You’ve probably met some version of Michaela Coel’s Tracey, the sexually anxious protagonist of Chewing Gum (available now on Netflix), even if you don’t know it. A 24-year-old virgin from a super-religious background whose depth of carnal cluelessness is matched only by the lengths to which she’ll go to get rid of her V card, Tracey is legion — just not on-screen. Created and written by Coel, the BAFTA-winning comedy is another triumph of semiautobiographical TV, the trend that’s savvily betting on specificity of experience and milieu to inject new life into familiar genres and invite individuals from marginalized groups to take center stage.
It’s easy to list the many ways Tracey stands apart from most TV protagonists: She’s black, lives in London public housing, grew up in a Satan-obsessed fundamentalist Christian home, and has an African-immigrant mother. (Coel’s parents are Ghanaian, but Tracey’s mother’s homeland is unspecified here.) Coel mines plenty of affectionately satirical humor from these contexts, like when Tracey’s devout and closeted fiancé, Ronald (John Macmillan), betrays his lust for a surfer-haired portrait of Jesus by droolingly calling him “the epic superhero of salvation.” But Chewing Gum’s most resonant — and achingly hilarious — scenes revolve around Tracey’s bursting horniness and clumsy obliviousness regarding what to do about it. At its best, the series plays with that disjuncture between oversexed British culture and puritanical familial upbringing to point out how neither really prepares girls and young women for erotic fulfillment.
Save for a misbegotten makeover, Tracey generally dresses as her strict mother would dictate: in braided pigtails and cuddly-animal sweatshirts more appropriate for someone a decade younger. But we first meet Tracey leching after a mid-prayer Ronald, and by the end of the pilot, she leaps on top of a dopey white boy named Connor (Robert Lonsdale) — never mind that the self-described poet complimented her earlier by saying she “look[s] like a maid, like a modern liberated slave.” With her python eyes and canyon-wide smile, Coel proves she’ll do just about anything for a laugh, including gnawing on Connor’s hair and licking his eyelids as foreplay because she wants to devour as much of him as she can. Later, in another close-but-not-quite-sexual encounter, Tracey channels Connor’s literary prowess by talking dirty: “Tear up my bum hole 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 bum cheeks.”
There’s often a fine line between nasty and nasty — and that’s where Chewing Gum likes to stay. “He wants you to push your pussy in his face like you’re about to take a shit on it,” advises Tracey’s best friend, Candice (Danielle Walters), who seems to know all about sex except how to get the kind she enjoys. There’s a Broad City–like revelry in the gross mysteries of sex and the female body, even in something as small as Tracey forcing a laugh so raucous at a dirty joke she doesn’t get that her gum falls out of her mouth. The series also features a variation on autoerotic asphyxiation so twisted it deserves its own Black Mirror episode.
Coel uses her rubber face and hilariously stiff limbs to parody “sexiness” — a parade of preposterous contortions that gets funnier every time. The ladies around Tracey — none of them sexually satisfied — are full of inane women’s-magazine suggestions about how to make Connor her boyfriend and satisfied in bed. “Dick-centric sex sucks,” Tracey eventually learns from the last character you’d suspect. It’s a joy to watch this perpetual late bloomer finally give herself space to grow into the person she wants to be.
Chewing Gum has been renewed for a second season in the U.K., so hopefully Netflix — which debuted Season 1 with zero marketing in America in late October — will pick up the wonderfully weird, boomingly broad, and quietly political show next year too. The six-episode debut year sprints toward a terrible mistake, and after becoming acquainted with Tracey’s religious issues, sexual coming-of-age, and dramatically crumpling visage, Chewing Gum became the show I didn’t realize I’d been craving.