On the Beach with ABC’s Hamptons

The first words in The Hamptons -Barbara Kopple’s thoughtful, meandering voyage through the social weeds and fields of eastern Long Island to be broadcast June 2 and 3 at 9 p.m. as a two-part docu-mini-series on ABC-belong to an earnest, scruffy-faced local named Alec Baldwin. “I would come out here and it would have a grip on me,” the work-shirted Mr. Baldwin intones to Ms. Kopple’s camera. “The air, the light … it was very real, very palpable.”

But Ms. Kopple’s subject is less light and airy than the Calibans, Mirandas and Prosperos who sail through it-the Hamptons celebrities and royalty, their servants and caterers, the house sharers and Conscience Point suckers, and better, the wannabe Hamptons celebrities and upper-crusters. We cozy up to fledgling Hamptonistas like Jacqueline Lipson, a fetching young matrimonial attorney who reveals she’ll be on the husband prowl this summer. “I need to be engaged by 29-because I will not be not married by 30,” Ms. Lipson says as men, and grammarians, cringe. There’s Josh Sagman, a slick, floppy-haired, chick-chasing entrepreneur on loan from A Night at the Roxbury , who sells $7 hits of pure oxygen at seaside bars and informs his buff-pecced Hamptons pals that, unlike Ms. Lipson, he doesn’t want to fall in love, because he’s “not ready, business wise.”

Then there’s pop singer- cum -local Billy Joel, who explains that he doesn’t call this land here “the Hamptons,” but “the East End of Long Island.” Well, he’s entitled-and surely the year-rounders refer to Mr. Joel, who sold his Hamptons manse to Jerry Seinfeld for $32 million, as William, the Fellow With That Piano Song.

There’s a bigger picture here, and Ms. Kopple, who made her reputation and won an Academy Award with striking coal miners in Harlan County, U.S.A ., pains to remind us that there are people in the Hamptons who earn less than $10 million per year and don’t know the New York Post ‘s Neal Travis, who, looking like Trevor Howard, pops up and offers eviscerating asides. We meet Hamptons farmers, fishmongers and cranky foreign help stuffed into summer cottages like sweat socks in a gym locker. We meet shiftless teens, disaffected parents and a white-haired teddy bear of a police captain, the Carroll O’Connor role, who’s on the verge of retirement. We meet a nice-looking local chanteuse named Nancy Atlas, who plays dive bars by night and waits tables by day. We meet Alec Baldwin, the only Baldwin we meet.

But as well-intentioned as these folks are, they all feel like force-fed lima beans. Everyone knows that the lure of-and the antipathy toward-the Hamptons centers on the rich and the powerful. And The Hamptons , more than anything else, is gift-wrapped boutique entertainment just for them. Ms. Kopple and ABC have crafted what may be most narrowly targeted, audience-specific mini-series in the history of broadcast television. It’s possible that at one point The Hamptons was meant to be trenchant social criticism, or lascivious voyeurism, or an amalgam. If it was going to, it folded its tent. The Hamptons is strangely mild, sympathetic, heartfelt, in fact, and, finally, a friendly gift bag at the end of the party loaded with perfume, bonbons, maybe a little Chinese-finger puzzle for irritation, but that’s it. The Hamptons , oddly, is prime-time television for the power elite-on the network that brought you Roseanne , Home Improvement and Happy Days .

That’s not to say The Hamptons isn’t an event-we’re double-negativing as much as Ms. Lipson-it is. It actually feels like subversive television. There’s not a whit of this four-hour documentary that feels at all like it should be running on a place like ABC-there are no flashy graphics, no jump cuts, no cymbal-crashing crescendos. Ms. Kopple’s camera lingers on her subjects like an inchworm and her dramatic beats are subtle-slow fade to black, piano tinkles here and there. The Hamptons is not just anti– Dateline NBC ; it makes 60 Minutes look like Jackass . If this thing’s a hit, Frederick Wiseman better watch out; if his phone’s ringing, that’s Les Moonves.

The Hamptons is cut chronologically-Part One runs from Memorial Day through Lizziegate, which occurred, memorably, on the July 4 weekend-Part Two runs through Sept. 12. Serving as the one-man Greek chorus is Steven Gaines, the self-deprecating author of the Hamptons history Philistines at the Hedgerow and semi-official neighborhood mayor who shows up at events throughout Ms. Kopple’s documentary offering epochal bon mots. At one plush Fourth of July fiesta, Mr. Gaines surveys the scene and remarks: “The story of the Hamptons is that it’s realized by many. This is not a place where you’re born with a silver spoon and you have to be a blue blood. I think everybody in this party made it to come here and I think that’s the new Hamptons. And that’s why everybody sings ‘God Bless America.'”

