Review: Ambition, talent drive 'Being Mary Jane' with Gabrielle Union

BET is having a very good week. On Sunday its annual awards ceremony blew out the Nokia Theatre and Tuesday night the network premieres "Being Mary Jane," a movie-length pilot for its first scripted series, which will debut in January.

Thematically ambitious with a strong and nuanced cast, "Being Mary Jane," which stars Gabrielle Union, combines daytime television talking points with cable-worthy character depth. Created by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil ("The Game"), it could become BET's breakout hit.

The title character is Mary Jane Paul (Union), a successful television news anchor who is struggling to find a man. Or at least one who is neither married nor a jerk.

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At least that's how it begins, with a late-night tryst that ends with Mary Jane posting inspirational sayings all over the walls. But what could have easily slid into a simplistic look at the woes of a working single gal quickly becomes something else.

Mary Jane may be a Strong Black Woman who raised herself up out of a family where ambition is still not prized, and continues to fight racism and sexism, but she's also a bit of a pill. As demanding as she is generous, as quick to criticize as to self-doubt, Mary Jane is complicated in ways that eschew all the standard shortcuts — addiction issues, a missing child, some form of OCD — too often used to justify a lead's shortcomings. She's just a driven woman exasperated when those around her don't see things her way.

Those people include her colleague Kara (Lisa Vidal), an equally strong-willed Latina who has sacrificed a marriage to her career and is raising three kids mostly on her own. Reasonable and organized, she keeps Mary Jane, and the show, tethered to another version of working woman reality: one who needs to consider her family as much as her ambitions.

Mary Jane has a family too, an ailing mother (Oscar-nominee Margaret Avery) who calls too much, a kind-hearted father (Richard Roundtree, best known as "Shaft"), two brothers and a niece, none of whom have jobs. As a result, Mary Jane financially supports the whole group, a cause of growing resentment on either side.

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The scenes in which Mary Jane deals with her family deftly conjure that particularly baffled anger born of love. She cannot understand why they seem so content with their lot; they do not understand how she can live in such a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. Her attempt to cajole her teenage niece Niecy (Raven Goodwin) into having goals beyond bearing children is heartbreaking and hilarious — Niecy's resistance may be the product of unjust social forces but, as every parent knows, you cannot force-feed a dream.

Among other things, "Being Mary Jane" is a good argument for the two-hour pilot, which gives the actors time and space to settle into their roles without having to bang out exposition on every beat. Mary Jane and Kara and the rest of the ensemble come to life with shading that many pilots now lack.

With a weird bit of typography after the opening scene, "Being Mary Jane" argues that it is one woman's story and not meant to be representative of a gender or a race. On the one hand, that's disingenuous — Mary Jane is, and sees herself as, very much a Black Woman. On the other, it's a reminder that politics are more powerful when they're personal.

Race, class and other demographics aside, Mary Jane is the archetypal high achiever who accepts her obligations to family and friends but who, like "The Music Man's" Marian the Librarian, doesn't understand why "the ladies of River City keep ignoring all my counsel and advice."

That she can't find a man is both surprising and not so much; that the Akils allow their heroine to be as big a part of her own problems as everyone else is what makes "Being Mary Jane" worth watching out for.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Being Mary Jane'

Where: BET

When: 10:30 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: Not rated