Early in the final season of The Other Two, Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) shows up at the distant and dingy offices of a Brooklyn-based burrito review website ready to do some press for his straight-to-VOD indie movie — only to discover what he’s actually been sent to is a mental health facility. “You are here because anyone desperate enough to say yes to that level of press, and then actually show up to do it, is deeply unwell,” the doctor gravely informs him.

But if Cary’s predicament is an obvious and hilarious exaggeration, the impulse underlying it might feel uncomfortably recognizable. Fame exerts its own gravitational pull, whether you’re chasing it, existing in it or simply feeling its tug from outside of it. It’s no surprise it’s been a favorite topic of Hollywood for as long as Hollywood has existed — sometimes as an aspirational fantasy, sometimes as a cautionary tale. And this year’s crop of television is particularly rife with shows that dig into its vagaries with savage, sympathetic or surprising insights. 

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For characters as varied as Pete in Bupkis (played by co-creator Pete Davidson and inspired by his own life), Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) in The Idol and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) in The Crown, the fact of their celebrity is as inescapable as the air they breathe. Their status insulates them but also isolates them, protects them from certain perils but exposes them to new ones. The crowds that swarm Diana wherever she goes might not literally intend to eat her alive (though as the pop star bitten by an overzealous fan in Swarm could attest, excitement can manifest in violent ways), but as they pound on the window of a jewelry shop in which she’s taken refuge, they resemble nothing so much as a pack of ravenous zombies. That Diana eventually meets her end while fleeing from photographers would seem almost too on-the-nose a metaphor, were it not historical fact. 

Meg Bellamy and Ed McVey as Kate Middleton and Prince William in the upcoming season of The Crown.

Meg Bellamy and Ed McVey as Kate Middleton and Prince William in the upcoming season of ‘The Crown.’ Justin Downing/Netflix

So potent is fame that its effects can linger even in the physical absence of its central subject. “Do you know what it’s like to have people constantly ask you about your brother’s dick?” Pete’s sister (Oona Roche) groans to their mother (Edie Falco) in Bupkis — while seated at a restaurant table they snagged by dropping Pete’s name. Out of Pete’s earshot, his friends scold an acquaintance who sold him out to the press, not necessarily for using Pete, but for doing so gracelessly. “Pete’s orbit is a delicate ecosystem,” they tell him. “It’s an ecosystem that supports the life of all of us. And you’re an existential threat.” Even when the celebrity is present, the people surrounding them might treat them less as individuals to be engaged with than an asset to be protected or a problem to be managed. When Jocelyn is faced with a sex scandal in The Idol’s premiere, her team actively hides the news from her while discussing among themselves how to handle it. Like much of what they do for her, it’s a theft of her agency disguised as an act of care.

In that light, it comes almost as a relief when, later in the season, someone finally states plainly that he doesn’t see Jocelyn as a human being at all: “She’s a star, and stars belong to the world.” It’s an unsettling take on Jocelyn’s personhood. It hits upon something true about how celebrities are regarded as both more than human, and somehow less. “Stars — they’re just like us!” might be a staple of the gossip industry, but live that life long enough and it’s hard to imagine not being transformed by it. 

But in an age of reality TV and social media, one does not need global renown to become familiar with the feeling of being watched. Indeed, some of the season’s most fascinating takes on fame involve people who are not boldfaced names, or at least do not start out that way. Much of the purposeful discomfort of The Curse lies in how acutely aware aspiring HGTV star Whitney (Emma Stone) is of how she’s being perceived, both on camera and off — and how strenuously she tailors her entire existence accordingly. After sharing a spontaneously funny moment with her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder), she insists they re-create the scenario to post online. (“It’s exactly us,” she declares, ignoring how uncomfortable Asher looks at the request.) But instead of making them look cute and funny and likable, the reenactment’s obvious fakery only highlights how desperate Whitney is for approval and attention, how hollow and phony their whole marriage might be.

If celebrity is a reward, it’s one that Hollywood needs to ensure is doled out to the “right” people for the “right” reasons. Those deemed undeserving might be scorned or punished for pursuing it at all. Paul T. Goldman is the culmination of years of lobbying by its title subject to turn himself into the star and creator of his own spy-thriller franchise, based on what he claims is the true and sordid tale of his breakup. But the resulting docuseries, directed by Jason Woliner, paints Paul not as the James Bond-esque hero he’d imagined himself, but as a deluded oddball at best and a misogynistic creep at worst. In chasing glory, he finds himself in infamy. 

Ronald Gladden (left) and James Marsden in Jury Duty

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden star in ‘Jury Duty Courtesy of Amazon Freevee

On the flipside, Ronald Gladden, the unwitting star/target of Jury Duty is so lovable precisely because he didn’t set out to make himself known. His sweetness is presumed to be authentic, because he doesn’t put on an act for cameras he didn’t know existed in the first place. Never mind that Gladden admits the experience took him “months” to process, as anyone might upon discovering that they’d been Truman Show-ed. The broad contours of his arc, from an ordinary schmo to a beloved TV star hobnobbing with celebrities and signing his own development deal, are as classic as Hollywood fairy tales get. Here is what fame can mean in a best-case scenario: that you’re beloved, that you’re celebrated, that you deserve the good life. Who wouldn’t consider trekking to a burrito blog office on the outer reaches of Brooklyn for a shot at that? 

This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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