In the words of city poet Carrie Bradshaw, “In New York, you’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend, or an apartment.” BET’s Being Mary Jane (with Gabrielle Union in the titular role) has juggled that holy trinity of pursuits since its summertime 2013 pilot — the most elusive concern being the boyfriend. Once tentatively titled Single Black Female, the show tracks the self-destructive, often unsympathetic movements of news anchor Mary Jane Paul as she rises through the ranks of the Atlanta-based Satellite News Channel and navigates married men, childhood sweethearts slash babydaddies, and other romantic ne’er-do-wells. As the series enters its fourth season, change descends upon the land not a moment too soon.
A few more particulars before we get to the heart of the matter: Mary Jane has relocated to New York City, leaving behind her fabulous home of glass walls in the ATL for an ersatz Good Morning America program called Great Day USA. A frenemy rivalry immediately ensues with veteran anchor Ronda Sales (played by the excellent Valarie Pettiford).
Come late 2015, series creator and showrunner Mara Brock Akil (a sitcom veteran responsible for Girlfriends and The Game who stepped up to the hour-long format with BMJ) departed with her husband, director Salim Akil, for a development deal with Warner Bros. And so along with its new locale, season four introduces a fresh creative team: executive producer Will Packer and showrunner Erica Shelton Kodish.
If the tone of Being Mary Jane has changed, this is why. Akil used talk-show personality Mary Jane Paul’s cultural-nationalist predilections to slide in guests like cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal and feminist image activist Michaela Angela Davis. Packer and Shelton Kodish seem less politically inclined. Last season’s cliffhanger, involving Mary Jane’s niece (named, unforgivably, Niecy) getting tasered to the ground by police, is almost brushed aside as the show fast-forwards ahead to a year later. The incident is alluded to but mainly feels dropped like it’s hot. The series instead front-loads Mary Jane’s office drama over her family spectacle, which is too bad. Drug-dabbling brother Patrick, lupus-suffering mother Helen, and family patriarch Paul Sr. — always a strong supporting cast — are now all way down there in Georgia, disconnected.
Before we get to the requisite boyfriend, New York City bears mention as Being Mary Jane‘s latest cast member, and Gotham comes up way short. The cabs are yellow, but their resemblance to true NYC taxis stops there. A shadowy dance-club scene from episode one, marked in my advance screener by the placeholder “Afropunk club” (what, pray tell, is an Afropunk club?), looked wholly inauthentic: dancers’ faces dabbed with neon paint like the j’ouvert of Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade. Thus far, it’s been a pretty soundstaged Manhattan. The eye candy of that gorgeously modern glass-walled Atlanta house has been traded for a drab generic hotel room. Is Mary Jane Paul moving uptown to gentrified Harlem too much to hope for?
Boyfriend Lee Truitt (Brit actor Chiké Okonkwo), an English comedian with a not-quite-wife and kids back in the U.K., seems personable enough. But his charisma pales next to Mary Jane’s lovers past: married man André Daniels (Power star Omari Hardwick); selfish empath David Paulk (Stephen Bishop); eccentric rich guy Sheldon DeWitt (the eternally sexy Gary Dourdan). If MJ’s taste in men these past three seasons has been any indication, Michael Ealy as Justin Talbott — a former colleague who once got our heroine fired at CNN — will be sending Truitt back to trolling women at the Comedy Cellar sooner than later.
In the absence of Mara Brock Akil, the question becomes: Will Being Mary Jane lose its magic? A ratings juggernaut, the series stood for something larger from the start. The roaring success of Being Mary Jane, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder served as the frontline infantry to African-American-centered successors like 2016’s Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage. The new direction emphasizes the personal over the political, and though it’s too early to tell how that will play out, it seems unlikely liberal commentator Van Jones or academic talking head Marc Lamont Hill will turn up on a Great Day USA cooking segment any time soon.
The final question is, how much will Mary Jane herself finally grow? Newsrooms and romance aside, she’s never been the Mary Tyler Moore of Black Lives Matter. She’s never been the most likable character, from stealing her lover’s sperm (eventually attempting an impregnation) to sexing another woman’s husband to chasing behind an assumed soul mate who’d already slept with her bestie. Or the most adventurous either — she doesn’t do anal (see season three’s “Hot Seat”); she’d never dated a white guy. The can’t-turn-away appeal of Being Mary Jane has always been of the train-wreck variety.
But those who love the show hope for her success anyway. Because despite the soap-opera histrionics, many see themselves in Mary Jane’s near-desperate quest for love and in her struggle to stabilize the (often self-inflicted) craziness of her life and times. We don’t love her because she’s off the rails. We love her because, sometimes, she’s us.
Being Mary Jane airs at ten on Tuesdays on BET.