After scurrying between networks for a decade, Lena Waithe’s comedy series “Twenties” is finally getting its television debut on BET. The half-hour comedy is the end result of a concept Waithe, now 35 years old, had been working on since her mid-20s. But at the time, no studio would touch a series with a black female lead who unapologetically eschews traditional gender norms. Times have certainly changed, and with “Twenties,” Waithe is able to prove there’s room in Hollywood for stories like this, which, for the first in primetime TV, centers the story of a masculine-of-center black woman, with a little help from the Bette Davis classic, “All About Eve.”
The opening scene of “Twenties” comprises of an inharmonious mishmash of atmosphere and style. A rapidly-edited montage of tangled limbs and ecstatic grins belonging to a pair of black women, thrashing underneath rose-colored sheets in a “bougiefied” Silver Lake apartment. A voiceover that’s unmistakably Waithe’s detachedly provides context, and the audience learns the two women are Lorraine (Sheria Irving) and Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), the series’ stars who have “found a new and creative way to screw up” their lives.
The short snappy sequence, which is scored to Alfred Newman’s Oscar-nominated main title track from “All About Eve,” ends with Waithe’s voiceover declaring, “More about Hattie later. All about Hattie, in fact,” to a freeze frame of Hattie’s face, mid-rapture. It’s a frisky introduction that immediately sets the tone for the remainder of the comedy — a breezy, whimsical tale about showbiz that doesn’t shy away from revealing some unpleasant realities about a superficially alluring industry.
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In Waithe’s series, Hattie is Eve Harrington to her new boss, Ida B.’s Margo Channing (played by Sophina Brown), a trailblazing black woman who built a TV empire on black shows that Hattie considers schlock, with farcical titles like “My Bae” and “Cocoa’s Butter.” Still, Ida’s a “bad bitch” and declares Hattie’s best friend Nia (Gabrielle Graham) as an aimless yoga instructor who decides to revive her acting career.
“I am just glad [‘My Bae’] exists,” asserts Hattie’s other best friend Marie (Christina Elmore), a junior studio executive looking for the next Barry Jenkins. “We need to support black shit.” Hattie retorts: “No, we should support good shit that just happens to be black.”
That’s the kind of bite that Waithe is known for. It echoes thoughts that she herself, a self-described “truth-teller,” shared in a summer 2019 profile in which she said about black cinema: “I feel like we don’t have film criticism anymore, in a real way. A lot of bad black movies get good reviews because white critics are afraid to pan them.”
If it’s not clear by now, Hattie is a younger version of Waithe, a ballsy, swaggerific 24-year-old aspiring television writer whose life in many ways resembles Waithe’s early years in Hollywood — during which she worked under a number of black women trailblazers, including Mara Brock Akil, the creator of shows like “Girlfriends,” “The Game,” and “Being Mary Jane.” Whether Ida B. is a fictional representation of any of Waithe’s former bosses is a mystery. Should it be, it’s a portrayal that seems to serve as both a salute and an act of retribution. Ida B. is at once a stiff dictator who rose through the ranks by selling out, but who also seems enamored enough by Hattie’s whimsy and drive, that she eventually starts to become something of an adviser to her.
Hattie takes as much grief as Ida B. can dish out, but the back-and-forth of what starts to feel like a mentor-protégé relationship grows increasingly nebulous. And by the end of the fourth episode of the eight-episode first season (the press received the first four episodes for review), there’s a curious bit of dramatic tension that leaves one wondering what kind of psychosexual head games Ida B. might be playing on an unsuspecting Hattie. The mystery of it all is actually quite alluring.
On one hand, “Twenties” is about a young woman who finds herself at the mercy of a demanding boss and does everything possible to earn her approval and get ahead. But it’s also a depiction of the sausage factory Hollywood can be, and the double standards by which ambitious women are often judged.
The nods to “All About Eve” are just a few paeans to Hollywood of yesteryear. Like Waithe, Hattie is an old soul with a somewhat romanticized view of Hollywood, as she steps into the business green and giddy. Scattered throughout the series are numerous visual flights of fancy, scored to classical Hollywood soundtracks and other music of the era. For example, in the second episode, there’s a sequence featuring a starry-eyed Hattie seemingly floating down a street on the Paramount lot, while Frank Sinatra’s version of “I’ve Got the World on a String” plays along.
Conversely, the series throws the occasional grenade at the Hollywood of today, targeting the excesses, predatory conduct, narcissism, hypocrisy, and superficiality, all fixtures going back to the early days, but are much more pronounced than ever, or at least openly and honestly discussed. Linking the past and present is the recognition that Hollywood was and is still very much about dreams — in this case Waithe’s, whose own dream as a queer writer of color from Chicago, with a personal story, was several times deferred.
It underscores how much the world and the business have changed since she first tried to get the series produced. In this “new black renaissance,” sulks a petulant Hattie in “Twenties,” “Hollywood should be knocking down my door!” Clearly, Waithe is aware of the series’ unique place in the TV canon.
It’s a cutesy, sometimes insightful, and humorous comedy-drama about navigating maybe the most exciting and terrifying decade of adulthood, all while trying to make it in showbiz. It’s a series that clearly wants to set itself apart with its visual style and rhythm, and, for the most part, it succeeds in that regard.
Holding it all together are the natural comedic talents of Gibbs as Hattie, who is immediately endearing as a woman with an undeniable swagger, but who also clearly has no idea where she’s going nor how to get there — in an America that still doesn’t quite acknowledge and appreciate women like her. Throughout the series, she grows. Her initial uncertainty leads to mistakes; and from those mistakes, she learns, which builds confidence, even if that confidence is sometimes undermined by rather wearisome tests of ability.
Ultimately, the question that propels the series is: What does Hattie really want? Her drive to become a TV series writer is the heartbeat of the series, and yet she spends more time talking about writing than actually doing it. But, to some degree, it makes sense. Between being at Ida B.’s beck and call, managing her various romantic trysts, socializing with her best friends, and day-dreaming, the series is meant to convey the messiness of a markedly different period in Waithe’s life, when she was young, aimless, and trying to find her way.
The series is called “Twenties” after all.
“Twenties” premieres Wednesday, March 4 at 10 p.m. ET on BET.