Chewing Gum is quirky.
Undeniably, hilariously, off-the-wall quirky.
But what it also is, and this stops it from becoming a one-trick comedy pony with nothing but quirk to its quirky name, is that it has enough heart-and-soul to fill a few dramas three times as delightfully earnest.
The loosely-autobiographical story of Michaela Coel, who grew up in a dedicatedly-religious Ghanaian family in the Tower Hamlets housing estate in London and poured her experiences into a thoughtfully insightful play Chewing Gum Dreams, Chewing Gum, now available on Netflix, appealingly balances wry, witty insight, a slew of oneliners (many delivered in direct-to-camera monologues) and a knowing understanding and pitch-perfect articulation of what it is like to walk away from the only life you’ve ever known.
Well, the Pentecostal Christian side that is.
For 24 year-old Tracy, played by Coel, is still living on the estate, which she humorously describes as “fake-ass” without any of the social afflictions that blight other housing projects, with her fervently fundamentalist mum Joy (Shola Adewusi), her sheltered but curious sister Cynthia (Susan Wokoma) where Ludo is the entertainment of choice.
Raised in a household that seems to eschew just about everything – her mother, a firm believer in the kind of harsh, unloving Gospel that has gone a long way to rendering the modern church irrelevant and unloved, won’t have a bar of anything but prayer and disapproval – Tracy is anxious to see what life has offer out in the big, wide world.
Or at least, within the confined world of Tower Hamlets.
Her only excursions away from her heavily-circumscribed existence are to see her boyfriend Ronald (John MacMillan), a repressed homosexual who has shirtless pics on Jesus on the wall, and oh yes, one of Tom Daley, who resents his girlfriend with all the passion that only someone living a manifestly fake life can muster, and to the shop where she works.
There must be more to life than this, reasons Tracy in her gorgeously optimistic way – no matter what lands on her, and in some cases its actual faeces and vomit, both delivered in hilariously exasperating circumstances, she somehow manages to gather up a sense that good things lie just around the corner – and so she sets out, with new boyfriend Connor (Robert Lonsdale), a slacker who writes very, very bad poetry in dumpsters, to see what a life unconstrained by the church has to offer.
Naturally, as is the way of optimistically-fuelled excursions into the great, what-if beyond, things don’t always work out as planned.
In fact, every attempt Tracy makes to expand her limited horizons, especially her non-existent sexual horizons – Tracy is, at 24, still a virgin, a product of the Christian belief that the only good sex is married sex – ends up in often ignominious, laugh-out-loud failure.
What stops Chewing Gum from becoming just a laugh track-less sitcom depiction of London working life – although if that’s all it was, it would still be worth the price of admission – is its deep-abiding emotional authenticity.
Tracy isn’t the butt of jokes, the person consistently shat upon by life’s existential pigeons, just to provide some visual punchline to a scene; rather, she is a person who feels deeply, who honestly wants to go far beyond the trappings of her restrictive childhood faith, and is constantly surprised that real life never quite measures up to her romanticised expectations.
Like anyone, Tracy simply wants a life that means something with someone who, unlike Ronald who comes dangerously close to becoming a permanent feature of Tracy’s life even after they break up, actually cares about her.
It’s this quest for an abiding, unconditional human connection – her mother and sister’s love is quite clearly linked to Tracy’s continued expression of faith, which grows ever more tenuous as the series goes on – something any of us can relate to, that grounds Chewing Gum in a real, heartfelt humanity, and prevents it from becoming simply (although, again, what a great simply it would be) a quirky, sideways tilt look at life on a London housing estate.
You want Tracy to succeed.
Of course, you kind of hope she won’t too since stymied Tracy is a funny creature indeed, all awkward misunderstanding, perplexed, thwarted ambition and possessed of a naivety that her best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) – along with hunky but well-meaningly sweet boyfriend Aaron (Kadiff Kirwan) and saucy grandmother Esther (Maggie Steed) – continually try to break out of her.
It works to some extent, and Tracy, it must be said, is no emotional idiot, just a little, or a lot, lacking in life experience, so she does learn from her experiences and grows as a person; but she is also, in parts thanks to her good heart and willingness to be honest with herself, willing to admit she comes up short in the grand, gleefully optimistic experiment that is her post-church life.
At its heart, Chewing Gum is all about growing up.
Way later than everyone else, but then given the strict circumstances of her upbringing, Tracy has a considerable amount of catching up to do.
Anyone who has grown up in a highly-controlled environment and then sought to deconstruct it and rebuild their life away from it will readily identify with both the obstacles and challenges Tracy faces, but also with the clumsy, breathless excitement that comes with thrilling new possibilities opening up before you.
Coel beautifully articulates both stages of this process, the release and the the renewal and how you could often be trapped, messily and in her case, humurously, between these two worlds.
Hollywood would have you believe it’s one smooth, inspirational process but the reality it is anything but, and Chewing Gum takes up into the angst and hilarity of figuring out who you are and what you want from life, way after everyone else has usually begun the process.
It’s funny, heartwarming, insightful and over the top silly at times, but Chewing Gum is never less than delightful, anchored by a central character with a wicked way in oneliners and a strong sense of what she wants (kind of), beautifully fleshed-out supporting characters, and a slightly sudsy soap operatic narrative that for all its surreal moments, never feels than authentically, emotionally real.