This review contains spoilers.
1.1 The Blueprint
Sweet/Vicious, MTV’s latest attempt at a mainstream hit to match outgoing shows Teen Wolf and Faking It, begins with a masked vigilante beating and threatening a college student in his dorm room. Complete with voice-changer and noble cause, this could be a scene from any number of superhero series on television. The twist? The assailant is a tiny, blonde sorority girl, and her target is a rapist.
Campus rape is a subject that has been creeping into television at a disappointingly slow pace. Veronica Mars spent a whole half-season on it back in 2007, and last year Switched At Birth tackled it with grace and thoughtfulness (I’m sure there are more examples I’m unaware of). Of course, Netflix’s Jessica Jones was also a breakthrough moment for exploring consent on screen.
To reach young people with explorations of these issues, it’s incredibly important to do so in their language. You can make as many episodes of Law And Order: SVU as you want, but they’re far more likely to hear it if it’s coming from a series they enjoy. Sweet/Vicious manages to couple its harrowing subject matter with comedy and style that makes it so much more than a cautionary tale or a PSA.
This isn’t a show about demonising sex, as some will undoubtedly claim. Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), our other heroine, is shown in her first scene having just come from a one night stand. She’s endearingly blasé about it the next morning, brushing off affection from the guy as he exits her apartment.
On the flip side, we’re unsure why Jules (Eliza Bennett) is skittish around her best friend’s boyfriend until a flashback reveals that he had previously assaulted her.
So then, we can assume that this was her origin story, and now we get to see Ophelia’s play out. By the end of the first episode the pair are tied together by extremely unfortunate circumstances, and I suspect the series will be as much about female friendship as it is about revenge and the reclamation of power.
There are many things we could compare Sweet/Vicious to, with its debt to Veronica Mars practically jumping off the screen. Really, the show is like if Veronica (survivor, crafty) and Mac (good with tech) had started the all-girl detective agency we all wish they had, or if the two sides of Veronica (the vanilla good girl and the jaded bad-ass) were actually represented by two different souls.
It also shares an ability to tap into the cultural language of Tumblr that MTV’s Faking It‘s early years did, and the very idea of switching our perceptions of the small, defenseless blonde owes a debt to Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
But it’s in the differences that Sweet/Vicious really justifies its existence. It’s simultaneously heightened and grounded, funny and serious, and much of it’s poignancy lies in its matter-of-fact treatment of rape culture. In this world, everyone knows a scumbag and everyone turns a blind eye – everyone except Jules. She’s angry, but she directs that anger outside of her own situation. Her attacker remains a presence in her life, and yet she’s never targeted him directly.
The show is also pretty violent, not shying away from the real consequences of what Jules is trying to do.
Where the pilot falls down is in how much better we know Ophelia by the end than we do Jules. While Ophelia is our entry point into the world, Jules is putting on an act for much of the episode’s runtime. It’s a given that we’ll get more insight into her story as we go on, but for now it’s easier to connect with the more fun, unreserved half of the pairing. That’s probably by design, but it could be an issue down the road.
As well as being an thoroughly entertaining show, Sweet/Vicious feels like a soothing balm on the state of the world right now. When marginalised people stand to be further marginalised, now more than ever we need to see people – fictional or not – willing to fight back against the tide. This is that show, and it deserves our attention.