Prior to Donald Trump’s victory last week, Sweet/Vicious felt like a timely and politically charged show. In the fallout of that catastrophe, however, it’s become downright cathartic, a weekly televised retort to every asshole who propelled that sentient grab-bag of toxic ideologies into office. The series creators couldn’t have predicted the current state of America when they began outlining the idea of a couple of college girls taking revenge on people who deserve a beatdown, but now that such a cultural landscape has come into being, the show acts like balm on the raw wound suffered by those who thought multiculturalism had come far enough to—at the very least—beat back open racism and misogyny in the highest office in the land. The world may not be as it should, but in the universe of Sweet/Vicious, there’s some satisfying payback to be lived vicariously.
Those thrills come via the badass figures of Jules and Ophelia, two students at a fictional university whose lives are as distinct as can be. Jules is a buttoned-up and pert sorority sister, while Ophelia squanders her perfect GPA and trust-fund background by barely holding down a job, selling weed, and ambling carelessly through her post-secondary education. All that changes when she unwittingly stumbles upon a masked Jules kicking the shit out of a frat boy behind a campus building. As it turns out, Jules has recently begun meting out violent revenge on jerks who have assaulted women, dressing in all black with a mask and delivering beatdowns like a Greek-system superhero. After Ophelia puts her hacker skills to work figuring out the unknown vigilante’s identity, the two begin a tentative alliance, working together to go after anyone who escapes punishment for their damaging actions.
The darkness in Sweet/Vicious comes quickly. When Ophelia tracks down Jules, she’s about to be killed by the guy she was trying to take down, so Ophelia saves her by killing him. The first two episodes address the fallout of the murder, as the two young women warily size each other up, unsure how much they can trust their newfound ally. The situation of unlikely bedfellows banding together to cover up a murder is oddly reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s first season (a reference Ophelia embraces with her suggestion of dissolving the body in acid), but the execution is wholly separate, even as the repercussions play out over the course of the season. Jules maintains her daily life as a perky sorority sister, even as her fellow Omega and best friend Kennedy becomes increasingly suspicious of her friend’s falling grades and mysterious behavior. Ophelia, by contrast, is used to maintaining an aura of inexplicable impetuousness, so her sole close buddy and boss, Harris, doesn’t even notice much of a change. (At least, not at first.) As the two expand their operation, woking together to punish the guilty when the system can’t (as Ophelia notes, Jules is basically Batman, in terms of mission statement), they take on abusers, manipulators, and even, in a subsequent episode, a coterie of sorority girls who are assaulting other girls via extreme hazing.
Much of the wicked fun to be had comes in the dialogue. The series is fleet and funny, smartly balancing the severity of its subject matter with a gallows humor and offbeat sensibility that, at its best, occasionally approaches Gilmore Girls territory in terms of wit and postmodern referentiality. (During the pair’s first car ride together, with the dead body of the guy Ophelia just killed tied up in the trunk, the shell-shocked duo find common ground through a full-throated sing-along to Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” which could be irritating on paper, but is delivered in winning fashion.) Much of this is due to the natural chemistry of the two leads. Taylor Dearden bites into the outsize personality of Ophelia with gusto, fusing the character’s Daria-like pessimism to a more live-wire energy that makes her appealingly unpredictable. And while Jules is the more difficult role, requiring a believably fractured sense of self that contains repressed multitudes (she’s a survivor of sexual assault, too), Eliza Bennett gives her a fundamental insecurity and reticence that grounds everything the character does, even during more outlandish moments. (Jules’ penchant for G-rated curses like “gosh darn” and “rats!” become relatable foibles in Bennett’s performance, as opposed to forced quirks.)
The series suffers from some of the usual first-season weaknesses—one-note supporting characters, scattershot subplots, the odd inconsistent characterization as the show figures out exactly who these young women are—but the bigger drawback is the same one that plagues many of the channel’s offerings. MTV has developed somewhat of a house style for its dramas, a penchant for choppy editing and whip-pan camerawork that can be found in everything from Awkward to Teen Wolf. It’s presumably meant to seem “cutting edge” and match the more frenetic and youth-courting style of the rest of MTV’s programming, but tends to instead create the ugly impression of “show that will age badly.” It’s especially unfortunate with something like Sweet/Vicious, which has the potential to become a great series, but is periodically hampered by adherence to this more juvenile style, which feels hokey and not appropriate for the story being told. (It’s more understandable in the first couple episodes, which lean a little broad at times.) One gets the impression that, had MTV acquired The Walking Dead, one of the protagonists would be a snowboarder with a lithium-crystal iPod stocked with hundreds of EDM tracks.
But Sweet/Vicious is a rousing shot of whip-smart wish fulfillment, despite its occasional missteps. The key ingredients—great leads, strong dialogue, and a can’t-miss premise—are already in place, meaning the show has a solid foundation on which to build and evolve. The series bends over backward to draw distinctions between “good” and “bad” fraternities and sororities, and debates the degree to which people deserve punishment, even occasionally questioning the thorny nature of sex at that tempestuous age. But, like any good fantasy, it ultimately grants viewers the pleasure of just deserts: After beating up one guy and warning him against ever harming another woman, the jerk can’t help revealing his true colors as they walk away. “Psycho,” he mutters, and Jules and Ophelia stop dead in their tracks, share a look, and turn back to him. What happens next is vicious, but definitely sweet.