Chewing Gum is a show predicated on and revolving around the singular charm of Michaela Coel, its lead actor and creator, and that fact is recommendation enough: Coel, as Tracey Gordon, is an unmitigated star, as nimble with timing as she is her wiry, rhythmic physical comedy, and emotionally raw and vulnerable within it.
Coel, too, is a polymath; aside from having written every single episode, now in its second season, she sings its delightful theme song, which needs a full version immediately. Its warm pre-chorus, “If ever you’re in doubt, just get your wings out,” is something of a spiritual mantra for the show’s main character, Tracey Gordon, a lapsed Christian living with her devout mother and sister in an East London council estate. Tracey’s post-adolescent uncertainty is endearing on an gut level, and though she has bouts of insecurity—specifically about her looks—she never undermines her own ability to thrive, responding to these crises of conscience by existing even louder.
Through both seasons are ostensibly about her belated quest to finally lose her virginity—a literal quest and a metaphor for her search for her identity—in the second season this desperate, desperately funny goal comes into ever sharper focus. We learn that Tracey and her white boyfriend Connor (Robert Lonsdale) have broken up thanks to a misunderstanding in the grimy bathroom of the hostel where they were living, but of course she’s still in love with him—even though he’s moved on with Emma, a middle class white woman who Tracey loathes. (Even her loathing is charming, though—in the first episode, she acts out a fantasy in which she is rich and successful and going to hang out with Beyoncé while Connor and Emma look on longingly; she does this while at work at the bodega, with a set of dolls.)
One of the wonderful things about Chewing Gum, which is probably the best, sweetest comedy on television right now, is that even within its propensity for farce and its visualization of Tracey’s vivid imagination, it still leaves room for the real life experiences of a young black girl coming into her own. Throughout this season, Tracey’s maturation is reflected in a series of increasingly madcap experiences—she unwittingly dates a white man with a racial fetish, eventually realizing it and giving him the what-for; she ends up at an orgy with Boy Tracy (Jonathan Livingstone), her cousin who’s openly in love with her, to her disgust.
Each scenario is sweet and hilarious, and she subtly examines and lampoons larger issues with the lightest touch, executed with complexity. Both critics and Coel herself have drawn comparisons to Issa Rae’s Insecure, and for more reasons than the paucity of similar, black-women-created TV comedies in the mainstream; each lasers in on the humor in mundanity, and transforms self-examination into storyline without being overly indulgent. This is a very specific craft, and as other shows attempt the same with heavy-handedness, it’s apparently difficult to do. Beneath Chewing Gum’s humor, as with certain episodes of Insecure, is a mood that suggests an internal dialogue that’s much more complex than the one being put forth, and the reward in watching the series multiple times—as you might be compelled to do—is better understanding the motivations of the characters. In certain regards, the mood of Season 2 feels more like the source material, Chewing Gum Dreams—a very light sense of downcast, a reminder that the humor is there to brighten up the travails.
This season, the scene most emblematic of this is, necessarily, the one in which Tracey finally loses her virginity, to a handsome boy she meets at a book club (one she joins on a whim but doesn’t really enjoy, another marker in her search for self). Like she does throughout the show, she verbalizes her thought process, but as the climax of the season and a new chapter in her life, it’s both sweeter and the most real of these scenes. It begins with a song Tracey wrote for the occasion, which she sings as her partner gets into the deed (“You can thrust now,” she says):
He’s entering my dome. What will he find?
It’s a world of adventure, it’s a world of adventure
Will I smile, will I scorn/Now my hymen has been torn
Dry like a desert or wet like rain. What will he do to my membrane?
I don’t want this moment to be over!
After her jubilant mid-sex jamboree, Tracey turns somber. “That’s the end of that chapter then. What do I do now? I want to cry, but I know it’s not really good to... It’s just overwhelming, do you know what I mean!” She cries a bit before reverting back to humor, and before long, she starts getting really into it—at which point the boy rolls off her.
“Tracey, you’re the girl, you could just lie still,” he complains. “Why you always doing the most?”
In one perfect line, the crux of the show: Tracey living her life as tremendously and juicily as possible, in spite of the small minds and dictums surrounding her. It’s why the set design is so colorful, hinged on oversaturated primary hues; we are seeing the council estates through Tracey’s eyes, a point Coel wanted to emphasize and to humanize the people she grew up with, apparently as dismissed in the UK as poor people are in the States. Tracey is expected to make herself smaller than she is, but even when the first boy she has sex with tries to pin her in, she is so centered in her own personality that it barely registers: “Sorry,” she responds, more as a matter of courtesy than something she seems to mean. With an eye roll, she continues, beautifully: “Can we carry on, please?”
Chewing Gum is on Netflix.