5 Terribly Messy Things about Being Mary Jane (TV) (Season 2)

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Created by Mara Brock Akil

So much of this show is complicated. There’s something very recognizable in Mary Jane, the main character. She’s tender, giving, brave and really, like any woman, on a quest to find the true treasure of her life; happiness. She doesn’t know if what will complete her will be a husband, kids or a step up the career ladder. She just knows she wants more.

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What’s even more empathetic about Mary Jane is how much the little Black girl within is just trying to navigate through her truth, and what’s to be her place in this world. We actually want to watch her story, as it parallels so closely to our own pursuits of matrimonial bliss, family harmony and a worldly purpose.

But the examination and celebration of this Black woman standing in her own truth, which was portrayed so beautifully in Season 1, was sorely missed this time around.

Let me explain…

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Mary Jane no longer strips down and give us her vulnerability. She spends an entire season mad, or more accurately, in a continually reactive state.  One of her friend even notes the shift, inquiring “Is anger the only emotion you know?” But that question should be aimed at the show’s writers, who now only know anger when it comes to Mary Jane’s mood.

It’s the new millennium. Why should we still be interested in seeing fellow sisters crash and burn in every episode of a show created for us? We can watch Basketball Wives or Love and Hip-hop for that. Rather, we could use some uplifting, cathartic, hopeful narratives instead. Because haven’t already seen what the world thinks of the Angry Black woman? (Cough, cough to UPN’s and Mara Brock Akil’s own Girlfriends).

Season 2 of Being Mary Jane transitioned into another similarly predictable account of a Black woman working overtime to alienate those in her life instead of practicing self-love and evolving her soul. Maybe that would be okay if… if, it was the only dimension worth exploring in a Black woman’s life. It’s simply not.

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Oh, but the world’s perception. What would we do without thee?

Audiences need to see other dimensions of the Black woman story. It’s time. Very few can even sense the dichotomy/double-conscience existence we experience. I found myself aching for Mary Jane’s bubbling truth, not her mask. Because all she did this season was rehash ancient, negative narratives of the Black woman’s existence. I must confess this season of Being Mary Jane did successfully expose some peculiar coping mechanisms with Black women’s but still, it wasn’t enough. Oh, the potential.

It’s respectful to note that this series did start with a disclaimer that this show would be “one Black woman’s story and not meant to represent all Black women.” It remains truthful to that… but doesn’t quite remove responsibility of the show’s writers to showcase more than one dynamic of the Black woman. Even if we can only see it through Mary Jane’s eyes. I mean, it kinda tries, but its scope is too limited. So here we go…

5 Terribly Messy Things about Being Mary Jane

I. Weak story world

Where you chose a setting can make or break a story. Being Mary Jane uses Atlanta as its backdrop but plants more of itself into a fictional local-news world. But its newsroom doesn’t carry much charm. It’s just not fictional enough, drastically dating itself with each attempt to shed light on current world affairs.

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*Screenwriter’s tip

Story worlds should have at least two dimensions: (1) Characters dealing with their emotional problems and 2) Characters dealing with physical (non-heart) related problems via work, environment stresses etc. Being Mary Jane relies too heavily on its physical world.

In contrast, the genius in Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhime’s earlier writing is how seamlessly she intertwines her character’s emotional problems to their physical world. A story’s physical world serves to mirror and expand on a character’s issues. Both worlds are inherently co-dependent. Being Mary Jane’s story world dimensions do not purpose each other well, or with great relevance.

Make a clear connection and benefit between a story’s physical world problems and the characters heart, mind and soul issues.

II. Melodramatic character arcs

Let’s be honest: the soap opera era is dead. And you can always expect audiences to get fed up with cliché archetypes. Unless you add new twists. Otherwise, our subconscious mind senses the familiar song-and-dance coming. Sadly, at least half of Being Mary Jane’s characters are melodramatic and typecast.

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III. Cardinal Screen Sins

It’s not any surprise that these same characters have drawn-out meta discussions, arrive too early and leave late in scenes, and shamelessly disregard the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Bad writing is hard to hide. And these characters do nothing but tell, tell, tell! Dialogue is used as a crutch. The show lacks cinematic finesse. 

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IV. Stuffy Dialogue

Sadly, much of the show’s dialogue is preachy, mechanical, and infused with statistics. Its persistent use of statistical jargon sours the show as it begins feeding audiences what is unmistakably Black political propaganda. And that’s not to say other shows aren’t guilty of similar crimes. They are. But it’s so painfully obvious in Being Mary Jane as none of it connects well to its overall story theme. And that’s where the show’s writers mess up. They didn’t hide it well enough. And that there is bad writing.

Story philosophy and politics are not forbidden fruit but it’s crucial that it relates to the story at-hand. Otherwise, your story won’t amount to being more than a mouthpiece. And we could just watch the news instead.

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*Screenwriter’s tip

When characters stand disconnected, or on their own, they no longer contribute constructively to the story. Even with ensemble casts, everybody’s words and movements have to contribute to one overarching theme. The key to useful supporting characters are that they challenge the show’s theme and the protagonist’s identity/journey. 

V. Limited, one-dimensional subplots

Another trademark of the soap opera era is that you can anticipate where a character’s journey is headed. All of Being Mary Jane’s characters are guilty of having flat plot lines.

Mary Jane’s brother needs financial help, her other brother is young and reckless, her niece needs a job, her Dad needs to take better care of the family and her Momma needs to learn some manners. And that’s it. That’s about as deep as this show runs. Its characters aren’t crafted with enough layers or dimension. They become quite boring, boring, boring!

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*Screenwriter’s tip

Never give audiences the chance to anticipate a character’s direction. The point of sharing any story is to reveal incrementally the dimensions of a character’s personality, flaws, hopes, talents – in entertaining, digestible ways. Being Mary Jane foolishly spoon-feeds too much of its plot line.

A writer has to ask the questions of whom their characters are when no one’s looking, what they want most in the world, and how it conflicts with their needs. Whenever you create surface-level characters and make it worse by showcasing them doing basic, boring things on-screen, you risk losing your audience – everytime.

Being Mary Jane was initially a thrill to watch but is nothing short of exhausting now. The third season is already in production but, I can only hope it finds its way back to good storytelling. Because I’m tired of not seeing the Black woman’s true self. I’m tired of exploring society’s view of her. Give us Mary Jane, the human. Not the stereotypical angry Black woman.

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We all have narratives. But those of the Black woman are often lost and stunted on-screen. But we evolve, just like any other race group. And Being Mary Jane failed at capturing that. So let’s cross our fingers for Season 3…

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