On Tuesday night I watched BET’s Being Mary Jane premiere starring Gabrielle Union, an actress battling personal trials on a very public stage.
And as much as I love the show’s creator Mara Brock Akil (she previously helmed Girlfriends and currently The Game on the same network), I wasn’t bowled over by the debut’s busy storyline. Mary Jane Paul, played by Union, is a well-known news reporter who is battling life on all fronts: career, romance and (awful) family. The show is a continuation of a made-for-television movie released last year that earned four million viewers (I always assumed this first introduction was an audience litmus test and it appears I was right). Now there is an eight-episode season in the pipeline for Being Mary Jane. I wish I were happier.
At work, Mary Jane’s team has just gotten a new boss and her colleague-producer Kara, played by Lisa Vidal, is willing to do anything to keep her position. Even if it means threatening a freelance reporter’s life by shooting storm porn during a mock Hurricane Katrina to interview a couple on the verge of being washed away.
On the romance front, Mary Jane is stuck between a rock and a handsome hard place. Andre, played by Omari Hardwick, is obviously Mr. Wrong as a dubious married man who neglected to share his relationship status before he began dating and sexing up our protagonist. On the other hand, Mr. Free Love, David played by Stephen Bishop, is an on-again-off-again boo which Mary Jane thought she was in (headed toward?) a monogamous relationship with until he mentions he’s seeing other people. While Mr. Free Love isn’t actually wrong — my mom always said you’re free to do what you wish until you have a conversation — acting monogamous can be just as cruel as cheating to someone looking for a lasting courtship. And that person is Mary Jane. Oh and after learning about her husband’s affair, Mr. Wrong’s wife confronted Mary Jane at her TV station’s office to ask her things like, "Did you cum?"
I’m sorry, what?
On the family front, MJ is also a mess. Her mother is sick, her father is waiting her to die and her brother likes to indignantly demand loans he will never pay back. His daughter is having children which she hopes her reliable Auntie Mary Jane will sponsor, since her boo thang Dante has another baby’s mother already in place. But if that doesn’t work out, she’ll just do porn.
The New York Times noted the confusing Being Mary Jane story arc and upon first read, I thought writer Jon Caramanica was conflating the character Mary Jane's inability to control her own life with Union’s very real and messy romantic engagement. This sentence specifically raised my eyebrow:
But, of course, it’s Mary Jane (Gabrielle Union) who’s collapsing.
Caramanica also essentially described the show’s supporting characters as one dimensional Madea sidekicks, which is an insult worth fighting over. (Have you seen films like Diary of a Mad Black Woman? Don’t, it’s awful and that's hard to do because Kimberly Elise is a good actress! But I digress.)
Still, as much as I want to be upset and save all criticism of Akil and Union’s work for my own group of smart, women of color, Caramanica's right: Being Mary Jane was harried at best. While I had fun gagging at the conversation with Mr. Wrong’s wife and enjoyed seeing Hardwick’s talent for smoldering, the show just wasn’t cohesive, engaging or even logical for a sustainable, good series. For example, here are a few questions:
- Who is Mary Jane’s friend who she saves from a (possible?) suicide during the show’s first moments and why should I care?
- Why should I think Mr. Free Love is wrong, if she hasn’t had ‘The Talk’ with him about monogamy isn’t that her fault for assuming?
- Why should I be mad at Mr. Wrong’s wife, aside from her snaking her way into the TV station, isn’t she just as wronged as Mary Jane?
- Outside of Mr. Wrong’s sexy toned abs, which we saw in the TV movie, and deep stares, what are his redeeming qualities that make me want her to hump him in that gym shower?
- Why do I care about Mary Jane’s whiny, 'woe is me' mother, outside of their shared bloodline?
- Why do I care about Mary Jane’s job at all, if she doesn’t even like it?
- And ultimately, what are Mary Jane’s redeeming qualities and why should I care her?
These are pretty fundamental questions, and there are far too many of them.
BET keeps trying to rebrand themselves as a cable channel with quality programming worthy of appointment TV, but with each new opportunity, the cheese is slathered on and a great opportunity is ruined. My critics will probably point to the flawed Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal as a parallel to Mary Jane; Pope is a shining example of the potential for complicated characters of color to exist on contemporary television. But Rhimes also presented a backstory that explained how Pope and the President became entangled and why they complement each other, for better or for worse. Pope might not be an angel all of the time, but mostly she's trying to do good outside of her love life and viewers are invested enough to want her to succeed. Mary Jane, by comparison, is just seems like a homewrecker who picks the wrong men, can’t escape the growing line of moochers, and doesn’t really like her own life. So why should I?
The problem isn't necessarily Akil, who is talented (just ask any person who fell down the rabbit hole of Girlfriends' Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn back in the early aughts); I loved The Game when it was a snappy sitcom steered by one couple’s drama. But when the series joined BET’s lineup it became an hour-long marathon of boredom, and most of the show’s original characters have left.
I’m not sure what happens in the writer’s room at BET, but I truly hope executives begin to take their cues from networks that weren’t powerhouses until they were, like AMC and FX. Realistic and edgy dramas with solid narratives and deep characters reel in loyal viewers, and I want to be monogamous with Being Mary Jane. But after Tuesday’s premiere, I was just upset that I could’ve been watching Justified’s Raylan Givens.
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