‘We never want to beat people over the head’: ‘Sweet/Vicious’ creator on its legacy …
We’ve made it clear how much we love the show here at Screener, but in the wild case that you weren’t watching along with all of us as it aired live, here’s what you’ve been missing: The best, bravest, most “nevertheless, she persisted” show television has made in recent memory — and possibly ever.
It’s not just a compelling college drama about some very awesome and intricately written ladies and gents — it’s a not-so-stealth sledgehammer to the toxic patriarchy that hurts everyone, that lets rape culture fester on campuses and in wider society, and drives young men to unthinkable acts; it’s a master class in how to approach sexual assault in fiction with thoroughness and compassion, and a brilliant and fresh paean to the necessity and beautiful complexity of female friendships.
Plus, it’s hilarious. Which is the most impressive part, if you think about it.
RELATED: Hilarious and powerful “Sweet/Vicious” puts the “warrior” in “social justice”
About ten seconds into the first season’s ten hours, we had a feeling the vigilante ninjas of Darlington University — Jules and Ophelia (Eliza Bennett & Taylor Dearden) — would be important figures. Not long after, they joined and remained in the canon of our all-time television heroes, from Buffy Summers to Kara Thrace. But if all our gushing is too abstract — we’ll quote this binge, as documented on Tumblr, and its perfect description of the show:
“…It’s Jessica Jones but if Trish had a deadly roundhouse kick and Veronica Mars but if Mac kicked some heads in, but also somehow it’s better!!!!!”
And in true Tumblr fashion, kept up in the tags:
#Faking It but Amy and Karma are both assassins
#Pretty Little Liars but Mona and Ali team up to take down every man in Rosewood
#Gossip Girl but Blair and Serena break kneecaps for justice
If all of that is still not enough, please take into consideration this exchange:
We love it. It gives us life, and not in the yaas kween way: Like it actually makes life better.
“Sweet/Vicious” has not yet been renewed by MTV for a second season — it’s languishing in that liminal space between “Eye Candy” (tragically early cancellation) and “Teen Wolf” (a gem readymade for six seasons to grow into the most powerful online force this side of “Pretty Little Liars”): Waiting for some more eyeballs on the screen, and passionate voices in the social sphere, to push it over the edge… Which is where we come in:
With this Mar. 6 interview with Screener fave, show creator, and all-around b*dass Jenn Kaytin Robinson.
Of the many best elements in the show, Jules’ and (especially) Ophelia’s rapid mastery of martial arts is the thing that veers most obviously into wish-fulfillment fantasy — and yet, the way those scenes are staged, they still have the undercurrent of realism and believability. What was the development process like for those?
We had an amazing stunt coordinator — Steve Davison, he’s incredible. In the scripts, of course, there was direction as to the moves of the fight — and then he would take that, and say “This is what’s possible.”
It is a genre, the vigilante part: It should feel fantastical, that’s on purpose. We would come in (myself, and Amanda the showrunner and whoever was directing) and we would make notes. 9 times out of 10 we’d be watching and be like, “This is so cool!” and just leave it at that… But any time we did have notes, Steve would make it work.
In front of the camera, too, you guys got incredibly lucky. MTV has a pretty solid history of casting its scripted shows, but the cast of “Sweet/Vicious” is particularly great, especially in terms of the chemistry between every possible character. How long did it take you to find leads that meshed so well together?
We took as long as the casting period we were given! We were so lucky with everyone we found. Most of the process, though, was spent looking for Jules and Ophelia. We actually found Eliza first, but then she had to come back and read with several people. And then when Taylor came in, it was like, “Oh yeah: There’s the show.”
The beautiful piece you wrote as a follow-up to Jules’ full flashback episode gave some insight into the network side of things — cathartic in a way that was different from the catharsis of the episode itself…
… But especially the look at the network side, with the note you made about the male executive’s comment [excerpted below]:
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be like,” said a male executive that is no longer at MTV. I turned, surprised by this response to the assault scene between Nate and Jules.
“What do you mean?” I responded, worried about what would follow out of this older, straight, white man’s mouth.
“You know, it was so fast. It wasn’t violent. It happened and it was over. It made me feel kind of sick,” he said.
…Which, those kinds of comments are always so simultaneously infuriating and, like, hopeful? Both “how can you not have known this already, or understood this already” — but at the same time, like, “Thank God!”
Yeah! “You’re learning!”
But that was just one moment, though, with what I assume is only one of many male executives at MTV — what was the pitching and development process like for a show as unapologetically honest as this?
That one instance of that one man is not at all indicative of what every notes session was — nor should it be, because most of the time they were actually really… woke executives.
RELATED: The moving confrontation “Sweet/Vicious” has promised all season
As for the process, I never actually pitched the show. I had written the spec script, and MTV bought that exclusively. So I never actually pitched it to anyone — and it was actually a team of women who read the script and bought the script. It was three women, they loved the show, they read the script before we even had a producer attached. They brought me in and said we want this — the original script was they were 25, 26 in New York, and it was a flashback to college — and they said we want this, but: A half-hour, in college, drop the flashbacks –and they made an offer. It was a totally backwards way to sell a show, but it was fantastic.
