Let’s start with the positive.
BET’s newest scripted show “Being Mary Jane,” which debuts July 2 at 10:30 p.m. as a 2-hour movie, has a huge upside. The show stars Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul, the host of her own Atlanta-based TV show. Mary Jane has a solid career, a fabulous house and a Porsche Panamera. But she also has a seriously ill mother, a grown brother with no money and no job and a pregnant niece who thinks porn is a viable career choice. Mary Jane is also single, a source of considerable anguish. The show begins with the depressing disclaimer that 47% of Black women have never married and that although Mary Jane doesn’t represent all single women, she’s just one going through her own changes.
On the face of it, “Being Mary Jane” has the makings of a great show. For some entirely bizarre reason, BET has decided to debut the movie in July, then in all probability endlessly repeat it until its eight-episode run in January 2014. That seems a loooooong stretch of time to introduce a new show and find a loyal viewership to support it six months later, but this is BET.
So once again, we’ll need to focus on the positive.
Union is solid as Mary Jane and her coworker/producer Kara Lynch is well-played by veteran Latina actress Lisa Vidal, whose sister Christina was Taina of Disney fame. The cast is rounded out by the always great Richard Roundtree and Margaret Avery (“The Color Purple”) as Mary Jane’s parents and Raven Goodwin (“Just Jordan”) and Richard Brooks (“Law and Order”) as her brother and sister. The casting is one of the high points of “Being Mary Jane.” Man candy is on display with Omari Hardwick and new hottie Stephen Bishop (“Moneyball”) as Mary Jane’s ex-boyfriend. An honest look at a grown woman’s life, “Being Mary Jane” presents a flawed Black woman who doesn’t have to stoop to reality show rachetness to be appealing. Mary Jane is a real woman with real issues despite her material success.
The family that in less capable hands than “Girlfriends” and “The Game” creator Mara Brock Akil, could be portrayed as broad stereotypes turns out to be a little more complex than first thought. Brooks is an early standout as Mary Jane’s seemingly trifling but hopefully complicated brother. Hardwick is once again called upon to be the bad guy, a place where he’s both comfortable and effective.
Now, the downside.
Writer/producer Akil and her husband director Salim Akil must have decided to throw everything into the kitchen sink to see what would stick with viewers, particularly given the six-month break we’ve already covered. Almost every single issue that Black women face from media slurs to colorism, to infidelity, to teenage pregnancy, to illness, to gay relationships (an interracial gay couple, no less!) to baby hunger to career issues is dealt with in the movie. And there is a particularly silly storyline that any woman as educated as Mary Jane would likely laugh at instead of go along with. Oh and did I mention the scene that any diehard “Sex and the City” fan will recognize that is practically lifted from a popular episode of the show?
Too much of a good thing is not always a bad thing, though. In this first effort, the Akils have at least proven that they can stretch beyond, ahem, putting anyone in a maid’s uniform or a blonde weave. And unlike the disappointing downfall of credible storytelling on “The Game,” “Being Mary Jane” “may yet resonate with viewers who can get past the usual Black woman tropes. There is a tremendous opportunity to show a well-rounded Black woman whose career success doesn’t mean she’s not a mess in other areas. (Just like that other TV show starring a Black woman.) As annoying as those same themes are, they’re popular for a reason. Once the Akils pull in viewers, let’s hope that the storylines expand and grow into a show and a character that evolves along the way.