Being Mary Jane

Somewhere along the line, Gabrielle Union’s rise towards stardom got derailed. I’m not sure there’s a specific reason why this happened, but I always wondered why her career never got out of first gear and yielded her more major roles in either film or television. All of this is a way to say that it’s great to see her sink her teeth into the lead role in Being Mary Jane, a new BET series that had its pilot premiere tonight before it runs on a weekly basis starting in early 2014. Union is the best, but not only, reason to think this show has a shot at being something unique in the television landscape. What will ultimately make or break the show is how it parcels out the multitude of storylines and thematic concerns crammed into this initial outing.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the pilot is its length: Running over the course of a 90-minute block of programming, it has roughly twenty more minutes of content than the average hour-long show. Even with act breaks sometimes more arbitrary than those on Mad Men, there’s still a lot of time to delve into the two sides of Mary Jane Park: her professional life as the anchor for a daytime talk show, and her personal life holding together her immediate and extended family. That’s hardly an original set-up, but the devil as always comes down to the details in derivative situations such as this. The sheer fact that Union is the character bridging these two worlds should not make Being Mary Jane unique. But we live in an age where Kerry Washington made history when cast as the leading lady in Scandal, so it’s silly to ignore the importance of Union’s role as an African-American female in a narrative position most often afforded on television to a Caucasian (usually male) actor.

Still, even with an extended running time, both sides of Park’s life don’t get equal emphasis, which gives the pilot a slightly lopsided feel. The family material will undoubtedly be the core of the show as it evolves, but it’s the weakest part of the pilot. A majority of this problem stems from the sheer size of the family, who all live in the home of Park’s parents and seem to live off of Mary Jane’s sizeable income. No pilot can give depth and shading to a family even half that big, and while the pilot does a good job dropping us in the middle of long-gestating feuds, the amount of catch-up that needs to be done hurts the audience’s ability to simply digest the relationships upon first view. Rather than seem intriguing, several conversations seem impenetrable.

On top of that, certain dynamics feel generated for the purposes of televised drama, rather than organic fights between family members. A repeated request for a $500 loan is the worst offender, as a simple conversation between Mary and her brother could have cleared things up a half-dozen times. And while it’s interesting to hear Mary Jane’s father (played by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree!) earnestly wish for death to relieve the physical suffering of his wife, we never see a single meaningful scene between the elderly couple. Again: This is a pilot problem more than a Being Mary Jane problem, except insomuch as the show felt the need to overstuff its pilot in order to introduce everyone and everything before the second episode. It’s a common problem most shows have, and this one is sadly no exception.

The one family member that did stand out was Niecy, Mary Jane’s niece, since her story dovetailed into the strongest aspect of the pilot. Far and away the best parts of tonight’s premiere centered around the interactions between Mary Jane and her producer Kara (Lisa Vidal). In the midst of more traditional family-based conflicts, Being Mary Jane features an African-American woman and a Hispan woman discussing the politics of producing stories about female rape in Zimbabwe and female body issues derived from cultural perceptions about skin tone. It’s incredibly interesting material delivered by two voices often silenced on television. I worry that such stories will get short shrift as the series progresses, but neither topic was one with which I had much familiarity at all, and I welcomed the chance for the show to stealthily educate me on these topics. Making the show overtly preachy will more than likely turn it into BET’s version of The Newsroom. But a news story about body image that dovetails with Niecy’s own fears of abandonment by the father of her second child? That seems like a win-win for the show going forth.

Less enjoyable was the other link between the professional and the personal: Mary Jane freezing the sperm of an ex-boyfriend after learning about the subterfuge from one of her on-air guests. It’s more dramatic than Mary Jane just self-pleasuring herself out of every booty call, Lord knows. I get all that. But this show now has Chekhov’s Frozen Sperm on its hands, waiting to be deployed at an inopportune moment when all seems finally right in the world of Mary Jane. Having cheap, tacky guests on her fictional show is one thing. But having her buy into the tawdriest aspects of her show devalues the serious journalism the show wants us to believe she’s trying to bring to the table. It’s one thing to be flawed. It’s another thing to be inconsistently intelligent for the sake of televised conflict.

Still, the show has a very likeable lead in Union, who seems to relish the various notes Mary Jane gets to play in the pilot. At times sexy, at times silly, at times serious, at times self-aware, at times self-destructive, she’s the type of well-rounded lead that can hold together a show while it works out its rougher edges. There’s a smart show about the types of stories often neglected in mass media at Being Mary Jane’s core. It will be interesting to see come 2014 if the familial aspects of the program augment that core or smother it. Tonight’s pilot kept telling us how good Mary Jane is at her job, but it’s up to the series to show, not tell. If it does so, BET will have a really strong series on its hand.

Stray observations:

  • There’s a really strange disclaimer at the outset of the pilot that nearly derailed the show before it even had the chance to start. Not sure why it’s there, and I hope subsequent airings don’t feel the need to have it.
  • The girlfriend of Mary Jane’s brother Patrick might be the worst character on television in 2013. She was so over-the-top that everything she did yielded unintentional laughs.
  • I should have guessed Mary Jane’s male friend from work was gay. I blame BET airing this on 10:30 pm on a Tuesday for my lack of perception.
  • Mary Jane’s Facebook chat with her ex-boyfriend was ridiculously funny, and felt like something I’d never seen portrayed onscreen before. I won’t cop to having done that myself on occasion, except I totally have.
  • Linking the act of sperm stealing to a quote by Deepak Chopra was either the best or the worst moment in the pilot. In fact, it might be both! Go figure.