In the opening scene of MTV’s new comedy Sweet/Vicious, a masked invader armed with a knife pins a twentysomething man to the floor of his bedroom. “Do you know this girl?” the masked figure, voice disguised, asks him. “Are you scared? Do you feel powerless? Do I have consent?” The man, frightened and bruised, agrees that he won’t touch another woman without her consent.
The masked figure is less an invader and more of a crusader. Rather than the standard comic book type, the heroic vigilante of Sweet/Vicious is Jules (Eliza Bennett), a petite sorority sister and sexual assault survivor. Jules is on a mission to exact justice on rapists whose crimes have gone unpunished, both by university administrations and the police. The types are familiar to anyone who has even casually glanced at one of the hundreds of campus rape stories written in the last year: the valuable athlete and the entitled fraternity bro.
Jules is joined in her crusade by Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), a sardonic hacker and chronic underachiever. Jules and Ophelia are an unlikely pair—there are a couple of jokes about the Batman and Robin dynamic—and their differing outlooks and energies combine for a show that handles difficult topics like sexual assault and anxiety with poignancy and humor. At its heart, however, Sweet/Vicious isn’t just a revenge show. It’s a show about the lives of two young women negotiating power, trauma, friendship, and expectations, and it deftly strikes the difficult balance between smart, funny and sensitive (I highly recommend it). Bennett and Dearden lead a strong cast which includes standouts like Brandon Mychal Smith as Ophelia’s closest friend Harris and Skyler Day playing high-strung sorority girl Mackenzie to the character’s full comic potential.
I spoke with Jenn Kaytin Robinson, creator and head writer, about Sweet/Vicious, which premieres on November 15. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: This isn’t really something I’ve seen on television before. A lot of the themes that you’re exploring, like campus assault and the hierarchy of power on campus, they’re very topical. I was wondering what drew you to telling this particular story about these two women.
JENN KAYTIN ROBINSON: I wanted something that was unlike anything you’ve seen before on television for women. There are definitely shows out there that I think are empowering shows about women but you can count them on one hand.
It was important to me to tell a story about female friendship and women, especially women that can be broken and empowered at the same time. I built on that in the genre world, pulling inspiration from the Quentin Tarantinos and shows like Gotham, trying to put them together in a way that felt really empowering and that could be female-led because you so rarely see that.
Can we talk a little bit about what “empowering” means to you in the context of the show?
The empowerment doesn’t come from the violence or ass-kicking, it’s more about feeling comfortable in your own skin. That’s the story we’re telling—being empowered to have a voice and being unafraid of to use that voice, and not apologizing for it. I wish that everyone felt okay with being a nasty woman because it’s not a bad thing.
You brought up Gotham and Tarantino and Sweet/Vicious definitely has that dark action vibe. One of the things I think is really interesting is the concept of revenge. It can be a very gendered concept, which one of the leads brings up in the second episode (Jules says, “Vigilante... ugh, that word is so masculine”). How do you find the balance with the superhero genre when, at its heart, this is a show about two young women?
I was a nerd growing up, cinema nerd and comic book nerd, and I love that world, but I was never represented in it. Even when there were female characters, they were just big boobs and a latex suit, and that’s not how I felt. When I sat down to write this, I thought, “Why can’t someone like me be a superhero?” That’s ridiculous. That’s kind of where the humor came from, I asked, “What would it be like if I were that person and how would that feel? What is the real grounded version of that kind of story?”
The masculinity and the gender norms of superheroes, I wanted to flip that on its head. The show is not about the violence, it’s about the survivor. As you go on through the season, you come to find out that the violence is actually her coping mechanism. It’s through the violence that Jules realizes that’s not the way to help herself. So, the show is definitely kickass and it’s got that superhero element, and they are vigilantes and they are going after people, but there’s something under it that becomes more true-to-life that’s central to Jules’ arc.
The show is very topical. Though it’s not new, campus sexual assault has recently become a more common and open conversation. Was that theme as part of your early planning process or did that come later?
That was a very original premise of the show: two women exacting justice and taking justice into their own hands. In my very, very original script, they were 25 or 26 and then it flashed back into their college origin story. When MTV bought the project, they said they wanted to just explore the college storyline.
But this was two years ago and, even then, there were articles I was reading daily on the subject, but it was not part of the social consciousness they way that it is now. That’s both completely amazing and equally horrifying that this is just now becoming part of the social consciousness.
