Critic's Notebook: MTV Should Renew Rape Vigilante Series 'Sweet/Vicious,' the Best Show You've Never Heard of

MTV's winter drama is like 'Arrow' meets 'Greek' and if people watch, many of them will like it.
Courtesy of MTV
MTV's Sweet/Vicious finished a strong first season last Tuesday night with a two-hour finale full of emotional and exciting moments, but this article won't spoil much or any of the finale, for a pretty simple reason: Not enough people are watching Sweet/Vicious for that kind of piece to be the best use of anybody's time.
 
I'll take my share of the blame for that, OK?
 
Every so often, I look at Live+3 Day cable ratings and it's disheartening to see Sweet/Vicious consistently near the bottom of the scripted cable heap. The Jan. 17 episode, for example, drew 321,000 Live+3 overall viewers, ahead of IFC's Portlandia, but not much else. If you go out to the 18-34 demo that MTV probably cares more about, Sweet/Vicious fares a bit better, moving ahead of things like The Affair and HBO's ironically old-skewing The Young Pope, but that's about it.
 
Critics like to find fun ways to split hairs on the shows we enjoy. We do Best Shows on TV every December, but the ephemeral Best Show You're Not Watching designation is always available. I think I last used it on Comedy Central's Review back in October 2015.
 
Sweet/Vicious probably isn't really the Best Show You're Not Watching. Review is coming back this spring/summer for a final season and it remains a scathing, tragic, hilarious show that the numbers suggest you are, indeed, not watching. I've tried and I'll try again. Rectify is done forever after a four-season run, but its finale is still recent enough that it's eligible for BSYNW consideration. I tried to sell this one, too. 
 
Other Best Shows You're Not Watching — probably not the specific "you," since you're reading an article like this, but more of a general, mainstream "you" — that I might give such a crown to over Sweet/Vicious include things like Documentary Now, Baskets, Insecure, Quarry and even ratings-anemic network shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Jane the Virgin. And that's before we get to streaming shows that you may or may not be watching in droves. I can't say how many people have watched Netflix's Happy Valley or Chewing Gum. It may be "everybody" for all I know.
 
 
But one thing I've found in conversations with very, very informed people in recent months is that most people I talk with, including colleagues, loved ones and hosts of radio shows I frequent is that people who aren't TV critics or don't follow a lot of TV critics on Twitter or aren't obsessive MTV viewers don't even get a glimmer of recognition when you mention Sweet/Vicious.
 
So even if Sweet/Vicious really isn't the Best Show You're Not Watching, it's possible that it's the Best Show You Haven't Even Heard Of. 
 
[Of course, you probably haven't heard of at least one of two of the low-rated shows I mentioned above, but let's stop the wormhole descent right now.]
 
This is sad because there's a big audience of people out there who would probably really enjoy Sweet/Vicious if they knew what it was and it's to that audience that I'm appealing here, by not spoiling anything about the finale or anything that would harm your ability to do a big Sweet/Vicious catch-up during the free time we all have in such abundance.
 
And maybe if you begin catching up soon, MTV will take notice because Sweet/Vicious hasn't been renewed for a second season, which really needs to happen not because the ratings are there, but because MTV doesn't have many shows (any shows) that are better than Sweet/Vicious, and given enough time this is a show that will find an audience and MTV doesn't want it to be something that slipped through the cracks while they were recycling reality stars through various challenges or presenting shows in which 16-year-olds get either pregnant or throw big parties or both.
 
I've been able to get people curious about Sweet/Vicious with the pitch I've been giving since the show premiered in November: 
 
It's Greek meets Arrow
 
Come on. Admit that now you're curious.
 
Created by Jennifer Katin Robinson and given its early visual shaping by director Joseph Kahn, Sweet/Vicious did what the terrific first season of Lifetime's UnReal did, leading with a light-hearted comedy in a familiar genre and pushing into increasingly darker and darker terrain. Only Sweet/Vicious boasted an extra twist by adding elaborate action set pieces to the mix. [Now MTV needs to order a second season of Sweet/Vicious if only to prove that this premise has more legs than UnReal.]
 
I guess Sweet/Vicious never really was all that light. It was always the story of Jules (Eliza Bennett), a seemingly bubbly, hyper-organized sorority girl, and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), a pot-dealing genius with motivation issues, who join forces as ninja vigilantes punishing sexual predators on a college campus where the administration is either unwilling or unable to offer discipline or protection on its own.
 
I still can lead the lightness, if that's more of a draw. Jules and Ophelia instantly formed one of TV's best friendships, with Dearden leading the way when it came to quippy one-liners and references. I didn't watch her and think, "Wow, she's just like her father," but when your dad is Bryan Cranston and you go into the family business,  comparisons are inevitable. Dearden and the writers helped turn Ophelia into a unique blend of goth, nerd, pothead, sexpot and action heroine, basically a particular and peculiar individual with no need or desire to apologize for anything she did. She was especially good and funny when paired with Brandon Mychal Smith's Harris, a rare TV friendship of pretty young people with simpatico interests and world views allowed to share the screen without any suggestion of will they/won't they potential. [Unrelated: Smith is great and we need to get his Wikipedia to stop saying he's "best known" for things other than You're the Worst. The solution is probably to get You're the Worst better known, but since he's recurring there and a regular on Sweet/Vicious, maybe my real crusade should be to get him "best known" for this. Oh and in a second Sweet/Vicious season, the writers should find out what law students actually do. But MTV has to renew Sweet/Vicious for that to happen.]
 
 
In the early episodes, my initial read was that Bennett was probably the cast's relative weak link when it came to the funny, in large part because the British actress' efforts to control her American accent were so evident. But she got better as she got to work with Dearden more, which made it easier to accept that Jules was just a young woman who was never encouraged to be funny, though had a sense of humor when she was given the room to express it. And as the show became more about the emotions that Jules was repressing and the material got more emotional, Bennett really shined.
 
It's not spoiling anything and it shouldn't dissuade you from watching to praise Sweet/Vicious for being aware that if you're hurting inside, vengeance against a few rape-y douchebag frat boys might scratch an initial itch, but it won't get to the root of the problem. Sweet/Vicious is empowering as hell, but it's not as one-dimensional as a "Girls can kick butt too" message.
 
This winter it feels like every show on TV has characters coping with PTSD. But the shows that have done it the best aren't the intense dramas about veterans newly returned from the Middle East, but rather the shows that have taken an oblique approach, including the multi-cam laughs and tears of Netflix's One Day at a Time. The Sweet/Vicious treatment of Jules' pain — her attempts to medicate with violence and newfound romance, her efforts to find support through therapeutic and institutional systems — was nuanced and respectful of the experiences that too many women, college students and otherwise, have to go through, with or without extensive martial arts training. Sweet/Vicious delivered weekly doses of cathartic, butt-kicking fun, but forced both its heroes and its viewers to examine that fun.
 
So there's your pitch: Sweet/Vicious is escapism that doesn't let you escape, and even if that doesn't sound like fun, it really is.
 
I apologize again if I haven't done enough to let you know that MTV had a really good, really different show that it aired this winter without enough viewers noticing. 
 
MTV, please renew Sweet/Vicious. People will find it and people will like it and I'll try to write more about it next time.
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