(The Root) — I had coffee with Mara Brock Akil years ago. I was in Los Angeles "taking meetings" about the possibility of optioning the rights to my book to a production company. When my agent asked whose work in Hollywood I trusted — not just admired — the most, Mara's name flew out of my mouth before he finished his sentence.
Girlfriends was my Sex and the City. Carrie Bradshaw was cool and all, but it was Joan Carol Clayton's life that had me looking forward to my 30s — or at the very least prepared for them. I knew what was coming. My mother used to watch The Game because Melanie "Med School" Barnett reminded her of me. Actress Tia Mowry and I don't look anything alike. Instead that familiarity was a testament to Akil's superior truth-telling skills. For years, her characters all felt like people we knew.
It was with these high expectations that I sat down to watch Akil's latest offering, Being Mary Jane, which premiered on BET Tuesday night. Starring Gabrielle Union as TV anchor and all around "successful but single" poster child Mary Jane Paul, the show kicked off with that dreaded statistic black women can't ever seem to outrun — "Forty-two percent of black women have never been married." I groaned loudly at that, hoping that the next hour and a half wouldn't be an overwrought PSA. Thankfully, it wasn't.
Union's Ms. Paul is certainly no Ms. Pope — as in Olivia, the other strong but flawed black female character carrying the weight of an entire series on her shoulders. Where the impeccably suited Olivia Pope is almost always polished to blinding perfection, Mary Jane Paul gets puked on by the guy she really likes.
"Please God, if he's it, just give me a sign," Mary Jane prays in the morning afterglow of an obvious booty call. Then he rolls over and barfs on her stomach. Gross? Sure. But later he claims to love her. Score! Nope. Mary Jane soon finds out he's married.
This is when the unavoidable comparisons between Being Mary Jane and Kerry Washington's Scandal — a show for which Union herself auditioned — should sputter to a halt like an aging hoopty. It's Mary Jane's many faults that make the show a must-see as Akil deftly pulls back the curtain on this one black woman's life to reveal how the sausage is really made.
MJ looks perfect on camera. She's smart, successful and funny with anchorwoman hair and a stiletto for every day of the week. But Mary Jane's also the girl who will take a quick "ho bath" (as my grandmother used to call them) in the ladies' room before an impromptu hook-up. Underneath that HD coating — the hard-candy shell — is a real woman.
We see the same yin and yang working its drama through Mary Jane's family. Inside her parents' beautiful red-brick colonial aren't the Huxtables. Instead there's a mother dying of lupus, a father who's ready to let her go, an out-of-work brother and a young niece pregnant with her second child. Mary Jane is the only one who has it all together — allegedly.
"I did everything right," she tells a friend. "What do I have to show for being a good girl?"
"A wonderful career, a beautiful house."
By now we know that Mary Jane does not do everything right, and the great career and picture-perfect house are far from enough. Would it be enough for anybody? She wants more than just the trappings of a happy life. She wants to inhabit that life wholly — the same goal for which most human beings are striving.
That's the magic Akil has captured in Being Mary Jane. The show is relatable and authentic in that head-nodding and cringe-inducing kind of way. We're watching Mary Jane make the mistakes so many of us have made and rooting for her to do better, because if she wins, then perhaps we all can.
I remember when Akil and I sat down at Starbucks all those years ago. She told me that she'd always been fascinated with the image of just a black woman alone, looking in the mirror and getting ready for her day — that quiet moment before she goes out to face the world. I think Being Mary Jane will show us exactly that.