There have been dozens of shows about people trying to Make It in Hollywood, but none that quite look like “Twenties,” Lena Waithe’s new comedy based on her own life as an aspiring TV writer. In this BET series, black women are the leads, not the sidekicks. (Main character Hattie — Jojo T. Gibbs — as befits the fact that she’s the one based on Waithe, is a lesbian.) It stands to reason, then, that the problems and entertainment industry knots they have to untangle are inherently different than those we’ve seen TV depict over and over again with white and/or male protagonists.
Given the tenor and trajectory of the show’s first four episodes, that’s exactly the kind of lofty introductory paragraph that Waithe and co-showrunner Susan Fales-Hill knew might be coming in reviews. “Twenties” is aware of its unique place in the TV canon, and makes moves in its very first episode to both acknowledge and dismiss it. In one of the pilot’s most memorable scenes, Hattie’s best friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) are trying to convince her to go for an assistant gig with Ida B (Sophina Brown), a famed and formidable producer who’s also one of the only black women to break through with her own shows and production company. Hattie, who just a few scenes earlier got kicked out of her apartment for skipping on the rent one too many times, still isn’t interested. In her estimation, Ida B’s breakout show “My Bae” is saccharine trash. When Marie and Nia protest, she challenges them to tell her what they actually like about it.
“I like that it’s about black love,” Nia says, while Marie tries a more straightforward, “I’m just glad it exists.”
“That is not a good reason to like a show,” says Hattie with an exasperated sigh. When Marie declares that they just “need to support black shit,” Hattie counters with a pointed insistence that they “should support good shit that just happens to be black.” Both Hattie and “Twenties” want to be taken seriously, on their own merits, and outside the context of the potential cultural significance of centering a black and queer experience.
In that spirit: “Twenties” is a solid coming-of-age comedy that makes a concerted effort to develop its own rhythm and visual style to set it apart. Hattie, Nia, and Marie’s scenes are often soundtracked with pointed songs or sweeping orchestral beats reminiscent of old Hollywood that, inevitably, their disappointing reality cuts abruptly short. The show’s vision of Los Angeles, established in the pilot by director and executive producer Justin Tipping, is crisp and sun-bleached; shots often slow down pivotal or particularly picturesque moments so Hattie can better drink them in. In these stylized moments, “Twenties” feels something like a more self-aware “La La Land.” Outside of them, though, “Twenties” feels adrift in terms of its actual storytelling.
Marie’s struggles to get taken seriously at her own production company and Nia tip-toeing back into acting are compelling storylines that make good points about the specific problems they face in their industries, but feel a bit thin in terms of their actual characterizations. That holds doubly true for Hattie — a particularly confusing problem given her direct connection to Waithe. What we know about Hattie is that she loves women (the seemingly “straighter” the better) and wants to be a TV writer. Beyond that, “Twenties” doesn’t examine her or her motivations much harder at all. Hattie’s drive to be a writer should be the heartbeat of the series, but after watching half of the show’s eight-episode season, it’s unclear why Hattie wants to write for TV, or what kinds of stories she would even write if given the chance. In large part thanks to Gibbs’ appealingly loose performance, it’s entertaining to watch Hattie figure out how to break into the business, but without any clear motivations pushing her, it’s frustratingly ephemeral. If she and “Twenties” want to be memorable, they both have to figure out what’s actually driving them to do it.
“Twenties” premieres Wednesday, March 4 at 10 pm on BET.