Warning: This post contains discussion of sexual assault.
It's hard to imagine why more people aren't talking about "Sweet/Vicious," one of MTV's latest scripted dramas, which wraps Season 1 on Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST. The main characters, Ophelia Mayer (Taylor Dearden) and Jules Thomas (Eliza Bennett), are college students by day, crime fighting vigilantes by night. The two band together to take down men accused of sexual assault at the fictional Darlington University. An unlikely pair, Jules is a seemingly perfect sorority sister, and Ophelia is a pot dealing (and smoking) computer genius with a 6-foot bong named LeBong James.
The show's heroines are complicated, as is the conversation surrounding rape culture on college campuses.
"I wanted a story for and about empowered women," creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson said in a phone interview. "Women that could be broken, nuanced and unapologetically fierce, and all of these things at once."
Campus sexual assault has been a hot-button topic in recent years, with the federal government (under the Obama Administration) making it a Title IX issue. Students rallied together to advocate for change, founding organizations such as End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX. Then the documentary "The Hunting Ground," which was released in 2015, discussed the far-too-frequent failings of Institutions of Higher Educations to support survivors. "Sweet/Vicious," is a dark, funny and cathartic series that sits squarely in that ongoing discussion, though it takes a bit of a different approach.
"I wanted to make a show where women feel like they are heard. Like their voice matters, and they're less alone," Robinson said.
Make no mistake, there are elements of "Sweet/Vicious" that are definitely violent. The pilot opens with Jules beating up a college classmate, forcing him to admit that he raped a woman named Beth. Then, she stabs him in the leg. And that's just a warm-up for the total ass-kicking Ophelia and Jules do throughout the season. The sheer physicality of the roles required both Dearden and Bennett to take cardio, boxing and weapons training.
"They did as much as we would let them do," Robinson said of the leads doing their own stunts. "Whether it was working with weapons or doing some of the fight choreography, they loved doing it."
The show pulls off the violence because it incorporates an element of fantasy. This is not real life (duh, it's television), and it's not meant to feel like it. The color saturation and heightened sounds (think "POW!") give it a comic book feel that's just fanciful enough to invite broad audiences into a world where women and survivors are believed to get some sort of justice, even if it doesn't include jail time for their assailants.
It goes without saying that "Sweet/Vicious" is a millennial-driven show. Robinson is only 28, and the series reflects her youth -- and that of the writers' room. The program includes the nuances of conversations and lexicon that young people are having with each other. For example, Robinson self-corrected when using the term "victim" and opted for "survivor" because "I don't like that word, and I don't like that I just used it." She strives to be socially conscious and is forward-thinking in respect to the storylines and language used on-screen.
"If we had more content on TV for girls in their teens where they could see that inclusivity is really cool, and diversity is really cool, and being a b---- sucks, hopefully that would start to be mirrored in society."
The series also has characters of a variety of backgrounds represented, including people of color, LGBTQ people and women (though not enough for Robinson's taste). If the show is awarded a second season, Robinson would like to see more representation. "We wanted to be diverse and inclusive without pointing a finger to diversity and saying, 'Look how diverse we are,'" Robinson said. "You shouldn't get a pat on the back for having people of color on your show. It's 2017, what are we doing?
"For us to tell a story about fighting back and not include people of color, not include LGBT characters, for us only to have a bunch of white kids, what story is that? I don't know what that story looks like. I don't want to tell that story."
At its core, "Sweet/Vicious" is a new story tackling issues that permeate the discussion of what it means to be a college student today. The entire first season takes place on a college campus, and yet there's never a classroom. The college experience is about more than just school, and that requires a reckoning with what is happening to many people on their campuses.
"We made this show for survivors," Robinson said. "You are not alone, and what happened does not define you. Jules and Ophelia will always be there in your heart to avenge your demons in a fictional world in a way that you cannot."