The Nov. 15 premiere of MTV’s newest scripted drama, “Sweet/Vicious,” pulled exactly zero punches. The show’s promos promised a couple of coeds taking bloody vengeance on their campus’ sexual predators: In the first five minutes of pilot “The Blueprint,” a switchblade-wielding Jules (Eliza Bennett) delivers.
“Call 911,” Jules growls at her predator-victim, through a voice-modulating mask after beating/intimidating him into submission in the name of the girl he raped: “Tell them you need a paramedic for your leg wound.” Then she thrusts her blade into her his thigh, ghosts out the window, and returns home to her hippie-sisterhood sorority house.
Despite the Elphaba-green hair, Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) seems much less badass upon first introduction, one month after Jules’ bedroom attack on the dude in the cold open. By the silence on the soundtrack we’re at first worried that the naked, Muppet-haired near-stranger she wakes up next to, is the classic (“classic”) tale of sexual assault that propels heroes to take up a skull-bashing cause, but no: Muppet dude is your average college hookup, and Ophelia is your average college genius-daughter-of-rich-donors slacker who eats popcorn for breakfast at three in the afternoon, has a gigantic bong nicknamed “Lebong James,” and likes, according to the MTV-approved track bumping on her turntable, to make money and get turnt.
Best friend Harris — Brandon Mychal Smith, recently of “You’re The Worst” but most enjoyably the late, seminal Disney Channel Original comedy “Sonny With a Chance” — insinuates Ophelia might not be living up to her full potential. The school counselor she’s meeting that evening to discuss her chronic absenteeism — “If you turn everything in on time and take all the tests, then class is optional!” — in total agreement. Ophelia thinks they’re all blowing so much bong smoke, but does condescend to attend the meeting… And it’s because of that choice that our heroines finally meet.
We don’t see Ophelia’s talk with the school counselor, but whatever went down, it stressed her out enough that she had to light up right out in the open to calm her nerves after. The campus security guard catches sight of her from across the quad, shouts, and then literally stumbles into full throttle pursuit after her. Ophelia bolts, and after running riot through the small crowd wandering the sidewalks, turns up an alley… Where Jules is just wailing on a dude.
Since Jules is in full black vigilante gear, Ophelia doesn’t clock her — but she can’t help but notice the attacker is female, just as Jules plants her against the wall to make sure Ophelia try to help the dude on the ground (whom she’s already identified by name).
“Go back to him! He date-raped one of the girls in my dorm my freshman year. He’s a garbage person!”
The conversation that follows when Martin confronts Ophelia about what she saw in the alley, after he catches up to her Jules escapes, is one of the two most important moments in this series-opening episode: Ophelia, without knowing one thing about Jules, goes out of her way to protect her.
“Can you describe the assailant you saw this evening? Like his height, his build, any identifying features?” Martin asks.
“Yeah,” Ophelia says, leaning back. “He was wearing a mask. He was tall, large build. Not, like, Dwayne-The-Rock-Johnson big… More like a young Mark Wahlberg.”
This instinct tells us everything we need to know about Ophelia, who until now has appeared objectless and uncaring: She is the opposite. She cares a great deal about the things that really matter, and slacks off because she can spot the lie behind everything’s she told should matter more.
Ophelia chases down Jules’s real identity — as mysteriously good at self-defense as Jules is, Ophelia’s introduced to us as an elite hacker — and confronts her, in the middle of a sorority party where Jules is fake-drinking, after stumbling into the meet-cutest of meet cutes with smiles-for-days Tyler (Nick Fink). Jules throws her down some cellar stairs to keep her away, but Ophelia plants a tracker on Jules’s phone — catching up again later that week, just in time to save her from the deadly end of a fight with a serial rapist who was more prepared than Jules had anticipated… Which is the second twist.
The action Ophelia takes to save Jules is violent, sudden, and shown without cinematic hyperbole: A person dies. It is awful. Ophelia breaks from it. Jules breaks from it. They have to support each other to deal with it, and while there’s humor that releases some of the tension, neither the young women nor we the audience are allowed to forget just how awful the situation is — it provides a great deal of the plot moving forward, as we get to know them and they get to know each other:
The dead man’s connections to other people they know, secrets and coverups from their respective daytime friends, and a missing car chock full of evidence and dead guy are all piled atop one another in one of the most thrilling final acts of a pilot in recent memory. Those already mourning the loss of “Teen Wolf” will find a lot here to love, between the humor and fast-paced, meaningful excitement.
But the butt-kicking intensity and focus of the promotional material, while immensely attractive to a lot of us, undercuts both the sophistication of the show’s mission (this is a much-needed violent catharsis, about a subject everybody tells us is either too radical or too uncomfortable to talk about; it is also about a lot of other important things) and the very MTV heart beneath it all:
Driving the body away from the scene — unable to go to the cops for reasons both plot-explicit (Jules’s vigilantism might be interrupted) and heartbreakingly obvious (Jules has clear reasons not to trust the police) — the women bond over tragedy: Not just this one person’s death, but the lives men like him force us all to lead. Their moment of freedom — a singalong to “Wicked’s” “Defying Gravity” — tells us everything we need to know…
And provides the standout moment of a pilot that already had everything going for it.
“Sweet/Vicious” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on MTV. Episode two is available now on the app and VOD.