In ‘Twenties,’ the devil might wear Prada, but she’s got a natural, too
Lena Waithe’s new show is about growing up when you’re already grown
What happens when you’re trying to grow up in Hollywood and you’re already an adult?
Well, first off, if you don’t pay your rent on time, you get evicted.
That’s the circumstance in which we meet Hattie, an aspiring TV writer played by Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs, the star of Twenties, which premieres Wednesday on BET at 10 p.m. EST. She comes home to her apartment after a night with her straight-ish regular hookup to find all her belongings on the street, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do about it.
Twenties is a new semiautobiographical comedy from creator Lena Waithe. It’s about the daily nitty-gritty of pathbreaking in a white industry, something with which Waithe is acutely familiar — she was the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, which she earned for the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None.
Hattie is 24 and a bit of a mess. She’s living in Los Angeles, but lacking the sort of zealous drive and command over her life that her friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) would like her to have. But a new woman in Hattie’s life, a high-powered, successful producer named Ida B. (Sophina Brown) who’s made a lot of money making facile projects about black love — might be able to provide some structure. Ida B.’s most current project — the one for which Hattie is hired as a writers’ production assistant — is a show called Cocoa’s Butter. Ida B. might be a self-obsessed dragon lady, but she’s also got the job that Hattie ultimately craves.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of Twenties, and by far, its strongest moments occur when it’s following Hattie as she tries to gain a foothold in the world of TV writing. Twenties is a show that’s been kicking around Waithe’s brain for some time. She released a pilot presentation for it on YouTube in 2013.
Twenties features images of Hattie twirling through a studio lot — a callback to the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age just as the dance sequences in La La Land were. The show effortlessly swings from hip-hop to the soundtrack of the golden age of film. In doing so, it functions as an ode to the dreaminess of the dance scene in the film version of She’s Gotta Have It, another acknowledgement of black fans who were swept into the cheery sweetness of films such as Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. In Twenties, Waithe lays claim to this history in much the same way that Damien Chazelle was so heralded for doing — it’s just that in her vision of dream-chasing features a young, black, butch lesbian aspiring TV writer as the Hollywood ingenue. It doesn’t quite deliver the incisive, absurdist bite of Episodes, which remains one of my favorite shows about the inner machinations of show business, but the tone feels appropriate. After all, Twenties is a show about the beginning of a career, not a past-his-prime actor trying to find one more hit.
Gibbs plays Hattie with a sense of endearing naivete. We’re witnessing her living through late-stage adolescence, even as her friends have their lives figured out to varying degrees. The women feel like familiar sketches — Marie is a married, bourgie studio development executive trying to get better black stories on screen, and Nia is a woo-woo yoga teacher who hasn’t completely given up her dream of acting. The two could fit just as easily into an episode of Dollface, Shrill, or even The Bold Type, but Hattie’s story is the one that feels the most developed.
A sense of romantic idealism about Hollywood dances through Twenties, even as it moves into the terrain of serious issues. One of the developing storylines is Ida B.’s reputation for getting romantically involved with female underlings, and the fourth episode leaves viewers wondering whether Ida B.’s professional relationship with Hattie will turn from line-stepping innuendo into full-on sexual exploitation, how race and the relative scarcity of black female showrunners will affect that dynamic, and how Hattie will handle it.
It’s a subject with which Waithe has some familiarity. She’s the creator and executive producer of The Chi, which fired actor Jason Mitchell for on-set harassment and sexual misconduct. Waithe faced criticism for not firing Mitchell when castmate Tiffany Boone’s complaints against him were so severe that Boone asked to be released from the show after its first season. Mitchell remained on The Chi for season two, and Waithe said that she hoped the installation of a female showrunner would quell problems. It did not, and Mitchell was dropped from the show.
In recent years, it’s become de rigueur to question and critique the culture of Hollywood, and that extends beyond sexual exploitation into the wage theft and bullying that’s long been seen as part of the gauntlet one must survive to have a career there. Those issues are at the forefront of The Assistant, which stars Julia Garner, and of first-person accounts from Hollywood assistants published in Vulture. But those stories have largely been about white people (think the rageaholic Ari Gold character in Entourage).
What’s interesting about Twenties is watching the way this dynamic plays out between two black women, particularly because Ida B. is more than just fearsome and demanding. She makes it a point to mentor Hattie, telling her to stop apologizing for her ideas and opinions, and to be honest, even when she’s giving show notes to her boss. The effect that a combination of doting and abuse can have on a young assistant can make for a powerful story, if told with skill and sensitivity. Gibbs and Brown possess an unmistakable chemistry that makes Twenties eminently watchable, if only because it appears to be on track to answer a question that thus far, no other show has: What happens when the #MeToo bogeyman is a black woman?