‘Chewing Gum’ brushes up against British television’s constraints

Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 11:36pm

“Chewing Gum”

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E4

 

The comedian-auteur genre of television has never been more robust. Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” — the writer-creator-star triumvirate is healthy and operating at full capacity. What’s most refreshing about this trend is the specificity of voices; each series is filmed through such a unique perspective that the template is at once simple and difficult to replicate. Forgiving an inexplicable title then, Netflix’s “Chewing Gum” is a confident, high-energy and hilarious volley from across the pond that more than earns its spot among the best of them.

The show is, of course, created by, written by and starring one woman: British poet and playwright Michaela Coel (“London Spy”), who developed the show from a previous play she had written. Drawing on her Ghanaian background, Coel plays Tracey, a 24-year-old woman whose defining characteristic is her repressed sexuality. Tracey is a virgin, but a reluctant one: she has been raised by the most conservatively religious of parents, has a sister, Cynthia (Susan Wokoma, “Crazyhead”), whose vision of a perfect life is playing board games with her mother and sister for eternity and a disturbingly uptight betrothed, Ronald (“Critical”), who’s the kind of guy that chucks a Bible at you if you take off your clothes and come on to him.

It’s impossible to watch “Chewing Gum” — a British import from channel E4 — without noticing the shades of a number of different shows: there are the casual fourth-wall transgressions reminiscent of “Fleabag,” the hilarious raunchiness of “Catastrophe” permeates the entire comedic sensibility, it shares its subject matter with “Jane the Virgin” and there’s even a hint of the old “Skins” in its portrayal of a younger, working-class, diverse London. It’s fascinating to see a potent mix of approaches that years earlier would have never been possible on TV.

The sense of humor, though, is wholly unique. Coel is interested in progressive sexuality conflicting with traditional ideas of religious chastity, but there is never a dull or heavy moment. The jokes are bawdy and well-written, and Coel herself is a marvel of comic timing. Coel’s ability to wring hard-earned laughs from a simple reaction shot is reminiscent of “Atlanta” ’s Brian Tyree Henry. The surrounding players are also precise and effective at their line delivery. One particularly hilarious exchange involves a bit character advising Tracey to sit on a man’s face: “Just perch on it, love.”

“Chewing Gum” ’s London is also impressively specific in its vision. The bubblegum pop type of set design means there bright bursts of color in every scene. The cinematography is hyper-kinetic, and the show is bursting with unbridled energy. This becomes somewhat jarring when the show tries to hit its more emotional beats, like the introduction of Tracey’s love interest, Connor (Robert Lonsdale, “The Interceptor”), but the inevitable sex scene between the two of them that bookends the first episode is at once fascinatingly honest and laugh-out-loud funny.

What’s most inspiring about “Chewing Gum,” though, is the mere fact of its existence. This is a raunchy, explicit, hilarious show about sex, religion and virginity with a Black woman at the center of it all. It’s clear this is the show Coel set out to make, and to witness her brushing up against the constraints of British television is heartening. It’s not hard to fall in love.