Why MTV’s Recently Canceled Sweet/Vicious Deserves Both Cult Status and a Second LifeImage courtesy of MTV TV Features Sweet/Vicious
Did you hear the one about the rape survivor who teams up with a wisecracking bong aficionado to take justice against their campus’ sexual predators into their own hands?
Probably not. Despite a protracted and impassioned campaign from the series’ rabidly loyal fan base, MTV canceled Sweet/Vicious—which premiered, grimly, a week after the 2016 election, and immediately set itself apart as one of the few properties in the history of Hollywood to treat sexual assault not only with gravity and honesty, but, crucially, with the victims’ trauma at the center of the narrative—late last month.
If you tuned in to MTV’s inaugural Movie & TV Awards this past weekend, this is a decision that may surprise you. Didn’t MTV go all in on social consciousness with its introduction of the first ever gender-neutral Best Actor category? Didn’t they invite Senator Maxine Waters—theAuntie Maxine—to present an award for the best “fight against the system”? Doesn’t it seem like having a smart, warm, deadly funny show featuring badass women dismantling rape culture from the inside on their limited roster of scripted series would be a priority for MTV, given all that? Yes! They did! Yes! It would!
And yet, MTV gave Sweet/Vicious, their most ambitious and “woke” show since Faking It (also canceled), the axe.
Certainly, low viewership played into this, but aside from whatever boost a Teen Wolf lead-in might have provided, Sweet/Vicious was not given the promotional campaign it deserved. All the show’s related Twitter handles were on point—series creator Jenn Kaytin Robinson and series leads Eliza Bennett (Jules), Taylor Dearden (Ophelia), and Aisha Dee (Kennedy) were (and continue to be) particularly engaged, especially with fans who saw their own stories reflected in the show—but aside from that, nothing. And now, the series is only available to purchase on Amazon.
Still: Go watch it. Right now. Go watch all of it. At a moment when Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale are among the year’s critical darlings, and as audiences of Girls and Pretty Little Liars are realizing they will soon need a new favorite show to fill that “badass lady-led dramedy” void—and, most crucially, as our President is a self-confessed sexual assaulter, surrounded by rape apologists and rape culture deniers—there is no show more deserving of your eyeballs and passion than this one.
I could try to convince you with further description of Jules’ and Ophelia’s origin story (it involves the most inappropriate inclusion ever of Wicked), or of the satisfying complexity each of the friendships and romantic relationships outside of the vigilante partnership are given (Brandon Mychal Smith, Nick Fink, Stephen Friedrich and Ethan Dawes acquit themselves beautifully as Dudes Who Get It), or of the best of the beatdowns the girls give out (they are many, and wonderful). I could reassure you that the central arcs all wrap up satisfyingly, should the first be the only season we ever get.
Instead, I am going to make my case by laying out exactly what happens (minor spoilers) in the series’ groundbreaking fifth episode, when the audience finally walks with Jules through everything that happened before, during and after the rape that sent her down the path of vigilantism:
We see her make plans with friends she trusts to spend the evening partying together; we see her with her friends, at the party; we see everyone’s sobriety fall away in equal measure; we see the way that both her inebriation and her friendship with her rapist are taken advantage of; we see the subtle distinctions being lost between what her rapist is thinking and what his frat brother assumes when he gives him his blessings; we see the quiet, quick, utterly inescapable rape in its entirety; we see Jules shambling back to her sorority house in a stupor; we see her start, then refine, then refine again her Google search terms as she tries to figure out what official steps she should take next; we see her bring her party clothes to the campus clinic for a rape kit; we see her wait and wait and wait in the Title IX office for a counselor to take her report; we see the counselor pause, sigh, bite her lip, and suggest to Jules that maybe she wasn’t raped, maybe she is actually feeling regret, maybe she should take a breath before launching a campaign against the school’s favorite student athlete, her friend, whose oceans of institutional support will likely do nothing but drown Jules in the long run.
We see her walk away from reporting. We see her slip on her vigilante mask. We see her take down her first unpunished campus rapist.
Margaret Atwood has made very clear that she did not include anything in The Handmaid’s Tale that did not happen to somebody, somewhere, at some point in human history. If she ever gets a chance to watch Sweet/Vicious, she will likely recognize the same spirit at work: it, too, depicts nothing (save the whole vigilante thing) that has not happened to someone, sometime, on some campus in the United States—that is not happening at this very moment. One does not have to dig to find a reflection of Darlington’s fictional, toxic microcosm in the real world. Just look to the Brock Turner case at Stanford, or the cabinet appointment of the Title IX-ambivalent Betsy DeVos, or last week’s House vote on a bill that would re-establish rape and sexual assault as permissible pre-existing conditions.
Sweet/Vicious is here to shine a disinfecting light on all that trash, even if all it gets is this single season.
Still and all, let’s try to get it more.
Sweet/Vicious is currently available for purchase on Amazon Prime. (I know, I know. But if anything will convince Amazon to pick up what MTV so short-sightedly let go, it’s your hard-earned cash.)
If you have been sexually assaulted, or you would like to learn more about safety and prevention and how to support victims in your community, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673, or visit RAINN at centers.rainn.org.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.