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Ed O’Neill in Hulu’s Clippers/Donald Sterling Series

Ed O’Neill in Hulu’s Clippers/Donald Sterling Series

Equal time rules do not, in fact, apply to slightly fictionalized treatments of the real-life trials and tribulations of professional basketball teams, but for at least an hour it’s hard to shake the feeling that FX/Hulu‘s six-parter Clipped exists as a make-good for the surplus of programming dedicated to the Lakers.

In terms of tone and style, that first episode of Clipped plays like the scrappy and far less enjoyable and successful younger brother to HBO’s Winning Time, an apt parallel for the relationship between the Clippers and the Lakers. 

Clipped

The Bottom Line

A thematically intriguing tonal mess.

Airdate: Tuesday, June 4 (Hulu)
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Jacki Weaver, Ed O’Neill, Cleopatra Coleman, Kelly AuCoin
Creator: Gina Welch

This sells Clipped a bit short. I watched the pilot twice, separated by several months. The first time, I thought it was a mess, more cartoonish and broad than it had any reason to be. The second time, once I’d gotten all the comparisons to other shows out of my system — once I’d stopped being distracted by how little any of the show’s actors resemble the very famous people they’re playing, once I’d stopped being distracted by the details that, as a basketball fan, I already knew and could easily fact-check — it became easier to spot the bigger themes Clipped has on its mind.

Underneath what feels derivative and coarse — the poster featuring a hand with overly manicured nails squeezing a pair of basketballs isn’t reflective of the show — creator Gina Welch’s adaptation of Ramona Shelburne’s 30 for 30 podcast is a pragmatic, appropriately prickly examination of the cost of the American Dream and the responsibilities that come with fame in a social media-driven age of voyeurism and visibility. It’s a story with an interesting amount of empathy for all of its flawed participants, but very little affection and, in a narrative with nobody to really root for and lots of people to generally root against, it’s hard to always stay invested.

Our protagonist, insofar as he’s a consultant on the series, is Doc Rivers (Laurence Fishburne), who leaves a job coaching the Boston Celtics to take over Los Angeles’ other team, the Clippers, for the 2013-14 season. The Clippers are a laughingstock, in part because of their owner, real estate mogul Donald Sterling (Ed O’Neill). Sterling has a reputation for being cheap, meddlesome and treating his players like property in a way that is, at best, very creepy (stay tuned for the “at worst”). 

But Rivers has high hopes for this moribund franchise (that the team won 56 games the year before is never mentioned). They’re a squad with a lot of potential, thanks to superstar point guard Chris Paul (J. Alphonse Nicholson), high-flying Blake Griffin (Austin Scott), newly added sharpshooter J.J. Redick (Charlie McElveen) and breakout rebounding machine DeAndre Jordan (Sheldon Bailey). The missing piece seems to be Rivers, a championship-level coach, provided that outside factors don’t intervene.

Outside factors intervene. Much to the chagrin of his longtime wife Shelly (Jacki Weaver), Donald has a very public and very strange relationship with his so-called assistant V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman). He buys her fancy cars, revealing outfits and even a duplex, so everybody assumes that Donald and Stiviano are having a sexual affair. It’s… more complicated than that. For evasively evoked reasons, she has been recording a lot of their conversations, including one in which he very aggressively takes her to task for posing for pictures with Magic Johnson and surrounding herself with people of color. It’s exactly the sort of audio clip that, if leaked to TMZ, could jeopardize the Clippers’ season and Sterling’s hold on the franchise. But the exposure could help Stiviano find the level of notoriety that she craves.

Clipped is a show without a hero. There’s no dogged reporter working to break the story, no single righteous player willing to make a stand. Even Rivers, presented as a man with a spine and some principles — Fishburne is gruff and fiery — is so uncertain of the honorable path that he finds himself having cryptic conversations in his condo’s sauna with a sage incarnation of LeVar Burton who may or may not be real (nothing in the show indicates he isn’t, but I have my suspicions).

