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The Comedic Genius of Netflix’s Chewing Gum

The second season of this brilliant British comedy presents a refreshing interrogation of normality.

Mark Johnson / Netflix

There is a scene in an early episode of Chewing Gum’s second season, which dropped on Netflix last week, that captures why this absurd, hilarious series is one of the sharpest social commentaries on television right now. Tracey Gordon (Michaela Coel, who is also the show’s creator) is in a makeshift outfit—swimsuit, headband, gold body paint—intended to channel “tribal Africa.” She is dancing in front of a white man named Ash, her new love interest. As he masturbates to her “ritualistic” dance and nonsensical chants, they are interrupted by Ash’s two school-age children and his ex-wife Judith (who, like Tracey, is black).

“Dad,” says Ash’s son, “I’m trying to find a reason to respect you here, and I can’t.” His little sister covers Tracey with a fur blanket. Judith reveals that Ash has a fetish for black women, and that Tracey is just the latest to have fallen for his “I’ve never been with a black girl” line. Tracey, recently homeless and boyfriend-less, is stunned. “Ash, the black thing is not cool!” she yells. Ash responds, “It’s positive discrimination,” following this assertion with a list of his black-friendly credentials: “I’m a campaigner for ethnic minority power. I went to Kenya and the Gambia for my gap year. And, I love jazz!”

Barely five minutes long, this scene compresses many of the show’s themes and comedic innovations. There are racial issues: Ash is a white, liberal man whose defense of black culture morphs into fetishization. There are also class issues: Judith at one point refers to Tracey’s friend as a “Peckham princess,” to which Tracey retorts, “My best friend is not a Peckham princess, we are from Tower Hamlets.” Peckham is a London district of mostly working-class black families, and so is Tower Hamlets, but Tracey is asserting that these two places cannot be lazily lumped into the same category by those who think themselves better.

Most of all, the scene shows how Chewing Gum throws its punches and gets its laughs by taking antic situations to their extreme. “I enjoy making people uncomfortable,” Coel has said. “I don’t want to write a show that doesn’t make people uncomfortable. I don’t think I know how to write a show that doesn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Tracey Gordon is a shop assistant and resident of a council estate in northeast London who desperately wants to lose her virginity. The first season focused on Tracey abandoning the evangelical Christian lifestyle established by her West African mother and embarking on a series of adventures to get laid. She breaks up with her closeted Christian boyfriend, attempts to have a threesome, and reluctantly falls in love with Connor, an unemployed poet who lives on her estate. Despite experimenting with drugs and going to her first house party, Tracey never manages to have sex. At the start of the second season, Tracey is still a virgin. She starts sleeping in the convenience store where she works, while attempting to piece her life back together.

Chewing Gum began as a play, a one-woman show staged by Coel. Titled Chewing Gum Dreams, it featured a 14-year-old Tracey navigating the difficult journey toward young adulthood. The play was inspired by Coel’s childhood in Hackney, in northeast London, and wrestles with darker themes, including bullying, self-esteem issues, sexual assault, and domestic abuse. Coel played eleven characters, who would all later appear in the television show in different form. In the play, Connor is a white boy who feels Tracey up on the bus, instead of an earnest failed poet. Tracey’s friend Candice is in an abusive relationship. Chewing Gum Dreams, like the sitcom it would inspire, is rooted in the exploration of a broken society. As one reviewer noted at the time, Tracey is the “sort of girl you would avoid on the bus.”

Coel’s depiction of this society is utterly unconventional for television. Part of this stems from the uninhibited physicality of Coel’s humor: Her exaggerated body movements and her elastically silly faces amplify the slapstick moments in the script. In the pilot episode, Tracey finds herself alone in a room with Connor at a house party. They start making out, but as their foreplay intensifies, her imitation of a sensual performance goes off the rails. Tracey licks Connor’s face like an ice cream cone. She jabs her tongue in his ear. She starts sucking on his ... nose. “Brilliant,” Connor says unconvincingly.

Chewing Gum also frames its views on race, class, and sexuality in a through-the-looking-glass way that might be disorienting for many viewers. Despite the fact that Tracey is an absurd character, her experiences are the default prism through which the world is presented, which allows for an interrogation of normality that is both hysterical and necessary.

In this season’s fifth episode, “Road Trip,” Tracey shamelessly invites herself on Candice’s trip to visit her boyfriend’s family. Misinterpreting Candice’s demurral that “three’s a bit of a crowd,” Tracey invites her cousin Ola as well. “So guys, you said three was a bit of a crowd, so I hollered at Ola,” Tracy says, surprising the couple on the train. “So, now we’re a proper crowd.” What follows is a series of surreal embarrassments, culminating in Tracey telling Candice’s boyfriend Aaron, “It must be weird, living with your mom and dad.” It’s a moment that flips the script of convention. Unlike Aaron, Candice and Tracey both come from single-parent households. But in Chewing Gum, they are the standard and Aaron is the strange one.

It is truly Tracey’s world and the viewer is living in it. To reside there is to question the beliefs that structure our own lives. The effect is reminiscent of what Martin Esslin described in his classic text on modernist theater, “The Theatre of the Absurd.” As Martin writes, “At first sight these plays do, indeed, confront their public with a bewildering experience, a veritable barrage of wildly irrational, often nonsensical goings-on that seem to go counter to all accepted standards of stage conventions.” Because of this experience, the viewer has to adjust to a new world. And in Chewing Gum, it is one where race, class, and gender are delineated differently.

Indeed, it is the conventional that becomes absurd, even grotesque. In “Road Trip,” Tracey’s sister Cynthia—who recently discovered that she, too, wants to have sex—tries to lose her virginity. Taking advantage of both her mother and older sister’s absence, Cynthia follows the rules laid out in her “Sexual Liberation Planner.” The episode adopts an almost fantastical sheen as Cynthia, in a bodycon dress and made-up face, walks down the street in search of a man. “You lost?” a skinny white boy asks Cynthia as she rounds the corner. This scene, with its pink visuals and evocation of Disney fairytales, mocks traditional representations of romance. Cynthia confesses that she has strayed too far from her home, and asks the boy to take her there. “Pensbourne Estate’s just round the corner,” he says. Cynthia, ignoring this fact, follows the worn script of courtship: “Well then, let’s go. You should take the lead though, I’ll follow.”

Once the viewer grows accustomed to this change in viewpoint, she starts to see that maybe it is the world itself that is absurd, not Tracey. After her humiliating encounter with Ash, Tracey runs out of the apartment, but not before declaring, “You! You’re the weirdest white boy I’ve ever met!” She is yelling at Ash, but she might as well be shouting at forces much larger than the both of them.

At the end of the season, Tracey and her friends and family gather in the courtyard of Pensbourne Estate. They are celebrating the birth of her friend Karly’s second child. “Yeah, that’s right we’re a mixed bunch,” she says. “But, we stick together like chewing gum on concrete.” It’s an interesting metaphor, uplifting in that it implies solidarity and tenacity and brightness, before you realize that dried chewing gum is also litter that we step over every day. What this show is asking us to do is to stop and look.