'Twenties': TV Review

The latest impressive project from multi-hyphenate Lena Waithe.
3/4/2020

A trio of young black women chase their Hollywood dreams in Lena Waithe's BET comedy.

Lena Waithe's new series, Twenties, opens with a dissonant hodgepodge of moods and modes. A pair of young black women writhe against blush-hued sheets in a Silver Lake apartment, the quick-cut montage of their lovemaking rendering their bodies a jumble of limbs, ripples and grins. Seemingly overhead, a voiceover by Waithe notes their passion clinically, but redirects our attention to how one of the women, Hattie (terrific newcomer Jonica T. Gibbs), "has found a new and creative way to screw up her life." As if impatient for the story to get going, the camera freezes Hattie's face mid-pleasure to jump ahead, reminding us that no one looks dignified in the throes of sexual rapture.

But it's the music that sticks out the most in the show's first scene — a swelling but discontented orchestral score with soaring strings, triumphant horns and emphatic cymbals. It is, in fact, the main title of Alfred Newman's Oscar-nominated score for All About Eve — a reference that holds the key to much of Twenties. The playful, immediately winsome BET comedy (which shares its title with Waithe's 2013 webseries) is a dishy showbiz tale that's eager to reveal some ugly truths about an outwardly glamorous business. Except Hattie, an aspiring TV writer who spends more time talking about penning scripts than actually doing it, isn't the Margo Channing of this story, but a wannabe Eve Harrington. In this "new black renaissance," pouts bratty Hattie, "Hollywood should be knocking down my door."

The Margo of Twenties is Hattie's new boss, Ida B. (Sophina Brown), a black trailblazer with a TV empire built on black shows that no one in Hattie's orbit would be caught dead watching. (If All About Eve ever inspired you to ship Margo and Eve in psychosexual mind games, Twenties is definitely the show for you.) Still, Ida's a "bad bitch," insists Hattie's best friend Nia (Gabrielle Graham), a woo-woo yoga instructor who decides to give her dormant acting career another shot. "I am just glad [Ida B.'s show My Bae] exists," declares Hattie's other best friend Marie (Christina Elmore), a junior studio executive. "We need to support black shit." But Hattie won't tiptoe around her dislike of Ida. B's work: "No, we should support good shit that just happens to be black."

Conversations like these, about what we owe our progenitors (especially when they create instances of representation that we don't support or relate to), are a major reason why Twenties is the rare Hollywood-insider series to actually feel current and essential. And the initial inharmoniousness that kicks off the series gels into the constellation of influences that informs the show's original protagonist — a lanky butch lesbian with a fondness for sitcoms, classic cinema, '90s R&B ballads and disapproving women who are wrong for her in 17 different ways. The show's sunny cinematography and pastel-saturated production and set design nod to Old Hollywood, but also the fact that the industry is always in flux, as it was in 1950 when Davis made All About Eve soon after leaving her studio (and the star system) to go independent.

Twenties is equally cheeky and observant when it comes to Nia and Marie's careers in the industry. The fourth installment (the last of the review episodes for the eight-part debut season) features a nightmare audition that's no less cringe-inducing for its familiarity, while the clipped resignation with which Marie's superior at work proclaims that their nearly monochromatic office is "inclusive enough" is sheer tragicomedy.

But the heart of Twenties is, naturally, the friendship between the three strivers. Gibbs' easygoing chemistry with each of her co-stars — including recurring player Kim Whitley, who plays Hattie's lonely mom — mean that the central trio make for believable besties from their very first scene together. When Nia and Marie pick up Hattie soon after the latter is evicted from her apartment, the threesome immediately settle into sororal squabbling. But the quarrels only last until Whitney Houston comes on the car radio, at which point they can't help singing along in unison. Margo versus Eve can wait; it's time to exhale.

Cast: Jonica T. Gibbs, Christina Elmore, Gabrielle Graham, Sophina Brown
Creator: Lena Waithe
Showrunners: Lena Waithe, Susan Fales-Hill

Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on BET.