TV Review - Being Mary Jane (Black History Month)

Gabrielle Union on the anchor desk
in "Being Mary Jane"
Being Mary Jane had its premiere on July 2, 2013. The series didn't pick back up until January 7, 2014. I didn't watch the pilot last summer, but, as I watched the first episode in the series, I was able to follow the plot with no problem. There were some elements that I didn't immediately understand, but by Episode 3, titled "The Huxtables Have Fallen," I felt like the show had firmly established who the characters are, why we should care, what's at stake and what the path ahead might be. All good to great series are able to do that.

Gabrielle Union (The Brothers and Think Like a Man) stars as Mary Jane Paul, a news anchor on a 24-hour, cable news channel called SNC in Atlanta, Georgia. It's clearly the fictionalized version of CNN. Mary Jane hosts "Talkback," a program that seems to be a popular daily thing. As the episodes progress, a third to half the time is focused on Mary Jane's career, meaning the show is akin to HBO's The Newsroom, except Union's character is nowhere near as insufferable as Jeff Daniels' character.

I wasn't a fan of The Newsroom, but any time Daniels' character was on his news show doing it live and the series focused on issues concerning journalism, its integrity and ethics, those were the moments that I loved. This is probably because I work for a TV news station, so I'm close to those kinds of things. The same is true about Being Mary Jane. I'm particularly drawn to it when it's debating stuff about TV journalism.

Again, the TV journalism debates are only a third of the show. The rest of the time, this series is a soap opera. The main juicy plot is all about Mary Jane having an affair with a married man named Andre, played by Omari Hardwick who I've cited in two reviews already this month (Things Never Said and The Last Letter). The relationship between Andre and Mary Jane is crazy but sexy. Because of the writing and acting, this soap opera story draws the audience into it. It's particularly notable during Black History Month because the show has the sexuality and the depictions of it at the forefront. Given there aren't too many series that depicts black-on-black sexuality as beautifully as this, Being Mary Jane is great for that alone.

Written by Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends and The Game) and directed by her husband Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom and Sparkle), the show operates vastly better than other current black soap operas like Single Ladies on VH1 and Tyler Perry's The Haves and Have Nots on OWN. Yet, it's still probably second to Scandal on ABC.

What makes it a step above all those shows is a metaphor Being Mary Jane makes in Episode 3. Richard Brooks plays Patrick, the older brother of Mary Jane who takes her back to the ghetto where her family still lives and reminds her that her aloofness and distance from her family isn't good. Patrick learns of her affair with Andre. Patrick is a former cocaine addict and he makes the metaphor, which the show later brilliantly depicts visually, that Mary Jane's affair is an addiction as well, no different from Patrick's drug habit.

This show also does its black, gay male character a million times better than the other black soap operas. Aaron D. Spears (The Bold and the Beautiful) plays Mark Bradley, a black gay news anchor who works for the same company as Mary Jane. They in fact share a producer who's trying to build up both their programs. Mark is clearly supposed to be the fictionalized version of CNN's Don Lemon, the openly gay, black news anchor in real-life.

On Single Ladies, Omar, the black gay character, played by Travis Winfrey, is very stereotypical in a lot of his traits. On The Haves and Have Nots, Jeffrey, the black gay character, played by Gavin Houston, feels too much like a person who is aware that he's in a soap opera or up on a stage. At times, he's too histrionic and melodramatic.

However, on Being Mary Jane, there is no stereotype or artifice to the performance. Spears plays the character as normal. His portrayal has such genuineness and grounded authenticity that he feels like a living, breathing human with more complexity than the superficiality of the others. I also love the scene between him and Kara, his producer, played by Lisa Vidal, where they debate a TV journalism issue that has been debated in films like Good Night, And Good Luck (2005) and Morning Glory (2010), but within the context of a black, gay man and the weight that Spears brings gives a fresh perspective on it that was interesting.

Another scene in Episode 2 where Mary Jane stands around in her house and has drinks with her girlfriends is great too. It's great due to the performances of the supporting characters, but also because Akil realizes that conversations between black women in a funny and grounded way is lacking on American television and she can provide it naturally and in a sure-fire way.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on BET.


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