why Jeffrey Epstein Is the Perfect #MeToo Boogeyman (Based on Our Love of True Crime)

The Epstein scandal is the most pristine horror story to come out of the #MeToo era.

Scarlett Johansson still loves and believes in Woody Allen. Chris Brown's fans are still celebrating his music. Even Roman Polanski is still premiering films to applause.

But unlike other predatory men brought down by #MeToo, there's no (arguably) defensible art attached to Jeffrey Epstein's legacy—only horror, perversion, and the power of fame and fortune. In short, the Epstein scandal is the most pristine horror story to come out of the #MeToo era. It's a heavy, opaque drama about a multimillionaire financier who created a "cult-like network of underage girls—with the help of young female recruiters—to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day." If the unfolding scandal were a film, it'd have a high production quality and an instrumental soundtrack.

Actually, never mind. Jeffrey Epstein is soon coming to your screens—all of them, apparently.

Barely a month after the 66-year-old was found dead in his Manhattan prison cell, society is already cannibalizing the late billionaire by retelling his story across various media platforms. As Vanity Fair recently reported, re-imaginings in the works include: a four-part docuseries from Radical Media in development by Netflix; a Lifetime project called Surviving Jeffrey Epstein; a scripted project and possible documentary by elite Hollywood producer Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short); and whispers abound of major studios exploring their own scripted projects about Epstein.

Since Julie K. Brown's investigative report first exposed Epstein in 2018, every freshly uncovered detail has solidified him as our ideal modern boogeyman. Unlike other powerful men brought down by the #MeToo movement—high profile figures who've been publicly accused of wielding their positions of authority to prey upon others, from R. Kelly and Michael Jackson to Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein—Epstein's perversions are concrete facts. No culture war army, no political party, no apologists exist for him. And that makes him the perfect, creeping enemy whose mythos includes all the preferred flavors in the American palate: corrupt power, obscene wealth, and unchecked perversion condoned by a network of famous friends and politicians, including world leaders like Donald Trump, Prince Andrew, and Bill Clinton. Even better, the story of this #MeToo boogeyman is unfolding in real time, with real consequences at stake for potentially "hundreds of other people," according to CNBC.

As high as we might be on our love for true crime, Epstein's crimes seem especially tailor-made for Hollywood. As one source told Vanity Fair, "It may be the most significant scandal in American history in many ways because of the level of the people involved, the currency of it, this vast criminal web almost certainly involving blackmail, and then the guy dies when prison guards just happen to be looking the other way? When you have a scandal of this magnitude, it is only inevitable that there would be a multitude of attempts to tell that story for a larger audience."

Now, Hollywood producers and podcasters are cashing in on the story:

Oscar-winning director Adam McKay recently released the podcast Broken: Jeffrey Epstein through Three Uncanny Four Productions. The podcast is hosted by The New Yorker's Ariel Levy and features Julie K. Brown herself. As McKay notes, "The Epstein story still has dozens and dozens of unanswered questions," and Broken endeavors to unravel his deep connections with the rich and powerful who allowed him to get away with his crimes. He's not the disease," producer Laura Mayer says. "He's a symptom of it."

Another podcast crafts a more narrative version of Epstein's crimes a la Serial. A new release titled Epstein: Devil in the Darkness features exclusive interviews with Epstein's former employees, including a New Mexico ranch hand who claims she was hired to recruit young girls to become Epstein's "massage therapists" and his former chauffeur, who's heard in the premiere episode telling the producers that Epstein was referred to as "the pedophile" by the staff: "It was a joke, it was, 'Yeah, we're going to pick up the Pedophile,' because we'd go and we'd pick up these young girls. But I don't think we really believed that's what was happening, but it comes to pass that that's the truth, that's what was happening. But we used to call—it was a big joke in the office all the time." Producers also feature an exclusive interview with Epstein's cellmate in Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center, who witnessed the man's first suicide attempt.

While we'll have to wait and see if those podcasts will delve into the many conspiracy theories already surrounding Epstein's death by (reported) suicide on August 10, there's also a book in the works from Julie K. Brown. Her confirmed deal with HarperCollins will "expose the inner workings of the sexual pyramid scheme Jeffrey Epstein forced girls into, and will implicate powerful, wealthy and influential politicians, academics, businessmen and public figures," according to the publisher.

And of course, Netflix is getting in on the action. Radical Media has already optioned James Patterson and John Connolly's 2016 biography and true crime book, Filthy Rich: A Powerful Billionaire, the Sex Scandal that Undid Him, and All the Justice that Money Can Buy: The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein, and sold the rights to Netflix. The docuseries has already been in production for a year.

But why? Is there something, anything, to gain from replacing our resurgent fascination with serial killers like Ted Bundy with Jeffrey Epstein true crime features?

Well, for one, no one's arguing that Jeffrey Epstein was a nice guy. While popular serial killer narratives feature the paradox that the most profane sociopaths conduct themselves as upstanding citizens (yes, Ted Bundy worked at a suicide hotline and John Wayne Gacy was a tireless volunteer in his community), most people who knew Epstein described him as "creepy" (unless you're Trump, who found him to be a "terrific guy"). Secondly, Epstein's VIP status was solely based on his obscene wealth, and his millions were slowly acquired throughout a lifetime of being obscene, from beginning his career as an inappropriate prep school teacher in 1974 to becoming a swindling financial trader and consultant. He wasn't a musical icon like Michael Jackson, against whom sexual assault allegations continue to divide his fans, nor was he an actor, auteur, or major studio producer involved with classic pieces of cinema, like Woody Allen or Harvey Weinstein. There's no admiration of his art to stir conflicted feelings. As Americans, we're free to see Epstein as the embodiment of the evils of wealth in corrupt industries—which, perhaps, can bring home the message driving the #MeToo movement, that society's blind idolization of fame and fortune is so glaringly flawed and that classist unaccountability is too immoral to ignore.