MTV isn't the first network one would turn to for a bloody, brutal, and darkly hilarious television show about campus rape culture and vigilante justice. But then again, it's probably MTV's audience that needs it the most. Sweet/Vicious, a surprisingly good hour-long comedy/drama, revolves around two college girls—Jules (Eliza Bennett), a blond sorority member with basic interests like photos of sunsets, and Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), a green-haired hacker with an undeclared major and a side hustle selling pot. They come together to moonlight as crusaders against the men who have sexually assaulted their peers on campus.
It's understandable if your first instinct is to skip it. The subject matter is both heavy and delicate, providing countless opportunities for the writers to fuck it up by either not taking it seriously enough or veering into a condescending after-school special. Yet, at least within its first four episodes, Sweet/Vicious remains clever and balanced. The show finds a way to combine affecting emotional drama with Tarantino-inspired violence—all catered to an MTV audience.
It's true that Sweet/Vicious enjoys its light-hearted fare—the Odd Couple dynamic, talks of superheroes, sarcastic one-liners, and sorority silliness. But it's also never afraid to go dark. The main reason why Jules and Ophelia are brought together is a sort of accidental murder. Jules's life is in danger, and Ophelia saves the day with a wrench, forever linking the two together over the dead body of a rapist. Sweet/Vicious sets its tone quickly: the bloody, shaken, and traumatized duo drive around with a body in the trunk, headed to the bar to figure out next steps, all while belting out "Defying Gravity" because, well, they don't know what else to do. For all of the girls' strengths (Jules, daughter of a cop, is an impressive fighter while Ophelia has all the necessary tech-savvy to track down and trick their targets), the two aren't actually superheroes with powers. They're not even professionally trained. (One running theme is the clumsy fights against bigger, stronger men. It's always clear that these two are in danger, and they make sure to arm themselves with tasers and knives.)
Sweet/Vicious makes great use of the action sequences, which are far more brutal than you'd expect in an MTV series, but the show's concerns aren't about flashy violence. It's not a spoiler to say that Jules is a survivor, and that her rape is what kickstarted this vigilante mission. It is a bit of a spoiler to reveal who her rapist is, but suffice to say, he's still very much in her life. He never actively does anything to physically harm her again, but he's always around to make Jules relive her trauma, to remind her to keep quiet, and to make sure she's never able to forget it. These scenes are the most haunting, far more fucked up than any of the on-screen violence. A little ankle-slashing is nothing compared to watching Jules's fight off internal panic when he comes near, blinking rapidly and trying not to shake or break down. (Through bits of flashbacks, the show also depicts Jules's assault which, to some viewers, could definitely be triggering.)
The series doesn't shy away from showing the realities of many rape survivors, particularly college assaults where women are forced to remain in close proximity of their rapists, to see them around campus or in the same classrooms. Jules keeps her rape a secret from her best friend and sorority sisters. Later, she finds herself on academic probation, withdraws from extracurricular activities, and suffers from insomnia and nightmares, among other issues. As another survivor puts it, "My rapist isn't having any trouble sleeping. He gets to go to class and hang out with his friends and just live his life. But me? I'm failing out of school. I'm a mess." Sweet/Vicious has its fun with the clumsy superhero antics and hijinks, but never forgets why Jules and Ophelia are targeting these specific men. Jules's trauma lingers in the background of every fight scene and nearly every conversation, coloring how she now views the world and adding a necessary human component to the series.
To be clear, Sweet/Vicious isn't all good. It still suffers from some of MTV's stale hallmarks: flashy but jarring editing, eye-roll inducing dialogue, and an obnoxious soundtrack. It cares too much about pointing out that some sororities are good rather than using that time to focus on the more urgent aspects of the narrative. It threw in a too-messy rom-com plot just to add further entanglements. It hasn't quite figured out its side characters, which is a real shame for Harris, the black law student played by the endlessly charismatic Brandon Mychal Smith.
Despite all of that, the series is off to a promising start and is more Veronica Mars than Law and Order: SVU. It's a show that doesn't turn victims into a pitying subplot, but instead revamps them into strong, empowering survivors. Sweet/Vicious knows that not everyone can beat the shit out of their rapist, but just having a fictional show about someone who can is important.
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