Success can sometimes come with ugly consequences, and few Hollywood creators in the spotlight right now know this better than Lena Waithe. Over the course of just a few seasons (actual seasons, as in summer and fall) the Emmy-winning writer and producer behind The Chi, Queen & Slim, and BET's new series Twenties took heat over an actor's firing on The Chi, got dragged by black Twitter over Queen & Slim, and became tabloid fodder over her recent separation. While it's safe to assume there are elements of her life she'd Control-Alt-Delete if she could, some of her experiences, pressed into lemonade in this comedy about young people trying to make dreams come true in Los Angeles, translate into highly enjoyable TV.
Twenties — an adaptation of the 2013 web series — breaks from TV tradition in two significant ways. The lead character, Hattie (Jonica "JoJo" T. Gibbs) is, like Lena, a "masculine-presenting stud," or, in other words, a butch lesbian. Hattie looks like a lead character we haven't seen not only on cable TV but for BET in particular, where depictions of black queer people have been minimal, or sometimes earned complicated reactions. (Take for example, backlash over a gay character in Brandy's short-lived Zoe Ever After from 2016, that accused her gay assistant of being "too flamboyant.")
Hattie is a trailblazer, but you wouldn't know it, or rather, you wouldn't really care, while watching the four episodes screened to critics. When we meet her, she's being evicted, running game on some straight girl to get her basic needs met, and "trying" to get a job. She wants to be a TV writer, but hasn't gotten around to doing any writing. She's not quite a loser, this Hattie: she's a natural born salesman, endowed with a buoyant spirit, an intoxicating sense of humor, and an impressive collection of T-shirts honoring R&B divas like Patti LaBelle. Hattie basically bulls---s and breezes her way through life, and devotes a not insignificant amount of time seducing the women in her orbit who find her irresistible. Hattie loves macking on the ladies, many of them straight, and we love to see her use her beguiling alchemy to lure somewhat unsuspecting chicks into her trap. For some, it might be confusing to see Hattie muddy ideas of what "gay" and "straight" look like; for Lena Waithe, and many other people like her, this is simply a reflection of the modern world, where attraction and horniness can't always be put into a neat box. Only one label really matters when describing Hattie — player — and that's true of her sex life, her friendships and her career too.
As culturally important as it is to befriend a person like Hattie through a TV show, it's much more important that she be interesting, and since this is a comedy, funny. Thankfully, both are true of this new shero. We all know someone like this, which makes the character universal and recognizable even if her world looks unique. As she bumbles up, she's surrounded by loving family and friends including mom Esther (played hilariously by Kym Whitley), as well as friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) who are also — you guessed it — chasing their dreams in LA too.
Hattie's friendships, unfortunately, are where Twenties needs some beefing up. Their tolerance of her trifling ways sometimes seems implausible, especially as they support her in finding housing and a job. Plot puzzlers aside, viewers might also draw lazy parallels between Hattie's friends and the sister squad on Insecure if for no other reason that these are pretty much the only comedies about black women managing careers and love and life in LA. It's probably not fair to compare them, but as a means of illustrating Twenties' room for sidekick improvement, Issa's chums feel specific and strong enough on their own, while Nia, a yoga teacher/actress, and Marie, a studio executive, whisk cliches about LA people into an airy froth. Nia is a kind of woo-woo spiritual type (which is probably why "the universe" sends her Tristan, a woo-woo artiste played by Big Sean) and Marie plays the cold, Type-A business b---- at a film production company. Their overlapping values and interests escape us at the start, and hopefully the trio's chemistry deepens more as Twenties continues its eight episodes.
In the meantime, lead JoJo Gibbs fills it with enough razzle-dazzle to overcome moments of blandness. Also strong: Sophina Brown as the mysterious and demanding producer Ida B that Hattie ends up working for, and, as Hattie's gossipy mom, Kym Whitley. Twenties dabbles in a sense of refreshing absurdity that's sometimes overpowered by realism, but as Hattie's mom, Whitley keeps the crazy alive. (A choice quote comes when Hattie is talking with her about her love life. "You still messing with that straight b----? She like that Janelle Monae girl?")
Indeed, Twenties' is most enjoyable when it allows itself to be unapologetically silly, and one way it maintains its own sense of quirky identity is by peppering Old Hollywood references (black-and-white movies, Sinatra-style big band tunes) into the story. Those feel random at times, but also root the premise in Hattie's ambitions for herself, and hint at the members-only clubs Hattie (and Lena) only recently got invited to. (One wonders if Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar, would rejoice at all this progress or be pissed that so much remains the same.)
Being yourself shouldn't be a political act, and yet Hattie is by definition a raised fist for the resistance. Fortunately for us, she spends most of her time in Twenties stumbling into adulthood just like everyone else — a jumble of naïve optimism, avoidance of reality, and recklessness that makes her endearingly funny.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Twenties premieres Wednesday, Mar. 4 at 10/9c on BET.