Michaela Coel’s first TV series, Chewing Gum, is somewhat less well known than her 2020 smash hit, I May Destroy You. The latter recently came back into conversation after the Golden Globes winners were announced. IMDY, which was not nominated for any Golden Globe awards, was widely compared to Emily in Paris, which won two. A writer on Emily in Paris even published an article in The Guardian criticizing the academy’s decision to praise her own show ahead of IMDY, which was as bizarre as she was correct. Make of the academy’s decision-making process what you will. However, this wasn’t Coel’s first academy award rodeo. Chewing Gum actually won her more prizes than IMDY: Coel scooped up BAFTAs for both Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme and Breakthrough Talent in 2016. She also won the Alfred Fagon Award for Best Black Playwright in 2012 for Chewing Gum’s first evolution, the stage play Chewing Gum Dreams when she was just twenty-five. The budding tour-de-force starred in and wrote the play which was directed by her mentor Ché Walker and performed at the Yard Theatre, and later the Cottesloe, National Theatre, after she graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The differences between Chewing Gum Dreams and Chewing Gum are, at first glance, quite pronounced. Chewing Gum Dreams’ Tracey is fourteen, and we meet her brutally bullying a ‘friend’, another Christian girl, on the bus home from school. Racial tensions are stark, as is the troubling expression of teenage sexuality, a dangerous, shadowed landscape to be navigated by the young black women in the play. Coel handles these issues with her customary biting humour, which can be found again in IMDY, but the play could not be accurately described as a straight comedy. Three years later on E4 (a channel aimed at 16-34-year-olds, known for sitcoms like Misfits, Skins, and The Inbetweeners), Chewing Gum’s Tracey is twenty-four and works in a corner shop on her estate in London. This Tracey mostly tries to be kind and is almost entirely clueless when it comes to the vices of life. She lives with her mum and sister, both evangelically religious Christians, and is ABSOLUTELY DESPERATE to lose her virginity. Tracey’s own conflict with her religion can be seen in her pretty much equal levels of devotion to both Jesus and Beyoncé, maybe weighted slightly towards Beyoncé. The series’ focus is Tracey’s ludicrous sexual forays, and her attempts to orchestrate them. After she calls off her engagement to the devoutly self-important (and closeted) Ronald, who will selflessly lead her towards the Lord, but will certainly not get jiggy, she goes after the estate’s very own hair-gelled poet, Connor (Robert Lonsdale). Connor is pitch-perfect; Lonsdale clinches his misunderstood mummy’s boy ineffectuality with no hint of irony, and his mild alarm at Tracey’s disconcerting levels of lust is almost endearing. The pair clumsily totters through Tracey’s first adventures in sexuality in a way that is at once implausibly cringe-worthy and sort of sweet – they are, in all ways except their actual age, like very stupid teenagers.
The darkness that is overt in Chewing Gum Dreams is, however, still present in Chewing Gum. One example that springs to mind are Tracey’s (more religious, more highly-strung) sister Cynthia, and her inadvertent encounter with autoerotic asphyxiation, in episode 4 of season 1. Cynthia (Susan Wokoma), having caught Tracey watching porn, finds that she, too, is irresistibly curious about sex. She finds her way onto a live porn site, where she ends up video calling a man who is crying, and tells her he is suicidal. Cynthia tries to convince him not to hang himself and is perplexed to discover, when he starts masturbating in the noose, that it was all an erotic role-play for him. These scenes are searingly cringe-worthy, and if I laughed it was an uncomfortable Freudian release of fear and confusion. In fact, Coel was, for a time, part of an evangelical Christian community herself, and seems to be critiquing this way of life in these moments. Because of her sheltered upbringing, Cynthia has no knowledge, and only terrifying intrigue, about the world of ‘sin’ that most people live in, and is therefore entirely unable to navigate it, making her very vulnerable. Moments like these, though less acutely terrible, also follow Tracey as she accidentally trips on acid at a company party, or organizes a threesome at the back of a dingy butcher’s shop. Coel explores difficult dynamics and asks hard questions with her usual candor, sensitivity, and sharp sense of irony. In Coel’s hands her characters’ huge, existential issues become light, funny, and usually bearable.
Chewing Gum is available to watch on Netflix.
Run time: 25 mins/episode.
Annoushka is a screenwriting student and an aspiring TV writer based in London. She misses cocktails and spends too much time watching cat videos.
More of Annoushka’s work in Mixed Mag:
Bridgerton Review (Issue 6)