If someone had tried to tell me that, in 2017, I was going to be inspired, empowered, and downright in love with an MTV show, I would have side-eyed the hell out of them, laughed, and said “my MTV phase ended about 8 years ago, thank you very much.” See, the only other experience I have with that channel was during my obsession with Laguna Beach and The Hills. PLEASE DON’T STOP READING! I know, I know, those shows were vapid, and horrible on countless levels. Once I realized what actual good TV looked like, I kicked my “reality” TV habit to the curb and never looked back. Needless to say, MTV hasn’t exactly been on my radar, and I sincerely doubted it ever would be again, but here we are. Maybe it’s a fluke – the right showrunner met with the right execs on the right day – but an MTV scripted series has secured a place in my top ten TV shows, of all damn time.
Sweet/Vicious is the story of two, badass young women, Jules and Ophelia, who see a problem in the way legal systems fail the victims of sexual assault. They decide to take matters into their own hands, and deliver vigilante style justice to the accused rapists on their college campus. For Jules, a bright and seemingly sociable sorority girl, these acts are personal; she was raped and this is her form of therapy. For Ophelia, a clever and quick-witted weed dealer and hacker, it’s a much-needed sense of greater purpose. The first season, which just completed its run last Tuesday*, is a thought-provoking, sincere, and emotionally complex narrative.
It explores the beauty of female friendships, the reality of being a sexual assault survivor, and the systematic inadequacies of the institutions that are supposed to protect us but so often don’t. The show handles rape and rape culture with the respect, nuance, and honesty they deserve. Every episode is full of commentary on a variety of topics – ranging from sexism and racism, to body shaming and victim blaming – delivered in both subtle and overt ways, while always managing to steer clear of After School Special Territory. Despite it’s grim subject matter, Sweet/Vicious is highly entertaining.
It’s genre mixing is masterful. Sweet/Vicious is part superhero story; part odd couple comedy; part young-adult drama, without all the melodramatic pitfalls; and even part murder mystery, though the audience, Jules, and Ophelia know the truth. It’s a perfect blend of light and smart humour, with dark and harrowing seriousness; it quite literaly embodies the show’s title. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud one moment, only to be in tears the next, an apt reflection of how most of us are currently living day to day. The show’s tone does get bleaker as the season progresses, but it’s a tonal shift you can prepare for thanks to its, relatively, sunnier beginnings.
The first few episodes do contain some heavy moments – kudos to MTV for always beginning the hour with a trigger warning – but it’s mostly about getting us familiar with the characters and their world. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, the show’s creator, allows us time to ease into this story, while also keeping a steady pace and never allowing the overall plot to become sluggish. Robinson allowed the characters room to shine, making it almost effortless for us to connect with (most of) them; resulting in a palatable form with in which to deliver this subject matter. By the time we get to the traumatic details of what happened to Jules, you’re as ready for it as you ever could be. The show would likely still have been great had it come on strong from the start, but this style had a way of both capturing and maintaining a broader audience.
The female friendships on display are just as vital, if not more so, as the show’s genre and tonal balancing act. Though TV has become much better in the recent past, female characters with female friendships that are real, complicated, and most importantly, positive, aren’t always easy to find. Jules and Ophelia may be an accidental pairing but they have major chemistry, and their blossoming friendship is genuine and heartwarming. The circumstances under which they meet force a sense of trust to be forged rather quickly. It feels organic, then, to have them form a bond where neither of them takes bullshit from the other. They see one another in a different light than their other friends, which makes for a very unique relationship.
Throughout the season, Jules and Kennedy’s friendship isn’t exactly in its best place – we see a much different, happier, dynamic via flashbacks – but by the end their bond is stronger than ever. In the finale they share a beautifully moving scene together, where each of them is fully honest with the other. They both attempt to put their friend’s pain before their own, proving the emotional strength of a woman can’t be beat. Their connection is something to be envious of, something you hope for in your own life. And it’s uplifting to finally see that on TV.
Some of the male characters are great, too – Harris & Tyler, specifically – and super cute, but this article isn’t about them.
To be honest, I was initially very skeptical about Sweet/Vicious, which I think is a natural response to any TV show promising to tackle this kind of sensitive subject matter. Robinson and her team, however, proved time and again they could handle these issues in an appropriate way. No scenes containing assault were ever gratuitous; in fact, nothing was ever sensationalized purely for dramatic effect. The only glossy detail about the show was the highly stylized sets, from the sorority house to Ophelia’s apartment, – but this feels inevitable and appropriate for a show about college kids.
