Chewing Gum: nosebleeds and crises of faith in Michaela Coel's hilarious coming-of-age comedy

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
·4-min read

I May Destroy You was arguably the television series of 2020. The searing exploration of trauma and recovery after sexual assault – which also meditates on what it means to be a young artist – put writer and actor Michaela Coel firmly and deservedly in the spotlight last year. For a show about such a dark topic, it had strange moments of humour and levity, demonstrating Coel’s dexterity as a writer.

For newcomers to Coel’s work, it’s worth revisiting Chewing Gum, her first series, which aired from 2015 to 2017. The same dexterity is on display in this two-season show. With a lighter touch throughout it’s nowhere near as devastating as I May Destroy You, but Coel injects emotional heft into the most unexpected moments before returning to laugh-out-loud comedy with a dash of slapstick.

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Chewing Gum, which was originally a one-woman stage show, follows 24-year-old Tracey Gordon, a Beyoncé-obsessed virgin living in a London council estate with her devout Christian family.

When we first meet her she’s trying to convince her strictly religious (and closeted) boyfriend of six years, Ronald (John Macmillan), to finally have sex with her. By the end of that first episode she’s got her eye on someone new: Connor (Robert Lonsdale), an unemployed poet. Repressed and horny, Tracey squirts blood out of her nostrils when she’s aroused. Once she’s got Ronald out of the way, there’s plenty of blood-squirting to come as she embarks on a quest to lose her virginity and find her place in the world.

Robert Lonsdale as Connor and Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum.
Robert Lonsdale as love-interest Connor and Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

As Tracey becomes more comfortable with herself, her adventures become increasingly wild – from a sex party to an office do where she accidentally drinks a mixture of MDMA and cocaine, to pet sitting a dog with a shady past. Coel is an excellent physical actor, with much of her comedic brilliance coming from her wide range of zany facial expressions.

The people around Tracey are all memorable and idiosyncratic: her Ludo-playing, virtuous sister Cynthia (Susan Wokoma); best friend Candice (Danielle Walters), all hoop earrings and Ariana Grande-high ponytails; and her wise-cracking grandmother Esther (Maggie Steed); cousin Boy Tracey (Jonathan Livingstone), who has more than familial feelings for her; Connor’s mother Mandy (Tanya Franks), who does not at all understand boundaries. Most of them also live within the council estate – Coel dispels stereotypes about low-income families by non-judgmentally introducing viewers to these colourful characters who, while flawed, are deeply loveable. The show isn’t an aspirational story of escaping from poverty; it’s about the reality of life and relationships within a certain milieu.

Jonathan Livingstone as Boy Tracy and Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum.
Jonathan Livingstone as Boy Tracy and Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Coel takes everyday situations to extremes to uncover sometimes uncomfortable truths, such as the arc in the second season when Tracey begins seeing a white man who she finds out has a fetish for black women. In just a few minutes, the scene that unfolds is both hysterical and uneasy, as the viewer learns, alongside Tracey, just how duplicitous people can be.

Coel uses absurdist humour and situations to subtly tease out questions about race, class and gender, and at the same time creating an astute observational portrait of a young woman who’s figuring it all out.

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Even when Tracey makes mistakes – and she makes a lot – the viewer can’t help but root for her. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the character often breaks the fourth wall, revealing her innermost thoughts, secrets and desires.

But it’s not just Tracey who grows. The character development of Cynthia is absolutely delicious as she too discovers her burgeoning sexuality and takes a methodical approach to losing her own virginity while wrestling with what it means for her faith.

This quirky comedy marked the beginning of an incredible career for one of the most innovative screenwriters working today, and remains fresh, insightful and downright hilarious. The only downside of Chewing Gum is that, at just 12 episodes long, it’s far too short.

• Chewing Gum is streaming in Australia on Binge