'Mary + Jane': TV Review

Courtesy of MTV
MTV's 'Mary + Jane'
'Can't Hardly Wait' duo knows poppy female empowerment.
9/5/2016

MTV's weed-fueled comedy has some highs, but still feels like a reverse-engineered 'Broad City.'

Upon a first listen, Snoop Dogg's theme song for the MTV comedy Mary + Jane felt like a repetitive and derivative version of the sort of playful marijuana-fueled anthems he's been doing for decades now. After hearing the little snippet used with Mary + Jane in both promotion and the three episodes sent to critics, I'll admit that Snoop's song has become the most persistent of earworms, and although I haven't added it to any playlists yet, I can imaginable the possibility.

Will the same prove true of Mary + Jane itself, which initially plays as a slightly repetitive and derivative version of the kind of playful marijuana-fueled sitcoms that are rarely in short supply? After three episodes, Mary + Jane hasn't proven quite so sticky, but the show, and especially its young stars, have potential.

Created by writers-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont and premiering Sept. 5, Mary + Jane is the story of two 20-something friends determined to launch an all-female weed-delivery service. I'm not sure if it's false advertising or admirable restraint that the main characters are not, in fact, named Mary and Jane, but rather Jordan (Scout Durwood) and Paige (Jessica Rothe) or, as my notes refer to them, "Brunette Friend" and "Blonde Friend." Jordan is more seasoned, cynical and outgoing, prone to misadventures in polyamory, while Paige is more open and winsome, still smarting from a breakup with a douchey DJ and wondering if she'll ever find love. Paige and Jordan navigate their way through one of the sunniest and least-threatening versions of the Los Angeles drug trade imaginable, perhaps proving that the power of female friendship is stronger than reality's oppressions.

I'm down with that as a message, and there's little doubt that the friendship between Paige and Jordan is the most successful and endearing piece of Mary + Jane, as the characters have a rapport that feels natural and unforced, even if so much of the rest of the show feels often wildly forced, or at least like its trying too hard.

Early episodes can be cleanly broken down between gambits that work and gambits that seemed like good ideas in concept, but don't completely pay off in execution. A cheeky plotline in which Jordan delivers drugs to a Hollywood supercouple with a very close resemblance to a real-life pair of A-listers has several very funny payoffs, for example. But an episode built around a marijuana lube that allows the girls to converse with their genitals and hear vaginal conversations from those around them starts superficially and never gets funnier.

Finding the surface level of jokes is never a problem for Mary + Jane, but taking them beyond name-dropping glibness doesn't always work. Yes, there's a wide threshold for mocking hipsters and their trendy pop-up eateries, cyber-portmanteaus and millennial entitlements, but that's why there's a TV landscape saturated with shows doing the same thing, and if you're just going to go to the well of "HPV is the new black"-style hackiness, more effort is needed.

The creators deflected when I asked at the TCA Press Tour about the influence and importance of Broad City here, and I guess they had to because what are they going to say, "MTV desperately wanted its own Broad City"? Clearly not. But watching Mary + Jane, it's difficult not to describe it as a more sitcom-y version of Broad City, perhaps infused with the entrepreneurial spirit of HBO's High Maintenance. The big difference is that Broad City and High Maintenance both feel, to reference a concept mocked by both shows and also by Mary + Jane, artisanal. They're creator-driven shows on which the creators are also stars and writers and producers, and they're shows that have evolved through the new-media landscape, starting online and expanding out into weekly cable series as popularity and storytelling demanded.

Mary + Jane feels like a corporate entity, which isn't without its positives. It has money behind it, so it never feels sloppy or cheap or raw or amateurish. And Kaplan and Elfont are trained and experienced auteurs of quippy, poppy female empowerment, as fans of Can't Hardly Wait and Josie and the Pussycats know. But it isn't hard to look at the character of Jordan in Mary + Jane, see how much she comes across like Ilana Wexler from Broad City and be able to recognize the difference in effort expended between Ilana Glazer developing a character directly out of her own personal sensibility and Scout Durwood playing a character she auditioned for and was cast as. Durwood commits with gusto, but I definitely think Rothe benefits from playing the role that feels more original, one that also has more opportunities for variation. After watching three episodes, I like Paige, and I like Paige and Jordan together, but Jordan alone is too much Jordan.

Rather than setting up three or four reliable supporting characters to give the main stars different things to play off of — Broad City's Comedy Central incarnation did this immediately with Hannibal Buress' Lincoln, Arturo Castro's Jaime and more — Mary + Jane has gone with one-off friends: a slut-shaming talking dog and cameos by folks like Missi Pyle, never in roles designed to be ongoing. It builds a universe of tossed-off cultural references — a glibly funny universe, but not always a real universe.

Broad City airs only 10 episodes per season, and the upcoming first HBO season of High Maintenance is only six episodes, so there's room for a Los Angeles-based saga of frequently high female buddies and ganjapreneurs, and I'd love to be able to come back and look at the second season of Mary + Jane and not need to make any comparisons at all. For the first season, when the girls are even making jokes referencing Broad City EP Amy Poehler, that's virtually impossible, but there's enough charm and budding star power here that I'm likely to stick with Mary + Jane, even if its highs are very familiar.

Studio: MTV
Cast: Scout Durwood, Jessica Rothe
Creators/showrunners: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont

Airs Mondays at 10 p.m., ET/PT on MTV.

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