We are living in a black tv renaissance and I am here for it.
With shows like Insecure and Black Lady Sketch Show, black millennials are inching towards the mainstream representation we deserve. Enter Lena Waithe’s Twenties, one of the rare BET shows to get widespread coverage on mainstream media outlets.
Based on her web series of the same name, the show tells the story of Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), a 24-year-old aspiring writer. Hattie is a masculine woman who sits comfortably in her queerness. Hattie is also a hot mess. She’s a little too breezy about being broke and is almost uninterested in doing the hard work her big dreams require, but in the most endearing way.
I was ecstatic when I saw the trailer but generally underwhelmed by the pilot.
At times, the show feels a little formulaic, especially when it comes to the trio of friends at the heart of the show. Hattie is by-far the best-written character, likely because she draws so heavily from Waithe’s life story. But the other main characters are in desperate need of some fleshing out.
Her best friend Marie (Christina Elmore) is a paint-by-numbers “voice of reason,” the kind of girl who is always fixing her friend’s lives to avoid the messiness of her own. Her other best friend Nia (Gabrielle Graham) is the stereotypical yogi, who has half-baked theories on love and might be a bit more shallow than she is willing to admit.
There’s also a lack of tension in the first episode. Hattie gets evicted but promptly finds a new place to live with her friends, receives a free interview outfit, and lands a job that could be an amazing stepping stone to her aspirations.
While it’s true that Hollywood too often fetishizes black pain and it’s refreshing to see a story where racism isn’t the central struggle of black characters, Twenties errs on the side of watering down any real conflict. Hattie’s boss (Sophina Brown) is demanding, but rarely serves up anything worse than an eyeroll; her work-nemesis (Ashli Haynes) is a little snarky, but genuinely helps her; and any conflict between friends spans only a single scene. Perhaps the most radical aspect of the show is how little it feels the need to dwell on Hattie’s identity. As a statement, this great. But as a viewing experience… not so much.
The show really shines when you look at everything besides the storyline. It’s beautifully shot and scored. The dialogue is littered with references to old Hollywood, subtle and effective criticisms of black Hollywood, and quotable moments.
It’s also rare to have the central character of a show that’s queer and doesn’t have all queer friends a la The L Word. Hattie’s queerness is front-and-center, but it’s not treated as “otherness”. Like any 20-something, she makes terrible dating choices, hers just happen to be with bi-curious women who end up in serious relationships with men after their situationships with Hattie. Importantly, this isn’t a point of agony for Hattie. She upends the stereotype of intense lesbian relationships; she is perfectly content with relatively shallow hook-ups because she’s not in a stage in life where she needs a stable partner. This was by far the most interesting storyline in the pilot but was a relatively minor plot point.
Watching the pilot was a bit frustrating because it didn’t lean heavily enough into its nuggets of promise. Hattie’s struggle is relatable, but TV generally needs to move beyond centering the stories of hot people in LA and NYC. The LA of Twenties had me making too many comparisons to Insecure.
I walked away wanting to add the show to my rotation but doubting I would ever become obsessed with it. It is a solid addition to the new canon but could stand to take a few more risks.
Reviewers who have seen more of the series note that later episodes smooth out some of these issues and round out the characters, so I’m not giving up just yet. All the elements of a great show are there, the pilot just fails to pack a punch. The plurality of black shows is important and not everyone will find themselves in all shows, so there is an inherent value in Lena Waithe showing her personal story on TV. So try Twenties out, because I cannot survive a world of atrocious Tyler Perry characters.
Twenties airs on Wednesdays at 10 pm EST on BET.