'Clipped' is a smartly written saga about the off-court triangle involving Donald Sterling


I like a good sports story as much as the next TV critic, but when it comes to actual professional sports, my lack of interest is exceeded only by my ignorance. All I could have told you about the Clippers the day before yesterday was that they’re an L.A.-based basketball team known for losing; I had missed the 2014 scandal at the heart of “Clipped,” a new FX miniseries on Hulu based on the ESPN podcast “The Sterling Affairs,” and knew nothing of any of the players represented here — outside of Elgin Baylor but that’s just basic Los Angeles cultural knowledge.

I’m educated now to the point of extent of having heard the podcast, a work of journalism from Ramona Shelburne, and watched the series, a work of re-creation and a work of the imagination from Gina Welch. When a recording of racist remarks by Clippers owner Donald Sterling (Ed O’Neill) becomes public, it creates the media firestorm that somehow passed me by, creating havoc in the Sterling household, the Clippers front office and the NBA.

The setting notwithstanding, this isn’t a sport story in the usual sense, that the question of winning or losing is settled history, and the Clippers, to credit Wikipedia, remain secure in their reputation as “arguably the least successful franchise in North American professional sports.” On the other hand, it has much to do with the business of basketball; the question of what, or who, a team owner actually owns, ongoing questions of racial equality; and of doing the right thing when there is no obvious right thing. Certainly there is a lot of gamesmanship involved in this story, off the court and outside the arena, between out-sized characters who prove better and worse competitors and good or bad losers and winners. (Albeit there are not so many winners.)

The series comprises two interlinked stories. One, centered on white people with money, involves Sterling, a volatile 80-year-old billionaire whose poor record on race, as the city’s biggest residential landlord, long predated the scandal; his wife and high school sweetheart, Shelly (Jacki Weaver), who has accommodated her husband’s infidelities and business strategies for decades; and V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman), Donald’s hardly secret current mistress, five decades his junior, who styles herself a “personal assistant,” “right hand arm” and “silly rabbit.” Despite the duplex, Ferrari, Bentleys and various expensive baubles he has showered upon her, she seems too delusional and naive to be called a gold digger. She imagines she’ll be the next Mrs. Sterling, and, like many in the social-media-driven entrepreneurial economy, that she’ll be famous for something — something other than what she becomes famous for.

V. has a habit of recording her conversations with Donald, make of that what you will, one of which catches him upbraiding her for posting a picture of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram and asking her not to “broadcast that you’re associating” with Black people “or bring them to my games.” (She’s Black and Latina.) When their relationship starts to break down, that tape finds its way to TMZ and then to the wider world, where all hell breaks lose.

As stories of love triangles go, “Shelley and V.” is not “Jules and Jim.” As nuanced as Welch and the performers attempt to make these dramatically, comically outsized characters — and the performances are as much or more the draw as the story — the Sterlings and Stiviano, as seen here, are morally shallow people. (O’Neill’s Al Bundy — not a million miles, if many millions of dollars, away from Donald — is more interesting and sympathetic.) Why one should care what happens to any of them is a question viewers will have to answer for themselves; as studies in self-deluded cluelessness, they are well drawn, but they are not worth worrying about.

The other story centers on new head coach Doc Rivers (Laurence Fishburne), a Clipper himself 20 years earlier and the series’ most sympathetic character, trying to guide the team to its first championship while managing his relationship with Sterling on the one hand — mostly through obsequious team president Andy Roeser (Kelly AuCoin) — and the players on the other. Unlike his bosses, who need constant reminding, Doc understands that they’re in a crisis.

While the Sterling storyline focuses on people who live in a bubble, this thread camps out with those who can’t, as Black men and public figures, afford to. (Yes, they all have money.) The drama isn’t in how the team will do, but what they’ll do in light of the Sterling tape. Socratic discussion is the mode here, both with Rivers — who works out his thoughts in a steam room with LeVar Burton (as himself) — and among the players, with Chris Paul (J. Alphonse Nicholson) the thoughtful voice and DeAndre Jordan (Sheldon Bailey) all fired up. (Overall, they are a group whose harmonious spirit Ted Lasso would envy.) The political points are sharply made — we get a flashback to Rivers as a player at the time of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, questioning his own status — but stay tolerably short of becoming didactic.

Welch also brings in Baylor (Clifton Davis), a Clippers general manager for 22 years who wound up suing Sterling, the club and the NBA for employment discrimination; in 1959 as the star rookie of the then-Minneapolis Lakers, he boycotted a game over segregated hotel accommodations — an incident that shifts “Clipped” for a minute into documentary mode, with archival photographs of the actual Baylor.

“Clipped” is smartly written and worth watching for the performers, also notably including Rich Sommer as Clippers PR man Seth Burton; a dryly funny Corbin Bernsen as Shelly’s lawyer in her various negotiations with Donald; Yvonna Pearson as Deja, the devil on V.’s shoulder; and Harriet Sansom Harris as Justine, Shelly’s designated best friend. I found it more diverting than compelling, but these events did raise a ruckus in their time, and there are always those who’ll want to see actors bring to life things they remember reading in the paper.

I say “paper,” even though internet memes and TV clips are the Greek chorus here. But we all have to root for our team.



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