How much do you draw on real stories? The show doesn’t have a Law and Order, ripped from the headlines feel, but are you reading these stories and drawing from them or is it just something that you’re thinking about?
It’s just thinking about it. It was very important to us to never take anyone’s story and rip it from the headlines. That is not our story to tell. That is someone’s story of survival that they very bravely shared in whatever medium they shared it. It wasn’t our place nor did we want to go down that road.
We did do a lot of research. We read a lot of stories, talked to survivors, spoke to RAINN, and Title IX officers. We definitely did our research and there are definitely pieces of different things that we read and talked about. But the show is super heightened, it’s entertainment. We wanted an element of heightened Gothamization to it; that’s the tone. We tried to make an entertaining package with a very grounded and important message.
This is a very funny show which, given the difficult topic, must be very hard. How do you strike the balance with comedy? When I was watching, it seems like that balance could be a very difficult tightrope act.
Of course! It’s something that all of the writers and myself think about. We knew it was going to be a difficult balance throughout the entire ten episodes. Even with the actors, it was about balancing the darkness and the light; the drama and the comedy. For me, that’s the tone I respond to the most.
I think shows like American Crime are incredible, but I have a hard time watching shows like that. It’s so sad and there’s so much that’s happening that’s so dark; it can be a hard pill to swallow. Giving someone a show that is all things was something that I was drawn to as a creator. Also, just in life, I think humor is a coping mechanism. Humor is just as important as sadness and heartbreak. They should all be explored.
You have these two characters: Ophelia, who is biting and witty who deals with anxiety and depression and uses humor as her armor. Then you have Jules who is a bit of a straight man, but also a survivor of sexual assault and is going down this journey. You’re able to explore more when the world can be as colorful as we tried to make it.
The two leads (Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden) are both great and they really embody this opposing energy. Can you tell me a bit about finding them and casting the show?
It took so long to find them that we had a week to cast everyone else. We saw so many young women and a lot of really talented young actresses. But these characters are super-nuanced, there’s so much to them and they have and need so many different things in their chemistry and DNA to make Jules and Ophelia come alive.
We found Eliza first and she came in and read a bunch of times for us. The minute she read with Taylor, the show clicked. It was an immediate thing. As a TV geek, I’ve read this story my whole life: “And then, they were sitting and they came in and suddenly it was, ‘That’s the show!’” But genuinely, they came in and read together and that was the show.
We saw a lot of young women. It was interesting because this age range is so used to playing a girl that is just one way, so a lot of the actresses came in and played Ophelia really bitchy or really mean. There’s not a lot of programming out there for and about women of this age who are multi-layered. You saw that in the way that many of the actors came in and read the part. On the page, a role like Ophelia, could definitely be read very straightforward and she could come across like a real bitch, but it only when you unpack and find all the layers beneath the surface that character really comes to life.
Taylor and Eliza are incredible. They make the show what it is.
That’s one of the most interesting things about the show. You let Jules and Ophelia be sad and angry, yet they are still recognizable types. These are television types that everyone recognizes, the sorority girl or the talented slacker. How did you approach that multi-dimensionality?
So... Ophelia’s me, so that’s easy. I draw from experience, they say write what you know and I believe in that. I drew from my friends, the women that I love in my life who are so many things all at once. They’re badasses, but they cry in their car. So often, you see women on television and if she’s been labeled a “badass,” she doesn’t cry or if you see a girl who is blubbering, she’s boy crazy and that’s her thing.
There are so many cliches for women in entertainment. If I went in a way that felt cliche, I stop and think, “How do you change this? How do you make this new? How do you make this feel more real?” That’s where the tone and characters grew out of. It was important to me that these characters felt like people. When I was younger, dealing with anxiety and depression, and feeling like a complete weirdo, I so rarely had a girl on TV and thought, “that’s okay!” That was important to me for this demographic. I think we need more of that; less of the popular mean girl and more weirdos.
I hope that people give the whole season a chance. It really does evolve and we tell a full story. I really hope that the show resonates with people and they watch the full ten episodes. There is so much that’s being tackled. We tried to the put the issue [of campus rape and survivors] on television in a way that doesn’t feel like a very special episode. We tried to dig in and show that this doesn’t just effect Jules and the survivor but everyone around her.
It’s our hope that if one person can watch this—whether it’s a survivor that feels that they’re being heard or represented or a best friend of a survivor that didn’t understand what happened to her best friend, or even parents who don’t understand what happened to their son or daughter—then we’ve done our job.