Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 3 through 10 is “Pilot,” the series premiere of MTV’s new comedy Mary + Jane.
Right before the overwhelming glut of fall TV kicks off, MTV made a play to get its name into the scripted comedy conversation with two new shows. And Mary + Jane and Loosely Exactly Nicole — which premiered back to back on September 5 — are kind of fascinating to look at as two halves of a whole, at least in terms of how MTV is approaching its scripted content.
Mary + Jane follows two best friends in LA who are building a marijuana delivery service from scratch. Loosely Exactly Nicole follows a fictionalized version of star Nicole Byer’s life as a working actor who’s both black and several sizes bigger than most anyone leading a network sitcom.
The shows represent two incredibly different approaches to the “raunchy female comedy” genre that’s been on the rise these past few years, from Broad City to Trainwreck and beyond.
There’s probably no genre I want to succeed more than this one, being a messy 20-something woman myself. But while the very funny Loosely Exactly Nicole manages to capture so much of what makes Byer a stellar comedian, Mary + Jane trips all over itself in its rush to be current, edgy, and interesting — and the reasons why reveal much about how TV is approaching comedy these days.
Mary + Jane feels more like a first draft writing exercise than the free-spirited comedy it’s trying so hard to be
Let’s get this out of the way first: Mary + Jane is a clear attempt on MTV’s part to recreate the magic of Comedy Central’s Broad City.
It doesn’t work.
To be very clear about this, I’m not saying that all shows centering on female friendship are trying to be Broad City. That would be reductive, and unfair, and just untrue.
But MTV’s been trying to figure out, without much success, how to capture the kind of oddball comedy its sister network has nailed with shows like Broad City, Key & Peele, and Inside Amy Schumer. The high school comedy Awkward probably got the closest — it recently wrapped up at five seasons — but otherwise, MTV’s scripted comedy record is a graveyard of wasted potential. (See: Faking It, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.)
So it makes sense that MTV would turn to Mary + Jane, a show about chill stoner Jordan (Scout Durwood) and her more uptight partner in crime Paige (Jessica Rothe) embarking on adventures both messy and a little sexy. And as part of the oncoming wave of comedies about dealing weed — keep your eyes out for the premiere of HBO’s High Maintenance on September 16! — Mary + Jane is doing its best to ride out a trendy topic.
The problem is Mary + Jane seemingly has very little idea of what that topic actually entails — or, more importantly, what makes shows like Broad City, which touches on similar thematic territory, special.
For one, Mary + Jane was created by the writing team of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, who have plenty of experience writing very funny teen movies — most notably Can’t Hardly Wait and Josie and the Pussycats — but virtually none in television. As it turns out, these media are incredibly different from each other, and the rushed pacing of the Mary + Jane pilot proves it.
For another, neither Elfont nor Kaplan is from the millennial demographic the pair are trying to write and appeal to. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if only their pilot script weren’t so desperate to prove that it’s down with the kids these days, yo. (I never need another joke about hipster pop-up shops or Banksy, thanks!)
The show’s biggest weakness — its central duo — reveals the increasing reliance on performer-creators in scripted comedy
The most visible problem with Mary + Jane is that its central duo just doesn’t have the kind of chemistry that Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have on Broad City. This makes sense; Jacobson and Glazer have been writing and performing partners for years, so they know each other’s styles inside and out.
But the way Mary + Jane tries to sell the intimacy of Paige and Jordan’s relationship assumes that Rothe and Durwood can slide into that kind of crackling banter immediately, and that’s simply not the case.
This is all too bad, because the basic premise of two young women trying to navigate the bro-heavy pot business isn’t a bad one. But the fact of the matter is that this show needed something that’s become an increasingly valuable commodity in Hollywood: a creative team that writes and stars in its own show.
From Broad City to Inside Amy Schumer, from HBO’s upcoming comedy Insecure to Amazon’s Catastrophe, networks are investing in people who can work in several different roles at once — not just because it’s more efficient but because they can sell their comedy better than anyone.
This is why Loosely Exactly Nicole works where Mary + Jane doesn’t. Though Byer didn’t create the show herself, it’s rooted in her experiences and caters to her comedic strengths. Mary + Jane, meanwhile, is trying to squeeze two decent actors into an edgy-ish concept, hoping to God that it feels natural.
Comedies that can start out knowing exactly what they are have a huge leg up on those that need time to let their casts settle into place and find their strengths. If Mary + Jane had that kind of creative team — or even just basic familiarity with the story it’s trying to tell — it wouldn’t feel nearly as tortured as it does.
If we haven’t scared you off already, you can watch the premiere of Mary + Jane at MTV’s website.