TV Review - King Ester (47th Daytime Emmys)

The nominations for the 47th Daytime Emmys were announced on May 21. CBS is the front-runner with 57 nods. In terms of other traditional television networks, NBC has 43. ABC has 38 and PBS has 28. Syndicated programs account for 52 of the nominations. Digital streaming platforms are seeing significant numbers too. Amazon Prime has 55 nods and Netflix has 40. YouTube earned 17 nominations. A good chunk of that recognition was the result of this series, written and directed by Dui Jarrod who created BET's Brooklyn. Blue. Sky. and presented by Issa Rae of HBO's Insecure. The series is up for Outstanding Writing Team, Outstanding Directing Team, Outstanding Performance By a Supporting Actress in a Digital Drama for Janet Hubert (General Hospital and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and Outstanding Performance By a Lead Actress in a Digital Drama for Rowin Amone, a black transgendered person making her series debut.

Rowin Amone stars as the titular character. She follows Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black who was the first transgendered person to be nominated for an Emmy Award, which occurred back in 2014. That was followed by the coming out of former athlete-turned-reality star, Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 who is possibly the most famous and most wealthy, transgendered person in the United States. However, representation of transgendered people of color, especially trans-women of color, has been lacking, even since Cox's success six years ago. The TV series Pose (2018) was a huge step forward but none of the trans-women of color were nominated from that series, which is why Amone's nomination here is important and amazing.

It's important because it allows the perspective and point-of-view of a black transgendered woman to be shared. Given the persistent trans-phobia, including deadly violence against trans-women of color, their point-of-view is desperately needed in media. As such, Jarrod allows his audience to walk with her, to see what she sees and to feel what she feels. We get to understand a little better the experience of being in someone like Ester's shoes. We empathize with the highs and lows, the ecstasy and the anxiety, the joy and the anger, and Amone is a perfect vessel for it all. Those watching though shouldn't expect to be alienated. Her experience, though unique with diversions into sex work, does have things to which many can relate. She's an aspiring actress living in poverty. Many creatives and artists struggle to pursue dreams while being broke. In that, a lot of people, even cisgendered people, are like Ester.

What Jarrod captures is also a slice of the black experience in the Big Easy or the surrounding area. There was a taste of that experience in Queen & Slim (2019). There was more of a taste in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), but not much more than that since Eve's Bayou (1997). I bring up these big-screen films, not only for their geographical connections, but also because Jarrod has crafted this series to feel as such, to feel like a big-screen film. Jarrod has not shot this program like the average web series. Even though the other series in the same Emmy categories are shot more for the big-screen than the soap operas that garner the most accolades at the Daytime Emmys, Jarrod's camera goes even further than them.

Yes, the look of this series is very cinematic, very wide-screen, seemingly even wider than the standard 16:9. His cinematography looks almost anamorphic. Yet, it's not just about aspect ratio and Jarrod trying to give us a larger picture and more expansive view of his location and the people in it. Through the angles and lighting Jarrod chooses, he also gives us insight or just plain sight at this particular parish in a way that many probably haven't put eyes on it before. It might even be VFX, but it wouldn't be surprising if Jarrod used actual celluloid cameras because there is a gritty and rough feeling to the visuals that convey what things were like in Louisiana, August 2005 where this series is set.

August 2005 is significant because it's the time when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It's unclear if Jarrod wanted to recreate any of the storm, but Katrina is more in the backdrop than one might think. It looms over the series, but the storm is never actually depicted. Jarrod doesn't seem interested in showing us any of that horror or destruction, which can be a bit frustrating. There was perhaps enough of that in the news at the time or contextualized later in films like Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke (2006). Jarrod might not have been able to do so, but he perhaps had other sensibilities than making "Katrina" a character in this narrative in the way Benh Zeitlin did for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Jarrod's sensibilities are more that of a playwright. This series was in fact based on a stage play that he penned called The Inevitable Sadness of All Thangs Gud. There are scenes where Jarrod will hold his camera in wide-shot and let his actors exist in the space. It's as if he were directing them on a small stage like the one at the Kumble Theater in Brooklyn where I first saw Jarrod on stage himself. One of the first ideas I even conceived while watching just the first episode of Jarrod's series is that his protagonist and milieu are almost like something pulled from a Tennessee Williams' play, such as A Streetcar Named Desire, which is also coincidentally set in New Orleans.

Jarrod's series is like a Williams' play mixed with a "dirty south" aesthetic, as that might be described in a Big Freedia song. Yet, he uses more of a smooth and smokey, Jazz sound, rather than just hip hop or bounce music on the soundtrack. The score is instead more haunting and melancholic as a result. It gives the series a very ominous tone. With Katrina looming, it does presage that the series is building to a tragic climax, which it does, but not one that is expected.

Not Rated but contains language and sexual situations.
Running Time: 10 mins. / 7 eps.

Available on YouTube.

*In full transparency, I contributed money to Dui Jarrod's Seed&Spark campaign to raise funds for this series' post-production, which I did back in June 2018.


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