Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Sweet/Vicious" - MTV's Drama is the Best New Show of 2016

The last time I stood here, proselytizing about the unsung greatness of a show outside the typical prestige TV framework, I was singing the praises of The 100 as it neared the end of its (still pretty sensational, to be clear) second season.

OK. Not my finest hour in retrospect.

I'm not gonna promise something similar won't happen with MTV's Sweet/Vicious, which I'm about to go to bat for in much the same way. It's only five episodes old, for starters. But those five episodes—while certainly not perfect—represent one of the most exciting, confident starts I've seen from a new hour-long since the first season of Jane the Virgin. (Perhaps second only to WGN America's late, great period drama Manhattan, if we're keeping track.) If there's a major concern for me about it going forward, it's that the various sustainability hurdles inherent in any story built around characters with secret identities—in this case, two women who decide to don masks and take on rapists, vigilante-style, on and around their college campus—may prove to be too much over the long haul. But if there are undoubtedly failures out there, there are also plenty of examples of shows that have spun similarly confining premises into long-term dramatic gold—most recently, of course, twice-reigning drama of the year The Americans. Now, I'm not saying the writers of Sweet/Vicious have the chops of The Americans' writers, but the strength of these early episodes has me hoping they might just be able to pull it off.

It helps that the show has already built such a solid foundation, starting right from the pilot, which makes a series of intelligent choices that have started to pay dividends immediately. Rather than wasting time on any sort of obvious, thudding mission-statement voiceover, it's a piece of TV that's remarkably fleet—setting up the partnership between Jules and Ophelia with an efficiency that's also never rushed, while also filling out the edges of the show with instantly compelling supporting characters, including Ophelia's friend Harris (a law student) and Jules' new flame Tyler (their relationship is . . . complicated in ways that I won't go into here, for fear of spoiling one of the more memorable moments of the pilot). None of these people are in on the pair's secret life at the start, and neither is Kennedy, Jules' best friend and sorority sister. The result of these various deceptions has been some expertly constructed TV of the tensely noose-tightening variety. Having this action proceed along multiple planes—largely in parallel but occasionally intertwining—is incredibly smart storytelling; it gives the show the option to bring whichever ones it wants to a crescendo while (perhaps) leaving others simmering. And so far, it's nailing it.

Sweet/Vicious is also a genuinely powerful portrait of trauma, able to stop on a dime in between its many pulpy thrills to deliver some wrenching scenes of Jules dealing with her own assault. Her struggle is complicated by the fact that she knows her attacker—indeed, she's forced to interact with him on a frequent basis, for reasons I won't get into here. But suffice to say, these scenes are easily the show's most emotionally brutal, harrowing material, and the tone in these scenes is startlingly different (but just as effective). Eliza Bennett, whose Jules has already become one of the most psychologically layered characters of the 2016-17 season, is stunning throughout, whether she's dealing with these ongoing scars, trying to figure out how to move forward with Tyler, or kicking and punching rapists in certain sensitive places. It's a tremendous performance that, like Rita Volk's work on Faking It, will probably never get the attention it deserves.

But beyond how intense and sometimes-devastating it is, the other key to Sweet/Vicious' early success is that it's also just a boatload of fun so far. It has some of the finest, quippiest dialogue to be found anywhere on the air right now—much of it stemming from the wonderfully drawn odd-couple relationship between the lackadaisical stoner Ophelia and the far more type-A personality of Jules. It also happens to be a pretty darn great show at romance, be it Jules/Tyler or the semi-casual thing developing between Ophelia and her previous one-night-stand Evan. And of course, there's an undercurrent of dark humor that finds its way to the forefront from time to time, though the show is certainly not as heavy on that element as the pilot—superb though it is at such moments—may have you believe. Its sense of wit is instead often balanced beautifully with humorous moments of outright sincerity, even as the well-choreographed brawls also leave it with one foot planted in pulpy action film territory. And again . . . it's nailing that balance.

I'm not saying it's anywhere near a perfect show yet. The case of the week element (while not really the dominant aspect of the show) can be slightly hit or miss—a storyline in episode four about an evil sorority that dredges up parent issues for Ophelia went basically nowhere for me. But every episode has contained a plethora of scenes I've loved, often for wholly different reasons. For a show that should, by all rights, still be in the finding-its-way period of its existence, Sweet/Vicious has proven itself to have a complex initial vision that it's executing extremely well. One would hope it also has some sort of idea of where it plans on taking this story in the future (assuming it gets renewed), but as of right now, it's my favorite new show of the year. You should get on board.

I mean, when have I ever let you down before?

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