Being Mary Jane logo

BET messed around and did something right for a change with their hit drama miniseries Being Mary Jane.

No, seriously. The show – which stars Gabrielle Union as its titular character – initially began as a movie, shown this past July, and the movie’s open-ended conclusion allowed for BMJ to segue itself into a nine-episode series. By combining popular (and easy on the eyes) stars like Union and Omari Hardwick with proven veteran talent like Richard Roundtree; and, with series creator Mara Brock Akil’s genius at the helm, BMJ had hundreds of thousands of Black viewers tuned in week after week to see what might happen next. And with Black twitter’s social media’s current trend of live-tweeting TV together “live commentary” for shows, Being Mary Jane went viral quick. Relatively strong characters, relatable stories, and Akil’s penchant for witty dialogue made the show a winner. It was a refreshing and smart look for the network.

There are a few things BET got wrong with Being Mary Jane – more on that later – but let’s take a look at three of the things that BET and Akil got right.

1. Strong Black Women Never Break…

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“I will not let my mistakes define who I am… and I will no longer be silent.”

When Being Mary Jane began, all we knew of Mary Jane Paul was that she was supposed to be a Black Nancy Grace/Rachel Maddow of some sort and that her show, “Talkback,” was some sort of social issues platform that included the occasional interview. At the helm of “Talkback” was Mary Jane’s producer, Kara, an ambitious woman seemingly thirsty for success and a juicy story, but lowkey campaigning to show her male bosses that she should be taken seriously given her work ethic. The set-up was smooth enough, right down to a “ticker” at the bottom of the screen and a network logo in the upper left hand corner.

We see Mary Jane Paul as a career woman. As a lover. As a side dip. As a good friend. As a bad friend. As a daughter. As an older sister. As a younger sister. As an auntie. As someone sexy. As someone flawed.

It’s great to see a Black woman not have to be a static character for once. Mary Jane is multifaceted, and reflects the multifaceted nature of Black women. And in spite of Union’s gorgeous looks throughout the show, Being Mary Jane thrives on showing how imperfect she is. She makes poor choices. Sometimes she has good intentions. She writes inspirational quotes on Post-It Notes and places them on her mirrors and glass bathroom walls as reminders and motivations as she goes about her day.

In one episode in particular, Mary Jane makes a pact with her producer that they should “never cry at work.” It’s a funny rule, but it makes sense when you consider that, in a workplace, women really aren’t allowed to look “soft” if they want to be taken seriously. It’s all about a projection of strength and professionalism. But Mary Jane is no robot. Even if there’s a Janelle Monae song on her soundtrack. She breaks down when it gets overwhelming. She vents to her father. She sidesteps long conversations with her mother when she’s just about to start her day. She’s bold enough to confront the wife of the man she’s sleeping with at her job. She maintains composure, but sometimes that composure breaks. And it’s okay for that composure to break.

Gabrielle Union, by the way, is perfect for the role. And not just because of the coincidental parallels between Union’s real life and Mary Jane’s. She’s cool enough to hang with the bros, yet too damn cute to just be “part of the gang.” Oh, and her facial expressions, from the “pity pout” to the epic side-eye to the “you know you done fucked up, right?” frown are always on point.

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But where Being Mary Jane succeeded most, was in its destroying and rebuilding of the “strong Black woman” image. Often, we buy into and project onto Black women this idea that they have to juggle everything and that their “strength” through it all should be celebrated and admired. BMJ reminded us of that other side of the “strong Black woman” – what happens when your arms get tired from juggling so many things or you miss catching one thing and suddenly you’re desperately grasping to catch even one of them as everything starts falling down around you.

 

2. Format and Timing Are Everything

Arnold Turner

Credit series creator Mara Brock Akil and BET for setting up Being Mary Jane so properly. It’s surely no coincidence that BMJ managed to air its entire run while Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal was “on break” with ABC. Olivia Pope was all but the ghost that haunted Black female characters on primetime television. Meagan Good on NBC’s Deception. Tika Sumpter on Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots. These are just a few of the women who found their characters compared – perhaps unfairly – to Kerry Washington’s Pope and they all died trying.

With Scandal on hiatus, Mary Jane Paul didn’t have to worry about being compared to, much less eclipsed by, Olivia Pope. Plus, it helped that the Black community especially needed a show to fill in their Tuesday nights with “Ratchet Monday” on VH1 winding down, and BMJ was a worthy substitute.

Furthermore, by limiting BMJ to a mini-series format, as opposed to a drawn-out “season,” Mara Brock Akil didn’t have to worry about facing the burnout of characters and plot that possibly COULDN’T carry on a whole, say, twelve to fifteen episodes by themselves (*cough*The Game*cough*). Such a strategy works for cable networks like HBO and Starz, whose recent “serial-style miniseries” True Detective and Dancing on the Edge respectively, both enjoyed great success for compacting so much compelling story into a short frame of time. It works for the immediacy and urgency of our generation, who may not have time to fully invest themselves in drawn-out seasons and won’t have to worry about falling too far behind if they miss one episode because there are only so many episodes in the series to begin with.

And don’t get me started on the soundtrack. If BET is smart, they’ll have a Spotify soundtrack or some type of compilation soundtrack album for Being Mary Jane out before March ends. The music used was a combination of great artists present and past, from Melanie Fiona to Emeli Sandé to Nina Simone.

 

3. Thanks For Not Trying to Make ‘Thot’ ‘Fetch’ Work, Gretchen Mara.

Some of the most memorable moments from Being Mary Jane involve highly improbable situations that are so damn crazy, they’re realistic and believable. For example, Mary Jane really freezes the sperm of her former lover and “good guy friend who’s always been around” as a backup plan. (Wayment. Time out. Women, y’all REALLY do this shit? Y’all really have swimmers on reserve from the one that got away in the event you reach a certain age and your eggs still ain’t been fortified and fertilized? Dawg…)

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Early on in the series, it seemed like Mara Brock Akil had full intentions to have Mary Jane and married man Andre translate their affair into a full-blown instance of “side chicks be winnin'” (he even proposed to her!). Thankfully, at one point or another, Akil and BET realized that if they were really bout that “sell Mary Jane as a role model” life, they couldn’t seriously pursue this storyline where Andre and Mary Jane hooked up. It does help that Robinne Lee, as Andre’s wife Avery, plays the boring housewife who “sacrificed everything for my husband” (but who gives him the laziest head-handjob ever) and got comfortable who we can’t quite pity, very well. Mary Jane takes the initiative in breaking the addiction affair off once and for all.

It also would have been unfair for Mary Jane to end up with David. Though they’re in essence, the two characters are perfect for each other, David’s “too good” of a guy for Mary Jane in her current place in life. She not only froze his sperm (Dawg…) for safe-keeping but she storms his house to profess her love to him while he’s hosting dinner guests and his current woman-future baby mama. Akil could have handled this so many ways. She could have made this another “successful Black man gets a white woman because he can’t handle a strong Black woman” trope, but she didn’t. That was smart.

By the close of the series finale, Mary Jane doesn’t win, and that’s a good thing. Not necessarily because she “deserves to lose.” But because in real life, there is so thing as a “clean break” from anything. It’s going to get messy, and it certainly won’t always have a happy ending. But life sometimes doesn’t have happy endings.

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