Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
More often than not, MTV’s sleek high-quality production values and tragically attractive talent pool works overtime in negating the “edgy” content its scripted department has run toward since Teen Wolf became a hit. That show, lest anyone forget, began much the same way: polished to a mirror shine, but without much beating beneath its six-pack-abs-strewn DVD cover art. It’s taken years for it to become something special and intricately layered, finally embracing – and elevating – the MTV-ness of it all.
Some shows on the network start out with a more assured, self-aware grasp (The Shannara Chronicles), and some simply feel like slowly unfurling wastes (Scream). MTV’s newest crack at shocking the millennial set enough to tweet out a hashtag is Sweet/Vicious, and I’m very happy to report that it falls far closer to the former group than the latter. Although it epitomizes some of MTV’s more egregious narrative and character-based burdens, the show’s call-to-arms, neck-throttling anger – which smacks you in the face in its opening scene and comes full circle by the end of episode 2 – is performed with enough grit and affection as to justify the seedy morals Sweet/Vicious is daring enough to embrace.
Just be prepared to hear the word “balls” a lot. That comes courtesy of hacker/weed dealer Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), a blue-haired, beanie-wearing genius-combo-burnout who spends most of her time hitting a six-foot tall bong (“LeBong James,” ironically not a high point for the show’s writing) and working at the consistently empty record store owned by her lawyer student friend Harris (Brandon Mychal Smith, whose occasional utterance of “bitch” should make You’re The Worst fans smile). Across the campus where she’s sort of, not really going to class is sorority girl Jules (Eliza Bennett), who has a dark secret none of her sisters know about: each night she dons a mask and voice-changer and brings justice to the guys on her campus known to be sexual assaulters and rapists, and who have gotten away with their actions scot-free thanks to a collegiate justice system more interested in its own self-preservation than that of its students.
Without an ounce of backstory or origin story info-dump, Sweet/Vicious throws Jules’ one-woman quest at you like a switch blade, and the show actually gains ground when it compares itself (okay maybe a little too proudly) to superhero comics like Batman. I make this venn diagram with slight hesitation, but the show actually owes more to Mark Millar’s punk antics of a story like Kick-Ass, not to mention Matthew Vaughn’s hyper-violent visualization, than anything resembling a traditional cape-and-cowl hero. Although the first two episodes are otherwise pretty staid, director Joseph Kahn embraces the whiz-bang cuts and audible zips of Jules’ vigilante work with an endearing glee, making otherwise cable-network standard set-pieces interesting, attitude-filled statements.
That fits with the show’s mantra nicely as well, and the more and more Jules admits she might need someone else’s help in her vendetta, the more interesting she becomes. All the same, Sweet/Vicious knows when to stay subtle and doesn’t really ever get bogged down with unnecessary previously-on segments explaining away her every move – a simple, fleeting flashback at the hands of a guy standing over her during a night out for justice is explanation enough. When Ophelia comes in as her sidekick, after one sharp left turn of a twist I wasn’t sure the show would have the balls to go through with, their partnership elevates both characters.
The two echo in glimpses Jessica and Trish from Marvel’s Jessica Jones, as well as that show’s embracing of a traditionally male story arc to explore intrinsically female problems. Unfortunately, it also suffers some of Jessica Jones’ more auxiliary issues, because not many of the side characters in Sweet/Vicious provide near enough interest to justify meat for a 10 episode-long season. Jules’ sorority sisters, although at least not shrill villains, are mostly just thinly written types; a potential love interest (Nick Fink) threatens Jules’ vigilantism early on, but his entanglement with the main plot is Sweet/Vicious at its most heavy-handed; promising as ever is Smith, who’s a delight anywhere, but even his subplot about advancing as a law student threatens credulity given the stakes at play elsewhere in the show.
Ophelia, in particular, is a lot of character to take in toward the show’s beginning. Dearden leans into her quirks a bit too heavily (popcorn as breakfast at 3:30 p.m., etc) and makes her feel more like some goofy offshoot of another MTV show, like Mary + Jane, than an interesting new creation. In a show that otherwise feels largely in key with the byzantine inner-workings of the younger generation, creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s dialogue choices can be straight-up grating, and unfortunately that burden mostly ends up in Dearden’s court. But when thrown into a intense situation surrounding one of Jules’ marks, which goes astoundingly awry, she starts to fit into the Sweet/Vicious master plan a little better.
Which is to say that Bennett is the secret weapon of Sweet/Vicious, literally. Outside of her mask, she embodies Jules with a cozy warmth that’s ra-ra sisterhood (even when she has to skip out on group study night!) and yet a total menace once her black hoodie goes up. She’s dynamic and enigmatic and manages to toe the line between relatable frustrations (boy problems, snooping friends) and downright terrible decisions. That’s all to say that something bad happens, and Sweet/Vicious manages to stay quietly intriguing amidst your regularly scheduled MTV bombast. It stays that way even in the face of its decision to succumb to a few unsurprising structural choices (a mysterious flash-forward portends an hour-long explanation of impending craziness) to deliver its otherwise decently surprising story. The show, essentially, doesn’t lose its central anti-rape message between the bones breaking, and it manages to avoid feeling finger-wagging because of its surprisingly successful superhero parallels.
Whether or not its borked moral compass stays a consistent source of entertaining mayhem is yet to be seen. As it stands, in the first 2 episodes, Robinson manages to hold up one mirror to rape culture and the people that ignore its implications (she also tiptoes, with more mixed success, into racial profiling and hazing). She’s taking it to the extremes required of her by MTV, and modern television formula in general, but she’s nevertheless holding it up for everyone to see: are Jules and Ophelia’s decisions justified because of one truly heinous act? Is their quest morally sound? Does it even matter? Sweet/Vicious, mean as it can be towards Jules’ targets (and don’t misinterpret me, they deserve all the vile they can get), appears itself to largely not care whether you’re here for the girl-powered beatdowns or re-appropriated power dynamics, and it especially doesn’t care whether you like it or not.
Robinson’s delivery of that sarcastic, middle-finger message, while slightly inconsistent, is otherwise a damn bullseye. “The ends justify the means” is such a cliché that it might not even be a cliché anymore, but Sweet/Vicious takes that platitude, slaps on a pair of pink brass knuckles, and barrels down a dark alleyway into its next douchey fraternity bro who thought a little loud music would erase one tiny sexual assault on a drunken freshman. It’s that crash of power – between a serious social issue and glittery pyrotechnics, between its sweetness and viciousness – that Sweet/Vicious strikes gold.
Sweet/Vicious is a careening, nutty show that just so happens to be about the dead-seriousness of rape, and it only becomes more fist-pumping the more angry, violent, and twisted it gets.