TV

Lena Waithe’s “Twenties” Is Groundbreaking. But More Important, It’s Good.

The Emmy winner's new dramedy effectively captures what it's like to be black, queer, and riding the struggle bus through life.

There’s a scene in Lena Waithe’s new BET show, Twenties—a semi-autobiographical dramedy about a butch stud trying to make it as a writer in Hollywood—in which the protagonists discuss the merits of black entertainment.

Hattie (the Laithe surrogate, played by Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs) asks her friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) why they like My Bae, a fictional show that she thinks is obvious garbage.

“I like that it’s about black love,” Nia says.

“And I am just… glad it exists,” Marie says.

“Those are not good reasons to like a show,” Hattie argues, brushing off Marie’s idea that they should “support black shit.” Instead, Hattie believes, “We should support good shit that just happens to be black.”

Michael Kubeisy/BET
Jonica T. Gibbs (left) as Hattie and Gabrielle Graham (center) as Nia.

The same can be said about queer shit. On the one hand, as a queer viewer you’re grateful to be represented, to have a seat at the table where before there were none at all. But on the other hand, neither black culture nor queer culture are monolithic, and to support something simply for the fact that it exists only lowers expectations for the quality of other art.

Twenties is good shit that just happens to be black and queer. But its blackness and queerness have a great deal to do with how good it is and how good it could be.

Though Twenties will likely (and accurately) draw comparisons to Insecure as it mines similar territory—it’s about young black women in Los Angeles navigating adulthood and often failing desperately at it—Hattie’s sexuality already sets her and the show apart.

She’s sleeping with a woman who doesn’t believe in labels—including ones like “relationship.” Hattie identifies as a lesbian, but she’s frequently misgendered because she presents as a really cute boy. Hattie, however, is a female scrub—and I don’t mean a pigeon. She’s definitely giving off “hanging out the passenger side trying to holler at me” vibes.

Hattie can’t keep a job, she will blatantly not pay for anything, and after getting kicked out of her place in the pilot episode, she ends up crashing at Marie’s, where she quickly makes herself a nuisance.

Ron P. Jaffe/BET
Christina Elmore as Marie.

Still, this is La La Land, and Hattie is nothing if not a dreamer. And Twenties is steeped in Hollywood allure, most notably drawing from that most perfect of movies, All About Eve. The 1950 classic is Waithe’s favorite, and from the opening narration, which borrows heavily from the film, its influence can be felt throughout.

Instead of dealing with her recent housing crisis, Hattie attends an outdoor screening of All About Eve; then there’s the relationship she develops with Ida B., the female showrunner of My Bae and her eventual boss, which has shades of the parasitic yearning of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) for Margo Channing (Bette Davis).

The queer subtext between Eve and Margo in All About Eve is made text in Twenties. But whereas Eve was manipulative and conniving, Hattie’s intentions are more pure. Or at least it seems.

There’s a lot going on in Twenties, and for the most part it works. Indeed, I am glad that it exists because it speaks to a specific blackness and queerness to which I can easily relate. Hattie spends her free time watching clips of Whitney Houston live on YouTube. She obsesses over old movies and the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack—a.k.a. the greatest soundtrack of all time.

But while I’m glad it exists, I’m more overjoyed that Twenties is a show I would watch if it didn’t have a black, queer protagonist as its lead. The dialogue is sharp, the acting is great, and the story is engaging. It’s good shit, and judging from the first four episodes I’ve seen, it only gets better.

Twenties airs Wednesdays at 10pm EST on BET.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat