There are many more black women on television as protagonists than there were 10—or even two—seasons ago: thanks to Shonda Rhimes, we have steely, independent careerists like Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). There’s also Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), who erases clichés as a witty and warm surgeon on Blackish; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who crackles as Empire’s knockout matriarch; and the entire African-American cast of Orange Is the New Black, whose portrayal of earnest, resourceful, and troubled women earned the streaming series a SAG award.
And then there’s the titular character on BET’s Being Mary Jane, who manages to be the messy, complex and entirely ordinary 30-something who has somehow escaped television’s usual depiction of black women in America. Mary Jane Paul is a loving daughter, sister, and aunt, but she’s not above pushing people’s buttons intentionally or even telling the occasional white lie. She’s a successful news anchor, but she’s also been known to skirt around journalistic ethics. Sure, she’s aspirational—like Olivia Pope, Mary Jane drapes herself in drool-worthy designer handbags and premium-label work wear—but she’s also budget-conscious, wraps her hair in a head scarf at night (one has to protect the hair, honey!), and isn’t shy about using time on the toilet as an occasion for deep thoughts in a way that even self-proclaimed realist Real Housewife Nene Leakes never would. Hell, Mary Jane drinks too much, throws her fair share of hissy fits, and sleeps with married men, but she’s also looking for true love, just like many young women are, black or not. Like most of us, she has good intentions, but she’s also decidedly rough around the edges.
So it’s no surprise that the opening minutes of “People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Fish,” season 2’s premiere episode, show Mary Jane at both her best and worse. In a scene that picks up moments after the season 1 finale, Mary Jane has just ended her relationship with David. She heads home and once there, strips herself of her top and curve-skimming jeans (because you’re going to break up with someone, you have to look hot while doing it—obviously). Stripped of her sexy armor, she’s completely vulnerable. But instead of retreating to bed immediately with Mr. Häagen-Dazs, she decides to be responsible-ish and feed her pet fish, her baby in the absence of the child she and David might have had together.
What follows is shocking, dramatic, and yes, totally crazy: Mary Jane hurls the fishbowl through the window and her goldfish is seen gasping for air amid shards of glass on the lawn. Is Mary Jane likeable during this moment? Maybe not, but there’s a certain power to her in scenes that take an undeniable jab at some of the clichés that continue to permeate depictions of women on film and TV. (Take that Hollywood: There are other forms of therapy other than the usual retail variety.)
Cracking stereotypes wide open plays a big part of Being Mary Jane’s season 2 premiere, which continues with an explosive dinner scene. Mary Jane has gathered her friends for a home-cooked meal and within the span of a few minutes, she and her guests—among them a gay black journalist and a top-ranking Latina television producer—tackle controversial issues ranging from the black church, education, racial identity (“Be black at home and when you step out that door, be American and go get your money,” remarks the Hispanic exec), the legalization of marijuana, and the distillation of black culture into mainstream consciousness. But before the show can slip into a self-important subplot, Mary Jane goes on the offensive and argues with her brother and Val, a girlfriend whom she tersely accuses of using motherhood as an emotional crutch.
It’s the type of scene that eschews the requisite beats employed in romantic dramas. Mary Jane may be heartbroken, but she’s not defined by remorse as much as she is her outsized-eagerness for living. (I mean, this is a woman who surrounds herself with Post-its stamped with inspirational quotes and later in the hour, decides to freeze her eggs for a future pregnancy.)
While Mary Jane does juggle a variety of occupations (mistress, careerist, caretaker, and humorist) and entertains as she does so, scenes of her at work, as in the first season, remain largely unconvincing. During the season 2 premiere, Mary Jane’s producer proposes that she incorporate more tech programming into her popular news talk show in an effort to drive ratings. Mary Jane shrugs off the proposal without much thought and begins to rant about her personal life, which segues into a dialogue about the virtues of “dipping into archival penis.” Really, MJ? Though Mary Jane is portrayed as a wildly successful newscaster, we’ve yet to see her business-savvy side. Instead, the narrative reverts almost immediately to the TV anchor’s toxic taste in men and makes her appear weak and irresponsible in the process.
But there are certain aspects to the show that seem tremendously improved from last season: namely, Mary Jane’s dysfunctional family. Her terminally ill mother, her brothers (one a dealer, the other a recovering addict), and her niece, a teen mother, seem to have benefited from some serious rewriting and are colorful without being cartoonish. And it’s worth noting that scenes featuring Mary Jane with her niece are among the hour’s most tender, as the younger Paul—a poor, uneducated teen mom of two—acts a foil for the elder’s growing unease about her choices to date.
The setup of the premiere—whose final scenes show Mary Jane alone after hooking up with David—seems to indicate that this season, Mary Jane will continue to struggle with loneliness and frustration within the context of her romantic problems. But she’s also decided to have a baby, and with the big reveal that she terminated an earlier pregnancy, there’s plenty of room for some substantial drama to revolve around her growing desire for intimacy.
While the first episode back of the soapy series is certainly a bit overwrought, it’s also warm, passionate, provocative, and surprisingly relatable—much like Mary Jane herself. Watching a leading lady wrestling with the idea of what the hell she’s supposed to do with her life is frothy fun, but thanks to creator Mara Brock Akil’s nuanced take on complex social issues, it’s endlessly engrossing.
Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on BET.