“God Bless America” indeed: Steven Gaines-and Josh Sagman!-emerge as TV stars. As for Lizzie and her S.U.V., Ms. Kopple mercifully keeps her diary of Ms. Grubman’s wild ride to a minimum-though here, you can practically hear the ABC executives pounding on her door. If this was a typical network magazine show, Lizzie’s mug would be all over the place-she’d probably be in the title, too. But Ms. Kopple shows admirable restraint, resisting the urge to anoint a new Amy Fisher. Ms. Kopple limits Lizzie time to a brief synopsis of the Conscience Point wipeout, an interview with a bouncer (“There was a lot of blood …. “) some stock TV news footage and conflicting commentary from locals and the accused’s fellow noblesse oblige . And in a really nice coup, she has a Before interview with a fresh-faced, plucky Ms. Grubman herself that makes the later footage pretty devastating.

There’s a lot of that kind of serendipity in The Hamptons . But Ms. Kopple chose her subjects wisely. In addition to Ms. Grubman and Mr. Gaines, there’s apple-cheeked Jason Binn, the Hamptons and Gotham magazine publisher whom Mr. Gaines refers to, somewhat alarmingly, as the “Steve Rubell of our generation.” (Ms. Kopple can be pretty tough: additional commentary about Jason Binn is offered by his dad.) Young Jason is one happy, hard-working Zelig, popping up at virtually every event chronicled in The Hamptons , from his own party to a bash for Candace Bushnell’s book 4 Blondes to a creaky dance night for summering octogenarians. He’s so persistently everywhere you practically expect Mr. Binn to show up at the cramped cottage where the waitresses live, a pile of comp magazines in hand.

Mr. Binn, we’re told, understands “aspirational” culture-the idea that there’s a market of wannabes out there who love to read about the cars, jewelry, houses and people they cannot afford. And it’s on this point that The Hamptons makes one of its subtle yet rather skillful digs at Hamptons culture-pointing out that there’s so much aspirational striving going on, hardly anyone pauses to enjoy what really matters. Ms. Kopple does this by neatly juxtaposing depressing scenes like the sunburned queues outside local nightclubs with images of region’s undeniable natural beauty. Spend too much time in line at Rocco’s, she seems to saying, and you just might miss this.

There is also plenty of comic relief. Sometimes it comes from Mr. Gaines, who’s ballsy enough to confess, en route to a party at the Hilton family’s house-you can almost smell the scent in the closets-that the hosts aren’t exactly “unbelievable conversationalists.” (He is, however, impressed to see they have valet parking.) There’s an awkward moment between a caterer and James Lipton that we won’t spoil, and a lot of laughs from the man-hungry Ms. Lipson, who returns to reassure us she’ll have a boyfriend by September-she’s instructed her dad to “start saving.” Another fine moment features hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who, after a sweaty game of two-on-two and a bull session on his porch, looks directly into the camera and says: “All right, we got footage-you got some black people in the Hamptons, right?”

Still, a lot of The Hamptons goes on and on and on-it’s more of a collection of scenes than plot-driven entertainment, in its moodier parts, it feels like Hamptonisqatsi . Not all of its choices work. Sun-splashed footage from a child’s birthday party at Christie Brinkley’s serves no purpose other than to convince us that Ms. Brinkley is the mother we wished we all had. The cameras clearly wanted to score sociological points, but this is just a nice, well-meaning supermodel with a pleasant fourth husband. There are too many scenes of listless dancing inside nightclubs, and a detour chronicle of the Hamptons’ nuclear power-plant conundrum winds up as an excuse for a benefit-appearing Billy Joel to sing “Piano Man,” a song that also needs a free zone.

The Hamptons reclaims its lost momentum, however, in its final half-hour, largely because of a meeting with an extraordinary subject. Mr. Gaines and Ms. Kopple’s camera hang out with Hamptons restaurateur Jeff Salaway, owner of Nick & Toni’s, asking him about the menu, chirping about celebrity guests. Mr. Salaway, genuinely witty and kind, it seemed, understood the Hamptons-how, despite all its ego and cash and impoliteness, it was still a community of people, not accumulation.

That night Mr. Salaway’s red Volvo swerved off a road, and he was killed. One of the final scenes of The Hamptons features Mr. Gaines the next day, on the phone, lamenting a lost friend, discussing plans for a funeral as the documentary takes a sudden decompressing downturn, its Olympian detachment scrubbed away, toward a feeling kindness. But, as Mr. Gaines points out, it’s still the Hamptons; people are wondering what to wear.

Despite the 9/11 coda at the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton, it’s with Mr. Salaway’s death that The Hampton s truly ends. For people who know this world, such an intimate conclusion will be emotional and may feel strange, considering that it’s being beamed and cabled to Des Moines and Cheyenne and Santa Fe, to millions of people who never knew the deceased. But that’s O.K. The Hamptons may have ambitions as a national event, but at its heart, it’s a home movie.

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