BINGE-R #2: Chewing Gum + Preacher
CHEWING GUM S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
In the very first scene of Chewing Gum, a British comedy that supplies a funny, filthy and freewheeling insight into the life of its protagonist Tracey Gordon, the show’s creator and star, Michaela Coel, breaks the fourth wall. Her character, a 24-year-old virgin ready to ditch her Christian vows of virtue, comments to the camera while her smugly pious fiancé, Ronald (John MacMillan), leads them in prayer.
It’s not the only thing broken in these six episodes, with various taboos smashed, but what matters is that it’s never done for shock effect or smug superiority. The humour in Chewing Gum is connected to Tracey’s take on life and how she sees herself, and whether she’s discussing bodily functions or plotting a misguided threesome there’s an open-hearted appeal to Tracey’s actions. The comic tone here has nothing to do with mere crudeness.
Raised on a colourful, close-knit East London council estate by her fervently Christian mother, Joy (Shola Adewusi), Tracey’s world puts community before skin colour. Her best friend, Candice (Danielle Isaie), tries to advise her on losing her virginity, and sex is talked about with matter of fact mirth by the predominantly female cast. Tracey has to decode her own misinformation and sexual cliches to get her lack of pleasure addressed, and it’s not always straightforward. “Hello, penis,” she says, beginning her first attempt at dirty talk.
This is all aided immeasurably by Coel’s considerable skills as a comedienne. She has long limbs and an expressive face that can summon unforeseen shapes, and it suits a show built on brevity and a nimble feel for storytelling that recalls 30 Rock. Whether licking the eyebrows of her new boyfriend, estate lad Connor (Robert Lonsdale), or racing into the chemist to get the morning after pill even though she hasn’t actually had sex, Coel’s physicality matches the quick cuts and video game-like musical cues.
With just half a dozen episodes, each under a half hour in length, you can certainly binge Chewing Gum in a night or two. But there’s a welter of riffs and replies to process, even with the occasional flat detour – I almost missed that Candice’s sister’s baby was named Dark Knight. The series begin as an autobiographical stage show, Chewing Gum Dreams, where Coel played every character, but the end result transcends the very specific origins. This is a risky, rewarding watch that may well leave you like Tracey: losing it.
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
“I think boring’s the worst,” declares Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), in the second episode of Preacher, and given that he’s a 119-year-old vampire from Dublin stranded in West Texas, he may well have the necessary insight. Either way, the character certainly speaks for this busy comic book fantasy, which piles on bilious humour, pulp violence, and the broodingly inexplicable. You’ll rarely be bored by Preacher, but it’s not clear that’s enough. In a show nominally about faith, I struggled to believe.
Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a former criminal come home to serve as the spiritual leader of the All Saints Congregational Church, also has faith issues; the weary soliloquys and sizable slugs straight from the whiskey bottle offer easy verification. Like all the main characters, his appearance in the first episode is defined by successful hand to hand combat. In Jesse’s case it’s in a local bar with an abusive parishioner, whereas Cassidy takes out some minor league Van Helsing’s on a private jet and Tulip (Ruth Negga), Jesse’s former childhood friend and partner in crime, makes do with some goons in a moving car.
The violence has the garish cutting that the Coen Brothers used to favour, which combined with the nods to classic screen westerns gives the show a suitable visual identity to match the raft of set-pieces in the early episodes. It’s only when an unknown interstellar entity that’s been inhabiting (and exploding) religious leaders settles on Jesse that he decides to retain his clerical collar, an occurrence that only adds to the cross-section of offbeat figures fetching up in the town of Annville.
Developed for television by Breaking Bad writer and producer Sam Catlin alongside the filmmaking team of actor Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Preacher is invested in the travails of these characters, although their spiritual struggles tend to be overshadowed by the likes of a literal Texas chainsaw massacre in the All Saints pews. But it’s only Negga who transcends the character’s various quirks. Her Tulip is both magnetic and playful, as when she crashes an outdoor baptism to mock Jesse by taking the plunge. “We are who we are – that’s it,” she tells him, and that also could apply to the wayward excess of Preacher.
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