Kate Berlant (Netflix)

For her episode of The Characters, Kate Berlant decided to delve into a world she knows intimately. Her father Tony (who appears in the beginning of the faux-documentary here, alongside other real-world art luminaries like Frank Gehry, Casey Jane Ellison, Todd Oldham, Ed Moses, Peggy Noland, and Girls’ Jemima Kirke) is an acclaimed modern artist, and it’s not difficult to imagine Berlant’s Denise St. Roy taking inspiration from any number of art world figures she’s known in her life. The problem with Berlant’s episode is, it’s harder to imagine that the comedian couldn’t get deeper under her creation’s skin.

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Denise

Denise St. Roy—seen in her younger days as a multimedia artist whose filmed performance pieces include a lot of interpretive dance and face-slapping—is presented as a pretentious, self-obsessed fraud, her recent, lucrative forays into corporate art (for Apple and now Sprite) funding an insular, opulent lifestyle of artifice and ostentatiously eccentric clothing. She ignores her little-seen husband, Brian (also Berlant, seen in his few scenes either ineptly coaching his twin daughters’ softball team or rocking out while making elaborate smoothies with his expensive juicer) and has turned her young twin teen daughters into a life-long art project, referring to them both as Jenny “to see if they would be able to develop separate personalities despite being recognized as a singular unit.” (Luckily, the girls—played by Rebecca and Miranda Gruss—seem relatively normal despite, well, everything.) The only person she claims to relate to on a human level is her loyal housekeeper Louisa (Socorro Santiago), who genuinely seems to care about her employer, even as Denise arbitrarily gives and then rescinds gifts like her ridiculous, ornate “awareness headdress” and occasionally flops down on the bed where Louisa’s folding laundry with a faux-chummy, “Hey, bitch,” in order to ask theoretical art questions she’s only going to answer herself. (“What do you think’s more important—don’t think about it—sensitivity to aesthetics or compassion?” “I think…” “Hey! Trick question.”)

Rachel

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As for her art, Denise’s affairs are handled by her fawning gallery owner dealer, Rachel (Berlant), a worshipful (to Denise), domineering (to her employees and anyone who criticizes Denise) trust fund baby whose jargon-heavy praise of Denise’s new corporate-friendly direction will brook no debate. Like Denise, Rachel’s a type—which isn’t a problem on a sketch show that deals in types—but she’s also a very familiar type, which is. Satirizing the modern art world is a nearly impossible trick to pull off, which doesn’t prevent it from being such an over-utilized target. With its necessary abstraction and its market-driven, scene-specific culture, the modern art world is an easy mark for someone wanting to play ”The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Lou Bradley

The thing is, as Berlant no doubt knows, there are frauds and charlatans in any artistic movement, just as there are genuine visionaries. Finding the balance between puncturing pretension and celebrating effort and true inspiration is difficult comedically—the Adam Goldberg-starring (Untitled) took a good swing at it, while the same year’s Boogie Woogie mined the same ground and came up with little but smug contempt. For the most part, Berlant is content to hang the art world on the wall and shoot spitballs at it.

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Brian

Luckily, Berlant’s talents make them at least well-formed spitballs. While Brian’s not a specific-enough character to make much of an impression, and bit Berlant character Lou Bradley (a competing artist who may or may not be faking being mute and who is definitely faking needing a wheelchair) doesn’t add a lot, at least Denise, who carries the bulk of the episode, allows Berlant to bring some shades to the satire. There are hints that there’s something like a feeling, genuine human being inside Denise’s carefully constructed persona throughout, especially when an art critic/interviewer (great work from Damian Young, barely concealing his character’s knowing condescension behind those hooded eyes) gently probes for details about her wealthy upbringing and artistic process. While, as ever, Denise deflects his matter-of-fact questions with either irrelevancies (“Are you crying?” she asks abruptly. He’s not) or with self-important abstractions (demanding that he pronounce the hard “t” in “art”), Berlant also brings a trapped fury to Denise’s visage as she contemplates her protective bubble being burst. Holding on Denise’s face for a long time, the camera catches Berlant expressing such hate through her unblinking eyes that it’s momentarily frightening.

Denise St. Roy

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There are some absurd touches seeded through the episode that bring out hints of a real Denise as well. A montage of her avoiding phone calls from Rachel asking how the Sprite piece is going sees her eating tin foil-wrapped street meat in a tin foil dress, scoring weed, and, hilariously, scoring a basket in a pickup basketball game. And when she has to deal with her weirdo assistant (John Early) whose giggling, nodding acquiescence can’t mask the fact that he’s not going to do any of the tasks she sets for him (she wants the larger size Himalayan sea salt lamps), her momentary position as the sensible one in the room allows Denise a flash of humanity. The same goes for her enjoyment of a young woman’s aggressively quirky YouTube show (that she watches while eating a comically huge bowl of mashed potatoes), where the woman’s use of words like “amazeballs” and “awesome sauce” seem to genuinely tickle her. (The YouTube character is like a human woman desperately trying to Zooey Deschanel herself into being, another of the episode’s parade of constructed personae.)

YouTube Host

But most of the time, Denise is a strutting, be-feathered joke, her interactions with her art students marked by arch, self-aggrandizing belittlement ( “No, no, NO! Sorry, I couldn’t tell if the ‘nos’ were audible at first.”) Whatever real talent or purity of purpose she may have had (and it’s not clear she did) is long forgotten. In its place is a preening, self-obsessed fake, propped up by unearned adulation (and piles and piles of Sprite money), and if that’s the joke, Berlant doesn’t make it funny or insightful enough to sustain the whole episode. Still, she’s a fine actress, and the concluding scene where Denise drags Louisa over to sit with her (just as the poor woman is about to go home for the night) sees something almost break through her façade. For as much as she takes her servant for granted (and condescendingly exoticizes her “foreignness” and working class status), there’s a real need here to connect, not to be alone. When Louisa tells Denise a lovely story about the fable of a bird her father made up to keep his children’s sense of awe at the world alive, Berlant gives Denise the merest flicker of recognition, of understanding. But she’s beyond that, snapping out an irrelevant “The bird was gendered female?” and finishing up by asking for her silly ”awareness headdress” back, trading actual enlightenment in favor of sitting alone on her expensive sofa with nonsense on her head.

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Throughout the episode, there’s a theme of cages and freedom. Her parents were “heirs to the largest cage manufacturers in the world.” Denise used to build elaborate birdcages, explaining “every negative thought, you have to build a cage around it.” Her big Sprite project turns out to be a model of herself, holding a Sprite, in a cage. Even the YouTube woman shows a picture of a sandwich trapped in a cage (which—this means something). But in the end, Denise’s art is all in service of building a cage she’ll never be thoughtful or self-reflective, or brave enough to abandon. It’s sad. But this episode is a well-constructed portrait of an insufficiently worthy subject.

Stray observations

  • While Denise hasn’t found time to hang a photograph of Brian in her studio (she places it face down) there’s a painting of what appears to be a pietà of Whoopi Goldberg holding—is that Bill Cosby? Or O.J. Simpson? Either way, I have questions.
  • “I watch Game Of Thrones because I’m a nerd and a guy like most dudes are!”
  • Rachel’s all-too happy to downplay her ownership of the gallery in the presence of a hunky art professor/painter until he dares criticize Denise’s work, claiming she “mimics the work of subaltern communities and refuses to make art outside the hermetically sealed world of corporate America.” Then she kicks him out.
  • “I have your review. I destroyed it of course, but I have it in my archive, my trash.”
  • “I know many of you can’t relate to air travel, but…”
  • Kirke on Denise: “She revolutionized space and what it is to take up space.”

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