When the series Chewing Gum popped up in my Netflix queue, I wasn’t ready to meet the show. Writer/actor Michaela Coel’s (top) large eyes full of hope were stubbornly trying to make an introduction. I stuck to my old Netflix friends until I became bored of viewing relationships that kinda went nowhere.
A couple of months ago I finally said, “pleased to meet you” taking in an episode of the show. Admittedly, I wasn’t ready to watch all six episodes at once after watching the first one, but like an old friend, I felt compelled to check in on the British’s show’s lead character Tracey Gordon, played by Coel.
I was curious what this exceptionally batty, perky, quirky, young Black British woman was going to do next. In general, executives don’t line up to put shows on the air that evolve around one Black girl. Don’t get me wrong Insecure and Mary Jane, I see you, but this is not a huge genre. As a Black girl, I had to discover why Netflix put their money into this girl who lived in a poorer section of England.
From the opening off-beat credits, the show proves to be such a strange and uncomfortable train wreck - that you just have to watch. And I mean that in a good way. Coels’ character, Tracey, flaps around like a fish out of water as she desperately tries to figure out how to relieve herself of her virginity while living in a strict Christian home with her Mum and sister. But you will never be able to imagine how she does it. You just have to watch. She knows absolutely nothing about sex and says anything, as along as its vulgar, with a heart, and somewhat self-deprecating. How awkward she is until she breaks that third wall, as she often does, in hopes that someone understands her plight. Then somewhere along the way, her ordinary becomes pure extraordinary.
When she does get the opportunity to let loose sexually, she licks her partner’s eyes and sucks his nose. Indeed, from her actions to the storylines, you just don’t see any of it coming.
Coel is joined by a cast of characters who are created to have absolutely nothing in common with her. Her sister, played by Susan Wokoma, believes that the devil is prowling everywhere and is determined to save Tracey. Their God-fearing mother Joy, played by Shola Adewusi proclaims in an African accent “Your vagina is holy. I will command Satan to leave your nether regions today.” Tracey hopelessly pretends to be in the know when she is with her friends, all of whom are much more sexually savvy and aware.
To see and hear Coel is like listening to a chorus of trumpets tune up - with one person a half note off. You hear that odd note - don't they? Coel is that note. Something is so intriguingly off, you have to wonder how and why it’s happening, but you’re smirking and laughing at the sound of it. The series is brave, filthy and innocent. But it’s a comedy that opens the door to a lot more than the familiar premise of some twenty-something on a sexual quest.
Chewing Gum began as a one-woman play called Chewing Gum Dreams. (The title refers to a life that’s splattered like gum on the sidewalk.) Coel wrote the play in drama school after determining that she didn’t have a chance of being cast into the types of plays her counterparts were writing. The piece was first produced at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick in 2012. Her performance earned her the British Academy Television Award for Best Female Comedy Performance in 2016; she also won a BAFTA for Breakthrough Talent for writing the show.
With all of its accolades, though, be forewarned that you may have to give this comedy a chance. Watch the first episode and watch it again because it will shatter your expectations about what a comedy with a character that looks like Coel’s should be. All stereotypes at every turn have to go to sleep, and I am thankful. And if you want to catch all of the self-effacing humor, turn on the closed captioning to read every rude, vulgar, and wickedly funny line.