“Sweet/Vicious” is almost exactly the kind of sprightly and shaggy show you’d expect from MTV. It’s set on a college campus, it has an intelligently sarcastic vibe, and one character smokes pot with a six foot-long device nicknamed “LeBong James.”
Many other elements of the show are unexpected and surprisingly successful. Despite the low-key and occasionally goofy tone you’d expect from a semi-comedic saga about mismatched new friends, the core concern of “Sweet/Vicious” is the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. The main accomplishment of the promising show is that it never loses sight of the issues surrounding rape culture, violation, and consent. But it’s not an “eat your vegetables” kind of program — it’s essentially an enjoyable superhero saga.
Whoever cast “Sweet/Vicious” deserves a bonus (or at least a keg of beer): The show revolves around an extremely watchable and winning core duo: Eliza Bennett plays Jules, a sorority girl who likes sunset pictures on Instagram and has a bedroom straight out of a pastel Pinterest page. Bennett is asked to sketch all the layers of an earnest character who is pretty square and conformist, but who is also full of confusion and rage and dryly funny from time to time. She pulls off all those rapid transitions without missing a beat. Much of the comic relief falls to Taylor Dearden, who co-stars as Ophelia, a green-haired trust-fund kid and hacker who is directionless (aside from her pot-dealing activities) until she comes across Jules.
“Sweet/Vicious” draws heavily on the “crime-fighting odd couple” premise that has powered many fine cop shows, though both Jules and Ophelia have very little trust in the campus authorities and the local police. Part of the fun is watching these two women, each of whom sits on an array of corrosive personal secrets, learn to trust each other, despite their different approaches to life. Jules is hesitant but watchful, and ferocious when necessary, while Ophelia has the entitled bravado of a rich kid who has almost convinced herself she’s not lonely. Dearden, already a master of the deadpan one-liner, is particularly good at conveying the welter of insecurities and disappointments that lie just beneath Ophelia’s chill demeanor.
Both women are entirely fed up with how common assault is among their peers, and how women must routinely inhabit the same campuses as the men who hurt them. No one knows about the duo’s vengeance quest: It’s yet another secret Jules and Ophelia keep (one of the things the show is savviest about is the ways in which women regulate their own emotions — often at great cost — in order to fly under the radar). As the show builds momentum, Jules and Ophelia gain confidence not only from their budding friendship, but from the shared outlet of hunting down men who often face no consequence for their behavior. “There’s really nothing like an old-fashioned ass beating,” Ophelia remarks with satisfaction at one point.
But “Sweet/Vicious” doesn’t let its heroines off the hook or elide the knotty complications of what they’re doing. Though the show is dominated by women, a number of the male characters are given a reasonable amount of depth and dimension. (One hopes the terrific Brandon Mychal Smith, who plays Ophelia’s boss, gets much more to do as the season progresses).
“Sweet/Vicious” also explores the confusing multitude of expectations placed on women, and the ways in which those conflicting “rules” are sometimes enforced by women who spout platitudes about sisterhood. One episode takes on the brutal and body-shaming hazing that a very exclusive sorority puts its pledges through; its leader is described as “the love child of a CrossFit trainer and Mussolini.” Jules’ housemates — who belong to a different and more supportive sorority — could use more definition, but the show never turns them into the cartoon villains that they might be on a lesser show.
Little do her sorority sisters suspect that Jules is an impressive fighter, but the duo’s occasional ineptitude, and the fact that their desire to take action often outstrips their skills, are sources of wry comedy, and also provides some subversive plot twists. Jules and Ophelia don’t always identify the right guys, and they’re not exactly geniuses when it comes to covering their tracks. (Dearden is the daughter of Bryan Cranston, and “Breaking Bad” fans may enjoy the allusions to another memorable criminal duo who got in over their heads.) The show also struggles at times to make some characters and ongoing story threads more than generic placeholders, but the energetic pace keeps things moving crisply, for the most part.
“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” explored a lot of the issues presented in “Sweet/Vicious,” and the protagonist of the Netflix show was also enraged, damaged, smart, charismatic, an iffy friend, and often cuttingly witty. This show has a lighter tone, a sunnier setting, and a smaller budget, and as was the case with “Jessica Jones,” some of its subplots lack the crackle and drive of the main story, which frequently and often successfully returns to the idea that surviving an assault is a fraught, confusing process that never really ends.
All in all, one of the most heartening trends in TV is the renewed use of genre storytelling to spin tales of female empowerment that are complicated, surprising, and take the emotional lives of their characters seriously without falling into the traps of pompousness or smug superiority. Almost two decades after the debut of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Orphan Black,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Outlander,” “Killjoys,” and “Wynonna Earp” prove that the legacy of Buffy Summers is going strong.