‘Clipped’ Review: FX Drafts a Messy but Entertaining Drama About the LA Clippers’ Racism Scandal

Every now and then, when it resurfaces on the timeline for one reason or another, the silly rabbit clip still baffles the mind. In the last decade alone, the internet has gone through so many life cycles that usually when viral artifacts of bygone digital eras are dug up, they immediately feel dated: we’re more desensitized, our humor more obscure and slathered in irony. But the clip of V. Stiviano explaining her relationship with Donald Sterling — the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who was ousted from the NBA after an audio clip of racist remarks he made were leaked — to Barbara Walters never feels stale.

The sheer bizarre nature of it all — the unintended comedic timing, the stilted, but oddly composed delivery of such unabashedly salacious information — was perfectly engineered for a burgeoning meme age. FX’s “Clipped” is well-aware of how iconic the clip is (the scene from the show is used in commercials for the show), but it is strangely flat in dramatizing or enhancing that moment in the series itself. Perhaps that’s because it’s a show that is concerned with the more serious ideas hiding beneath the surface — the media and a new era of viral celebrity culture, the dawn of a certain strain of performative politics, the false notion of a post-racial society — and this, after all, was the low-brow snapshot of what was a very messy, TMZ-powered controversy.

But the show’s limp narrative treatment of the silly rabbit moment (the context leading up to it only leaves more questions than answers) is an emblem of a frustratingly uneven, sometimes illuminating, and pretty entertaining series. “Clipped” refuses to indulge in the drama of this wild moment, but elsewhere the series inadvertently embodies, in its often unsubtle writing and direction, the kind of cheaply entertaining nature of its real-life controversy. And yet, it’s a show that, when it does actually work (mostly in the latter half), has something profound to say about what was really just a big meme wrapped in the drag of what would have been naively referred to then as “social justice.”

The central scandal occurred in 2014, when Sterling’s racist comments, during a private conversation with his assistant Stiviano about his aversion to her bringing Black people to Clippers games, caught fire and eventually forced him to sell the team. The series opens by first contextualizing the controversy within the new tenure of Clippers head coach Doc Rivers (Laurence Fishburne). Basketball fans will most likely chafe at the depiction of the actual basketball elements — the portrayal of Doc, star players and their dynamic — but that perhaps is because of a certain recency bias element that the show is up against. The more time removed from a period-specific subject tends to inspire a greater suspension of disbelief, and giving the biopic treatment to tabloid-sports drama that occurred only 10 years ago almost guarantees the depiction reads as false and caricatured.

But as it tracks the scandal’s effect within the team, the series is periodically compelling when it goes into the behind-the-scenes conversations between Doc and his players about whether or not to boycott the league. For most of them, there is no version of action or inaction that feels right; Sterling’s comments didn’t exist in a vacuum and his dismissal doesn’t erase history, or change the fact that they are all still Black players in a league owned by dozens of other white billionaires. All it means is that one of those owners was caught.

“I was just talking about the way the world works,” Sterling (Ed O’Neill in a knockout performance) says later in the show, defending his comments. “Are we to pretend that appearances don’t matter, that there isn’t an ordering that every schmuck on Earth has to observe? An order, by the way, that slammed doors on me when I was [named] ‘Tokowitz.’” The most damning revelation of the series is that buried within Sterling’s vile racism was also a sobering, clear-eyed understanding about the Obama era illusion of a post racial society, one that the hammer brought down on Sterling was touted for purportedly upholding. “They want me dragged through the town square to send a message about something that nobody’s gonna change,” Sterling says. “Don’t let that kid in the White House fool you. Hope? Change? Give me a break. No one can change it. But you’re not supposed to say that.”

Ed O’Neill in “Clipped.” (Kelsey McNeal/FX)

From Sterling’s side of things, the series tracks the scandal not so much through Sterling himself, but rather through the two women in his life: Stiviano (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who embodies a murky position as his assistant and sort-of public girlfriend, and Sterling’s wife and business partner, Shelly (Jacki Weaver). The show’s treatment of Stiviano’s side of the story is often where it reads most inelegant. Part of this is because, for much of the show, it can’t quite decide what its position is on her — she’s a cartoonishly gold-digging, wannabe socialite who also wants to adopt two kids and carve out a place for herself in a city built on fame and fortune. At points, her involvement in the leaked clip is framed, flimsily, as righteous payback in a rich man’s world.

That ambivalence becomes translated into a mostly believable complexity by the end — complexity rooted not so much in her, but rather the forces that made her: a new Instagram era of fame in America, the patriarchal hand that exploits her. How the show really feels about her can perhaps best be understood in relation to Shelly, who is seen in a largely sympathetic light across most of the series. Both Stiviano and Shelly, are cast in some ways as two sides to the same coin: victims to the whims of a crass and entitled buffoon. But whereas V is seen mostly as a fame-hungry ditz, Shelly is the overlooked good wife who has stuck beside Sterling. O’Neill and Weaver make a show stopping pair, translating their marriage’s twisted dynamic into something as believable and human as it is ugly.

Jackie Weaver as Shelley Sterling in “Clipped.” (Kelsey McNeal/FX)
Jackie Weaver as Shelley Sterling in “Clipped.” (Kelsey McNeal/FX)

But the show eventually twists its view of Shelly. “You two were made for each other,” Shelly’s friend says about her and Sterling in the final episode. “You both think you own everybody.” The moment comes at a lunch where Shelly and her girlfriends are celebrating the end of the scandal and the official sale of the team. A shot of them clinking champagne glasses comes after a hard cut from a prior scene, in which Stiviano is assaulted by someone calling her a racial slur in a bar.

Stiviano was the woman who became the meme — the woman in the visor, the silly rabbit — and perhaps welcomed it, desperately courting her 15 minutes of fame. Neither she nor any of the characters in this scandal are to be admired. But, as “Clipped” seems to finally point out, she was also a Black woman who was exploited and thrown aside. Meanwhile, Shelly, the other woman, is left to her own punishment, a far quieter public shame and a payday to the tune of $2 billion.

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