TV comedies take on open secret of sexual harassment in Hollywood

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 06:11:15 AM. The second season of 'Master of None' hit Netflix in May, but it feels more relevant every day. In the finale, Dev Shah - the struggling actor played by the show's co-creator and star, Aziz Ansari - is celebrating. He just scored a role in a food travel show, 'Best Food Friends,' as sidekick to Chef Jeff, the swaggering Food TV star played by Bobby Cannavale. Then Dev meets up with an old

The second season of "Master of None" hit Netflix in May, but it feels more relevant every day.

In the finale, Dev Shah - the struggling actor played by the show's co-creator and star, Aziz Ansari - is celebrating. He just scored a role in a food travel show, "Best Food Friends," as sidekick to Chef Jeff, the swaggering Food TV star played by Bobby Cannavale. Then Dev meets up with an old colleague, Benjamin (H. Jon Benjamin), who punctures Dev's excitement.

"I've heard through the grapevine that Chef Jeff is a little bit of a creep," Benjamin tells him, relaying a story he heard thirdhand about Jeff harassing a food stylist on set.

Dev is taken aback. "What am I going to do?" he asks. "I've got to work with this guy!"

"I don't know, man, that's a tough problem," Benjamin replies. "I'm glad I don't have to deal with it."

Sexual harassment in the entertainment industry has often been described as an open secret. Before the current wave of accusations and apologies and denials and therapy commitments hit, tales of harassment were aired through celebrity gossip sites and warned about in whisper networks. They were also exorcised through television plotlines.

In the past year, even as some of the industry's biggest abusers still lurked in the shadows, shows like "Master of None," "Girls" and "One Mississippi" all grappled with the role of the bystander - the person who knows something but isn't sure quite what to do about it.

Just as Louis C.K. used his stand-up specials and FX show, "Louie," to recast his own sexual misconduct as transgressive comedy, his peers - multihyphenate TV stars like Ansari, Tig Notaro and Lena Dunham - have used their own platforms to mine the experience of working with guys like him and dig into issues like how to act on intractable rumors, the social discomfort of taking a stand and the problem with well-meaning male allies.

Now the bystander is suddenly in the spotlight in real life, too. As reporters have chased after Hollywood abusers, they've also homed in on their high-profile collaborators and friends, searching for signs of complicity.

Ansari, until recently, shared a manager with Louis C.K., who has admitted to masturbating in front of colleagues, and that's proven enough of a connection for reporters to pointedly push for comment. The Daily Beast went so far as to name Ansari as a member of what it calls "Louis C.K.'s Powerful Army of Celebrity Enablers" because, when reporter Marlow Stern asked Ansari about Louis C.K. rumors in 2015, Ansari replied, "I'm not talking about that."

But the bystander's responsibility is more ambivalent than the headlines suggest. We've now been inundated with images of victims bravely coming forward and abusers cowering behind legalese, but the role of the bystander still lacks a clear social script. We've yet to hash out a consensus on when third parties have a moral obligation to speak on behalf of a victim, confront a friend, or relay rumors to higher-ups. Perhaps that's why the bystander's predicament has lent itself so handily to comedy, particularly the kind of dark prestige dramedies that make moral and sexual ambiguity their playgrounds.

Chef Jeff is not obviously molded on any particular disgraced star - "Master of None" co-creator Alan Yang has said that the harassment plotline is permanently relevant, given the seemingly endless supply of Hollywood creeps - but the plotline reveals some truths about that type of guy and the power he exerts over the people around him.

In Season 2, Dev seeks out one of Jeff's targets - a former makeup artist on his show - and suggests that she report the harassment to network higher-ups. When she declines, he respects her decision not to speak up. Then she writes a blog post that sets off a public reckoning, and "Chef Jeff Is a Perv" starts trending on Twitter.

Even then, Dev cannot bring himself to confront the oblivious Jeff. Instead, they step onto a live talk-show set to make paella and promote "Best Food Friends." When the news breaks on live TV, a chyron pops under Dev's image that reads, "DEV SHAH: Sexual predator Chef Jeff's 'BFF.' " As Chef Jeff storms off the set, Dev lies: "I don't know anything about this!"

