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MTV Bets on Rape Vigilantes in ‘Sweet/Vicious’ to Win New Viewers

This scene isn’t for the squeamish: A masked woman enters a frat guy’s dormitory room, threatens him with a blade, and gets him to admit to raping a female on campus. To top things off, she jams the shiv right into his femoral artery. It’s a tableau worthy of Tarantino.

The violence is eyebrow-raising. The legalities are messy (and so is the wound). The network is  – MTV?

The Viacom-owned outlet has never been shy about trying to depict the sexual and cultural attitudes of the nation’s younger demographic in fine detail. Now it’s adding something radical to the mix. Viewers have grown accustomed to shocking dramas featuring conflicted protagonists on outlets ranging from HBO to FX.  So when “Sweet/Vicious,” a drama about two college students who moonlight as rape vigilantes, launches tonight on MTV, it may come as something of a surprise – as will its efforts to explore those themes while also embracing wicked humor and splashy violence (the series’ executive producer, Stacey Sher, is a veteran of the Tarantino films).

“In today’s climate, people are ready for it,” said Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the show’s creator,  “and I do not think the subject should be taboo.”

MTV is simply focusing on topics its viewers deem important – and that seem to be at the center of big, unfolding news stories, including the recent Rolling Stone libel trial and even the recently completed presidential election.  “This is our audience, and it’s happening to them every day in various forms,” said Michael Klein, executive vice president of original content at MTV.

Finding new ways to hook viewers has proven a tough mission for the network in recent months. Ratings have sagged since the days of “Jersey Shore” or the first few seasons of “The Real World.” Indeed, the network is on its third leader in less than two years.  MTV over the decades has shown a predilection for dancing through minefields. Its “Real World” drew notice in 1994 for its depiction of Pedro Zamora, a housemate in the program who was living with AIDS. In 2011, the network aired a season of “Skins”, a scripted drama that bluntly delved in the sex lives of young adults. and sparked debate for doing so.

In “Sweet/Vicious,” viewers meet Jules, a sorority girl who is quietly bringing sexual perpetrators to justice, and Ophelia, a smart campus outlier who figures out what Jules is doing and wants to join. The duo form an unlikely Batman and Robin, though aren’t nearly as expert at the job as those two might be.

Preparations were intense. Taylor Dearden (Ophelia) and Eliza Bennett (Jules) say they consulted “The Hunting Ground,” the 2015 documentary that examines how colleges handle allegations of sexual assault. They also talked with assault victims to hear their real stories. “Talking to survivors was a big thing, with some people close to me,” said Bennett. “It was painful, and difficult, but totally necessary to get as much perspective on what had happened to them.” Producers also consulted with the Rape, Assault and Incest National Network, an organization that works against sexual-assault violence.

“We are trying to approach every subject not with kid gloves, because that’s not a way to get a good dialogue going,” said Dearden. “We are approaching it head on.”  Some of the scenes are emotionally scarring, such as one in which Jules tries to mete out punishment while reliving her own assault in her mind. MTV’s Klein said the network took pains to structure shooting so that actors had time to recuperate emotionally from what they filmed.

And yet, there are laughs and other surprises in a show that digs deep into a tough topic. In a signal of how unorthodox the program is, the actors also took fight training – the better to understand how to move and position themselves when taking on scenes that involve being thrown down stairs or tackled by an enemy. Dearden’s Ophelia, in particular, proves to be a wise cracking ally in Jules’ fight. The pot-smoking trust-funder lives operates on the outskirts of campus life, but stumbles upon Jules’ crusade, and is inspired by it.

“The audience will be surprised by what a whirlwind of emotions they may feel,” noted Bennett. “Something terrible could happen, and there may be lightness in the next scenes.”

MTV has promoted the series in a number of interesting ways. The show’s first three episodes were quietly made available on MTV.com and the MTV app – the largest number of episodes made available for pre-launch sampling in the network’s history. The first act of the first episode was distributed via Facebook Live and Snapchat. Viewers of the network’s “Teen Wolf” may have seen promos featuring actors from both programs, an effort to create a bridge from the established series to the new one. As “Sweet/Vicious” unfurls, its cast will appear live on Snapchat and Instagram while the episodes run Tuesday nights to drive fans to talk about the program on social media.

Some observers think discussion of sexual assault is so widespread, and cases of it achieve such a high profile in the news, that viewers will embrace the subject, rather than be made uncomfortable by it. TV and film often serve as ways for a society to work out difficult issues, noted Amy Ongiri, a film studies professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Films ranging from 2000’s “Baise-Moi” to 1978’s “I Spit On Your Grave” serve as examples of female protagonists securing revenge for being assaulted or raped.

The series “is not creating the outrage,” said Christopher Irving, a humanities instructor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. “The controversy is already there.”

The premise may hook viewer interest, but the creator and actors say “Sweet/Vicious” has more stories to tell. In one episode, Opheila’s friend Harris, an African-American law student played by Brandon Mychal Smith, is stopped by police. The show will explore other issues, such as what it’s like to have a racist sibling.

With the controversy about President-elect Donald Trump’s sexual aggression still fresh in headlines, it seems fair to say the show could fan a spark. Viewers might be interested, said Dearden, in a show in which “the pussy grabs back.”

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