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‘Twenties’ Review: Lena Waithe Goes Hollywood

In BET’s bright new comedy about a trio of young friends trying to make it big, the creator looks back on her early days in showbiz

Gabrielle Graham as Nia, Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs as Hattie, and Christina Elmore as Marie from BET's "Twenties".

Gabrielle Graham as Nia, Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, and Christina Elmore as Marie in BET's 'Twenties.'

Courtesy of BET

In the premiere of Twenties, BET’s new dramedy about a trio of girlfriends negotiating love, life, and showbiz, studio executive Marie (Christina Elmore) praises a black romance movie simply for existing. “We should support black shit,” she insists. Her aspiring screenwriter friend Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs) retorts, “We should support good shit that just happens to be black.”

Hattie is laying down a gauntlet on behalf of Twenties creator Lena Waithe, the rising star (Master of None, The Chi, Queen & Slim) for whom she’s an obvious stand-in. Waithe doesn’t want us to like her new show just because it’s about black female friendship, or because Hattie’s a rare prominent gay woman of color on television. And the standard she sets is one Twenties more than lives up to: The show is good shit that just happens to be black, and queer.

Waithe herself narrates our introduction to the slice of L.A. occupied by Hattie, Marie, and their yoga instructor friend Nia (Gabrielle Graham). As we see Hattie in bed with her older girlfriend Lorraine (Sheria Irving), Waithe warns us that Hattie will soon find “a new and creative way to screw up her life. More about Hattie later. All about Hattie, in fact.”

The wink at the Bette Davis classic All About Eve — perhaps the greatest movie ever made about the toll this business takes on women — is the first of many to Old Hollywood. The friends later attend an outdoor screening of that film, and the series’ soundtrack is as full of movie-score cues from the Forties and Fifties as it is more contemporary hip-hop and R&B. The show is extremely modern in the kinds of stories it tells: Nia is exasperated that her new boyfriend refuses to own a cell phone, while Hattie and a new friend get into an argument about them both being soft studs. Yet the music and some of the sweeping camerawork provide vintage foundation. This could risk coming across as hubris — Waithe and her collaborators trying to elevate their new show, with its deliberately small stories, to something akin to these old giants — but instead only underlines the affection Twenties has for the big, messy place that is Hollywood. The friends are reminded early and often how dysfunctional the business is, whether Marie has to help her white boss (Parker Young) get into a famous black church on Easter Sunday to suck up to a potential asset, or Nia (a former child actor looking to get back into the game) discovers how much looking for your big break can feel like a Ponzi scheme. Still, they, and Twenties, can’t resist Tinseltown’s allure.

Hattie lands an assistant job on a show run by superproducer Ida B. (Sophina Brown). Her responsibilities (coffee and copying, mainly) aren’t thrilling(*), but just being close to the kinds of people who do what she wants to do puts a bounce in her step, and we occasionally see her dancing on the way across the studio lot. Gibbs’ performance is so buoyantly, infectiously physical that in those moments, Twenties can (like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) feel like a musical that just needs the original songs to be complete.

(*) At the start of her career, Waithe held low-level positions on projects run by Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ava DuVernay, and Mara Brock Akil, among others.  

For that matter, the show’s a bit thin on the comedy end of things, often going for more of a hangout vibe than trying to sling jokes. (Though Nia’s irritation about her boyfriend’s lack of a phone is a consistently amusing bit, as is a gag from a later episode where the women try to model their behavior on overconfident, mediocre men, all of them seemingly named Todd.) Fortunately, there’s strong enough chemistry among the three leads to make that approach work, and the show nimbly balances work and personal storylines. Hattie proves equally self-sabotaging in both areas — often letting her overeagerness in one cause her trouble in the other. (“I’m always chasing what I can’t have,” she admits.) Marie, meanwhile, gets to illustrate how having a dream job and a long-term relationship doesn’t always look as good from the inside as the outside.

When Marie gets into a meeting with a star athlete looking to cross over into entertainment, the two bond over a shared love of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. “You could tell it came from a real place,” he raves. “The best stories do,” Marie replies. Twenties palpably comes from a real place. And while autobiography isn’t always a storytelling virtue unto itself, it’s clear that Lena Waithe learned a lot of smart lessons in her journey from being someone with Hattie’s job to being someone with Ida B’s.

Twenties premieres March 4th on BET. I’ve seen all eight episodes.

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