We Need to Talk About Being Mary Jane

BET Networks
BET Networks

Mary Jane Paul has always been a mess, but her many, many faults are what made Being Mary Jane such an interesting watch. As Kelley Carter wrote in the 2015 BuzzFeed piece “BET’s ‘Being Mary Jane’ Has Started a TV Revolution,” the show was a “revolutionary series about a perfectly imperfect single black woman.”

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Those imperfections initially made her captivating, but more recently, watching Being Mary Jane has felt like a bit of a chore.

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When Being Mary Jane returned in January for its fourth season, we were transformed into a completely different show. Moving a year forward in its timeline, Mary Jane Paul no longer lived in Atlanta and had a new job and a new man—and the show had a sea of new characters. It was the first season without its creator and creative force, Mara Brock Ail, and it was clear that the new team—Executive Producer Will Packer and showrunner Erica Shelton Kodish—wanted to offer a fresh, independent voice.

Speaking with Essence magazine last year, Akil was asked whether or not the show could go on without her:

“My ego answer? No. [Laughs] But really, I’m neutrally curious.

It’s not to say that BET couldn’t make it work, it’s just that I know what it takes to be a producer and there’s so much that goes into making any show. It really would depend on that person: how do they see and view Mary Jane and Black women? If they pick someone that I don’t like, I’m gonna go, ‘Oh sh*t. I can’t watch.’ [Laughs] I hope there’s another Mara out there who’s like, “Bring it on. Give me the ball.”

The new adjustments felt abrupt, and certain changes—notably that new boyfriend, Lee—seemed out of place. Worse, we saw less of Mary Jane’s family even though they played pivotal roles in past seasons. It’s fine to introduce new characters, but don’t forget about the ones who held viewers’ attention for so long.

In a separate BuzzFeed piece about the future of the series, Gabrielle Union tackled the jeers from longtime viewers head on. “I like seeing the conversation and love from fans play out online and in real life—seeing people feel very strongly about it,” Union explained. “Because the alternative is no one giving a shit, so I’m glad there’s conversation.”

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There has been conversation, but there are noticeably far fewer participants having it. Being Mary Jane premiered to 4 million viewers in 2013 and still managed to capture millions of viewers in subsequent seasons, but if you take a look at the ratings since its return in July, they are lower than ever and continuing to drop. The show is reminding me of Ashanti’s discography: She debuted to huge numbers, dipped a bit with the follow-up, yet maintained respectable numbers, only to dip again by album No. 3 and drop all the way off by round 4. Aww, baby.

For some of us who have stuck with Being Mary Jane, we understand why others may have opted out.

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While recapping last week’s episode, Refinery 29 writer Sesali Bowen wrote:

Being Mary Jane is pretty hard to watch these days. Mary Jane (Gabrielle Union) seems to only be getting more basic and misguided with age, and it’s extremely trying on the nerves to watch her make the same mistakes over and over again.

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This would include throwing a temper tantrum at her place of employment, where she currently has her dream job, along with snooping through the home of her new boyfriend. You know, the guy she cheated on her old boyfriend with. He’s also the co-worker who, up until very recently, she hated with her entire being.

We’re used to Mary Jane Paul making mess after mess in her life, but toward the end of the third season, she seemed to be growing up a bit. After a few years of wrecking many a well-wishing viewer’s last nerve, Pauletta seemed as if she was evolving. Then she moved to New York and started regressing.

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Admittedly, the episodes that have aired since July have been an improvement on those that aired earlier this year, but like Bowen, I find it frustrating to watch a character be this way for so long. Is she always going to be this self-destructive? Even Mary Jane’s best friend, Kara, became fed up with her.

The problem with Being Mary Jane now is that it registers increasingly like a procedural. Her chaos comes across as a permanent fixture rather than a plot point that she ultimately evolves from and overcomes. The story of a gorgeous, intelligent, career-driven black woman navigating the challenges of her personal and professional lives is a great story, but it can grow stale if that character is dead set on being stuck. Mary Jane Paul has become a lot like that friend you love but ultimately pay less attention to because you tire of her being on the same old bullshit.

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Being Mary Jane still has a chance to be must-see TV, but only if Mary Jane Paul stops being this way.

Michael Arceneaux is the author of "I Can't Date Jesus," which will be released July 24, 2018 by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, but go ahead and pre-order it now.

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DISCUSSION

NOPE. I'm out. Too toxic.

MJ reminds me of a dude I stopped hanging out with. After a certain point, you just can’t be around someone that won’t learn their lesson. This show is just kind of silly now.