Thursday, 18 May 2017

CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: Chewing Gum & Lovesick

I find it hard to get into TV shows now. There are so many shows now, and they have such long runs I find it hard to jump on-board. Here are two examples of recent shows that combine being extremely good, and extremely succinct.

Chewing Gum (2016 - present)
I caught this show a couple of weeks ago -- it's got two seasons, six episodes each, and it featured a few players I had caught on other shows. It's great.

Created by and starring Michaela Coel, Chewing Gum chronicles the adventures of Tracey Gordon (Coel), a 24-year-old virgin who is really keen to get some.

It is rare to see a show based around a sexually frustrated woman. Usually these kinds of shows are based around young men. This premise could make for a pretty simple show, but Chewing Gum is more nuanced than that. The show is basically about sexual desire, and the different expectations people have about fulfilling their own individual desires.

Tracey's best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) is involved in a long-term relationship, but expresses dissatisfaction with her boyfriend. Her subplot is based on sexual dissatisfaction, and her willingness to explain what she wants and needs from her boyfriend is refreshing. Sexual frustration is not usually a popular subject, and Candice's desire to experiment and try new things is a rare case of a female character being given agency over how she wishes to express her sexuality.

The show deals with race and class but they are woven into the fabric of the show. The primary concerns of the humour is the intersection of these ideas with notions of religion, female agency and sexuality. However, that does not mean these themes are completely ignored -- when it does deal with race, it makes for some of the show's strongest material. One episode involves Tracey's entanglement with a racist white man who is obsessed with the 'exoticism' of blackness. Fetishizing race is rarely pushed to the forefront in dramas, let alone comedies, and this vignette is awesome.

This might sound like heavy material, but the joy of Chewing Gum is how Coel manages to handle these themes with the lightest possible touch. Each episode runs 20 minutes, but Coel manages to pack a lot into these brief runtimes. You would think this would be reductive, but Coel is so deft with how she explores major themes. She will focus on an extremely small but significant aspect of a particular issue, nail it, and get out. The way she deals with the issue of colourism in the relationship between Tracey and Candice is so well-done. Coel recognises that these themes are worth exploring, but in a way that works within the world she has created. To boil it down without spoilers, she is not willing to distort the dynamics of her characters' relationship to address an idea. The ideas are always natural outgrowths of the story, not the other way around.

A series of tight little haikus on the inherent weirdness of relationships and sex, Chewing Gum is one of the best comedies I've seen in recent years.

Lovesick (2014 - present)
Lovesick is a UK sitcom originally broadcast in 2014, and then picked up by Netflix. Originally this show was called Scrotal Recall, a title which encapsulates the premise while completely short-selling the show's warmth, intelligence and humour.

It's not as flat-out funny as Chewing Gum, but Lovesick is great in its own right. An example of strong storytelling and an ensemble of well-rounded characters, Lovesick is a gem.

The show is based around Dylan (Johnny Flynn), a man in his late twenties who learns that he has contracted chlamydia. Now tasked with contacting anyone he has ever been intimate with, each episode takes us back through time to an important point in Dylan's past. As Dylan's quest progresses, he begins to come to terms with his inability to form lasting connections.

Despite the show jumping back and forth in time, the story unfolds in a fairly linear fashion. Over the course of six episodes, the writers gradually piece together these characters -- where they have come from and where they are now.

While the actors are great, and have really strong, believable chemistry, the male characters definitely feel like they are built out of recognizable types: Dylan is the wet blanket romantic lead, while his debauched mate Luke (Daniel Ings) is your typical womaniser. The secret weapon is Evie, played by Misfits's Antonia Thomas.

Evie is a great character, and a great showcase for Thomas. She was always good in Misfits, but there were times it felt like she was written as the object of Simon's affections rather than a character in her own right. Evie is different -- she is smart, complex and as given to making silly choices as her mates. To her credit, she is (far) faster on the uptake than her friends.

Resurrected and re-titled by Netflix, Lovesick's second season is where the show really begins to grow out of its premise into something far more real, as the writers delve more into our central characters. The best example is Episode Two, which flashes back six-and-a-half years to the day Dylan and Evie first met. This is where we are introduced to an alien character: good Luke. After his girlfriend of three years dumps him at a party, Luke crashes and burns into the douchebag of the present.

Now that we have a second season, the story does feel more fully formed. The season ends with a reversal of the previous season finale -- Dylan is attempting to make good on a long-term commitment while Evie has broken off her engagement. If I had caught this on its original release, I don't know if it would have stayed with me -- Season 2 adds so much that the story really feels complete.

While it is funny, Lovesick is pretty low key for a comedy. As an examination of growing out of your twenties, it's great. Season Three cannot come soon enough.

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