tv review

Minx Is Almost a Good Time

Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond, left) is highly skeptical of Doug (Jake Johnson, right), but loving toward her sister Susie (Lennon Parham), friendly with Bottom Dollar employees Bambi and Richie (Jessica Lowe and Oscar Montoya), and plausibly thoughtless and then apologetic toward Tina (Idara Victor), Doug’s Black secretary. Photo: Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max

Minx has an unfortunate protagonist problem. The new HBOMax comedy from creator Ellen Rapoport and producer Paul Feig is a pleasant story about a woman named Joyce who strikes out on her own with the hope of changing the American media landscape for radical feminists in the 1970s. She wants to start a magazine called The Matriarchy Awakens, full of serious articles about marital rape, birth control, and heterosexual relationships as an uncompensated-domestic-labor market. The only way Joyce can fund her magazine is by turning it into feminist erotica and producing it through a porn publisher, and all of that is perfectly well and good — great TV setup, vivid and hilarious world building, with lots of opportunity for silly props and a prime conflict dynamic between Joyce and her publisher, Doug (Jake Johnson). The trouble is that Joyce is a real drag.

In fairness, Joyce is supposed to be a drag. Played by Ophelia Lovibond, Joyce is a Vassar-educated go-getter with a theoretical commitment to second-wave feminism and a personal dedication to being a real stick in the mud. Her dream of editing a feminist magazine is colored by unexamined snobbery and a remarkably narrow vision of how to change hearts and minds, and the arc of Minx is fully aware of this. Joyce is there to be the one who learns and grows, the one who should be gently mocked by her new co-workers in this ahistorically pleasant and nontoxic porn-empire workplace. She is there for her bad assumptions to get uncoupled from her good intentions, and it’s necessary for a character like that to suck. Just a little bit! Just at the beginning.

So when Joyce does indeed suck a little bit in the first episode of the series, it feels like a reasonable place to begin. She is grateful for the opportunity to make her magazine even if she now needs to present her manifestos alongside full-frontal male nudity, and, for the most part, Joyce behaves well with her new colleagues. She is highly skeptical of Doug but friendly with Bottom Dollar Publications employees Bambi and Richie (Jessica Lowe and Oscar Montoya) and plausibly thoughtless and then apologetic toward Tina (Idara Victor), Doug’s Black secretary. Joyce doesn’t want to compromise her vision of what this magazine should be, but she’s generally not a jerk about it.

That element is important, because nearly every other aspect of Minx is solidly enjoyable. Johnson’s Doug Renetti is a charismatic porn publisher, costumed and groomed in such a way that aggressively patterned polyester button-downs and high-heeled men’s clogs may start to look like much better ideas than they actually are. One could assume that most of the attention on Minx’s first episode will focus on its centerfold-modeling montage scene, which is a lush bouquet of naked penises. My suspicion is that in the end, though, even more attention will land on a particular shot of Doug in skintight brown leather pants, legs thrown wide as he sits in a director’s chair. (Minx is a show about satisfying the female gaze, a directive it aims to achieve for its fictional magazine and for itself.)

Jake Johnson with a shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest will only take a show so far, and Minx is dedicated in its pursuit of testing exactly how far that is. It also has a stellar supporting cast. Bambi is a successful iteration and complication of the bimbo-with-surprising-depths type, and Richie is a perfectly nice gay photographer in a world that doesn’t get him yet. Best of all is Joyce’s sister Shelly. Lennon Parham grabs every scene she’s in and then runs for the hills, with such incredible delivery of even simple lines that she threatens to upend the entire balance of the show. In one scene in the first episode, Shelly shows up at Joyce’s apartment with a stolen Easter basket and gets to throw off a small line about the “Easter devil” (“that’s a new character I created”); that little moment alone should be enough to get Parham any role she wants.

And yet in spite of Minx’s many good features, it cannot quite shake its Joyce problem. Her character is intended to be flawed, and yet those flaws are drawn in frustrating, contradictory ways. She longs for a radical feminist revolution and enthusiastically passes around copies of The Kinsey Report and Our Bodies, Ourselves, yet she can’t connect the dots between her imaginary feminist manifesto and hypothetical sex-positive porn for women. She wants to make magazines for a broad audience but cannot take criticism that would make her work more accessible. She is so totally lacking in self-awareness that she can’t see her enormous blind spots in turning her nose up at sex toys, and for a self-professed radical, she is oddly incurious about her own sexual desires and hang-ups.

None of this is a problem on its own, and the portrait of a 1970s feminist who can’t get past her own snobbery is probably quite plausible. The issue is that it takes Joyce so long to catch up to the curve, and even after she has apparently had some breakthrough (about nude photos and the use of sex toys), she almost immediately reverts to some blinkered stubbornness about what she thinks women want or what writing style will best convey her very serious arguments. In life, it’s probable that someone like Joyce would need time, would need to continually revisit her assumptions and preferences. On TV, it becomes tiresome very quickly. Surely she learned this lesson already? Surely she’s not still worried that her magazine will seem too fun? (And then, worst of all, surely she’s not going to be cruel to all these nice people who are just trying to help her? Alas.)

This protagonist miscalculation is an early TV-series problem, and it’s absolutely possible that Minx will dial Joyce’s insecurities down to a more reasonable level. HBOMax sent critics screeners of only the first half of the show’s ten-episode season (the first two premiere March 17, with two new episodes rolling out weekly on Thursdays), so it’s still an open question whether Minx ever figures out Joyce and whether Joyce ever accepts a better version of her magazine. So much about Minx works so well that I would love to be able to celebrate it as a series that eventually finds its footing and becomes an unqualified good time. For these first five episodes, though, Minx itself is still too close to its central character: good ideas, potentially great execution, with a few parts that are just straight bummers. We should all cross our fingers that Minx pulls it together. It’s what Lennon Parham and Jake Johnson(’s leather pants) deserve.

Minx Is Almost a Good Time