Is there something about a teen TV show with a ridiculous name? Maybe it’s the outsized weight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer skewing my perceptions, but it seems as though the campier and sillier a teen show’s title is, the better the show is likely to be.
Teenage Bounty Hunters, a one-season wonder executive-produced by Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds) that premiered on Netflix last summer, is certainly no exception to that theoretical rule. The show is a frothy delight, a sweet-natured and whip-smart coming of age story about two fraternal twins living in Atlanta, Georgia, who find themselves moonlighting as bounty hunters in training.
The results are incredibly fun — and they include some pretty sophisticated discussion of heady themes like religion, race, class, and queerness. All that combined with a slyly stylish ear for dialogue that can pull off lines like, “A horse on the force is a cop.” “Of course,” and you’ve got a nigh unstoppable charm offensive. Netflix canceled the show after its first and only season despite solid reviews, but you can still inhale all 10 hour-long episodes in a deeply enjoyable weekend binge.
At the center of Teenage Bounty Hunters are Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini) and Sterling (Maddie Phillips), the twins who find themselves juggling their schoolwork with bounty hunting. Their sisterly bond anchors the show: They’re prone to periodic bickering, but they are exuberant in their mutual love for one another. In a witty touch, they periodically communicate in twin telepathy, the rest of the world going fuzzy around them as the camera zooms into extreme closeups of their faces and they have extended conversations with their eyes.
Both twins consider Blair to be the bad twin and Sterling the good one, which is a matter of aesthetics as much as anything else. Blair is brunette, a metalhead, and into smoky eyeliner, while Sterling is blonde, fond of argyle, and a leader in the sisters’ shared Bible studies class. Obviously Blair’s the bad one.
But Teenage Bounty Hunters tips its hand that it will be complicating that dynamic when in Sterling’s very first scene, she talks her boyfriend into having sex by quoting scripture to him. And when she confesses she’s lost her virginity, Blair is both scandalized that Sterling has reached this milestone before her — “You mean sex like I’m always talking about?” — and sweetly supportive. “I am so proud of her,” she tells their unimpressed boss after filling him in on the details.
The boss in question is Bowser (Kadeem Hardison), a bounty hunter who finds himself taken, in spite of himself, with the twins’ skip-catching abilities. Field hockey star Blair is a fast runner, and daddy’s girl Sterling is an uncanny shot with a gun. Moreover, the upper-class evangelical white twins have access to parts of the Atlanta social scene that Bowser, as a Black man, can’t otherwise get to.
So Bowser gives in to Blair and Sterling’s pleas to take them on as his apprentices. He tells their parents that they’re working at the frozen yogurt shop he manages, and he tells the bail bondswoman who feeds him cases that they’re college students. (That last one’s a pretty tricky sell after Blair and Sterling dissolve into teenaged giggles upon seeing the word “penetrate” in one of Bowser’s files.) And in exchange, Blair and Sterling earn enough cash to pay for the damages they caused to their father’s pickup truck after they crashed it. The team becomes a perfect Odd Trio: Forever grumbling and jaded ex-cop Bowser unites with bubbly private school girls Blair and Sterling, and together, they fight crime.
Their cases lead them into tricky social critiques of the police, the South’s confederate legacy, the criminalization of sex workers, and gun laws. But as they pursue their glamorous new careers in bounty hunting, Blair and Sterling also have to chase the toughest skip of all: adulthood. (Work with me here.)
Their snooty Christian private school’s resident mean girl spreads a rumor that Sterling is having sex. And while Sterling maintains that she doesn’t regret any of her choices and can quote the Bible verses to support them, she still has to navigate the ensuing social fallout. Plus, everything gets a lot more complicated when Sterling starts to realize she might actually have feelings for the mean girl.
Meanwhile, Blair is struggling to navigate balancing her first real relationship with the time demands of clandestine bounty hunting. Adding to the complications is the fact that her boyfriend, Miles, is Black, and Blair’s family is both extremely white and extremely conservative. “It’s an honor to be Black for your daughter,” Miles tells Blair’s mother after she makes an awkward speech about how glad she is that he can introduce Blair to a different way of life.
It’s in Teenage Bounty Hunters’ simultaneously affectionate and clear-eyed portrait of white Southern evangelicalism that the show does its most original work. Blair and Sterling are surrounded by hypocritical adults who mouth religious platitudes while glorying in outright racism and misogyny: One early villain is a local church leader who hires and then beats a sex worker. But the twins are also surrounded by well-meaning adults who are genuinely trying to live up to the tenets of their faith, with varying degrees of success, and in their various failures, they spotlight the failures of the systems in which they are living. And as the girls try to confront their growing disillusionment with the grownups all around them, they do so while maintaining a sincere religious faith to which the show never condescends.
Now, would the whole thing have been even better if series creator Kathleen Jordan had stuck by her original title of Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters? Alas, we may never know. But what we did get is pretty fantastic in its own right.
Teenage Bounty Hunters is streaming on Netflix. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.