BET is taking a leap in a new venture: Drama.
The cabler has produced its first original drama, “Being Mary Jane” starring Gabrielle Union. The series revolving around a public and private life of a cable TV news anchor has been described as “relatable” and “realistic,” but cast member Aaron D. Spears had a different word for it.
“I would say sexy,” he laughed. “We’re tackling some subject matters that it could be HBO. It could definitely be on HBO, because we’re not pulling any punches.”
The skein focuses on Union’s character Mary Jane, a single, successful woman who tries to juggle her job as an anchor for a CNN-like network with her family, friends and a hectic love life. The two-hour pilot aired in July to more than 4 million viewers, prompting BET to move forward with “Mary Jane” as a series. The cast and crew gathered at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood on Monday to premiere the second episode of the eight-episode first season.
In discussing the show, Union revealed that she’s been taking her anchoring cues from a former CNN personality.
“I’m obsessed with Soledad O’Brien,” she admitted. “I’ve just been watching her for many years and when I’ve had to work a teleprompter, like when I hosted BET Honors, I try to do my best Soledad impression. This is just an extension of my obsession with Soledad O’Brien.”
Her observations paid off, as Margaret Avery, who plays Union’s ill mother, praised her work – but not before acknowledging Union’s good looks.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my god, I better start dieting,’ ” she laughed as she recalled her first time on set with Union. “She raises the bar pretty high. But she’s such a professional and to do take after take and do scene after scene — she’s in practically every scene and her professionalism is just wonderful.”
Lisa Vidal, who plays a dynamic news producer at the same station, went right into the action to glean inspiration for her role. She went into the belly of the beast by spending some time at Fox News and observing their producers, and apparently, the job isn’t for her.
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did they really say that?’” She said. “They know everything that is going on before anybody knows it. It’s crazy. It was fun, but it was intense. I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t really want this job.’”
“Being Mary Jane” was a labor of life for creator and producer Mara Brock Akil. Union was always her first choice, as Salim Akil’s, Brock Akil’s husband and director of the series, first note upon seeing the script was that the role was meant for her.
Brock Akil is mostly known for comedies, with her proven track record including “The Game” and “Girlfriends,” but she wanted to tackle more serious subjects with a drama. It was important for her to do this through the lens of an African American woman, but she hopes everyone can relate.
“We put on our armor,” she said. “We put on our clothes, makeup, hair to present what we want people to see, take our Instagram pictures just the right way, filter it the right way, but what is it that we’re hiding? That is the conversation of, really, our humanity, and hopefully one that everybody connects.”
Richard Brooks, who stars in the show as Union’s older brother, said he was so impressed with the script that after reading it, he just wanted to “bow down to Mara” and tell her, “I’m not worthy.”
Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, said even their male audiences loved “Being Mary Jane” when the pilot aired as a two-hour telepic. Lee said the net is looking more into dramas.
“We have a couple other dramas in development … This is a new step for us, and I think the show itself is so relatable to women and men,” Lee said. “I was amazed by how many men loved the movie of the week that we did. Our audience is demanding good quality programming, and we’re giving it to them.”
A panel with Union, Vidal and Brock Akil followed the screening, along with a cocktail reception. “Being Mary Jane” bows on Jan. 7.
(Pictured: Mara Brock Akil, Gabrielle Union and Debra Lee.)