"Master of None" reveals how it's often easier to support a woman in the abstract than it is to actually condemn a man, especially if that guy is your blustering celebrity boss. It's not just female underlings who are socialized to be nice and agreeable to guys like that, and when placed under their power, it's often more instinctual to freeze than fight. When you lend an ear to a victim who's not ready to go public, it's hard to know how to keep her secret without also protecting her harasser - and making your own reputation vulnerable when the truth comes out.

In February, HBO's "Girls" aired its own harassment episode, one focused on the confusing experience of getting to know - and like - an alleged predator. In "American Bitch," the fictional novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) invites Hannah Horvath (Dunham) to his fancy apartment to confront her about an article she wrote about him in a "niche feminist blog." Hannah has collected a handful of online accusations from young female fans whom Chuck has lured into questionably consensual sexual encounters by leveraging his fame.

That episode collapses an entire relationship into an afternoon: Though Hannah is standoffish at first, Chuck draws her into an intimate exchange in which he challenges her journalism, flatters her intelligence, scrounges for sympathy, plies her with gifts, and then - oops - pulls out his penis. The episode ends with Chuck's preteen daughter coming home and Chuck using her presence to forestall any further discussion about what's just happened.

Hannah and Chuck's encounter dances around some unspoken dynamics of harassment. The power game can be as mental as it is physical. Often men who hurt women help women in other ways, and that can be self-serving, too - supporting women's work might open up new opportunities to take advantage of them, woo them with flattery that ends up entrapping them in a kind of complicity, or help shield the men's reputations against unseemly accusations.

Of all the shows that have taken on harassment this year, comedian Tig Notaro's Amazon series "One Mississippi" pulls off the sharpest rebuke of men like Louis C.K., in part because a plotline in the second season was inspired by him. Notaro was mentored by Louis C.K., and he was a producer on "One Mississippi," but recently she cut ties with him, urged him to address the harassment allegations publicly and wrote a workplace harasser into her own show.

"One Mississippi" stars Notaro as a radio personality with a complicated relationship to her Mississippi hometown. When a producer at her network masturbates in front of a co-worker and friend, Kate (played by her real-life spouse, Stephanie Allynne), Tig goes on a rampage on her behalf. She storms into the masturbator's office (he denies it), then brings Kate to tell their boss. He finds the account hard to believe, he says, because the masturbator is "so progressive!"

Finally, Tig is on the verge of outing the masturbator live on her radio show when Kate reminds her that she does not have the license to publicly air Kate's experience. So Tig takes to the airwaves to tell her own story, of being molested by her step-grandfather as a child.

"One Mississippi" serves as a kind of sideways explanation of Notaro's soured public relationship with Louis C.K. over the past several years and also why her statements about it had always been so vague: It wasn't her story to tell. Unlike Dev, who was politely deferential to his own harassed co-worker, Tig is insistent on holding the men in her office accountable, regardless of Kate's feelings. She ultimately defers to Kate's wishes not to out the masturbator on air, but she still models a different kind of bystander, one who assumes responsibility for harassment in her workplace.

Now that five women have come forward with their own stories about Louis C.K., Notaro told the New York Times that she felt he had attempted to make her complicit in his behavior. She fears "he released my album to cover his tracks," she said. "He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman."

There's something inviting about taking on sexual harassment in a 30-minute comedic sprint, either as a bottle episode (like the one in "Girls") or a finale plot twist (as in "Master of None"). If the victim and accuser are minor enough characters, and the behavior less horrendous than rape, it allows the creator to nod to the problem without having to deal with its ramifications all season long.

It seems unlikely that these more fleeting television moments would be scripted exactly this way today. "One Mississippi," the rare show to commit to its harassment story line, feels like the series best equipped to respond to this moment. In fact, the show has already doubled down, using the masturbation incident to explore the wider scope of sexual violence against women and girls. It's earned the license to keep telling the story.

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