The scandal involving Stiviano’s recordings is juicy, but Welch is much more curious about the aftermath, for the players and for complacent longtime Clippers’ employees — like PR maven Seth and wholly unqualified team president Andy (Rich Sommer and Kelly AuCoin, both amusingly flighty). Everybody in the series has taken Sterling’s money with some awareness of his fatal flaws, and when the situation becomes untenable, nobody can find any high ground.

The middle of the season is full of long scenes in which characters mostly argue about whether or not there’s a path forward, and although it’s hard to fully buy anybody here as people rather than rhetorical positions, those conversations can be fascinating. The season’s best episode, the flashback-heavy fourth hour, traces how several main characters got to where they find themselves in April 2014. The playoffs were heating up, the recording was breaking on TMZ and the time was right for people to examine their respective Faustian bargains — some made out of hubris, some out of desperation and some, like that of NBA legend and former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor (a very effective Clifton Davis), out of a misbegotten sense of duty. It’s a good and thoughtful episode of TV, even if it doesn’t really gel with the series around it. 

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It’s a series that, by design, wants to be very frivolous and very serious at once, which I can see working more consistently on the pages of a script than as executed by the directors here, led by Kevin Bray. The first episode tends toward the comic, with the players as bickering eccentrics — DeAndre Jordan loves lizards! Chris Paul meets with Doc on the set of a State Farm ad in-character with a mustache! — and Donald Sterling as a borderline senile buffoon. Stiviano, with her reverence for Kim Kardashian, is in a constant state of auditioning for her own reality show. None of it is very funny, but you get the point that this is a story about grown men playing a game for millions. How could it matter?

It matters because Sterling has been sheltered by a sports league that’s America’s version of an oligarchy — mostly white billionaires covering their own butts and making money off of a mostly Black workforce. The series looks backward to the L.A. riots of 1992, which play a role in Doc’s episode four flashback. And although it isn’t mentioned, the series implicitly looks ahead to 2020, when NBA players, led by Chris Paul, pushed to use their platform for social justice causes. Anger simmers and it’s projected at targets well beyond Donald Sterling.

But building a serious argument on a frivolous foundation is a difficult task. Clipped feels choppy and emotionally remote, lacking a consistent voice and anything resembling a distinctive style — something that Winning Time, if nothing else, had in spades.

Coleman gives the performance that bridges the tonal extremes best. Stiviano is presented as a woman who’s uncomfortable in her own skin, who knows she wants something bigger for herself. But in selecting role models ranging from the Kardashians to Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman character, she lacks a workable blueprint. The series depicts Stiviano’s most blatantly weird moments — roller-skating by the press with a visor over her face, for example — with compassion, while never projecting anything noble onto her. In a show in which nearly every character is narcissistic to some degree, she’s the one without the power or money to back it up, which makes her borderline tragic.

There’s nothing tragic about Sterling’s fall, and O’Neill leans hard into every aspect of his entitled grotesquerie, from the external — such a bad dye job — to the dazed certainty in his intonations. It’s not a subtle performance, but Donald Sterling’s general grossness wasn’t a secret, and “If everybody knew, how was this allowed to continue for decades?” is among the series’ key questions. He’s matched by Weaver’s interestingly contradictory take on Shelly, as simultaneously underestimated and oblivious. 

The series is tentative when it comes to developing the on-screen players, several of whom are still in the NBA or NBA adjacent. Nobody looks like the person they’re playing, and their personalities are only sketched out in broad strokes — the treatment of Chris Paul is especially tentative — presumably to avoid Jerry West-style blowback. You’d think they were cast to be believable in the basketball scenes, but I don’t think Clipped has more than five minutes of on-court action. Bailey, whose Jordan is intense and weird, is probably the standout.

NBA fans are the target demographic for Clipped and they’ll pick it to pieces, while the casually curious will probably yearn for something more “entertaining,” with a more easily contained sense of morality. Ultimately, once you get past the initial, “Haven’t I seen this show before?” sensation, it’s very possible to engage with Clipped as a rhetorical exercise touching on race, class and sports in contemporary America. That doesn’t mean it works as an exercise in cohesive television.

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