Despite the unglamorous setting, the world of Chewing Gum‘s Tracey Gordon is full of eye-popping color. She wears bright yellow sweaters over flower-patterned button-down shirts, her hair in two long braids, like an overgrown schoolgirl. (“I’m a grown-ass woman,” she insists. “I just regularly make childlike mistakes.”) It’s London, but the skies are blue; Tracey works behind the counter at a local convenience store, but she’s not a glum sad-sack. As a sexually frustrated 24-year-old virgin who lives with her strict religious mother and sister in a public housing complex in East London, creator, writer, and star Michaela Coel is the embodiment of repressed female id: Frustrated, giddy, and chafing at the constraints of both her religious upbringing and the smallness of her world.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a show about a horny virgin is raunchy, but Chewing Gum’s depiction of sex feels different from other series’ treatment of the subject. It lacks the element of danger in a comedy like Girls, where sex can be funny but also scary. It’s a bit closer to British sitcoms like Scrotal Recall (wisely renamed Lovesick), Catastrophe, and Please Like Me (that one’s Australian, but hey, still part of the Commonwealth), although the sex on Chewing Gum, such as there is, feels simultaneously more casual and, because of its protagonist’s feverish quest, more theatrical.
The truth is, sex on TV is rarely as funny as it is on Chewing Gum; it’s ironic — or maybe entirely appropriate — that a show about repression should be so gleefully uninhibited, particularly in the bedroom. Tracey doesn’t see her virginity as a delicate flower, like the title character of Jane the Virgin; rather, it’s a straitjacket she’s itching to cast off. During her first sexual encounter with her crush, Connor (Robert Lonsdale), she climbs on top of him like a mad hyena and sucks on his nose before straddling his face, pants on. Later, when she gives him a hand job for the first time, she does so with furious intensity, her face practically grotesque from the effort.
The sex on this show is rarely sexy. Despite Tracey’s genuine desire to get laid, the driving force of her mission isn’t horniness or even loneliness as much as it is anxiety. Her attempts at romance are laughably off the mark; she first tries to coerce a reluctant Connor to take her virginity in an Airbnb, which turns out to be a grimy room in the back of a butcher shop, then attempts it one more time in the bathroom of a homeless shelter. Her attempt at a “blow job face” selfie is more frightening than sexy, as is her version of dirty talk, or what she imagines it might sound like: “Tear up my bumhole until it’s wide enough for the head on your neck to pop in and take a look at the view inside of my broken bumcheeks.”
Panicked that she might be pregnant after the hand job incident — Connor’s spunk landed on her thigh, and she knows those suckers can swim — Tracey barges into a pharmacy and shouts, “Excuse me, which one is the morning after pill?” When the pharmacist explains she doesn’t need it, she seeks out a more holistic remedy from the local witch doctor, who operates out of a dank storage unit and who gives her a tube of Anusol and a can of Diet Coke. “Dear our blessed savior, I need the courage you had to tell them you were the son of God,” Tracey tells a poster of Jesus as she prepares to ingest the soda as instructed. Beside it is a poster of Beyoncé: “And I need the strength that you had to make the switch from R&B to hip-hop when they doubted you. Amen.”
Tracey takes refuge from her evangelical Christian mother and her judgmental, buttoned-up sister, Cynthia (Susie Wokoma) at the home of her best friend, Candice (Danielle Walters), and an assortment of ragtag neighbors, including Candice’s heavily-made-up, perpetually pregnant sisters (who are white, although Candice is mixed-race, a fact that’s never really addressed); Candice’s boyfriend, Aaron (Kadiff Kirwan); and Ola (Olisa Odele), a Nigerian-born, flamboyant diva who was adopted by Irish parents ten years earlier.
For better or worse, these people are Tracey’s support system, and, she realizes, her true friends. In the first season, Tracey bumps into a high-school friend who invites her to try out for a job at the perfume store where she works; when she attends the company’s party, she shows up in a brightly patterned maxi-dress while everyone else is clad sleekly in black, and proceeds to accidentally ingest a massive amount of cocaine. She ends up making a fool of herself, getting onstage and delivering what she believes is an impassioned speech on choosing friendship over money — until we see what the audience sees, which is Tracey, wobbling onstage, slurring incoherently.
Chewing Gum grew out of Chewing Gum Dreams, Coel’s senior thesis at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and like Fleabag , another recent British comedy that stemmed from a stage play, Coel’s character narrates the events of the series directly to the audience. The technique brings the audience closer to the character, but not always in ways Tracey would like; by the end of Fleabag, the chatty narrator is speechless after revealing an ugly truth about herself, and there are times when Tracey also withholds pertinent — and embarrassing — information.
But it all comes out eventually. By the end of the second season, shit gets positively Freudian as even the uptight Cynthia makes moves to lose her virginity, Candice hooks up with her boyfriend’s dad, and we find out that Connor’s new live-in girlfriend is 20 years his senior. And — spoiler alert — Tracey does finally lose it, although not to Connor, but a boy in her book club who she later learns is only 16. The event is appropriately dramatic: As the boy pumps away, Tracey starts singing a song she wrote just for the occasion, then she starts crying, then laughing, then yelling, “Get it! Get it!” Suddenly, he pulls out. “Trace, you’re a girl,” he says, “you could just lie still!” Fat chance.
Chewing Gum Seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix.