Chewing Gum doesn’t pull its punches. A new British comedy created by 27-year-old writer and star Michaela Coel and set on a sun-dappled east London housing estate, the working-class world she depicts is a multi-racial, sexually frank, filthy, and funny kind of place, with the show tackling issues of religion, race and class with a no-holds-barred frankness. It might just be this fall’s most refreshing new comedy.
Coel plays lead character Tracey, a virgin and a Pentecostal Christian who lives on a council estate in east London with her evangelical mum and sister. She dates the casually cruel, super uptight, and strictly religious Ronald who pledges that after six years of going out, sex will remain very much off the agenda if the Lord thinks it best. As he prays, Tracey eyeballs the P in his pants. In steps her best friend Candice, offering sage advice on the realities of online dating: "You can bang someone on Tinder, it’s free. Stick the ting to find someone in your borough and walk. A Tinder bang ain’t even a bus fare, bro."
Nowhere have I heard a better summary of the advantages of online dating apps than the above, a riposte to all that hand wringing over the ‘dating apocalypse’ that Tinder and its ilk are purportedly bringing to your bedroom. Tracey and Candice recognise something that those kind of reports don’t: that dating apps level the playing field for those that don’t have the means or money to go to the club to find hook ups. Living in London’s Tower Hamlets—one of the U.K.’s poorest boroughs—they’re working class and flat broke, but they navigate their space and sexuality with relish.
Chewing Gum sprang from Coel’s one woman show Chewing Gum Dreams, which played at London’s National Theatre last year. The show mirrors some of Coel’s background: she grew up on a London estate with her Ghanaian mum and sister; she found God as a teenager but has since left the church. Still, she has seemed to channel that dedication into creativity—first as a performance poet, then at drama school, now on TV. There are a number of frank women writing for British television in 2015—columnist Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical Raised by Wolves and Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe, recently picked up by Amazon Prime—but Chewing Gum’s Coel may well outflank them all on the no-holds-barred front.
Chewing Gum is radical in the way it talks about sex, like Coel has gone through our search history and aired all that dirty laundry on national television. Candice [a tremendous Danielle Walters] is the show’s guide on the new frontier of female emancipation, as she runs through her sexual checklist of raw BDSM, bondage, discipline, and spanking. “Fuck Fifty Shades of Grey,” she sneers. “That’s some vanilla shit."
This is sex for fun articulated through the pop culture prism of pulp fiction and phone apps. The young women discover sex through these things because well, there’s no other option for it when religion has your sexuality on lockdown and school sex ed doesn’t tell you whether face licking is a good way to start off foreplay (which is Tracey’s first move when she does manage to find a suitor). Chewing Gum’s girls want bold sex, mad sex, weird sex. “We fart, we shit, we bleed," Coel told The Guardian when asked about the taboo-free world of Chewing Gum.
“Chewing Gum is the London that I know,” she explained to Radio Times. “When I grew up, my race was not a thing. My identity was in my class. It was not about color on my estate.” Even so, creating a young poor black woman who is funny, aspirational and real isn’t often explored on primetime television, and as such, Coel makes for an important contribution to the kind of stories being told on screen. The writer doesn’t see herself as a polemicist, though she also understands the impact of her platform. “My job is to to go around campaigning or complaining, that’s not my bag," she said to Radio Times. "I just want to be positive and think about what I can do. The thing is to go and write those parts." With Chewing Gum, she’s done a very fine, filthy job of it, and her willingness to go there—all the way there—marks her out as British television’s boldest and bravest new voice.