"Being Mary Jane" is much more than just the latest entry on BET's prime-time lineup. It's a milestone.
Debuting six months after its movie-length pilot attracted more than 4 million viewers, "Being Mary Jane," which premieres Tuesday starring Gabrielle Union as the popular host on a national cable news network, is the first original scripted drama developed for BET.
Executives are calling "Being Mary Jane" a game changer for the network, which is seeking to broaden pop culture's image of African Americans. The new emphasis comes after years of criticism aimed at the network for its perceived over-reliance on hip-hop videos and other programming that some argued reflected poorly on African Americans.
"Our programming can never be all things to all black people," said Loretha Jones, president of original programming for BET Networks. "But by expanding, we're showing more representations that are reflective of the complexity of our culture."
"Being Mary Jane" also marks a creative coming-out party for its creator, Mara Brock Akil. Akil would often inject dramatic elements into her comedies "Girlfriends" and "The Game," but "Being Mary Jane" — which is directed by her husband, executive producer Salim Akil — is her first drama.
"I recognize that I needed a little bit of a larger canvas," Akil said during a break in filming promotions for the series, based in Atlanta. "Although this is a show about a specific black woman and her experience, many of the things she is going through are universal to all women from the word go."
"I really can't wait for people to see it," added Union, who has had a long, varied career in romantic comedies ("Think Like a Man") and TV shows ("Life") but has rarely been featured as the sole lead. "It's nice to not be the sidekick."
Union, who recently became engaged to Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, plays Mary Jane Paul, a successful news personality with a fancy sports car, a house worthy of an Architectural Digest layout and a walk-in closet full of shoes and fashionable clothes.
But the character's lavish lifestyle masks the reality that Paul's personal life is a bit of a mess. She financially supports her large family, and some are taking advantage of her. Meanwhile, she fantasizes about marriage and motherhood but seems stuck in being attracted to men who regard her as a convenient partner for late-night trysts.
Akil clearly is out to push buttons, particularly when it comes to sex. "Being Mary Jane" may be one of the most sexually frank shows on non-premium television. In one scene, Mary Jane uses a vibrator before meeting a date for a late-night meal. In another, her 19-year-old single niece, who is pregnant and already the mother of two children, announces she is considering a porn career because she's good at sex.
Noting that the show is not meant as a blanket commentary on the state of single black women, Akil said she does want to explore some of the painful realities faced by today's women. She recognizes that Mary Jane is "very, very flawed and makes some terrible decisions," but it's important to show how she deals with them.
"I'm not afraid to tell the truth, and it's not always going to be pretty," Akil said. "We're going to get to see 360 degrees of this character. A lot of people make bad choices. Let's go there."
Akil asked viewers who might have reservations about "Being Mary Jane" to be patient.
"This is going to be a journey," she said.