Clipped review: FX’s miniseries goes deeper than its tabloid scandal

The show builds out Donald Sterling’s fall into a thoughtful examination of race and power in America

Clipped review: FX’s miniseries goes deeper than its tabloid scandal
Clipped Photo: Kelsey McNeal/FX

Even the most casual sports fans know the basics of the Donald Sterling tape scandal, when a recording leaked of the 79-year-old Clippers owner telling his 30-year-old girlfriend not to associate with Black people. The backlash led to a minor racial reckoning in the NBA, and even though the two events are intertwined, a “based on a true story” adaptation could easily (and lazily) focus on the sensationalism of the former without giving depth to the later. Thankfully, FX’s Clipped: The Scandalous Story Of L.A.’s Other Basketball Team understands the full weight of the scandal, and the miniseries balances entertainment and social critique while bringing the absurd incident to life.

Based on the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast The Sterling Affairs, the six-episode series (premiering June 4 on Hulu) sets up the Clippers’ 2013-2014 season through the eyes of new head coach Doc Rivers (Laurence Fishburne). Doc’s determined to bring one of the worst franchises in the league its first-ever championship, but Donald Sterling (Ed O’Neill) is a cancer on the whole organization. He penny-pinches to the extreme, judges free agents based on their race, and takes his ownership of the team too literally, parading his friends into the locker room like the players are his prized specimens. O’Neill gives a skilled performance as a truly reprehensible human being, once you get over the dissonance of hearing Al Bundy/Jay Prichett’s voice yelling at Doc that he’s on a “choke chain.”

While Doc is adjusting to managing Donald, the two women in Sterling’s life—his long-suffering wife Shelly (Jackie Weaver) and his personal assistant/”silly rabbit” V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman)—are locked in a battle as old as time. The entire nationwide scandal is fueled by their conflicting roles within Donald’s life, which come to a head when Shelly sues V. to get back everything Donald “gifted” to her, including a $1.8 million duplex. Shelly, V., and Doc are the three leads through which the series is told, and Clipped is most engrossing when it devotes time to unraveling the trio’s motivations throughout their power struggle. Coleman as the mysterious Stiviano is a special highlight, with the actor, showrunner Gina Welch, and the writers’ room crafting a sphinx out of the limited details of the real-life woman, who’s best known for her blatant yearning for fame and her strange pap walks where she hid her face under a visor.

Though Stiviano and the Sterlings set the entire saga in motion, Clipped’s best scenes are the ones where the series thoughtfully takes the time to show how the Sterlings and Stiviano’s antics impact the people around them, from the Clippers’ players to folks in the executive suite. The pre-tape episode spends a fair amount of time introducing the most-central Clippers players, in scenes that draw the most direct comparison to HBO’s Lakers drama Winning Time. Chris Paul (the underrated J. Alphonse Nicholson) is the victory-obsessed team captain clashing with star player Blake Griffin (Austin Scott); DeAndre Jordan (Sheldon Bailey) needs to build confidence in his shooting; J.J. Reddick (Charlie McElveen) is the perimeter shooter the team could use (though Donald questions if he’s really worth it, since he’s white—yes, that’s the type of guy Doc’s dealing with). There isn’t enough time to introduce the whole team, which makes for a bit of confusion in a pivotal scene where everyone gathers to decide how to respond to the tape, but the writing and the actors’ performances (especially Sarunas J. Jackson as Matt Barnes) pull off the discussion’s impact. Seeing the players struggle with their place in a system where white billionaires make money off their literal blood, sweat, and tears adds strong emotional weight to all of Donald’s hideously cruel actions.

Clipped | Official Trailer | Laurence Fishburne, Jacki Weaver, Cleopatra Coleman, Ed O’Neill | FX

The sprawling show even fits in the closest people in the main players’ orbit. Some of the standouts include Sterling’s steadfast lackey Andy Roeser (Billions’ Kelly AuCoin), wearied comms guy Seth Burton (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Shelly’s loyal bestie Justine (Harriet Sansom Harris), who all keep the Sterlings’ scenes from straying too much into repetitive, rich-people-behaving-badly absurdity, as they also demonstrate how Donald could get away with his blatant toxicity since he bought the team in 1981. Another similar subplot gives a nod to former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor (Clifton Davis), who sued Donald and the franchise for racial discrimination in 2009. Eligin’s subplot (which could have been an entire episode on its own) gets the shortest straw among the miniseries’ many characters and has the least impact besides one flashback scene. Thankfully, the great Levar Burton (playing himself) gets several excellent scenes to shine as he and Doc chat about the saga.

Fitting all of these characters into one limited series means not a single second is wasted, and it’s a credit to the show’s team that this is the first six-episode series we’ve seen in a while that doesn’t feel like it should’ve been expanded to seven or eight installments. Even the most knowledgeable fans will find surprises in the show’s fictionalized version of events. (Doc Rivers is credited as a consultant on the series.) In a time where rehashes of every story with a hint of notoriety eventually make it to the screen, Clipped has a unique point-of-view on the many sides of the scandal, and it’s both entertaining and thoughtful enough to stand out in the crowded landscape.

Clipped premieres June 4 on Hulu

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