‘Mood’ Review: Sharp BBC America Series Tackles Music, Social Media and Sex Work

10 mins read

The musical drama Mood arrives on BBC America having followed a one-woman-show-to-TV-series pipeline similar to the one that previously yielded Chewing Gum and Fleabag.

Does that mean Mood creator/star Nicôle Lecky is the next Michaela Coel or Phoebe Waller-Bridge? That’s a high and fairly unreasonable bar to expect any relative newcomer to reach, but based on this series, it’s obvious that Lecky is a charismatic and versatile performer with a distinctive writing voice and some provocative, if maybe not revelatory, things on her mind.

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Mood

The Bottom Line

Instantly establishes a talent to watch.

Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, November 6 (BBC America)
Cast: Nicôle Lecky, Lara Peake, Jessica Hynes, Paul Kaye, Mia Jenkins, Jordan Duvigneau, Flo Wilson, Jorden Myrie
Creator: Nicôle Lecky

At only six episodes of 45-ish minutes apiece, Mood is worth watching as Lecky’s breakout, regardless of whether or not she follows in the sprawling footsteps of those recent generational talents.

Lecky plays Sasha, a largely directionless 20-something living with her mom (Jessica Hynes), stepdad (Paul Kaye) and bratty teenage half-sister (Mia Jenkins) in East London. Sasha dreams of being a singer — her imagined stardom is brought to life via music video interludes that punctuate the show — but her reality is a haze of booze, weed and regrettable interactions with her recent ex Anton (Jordan Duvigneau). One such interaction gets Sasha in trouble with the police and causes her parents to kick her to the curb.

Briefly homeless, Sasha attracts the attention of Carly (Lara Peake), a bubbly social media influencer who gives her a glimpse of what looks like a glorious and previously inaccessible world of low-level celebrities, fancy parties and overflowing swag bags. Sasha, pretty inept on social media herself, sees a pathway to popularity and latches onto Carly. But the line between parasite and host blurs when Sasha discovers Carly’s participation in the lucrative, and then shady, world of a transactional space that very much resembles OnlyFans but definitely isn’t called “OnlyFans” here.

The gateway from social-media success to sex work, all too easily crossed in Sasha’s sad desperation, is initially thrilling. But at what cost?

Mood premiered on BBC Three in the UK in March, but arrives on American TV months after Issa Rae’s Rap Sh!t covered similar terrain: musical aspirations in a social media-dominated landscape and the intersection of empowerment and exploitation at the heart of modern sex work.

You surely can’t blame Mood for any overlaps, though Rae’s darkly comic approach to the topic was better suited to unfold over eight half-hour episodes than Lecky’s more tragic perspective in this slightly rushed, mostly close-ended season. Sasha is headed for a somewhat formulaic descent, one that isn’t always easy to chart given that she’s a disaster from the pilot on. The series’ pacing and its character progressions are often choppy, and if you asked me the time frame covered by the season, I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Lecky and directors Dawn Shadforth and Stroma Cairns capture some of the basics of social media extremely well — both its alluring and illusory connection to an outside world and its fundamental narcissism and loneliness. (Follow me on Twitter. Please.) My favorite aesthetic device in the series is the way Sasha’s face is frequently reflected in her phone screen. It is, as a different British series has noted, a black mirror, one as likely to reflect the person you fear yourself becoming as the avatar you wish to be.

From there, the series effectively illustrates layers of desperation — from the claustrophobic sterility of Sasha’s initial situation to the vapid preening of her first social media party to the evolving requests and demands of her “DailyFanz” patrons — as her initial willingness to post a few suggestive photos makes way for prostitution of the body and soul. Because the show’s plot is one of escalating degradation, it’s simultaneously haunting, draining and predictable, though I give Lecky credit for avoiding both one-sided judgment — sex work in and of itself isn’t the problem, but specific contexts and circumstances surely are — and the most absolute pits of despair.

The primary thing preventing that final extreme is the series’ smart deployment of Sasha’s music, written by Lecky and Kwame “KZ” Kwei-Armah Jr. Her songs are raw and exposed, echoing Sasha’s hunger for identity, but at the same time they’re hooky as hell and, as performed by Lecky with strong pipes and a smooth hip-hop flow, they’re believable indicators of the character’s talent. Sasha retreats into music in moments of heightened emotion; depending on your perspective, when a music video breaks out in the middle of a walk of shame or a trip to the welfare office, it could represent either her escape or her mental breakdown. Whether they’re intentional fantasies or involuntary hallucinations, it’s easy to tap your feet to the rhythm, generating an empathy that might be difficult if Sasha’s errors of judgment came in a less whimsical package.

The musical scenes are also where Lecky is able to let some joy shine through in a performance that might otherwise be dominated by shades of self-disgust and disassociation, not that she doesn’t deliver gradations for each. The music is hope and the hope, even if it’s fleeting, is another thing that keeps you rooting for Sasha no matter how many dumb things she does. It’s a very good and uncompromising performance, and it needs to be because Lecky is in every scene.

There often isn’t enough for the supporting players to do. Peake has the most volatile role and gives the most dynamic secondary performance, though it’s one that will probably be polarizing. Carly is flighty, superficial and annoying by design. She embodies a certain type of influencer who lives an alluring life one post at a time, but would clearly be monstrous, albeit in a sad way, if you ever got to know them. So, basically, everybody on Instagram.

Hynes (Spaced) and Kaye (Game of Thrones) are a little overqualified for such limited screen time, but they still give the impression of fully inhabited characters. It’s enough for Flo Wilson and Jorden Myrie to convey general decency as figures from Sasha’s old life, or for Jenkins to make the most of a few amusingly bratty scenes and one devastatingly good scene with Lecky. It might seem bad that so many of the characters in Mood feel like they probably don’t exist when Sasha leaves the room — or you can just take it as an extension of the show’s roots in her narcissism.

Or you can trace it back to the series’ theatrical origins. That play, which had the catchier title of Superhoe, was one version of a showcase for Lecky, and now Mood will help her reach a far wider audience. It’s a good series with a sad, but not too sad, glimpse at 21st-century living, and it has me eagerly anticipating whatever comes next for Lecky.

‘Mood’ Review: Sharp BBC America Series Tackles Music, Social Media and Sex Work

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