“Chewing Gum,” a riotous British sitcom chronicling the cringe-worthy mishaps and victory-dance-eliciting triumphs of 24-year-old convenience-store assistant Tracey Gordon (played by Michaela Coel), is set in a public housing community in London not unlike the one in where Coel herself grew up. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the promising showrunner explained that the series’ title references chewing gum on city concrete — two very different substances stuck together like the incredibly diverse yet tight-knit community possible in public housing. “Chewing Gum” boldly juxtaposes class, sex and religion as Beyoncé-worshipping Tracey — the eldest daughter of Ghanaian immigrants — embarks on her coming-of-age quest for carnal knowledge.
Tracey’s childhood best friend, Candice (Danielle Walters), attempts to guide her through the wilderness that is modern-day courtship after Tracey realizes her ex-boyfriend is gay, all while Candice works through her own BDSM fantasies with her Eckart Tolle-obsessed boyfriend, Aaron (Kardiff Kirwan). Despite advice from Candice and other neighborhood confidantes, horribly awkward foreplay mars Tracey’s love life which centers her exceptionally mediocre boyfriend, Connor (Robert Lonsdale), a pitiful wannabe poet-rapper who lives with his mother in the same complex. Awkward as in: suffering humiliating nosebleeds whenever she becomes aroused and chewing Connor’s hair after licking his eyelids.
When she’s not navigating her overpowering sexuality, Tracey is forced to face homelessness, her stagnated work life and white men repeatedly fetishizing her blackness.
Throughout, her candor is equally endearing and confrontational. A brilliant comedian, creator Michaela Coel writes some of the wittiest banter out there. Hilarious fourth-wall breaks punctuate the six 20-minute episodes each season, during which Tracey lets viewers in on the vulnerability she typically attempts to cloak with compulsive lies. Comedy aside, “Chewing Gum” offers an earnest story about just how confusing and embarrassing a journey toward sexual liberation can be for a 20-something virgin.
Coel converted to evangelicalism at age 18 and practiced abstinence for five years before attending Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “Chewing Gum” began as Coel’s 2012 play “Chewing Gum Dreams,” her senior thesis that wound up on the prestigious Royal National Theatre stage.
Notwithstanding phenomenal set and costume design, “Chewing Gum” is uncomfortable, rude and sometimes downright disgusting. As a writer, Coel forces viewers to confront sexual and racial anxieties and puts their susceptibility to second-hand embarrassment to the test. And though Tracey can be a frustrating, self-involved protagonist, her flaws feel satisfyingly real and it’s a delight to get to know one of the most unreserved, raw female characters of the moment.