Even the morally ambiguous nature of Jules and Ophelia’s actions is called out – and not just when the system momentarily works in their favour – and there are emotional consequences for the both of them. It may be extremely cathartic to watch rapists get their assess kicked, but it may also not be the exact right path to follow. The impulse to take matters into your own hands when the system fails you, and so many others like you, is an entirely relatable concept. But, as we eventually see, it’s not a perfect solution in this case. Their vigilante activities never truly offer Jules (or any of the other victims) any sense of peace or true justice, and the sense of purpose it gives Ophelia surely can’t be sustained long-term.
All of these ethical conundrums only add to the show’s sense of authenticity. This might be a fictional tale, but it’s heavily, and unfortunately, rooted in truth. To have Jules’ rapist be a young man who was not only her friend, but also the boyfriend of her best friend, was a bold and valuable choice. Bold because this subject matter is rarely, if ever, afforded this dynamic. The majority of stories about sexual assault depict the rapist as being random to his or her (but mostly his) victims. They are the boogeymen waiting in the shadows at night in abandoned alleys. And while there’s no doubt this kind of thing happens in the real world, its rate of occurrence is much higher in TV. Around 80% of assailants are friends or family of the victim.** There’s a tremendous amount of value to be gained from a story with such real-world awareness, especially in these increasingly uncertain and troubling times.
With all that said, Sweet/Vicious isn’t perfect and certainly has room for improvement. A show with such honest and progressive values should be way more diverse than what we saw in season one. Yes, there are two amazing people of colour in the main cast, as well as a few sprinkled throughout the secondary and guest characters, but that’s just not enough. I want to see more attention paid to the distinct stories and experiences of people of colour. The show did try its hand at a plotline concerning racial profiling, but it was wrapped up in about 2 minutes, which is basically an insult to the complexity of that issue. I don’t know much about the crew working on this show, but perhaps more diversity behind the camera will be the best first step in this case.
Let me tangent here for a moment to emphasize even further why diversity of colour on and off screen will be essential to the future of this show. Jules and Ophelia are white women. If/When they are ever caught for their crimes, the show is going to have to find a way to present that storyline in as honest a way as they have with everything else. The fact is, Jules and Ophelia will no doubt be treated MUCH differently than if they were women, or even men, of colour. Sweet/Vicious manages to get so many things right when it comes to sexism and sexual assault; it would be a grave disappointment to see them fail on issues of race. I hope (if they even get a second season) they create a working environment that includes a wide variety of viewpoints, allowing future stories to be as accurate and representative as possible.
The bottom line here, is the stories at the centre of this show are way too universal to only be told from the perspective of two white women. Sweet/Vicious also needs to create space for characters from the LGBTQ community. While it was hinted that Ophelia might identify as bisexual, there was never any solid confirmation of it. She doesn’t need some grand coming-out-scene, but if the hints prove be true, acknowledgement of that fact would be great. And as much I like her and Evan, a little friendly competition from a lady would be enjoyable. Or, just introduce new characters who identify as something other than cis-gender or straight.
There’s a lot more to discuss when it comes to Sweet/Vicious – I’ve honestly only barely scratched the surface here – but I hope it’s enough to encourage you to check it out. Week after week it struck the best balance between distraction and reality check; you could get lost in its fiction while never losing sight of the issues we need to keep fighting for.
During my first watch (yes, I’ve already started a re-watch) I kept thinking, “I hope a lot of young, high school and college-aged people are watching this.” And while I still hope that’s true, I believe almost anyone, at any age, can get something out of Sweet/Vicious. If nothing else, you’ll have a few laughs, but you may also find it broadens your horizons on the very real epidemic of sexual assaults happening today. If you’re already aware of that horrible fact, perhaps you’ll find it provides you with a sense of community. A feeling that you are not alone; that someone will always be there to believe and support you. Despite the tough themes – and the many tears I cried – I always felt an overall warmth and safety while watching this show. We need Sweet/Vicious, and other shows like it, now more than ever. I’m so grateful people are out there, willing to bring this kind of art to life and this current life to art.
*All episodes are now available for streaming at MTV’s website.