Sometimes, casting really is half the battle, and so it is with “Being Mary Jane,” BET’s first stab at an episodic drama with a principally African-American cast. Gabrielle Union stars as the title character, a TV anchor with a complicated personal life, which includes a pair of romantic entanglements, one of them married. Picking up where a high-rated TV movie left off, it’s hardly ground-breaking material, but Union proves good enough company to pull it off, giving BET a credible shot at becoming a more significant player in the scripted game.
Actually, the whole “picking up where the movie left off” aspect proves a little jarring at first, at least for anyone who didn’t see the film, inasmuch as practically everything about “Mary Jane” starts in the middle. That said, it’s not hard to figure out she’s had an affair with the married Andre (Omari Hardwick), without knowing about his plus-one status; and has moved on to David (Stephen Bishop), which hasn’t stopped Andre from continuing to pursue her.
Work, meanwhile, yields its own headaches, even if Mary Jane doesn’t push back too hard against her anything-for-ratings producer (Lisa Vidal), which includes interviewing a couple that chooses to remain in harm’s way as a dangerous storm bears down on their home.
What makes it all work, moderately, is Union, who manages to portray Mary Jane as relatable, sexy and vulnerable, without being a saint or goody-two-shoes. As created by “Girlfriends’ ” Mara Brock Akil (whose husband, Salim Akil, directed the pilot), the premiere establishes the character as a woman trying to have it all with the pressures that entails, and not always succeeding despite her glamorous job and seemingly perfect exterior.
Given how long BET’s modest ambitions and the lack of serious drama on TV featuring African-Americans have been lamented (Tyler Perry’s recent contributions to OWN hardly ameliorate the situation), it’s welcome to see the Viacom-owned network enter the arena, recognizing that there’s more to life than reality and comedy.
Of course, assuming viewers would like to see more along these lines, it would be helpful if those who sampled the movie return for “Being Mary Jane” and, to quote a very old song, look for the Union label.