Editor's note: Because of President Barack Obama's farewell address, Being Mary Jane will air at 10 p.m. ET on Jan. 10 and return to its regular 9 p.m. ET schedule next week.
When it was announced that husband-and-wife creative duo Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil had scored a new development deal and would be leaving their successful BET series Being Mary Jane starring Gabrielle Union, many wondered if the show could survive. And now it’s largely up to Erica Shelton Kodish, Being Mary Jane’s new showrunner, to answer that question.
It’s very doubtful you’ve ever heard of Erica Shelton Kodish, but do remember there was a time you had never heard of Courtney Kemp Agboh, who helms Power. Both are alums of CBS’ game-elevating series The Good Wife, so that’s more than encouraging regarding Kodish’s talent.
“It was a phenomenal show to work on,” says the Northwestern and USC graduate. “It was a really smart room. There were very intelligent, talented writers in that room, so just being in that room raised your game in many respects. But then I think the approach to storytelling on The Good Wife was very instructive for me because it really went against this idea of everything sort of being tied up in a neat little bow and the happy ending and things working out, and I just really started trying to deal with the gray of things.”
The experience of dealing in the gray area is definitely an asset for this season of Being Mary Jane. Mary Jane Paul has seized the career opportunity of a lifetime and is headed to New York City, leaving Atlanta and family behind. This new swing back into Mary Jane’s professional life is one many women in similar Loubies may appreciate most.
“Once you achieve a certain level, it’s not as if you no longer have any work challenges,” Kodish explains. “As a working professional, there are always challenges, either new mountains to climb or there are always changes. We wanted to maintain this idea that there are still things that she has to deal with on the work front, and that is very much a part of her character and who she is and all of that, and the challenge of trying to do those things and find love and have a personal life that fulfills you and makes you happy, and doing all of it is part of what’s challenging.”
It’s a challenge for which Kodish is uniquely qualified. “It’s a good fit for me because I had so many things in common with Mary Jane in that I was a working professional woman, I didn’t get married until very late and [was familiar with] dealing with the challenges of trying to find love while you have a very demanding career in a competitive environment, and then also having family responsibilities in a family that, in many ways, kind of relies on you,” she explains. “So there were so many elements of it that really resonated with me personally where I felt like it was a true opportunity for me to tell these grounded stories.”
Because this opportunity came at an interesting period of Kodish’s own life, it was not an automatic "Yes" for her. “I didn’t see myself in that role at this point and time in my career,” she reveals. “It’s something that I wanted, but given I had just had a baby and had just come off three years of being on The Good Wife, I was looking forward to taking a break.”
Gabrielle Union’s charm and persistence definitely helped sway her, but Courtney Agboh Kemp was just as, or even more, influential. “Before I took the job, there were a few calls that I made, and I spoke with Courtney for sure, and Courtney was very honest about just how challenging and difficult it is. She’s in a similar situation in that she does have a small child, so she didn’t sugarcoat it,” shares Kodish.
“It’s challenging, but I think part of what helped me take the leap and make the decision is that there were people like Courtney who were very encouraging and open to 'I’m a phone call away,' and those calls have been made at various points. Had I not had that, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” she admits.
As far as Being Mary Jane’s new direction is concerned, Kodish says it’s a juggling act for sure. “We wanted to bring some freshness to the series and sort of take it in a different direction, but we also didn’t want to alienate the loyal viewers. We didn’t want people to tune in and say ‘What is this? I don’t even recognize Mary Jane.’ So it’s a fine line in introducing some new elements but still maintaining some of what made Mary Jane Mary Jane.”
This season, viewers will let her know if they succeeded.
Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on BET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.