Don’t just sit and wait for the second season of Insecure to come around and give you your fix of Black Millennial life on TV — Michaela Coel’s new Netflix series, Chewing Gum, is essential viewing that you’re missing out on.
Chewing Gum is the wildcard in 2016’s Black TV Renaissance. With it’s absurdist point of view and the specificity of working class people of color in Britain, this show stands out because it’s been awhile since we’ve been invited into this world. Not since Attack The Block and that movie had aliens. The show once again proves that Black is not monolith and neither is the Black voice. Insecure is a realistic view of life of overeducated and under-employed 30-something Black woman living in Los Angeles. Atlanta is a impressionistic look at a 20-something Black man who lives in the South and is attempting to make it in the creative class. Chewing Gum also eschews realism but where Atlanta doesn’t have a set structure for every episode Chewing Gum is the most earnest coming of age story in the group, striving to reconcile traditional, even repressive values with the allure of sex and modern romance.
The series centers around Tracey Gordon (Michaela Coel), a cashier in a corner shop in London who dreams of getting a job as a shopgirl in a nicer store. For her, working in a department store, wearing all black everything and spritzing customers with foreign perfume is something to not only aspire to, but worth risking jail time for. A 24-year-old virgin who lives with her religious, hellfire-inducing mother, we see Tracey’s lust-induced nosebleeds and her desperate attempts at seduction. In one episode Tracey pleads with her fiance — who happens to be gay — to “just rub your private parts on [her] private parts.”
By contrast, her best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) is a pretty, rough and tumble, sexually active, recreational drug using petty criminal. Tracey’s mis-adventures with Candice range from helping Candice discuss her BDSM kinks with her over-gentle boyfriend to scrubbing clean then selling used dildos at a house party. In one episode Tracey even enlists the help of a strange possibly herpes-ridden woman to have a threesome with her boyfriend. The sexy menage a trois is supposed to take place in a crack den on a mattress on the floor.
Despite Tracey’s many failures in her career and romantic relationships, when she falls she rises again to attack life with an enthusiasm and hunger that is encouraging. Like some deranged, undersexed phoenix. On Insecure one of Issa’s major flaws is her inability to communicate her feelings to the important people in her life. Her reluctance to come clean to Lawrence leads to a breakup and her harshness with Molly causes a blow-up between the two long-time best friends. Tracey is unschooled in relationships and takes from the people around her just as Issa does. Somehow this selfishness is forgivable because she literally doesn’t know any better.
Where Issa’s reluctance to take action causes more issues in her life Tracey is in a constant state of trying to be better. Issa’s journey is much more existential and in many ways we can relate more to the substantive acts Tracey takes in order to get what she wants. We watch as she attempts to grow up and learn from her mistakes. Like millennial viewers she’s adulting and taking responsibility for her screwups.
Chewing Gum is crucial not only because it’s extraordinary laugh out loud humor is both disturbing and unforgettable, but during the first season the show tackles significant topics like colorism. When Tracey gets a makeover and thinks she looks like Beyoncé, her boyfriend tells her that she looks like Barbie “if Barbie rolled around in the mud and dirt and turned into a negro.” Ron’s (John MacMillan) dialogue is peppered with colorist language that gives depth to his character while also speaks to a truth about the community. The writing and delivery of these kinds of lines bring with them humor that can lessen the sting of a very real issue.
Viewers experience Tracey’s arrested development in realtime, we laugh and wince right along with her. Note: chopsticks and fried prawns don’t make good tools for seduction.