In the first season of Chewing Gum (Netflix), 24-year-old Tracey (Michaela Coel) was a bouncy ball: a brightly colored machine in perpetual motion that threw herself at any opportunity to ditch her virginity. Each time, she was thrown right back — first by her closeted, faux-pious fiancé Ronald (John Macmillan), then by her layabout, easily overwhelmed boyfriend, Connor (Robert Lonsdale). To be fair to Connor, Tracey is the very definition of extra — such is her plight, and her appeal. Owing to a Christian fundamentalist upbringing, she’s as ravenous as a bear that’s just come out of hibernation. The universe teases virgins by making everything a reminder of sex. Tracey is its easiest and most hapless mark.
Released last week, Season 2 builds carefully and outrageously on Season 1’s scaffolding. More episodic but satisfyingly cohesive, the BAFTA-winning comedy’s second year leans into its church satire, its dates-gone-awry scenarios, and, best of all, its character development. One of the debut season’s smartest motifs was that neither the faux-liberation of mainstream Britain nor the overt repression of Tracey’s African-immigrant home culture provided her with a direct path toward sexual satisfaction. The six new episodes find Tracey and her equally naive but more devout sister, Cynthia (Susan Wokoma), figuring out through hysterically misguided trial and error what they want, if not how to get it.
Season 1 can be visually condensed into a single image: Tracey rutting wildly and cluelessly on top of Connor’s face in her underwear, seemingly doing her best to break his nose with her manic, performative thrusting. That’s not the case with Season 2, which finds Tracey venturing farther afield from the London housing project where she grew up and still resides. She attends an orgy at a club and spends the night wondering why no man will make a move on her. She travels to a friend’s rural manor and aggressively hits on his bullying father. She enters the poshest apartment she’s probably ever stepped foot in — and straight into some icky role-play involving a horrifying/hilarious case of jungle fever. An experiment with Tinder by Tracey’s best friend’s grandmother (Maggie Steed) leads to a blackface incident that feels affectionately true to our heroine’s brassy, age-diverse friends.
Chewing Gum continues to feel fresh, breezy, and charmingly broad because of Coel’s knack for emotionally raw jokes, elastic physical performance, and sharp cultural specificity. (As the series creator, she’s written every episode, save for one cowritten installment.) When Coel lampoons the strictness and the sanctimony of Tracey’s family’s religion, it’s fond but deeply knowing, like she’s ribbing an uncle she’s always liked but rarely agrees with. Upon visiting a more liberal congregation, Cynthia vomits in her mouth when she hears the pastor kindly tell his flock, “We’re all going to heaven.” I wish we could get a better sense of what Tracey’s relationship with her single mom (Shola Adewusi) is like outside of the latter’s sex-negativity, but it’s still funny when the older woman demands that Tracey speak in tongues and heal the sick to prove her piousness.
Consider this a small spoiler: Goody-goody Cynthia beats Tracey in getting her V card punched. In contrast to her flailing sister, Cynthia’s approach to sex is methodical to the extreme — the world’s most elite military ops unit couldn’t have designed a more precise entry-and-exit maneuver. Still, it’s movingly relatable to watch London’s priggiest twentysomething google “becoming sexual” and teach herself how to masturbate (if not well) after deciding that she should make her own decisions about her sexuality. Even with all her careful planning, Cynthia can’t escape humiliation. But her parallel journey illustrates that neither sister is alone. For all their chronic adversarial wariness, Tracey and Cynthia have to admit that no one understands their "baby deer wobbling if that deer was insanely sexually awkward" situation better than each other.