Another one of the best things about the show is how many female characters there are, who are unique and three-dimensional — I assume that can be attributed to how many women are behind the scenes, to be able to have such a wide representation on screen.
Yeah, of course! …The characters were there in my pilot, but then in developing the show, yeah, of course. But it’s also — we had Jared Frieder, who is a gay man, who was instrumental in digging deeper, and building out character. So yeah, I think that it’s nurtured by women in the room who want to make this happen — but the men in our room were just as devoted to making sure that every character felt real and three-dimensional.
The finale: One friend commented, almost as an aside, that maybe the most fantastical thing in the conclusion was Ethan Dawes’ character Miles, his role in the finale… That he would be capable of shedding the scales from his eyes, or willing to turn on his best friend. I don’t agree that is impossible, and am on record praising that move (and Miles, who is just so funny). What prompted you to rope him into the solution like that? Was there ever any kind of pushback?
Yeah, Ethan Dawes is incredible. We got so lucky with him! And no, there was never any pushback at all. And we never came at it from this place of, is he going to be part of the team? We always came at it from grounded character treatment. What would you do if you found out your best friend did something you truly don’t agree with? The idea of rape is where Miles draws the line in his brain.
That kind of idea — that men can’t change, and why would they want to turn on their bro, and all of that sh*t — that’s just not helpful for the cause. We as women have to be open to the fact that you can be a bystander, and that’s terrible — but if you realize that you’ve been a bystander and never want to do that again, that is progress.
RELATED: “Sweet/Vicious” finale: a bloody, gorgeous blueprint for a better world
My hope is that the show can broaden the perspective, blur the lines between what is a definitive right or a definitive wrong — aside from the question of rape. For me, that felt like the truest version of this character — and, I hope, the truest version of men in my real life.
The men in Jules’ support group scenes were so welcome, but — especially with the gender and sexuality revolution happening in MTV’s current target generation — the inclusion of non-hetero or non-cis experiences seems both imperative, and right in the sweet spot of what “Sweet/Vicious” is doing anyway.
Oh definitely! There was just so much going on in this season, and really only four episodes in total that dealt with external assaults [i.e., not focused on Jules’ journey], we didn’t have the time or space to treat it responsibly. It would be irresponsible of us to treat a transsexual assault experience, or an assault of a man by a man, or between a man and a woman where the woman is the aggressor, without committing enough time to do it well.
We definitely want to tell these stories. And it doesn’t end with just wanting to tell stories about LGBTQ and male survivors, but with stories that mirror what people, I think, are thirsty to see represented — people from a religious background, you know, race issues — through our unique “Sweet/Vicious” lens.
We never want to beat people over the head with a message — but at this point, we don’t have enough time for all the stories we want to tell, and the kind of representation we want to give. And included in the LGBT world, we do really want to make sure that we flesh out Ophelia’s bisexuality in season 2 — and give her, without taking away Evan, give her a love triangle that includes Evan and a woman, which I’ve never actually seen on television before…
So we’re excited to not only get to do kind of outer characters, but also bring characters into our world who are meaningful — and can be more than just a one-episode survivor of a procedural story… Enrich the world, and give representation to groups of people who — you know, I hate that people felt like they wanted to see themselves more in the show, and they didn’t. So I want to make sure that the fans know we see and hear them, and we want to give them the representation they crave.
That’s fantastic. Now, for our own sanity, we’ve been operating under the assumption Season 2 is coming — so what are your Season 2 dreams? Where do you want to go next?
Thank you for that! Yeah, you know, we’ll see. We do hope that the voices… Yeah, it’s a small amount of voices — the show, I think, didn’t get the marketing that it needed, unfortunately — but they are really loud and really passionate voices. I think, and I hope, MTV is looking to stick with this and grow the show, because I do think that there is a bigger audience out there that just needs to discover it.
As for details, it’s hard to do that, because right now it’s so blue-sky that I think it would be irresponsible of me to share anything — because I wouldn’t want… Without having the writers room, or the input of MTV, or the collaborative experience, I’d just be telling you what like, two people talked about.
RELATED: “Sweet/Vicious” is the next “Teen Wolf” — and lives up to its name
I can tell you we definitely want to explore right and wrong, when it comes to vigilante justice. We also want to explore Ophelia in the way we explored Jules in Season 1. So we want to go deeper into who she is and what her her trauma and damage is — and what does it mean to have trauma, but not be able to trace it back to a specific moment in your life?
That all sounds amazing, and we hope you get the time to do it!
Thank you so much!
“Sweet/Vicious” is available in its entirety on MTV.com and the MTV app. Run, don’t walk — it’s not just important, it’s truly one of the best-written and most impressively entertaining, smart shows in the last decade. We can’t praise it enough.
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