'Teenage Bounty Hunters': TV Review

TEENAGE BOUNTY HUNTERS Still 2 - Publicity - h 2020
Courtesy of Netflix
Winsome and well-crafted.
8/14/2020

Jenji Kohan executive-produces a Netflix teen dramedy about... you guessed it.

Bubbly, satirical, Bible-obsessed and horny, the new Netflix dramedy Teenage Bounty Hunters is a Frankenstein's monster of a show, a hodge-podge of disparate pieces that not only implausibly coheres into a whole, but exhibits far more heart than anyone would reasonably expect.

A cynical take — full disclosure: the one I initially had — on the 10-part series is that its components feel dictated by market research on underserved audiences. Set largely at a Christian private high school in Atlanta (where mean girls join not only the Young Republicans club but the "Straight-Straight Alliance"), Teenage Bounty Hunters follows a pair of ditzy, sheltered twins who may or may not be telepathically linked as they enter the worlds of sexual experimentation, family secrets and… capturing low-level fugitives. There's more than a dash of Legally Blonde and a full handful of Veronica Mars here, mixed with a steady drip of quippy reminders that girls' bodies can stink, too. It probably shouldn't work. But it comes out fully baked, ready to be binged.

Created by Kathleen Jordan and executive-produced by Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Teenage Bounty Hunters boasts as its greatest achievement its conservative evangelical milieu, in which "good" twin Sterling (Maddie Phillips) is voted her school's worship leader and against which "bad" twin Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini) chafes as her upper-class family's liberal black sheep. It's refreshing enough to step into a universe where teenage lovers actually stop seeing each other when their parents forbid their relationship and a male athlete's version of "locker-room talk" is proclaiming that he and his girlfriend's "temptations will never be as strong as our faith."

Goody-two-shoes Sterling and rebellious Blair navigate familiar coming-of-age journeys, but in ways bracingly grounded in their upbringing and their ideals, in stark contrast to the Anytown that serves as the backdrop of most teen-centric pop culture. After initiating sex with her dopey boyfriend Luke (Spencer House) in the show's opening scene, Sterling spends much of the season searching for sex positivity within her traditional faith, which she evinces no desire to reject. Meanwhile, Blair's desire to be progressive on race soon collides with the fact that her well-meaning stereotypes about Black people are founded on presumptions she's been able to make because she's known so few of them.

Teenage Bounty Hunters never pretends that the twins are anywhere near edgy, or even not annoying to outsiders. A chance encounter puts them in the path of grizzled bail enforcement agent Bowser (Kadeem Hardison), whose aura color is the stained gray of a middle-aged divorcé's stretched-out sweatpants. An older Black man perpetually annoyed by Sterling and Blair's jabber — particularly about the ups and downs of their romances — Bowser only takes on the underage twins as his protégés because the premise of the show demands it. But his loneliness is palpable, as is the existential haplessness that's turned his tragedies into farce.

Bowser and the girls go after a skip of the week, but those chases, which tend to bog down the episodes, are seldom as compelling as the girls' lives at school and at home. It's quickly revealed that Sterling and Blair's strict, Stepford-ish mother (Virginia Williams) is on one of Bowser's wanted posters — a well-constructed mystery that skillfully unfolds over the course of the season. Even better are the deep and unexpected layers in Sterling's relationship with her school rival April (Devon Hales), whose ostensible pillar-of-the-community father is the bounty-hunting trio's first target.

Teenage Bounty Hunters is also propelled by excellent comic performances by Phillips and Fellini, who don't look all that similar but do share a fizzy chemistry, especially in their crackerjack-timed quips and clairvoyant communications. Phillips accomplishes the difficult feat of making Sterling's innocence interesting, and Fellini has fun with Blair's awkward attempts to use her sexuality as a bounty-hunting tool. Williams, too, is fantastic, conjuring in later episodes an impressive duality.

So too, does the show, which posits what millions of women already know, but pop culture has been slow to realize: that modern girlhood and religious devotion aren't mutually exclusive. As Blair and Sterling discover, the Bible contains invaluable advice on how to live and love. And, sometimes, so does Instagram.

Cast: Maddie Phillips, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Kadeem Hardison, Virginia Williams, Mackenzie Astin, Shirley Rumierk

Creator: Kathleen Jordan

Showrunner: Kathleen Jordan

Premieres Friday, Aug. 14 on Netflix