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Twentysomethings: Austin and Sweet Life: Los Angeles find drama in the real world

Twentysomethings: Austin and Sweet Life: Los Angeles find drama in the real world
The cast of Twentysomethings: Austin: Bruce Stephenson, Isha Punja, Abbey Humphreys, Keauno Perez, Kabari Bonds, Natalie Cabo, Michael Fractor, and Raquel Daniels (Photo by Jabari Jacobs/Netflix)

Netflix’s Twentysomethings: Austin follows eight people in their 20s who move to Austin to start their lives.

HBO Max’s The Sweet Life: Los Angeles, which premiered in late summer, follows a group of Black friends who are already connected to each other and have bourgeoning careers.

Both shows have their charms, and are far better than the final, waning years of MTV’s The Real World, though for fans of soapy drama, The Sweet Life: Los Angeles delivers more.

Twentysomethings: Austin

Kamari Bonds, Isha Punja, and Abbey Humphreys on Twentysomethings: Austin
Kamari Bonds, Isha Punja, and Abbey Humphreys on Twentysomethings: Austin (Image via Netflix)

Twentysomethings: Austin, originally titled Roaring Twenties: Austin, is produced by Eureka Productions, which is behind both Holey Moley and Netflix’s forthcoming revival of The Mole.

It starts as almost a bizarre throwback to The Real World, with on-screen text that explains things that only someone who hasn’t watched reality TV ever wouldn’t know: “While living in Austin, the group can share their private thoughts with a confessional cam.”

The cast lives in two relatively normal houses that are next door to each other: the men in one and women in the other. They share a backyard with a pool and fire pit.

Every person gets their own room. They have phones and laptops and cars, and use dating apps. They talk about jobs and relationships. What is this, real life?

Michael is just starting his standup career, and admits he’s terrible at it; Bruce likes rom-coms and thinks the man should pay on the first date; Natalie has never had a boyfriend but has “a fucking wild side”; Isha confuses Miami and Maine, Tarzana, the city in California and Tanzania, the country in Africa. Isha crushes on Bruce but worries he might be conservative, though Bruce is eager to be wingman for Keauno’s first trip to a gay club.

They’re all charming and kind to each other, at least in the edit, and that’s refreshing.

The cameras capture some intimate and emotional moments, but the editing’s focus is on their romantic lives, and that can make the episodes feel much longer than their 30 or so minutes. (Netflix is breaking the season in half, with the second half of the season out this week.)

There’s a lot of will-they, won’t-they hook up among the eight, and that’s probably expected and not all that interesting to watch—though perhaps it’d be more interesting to actual twentysomethings.

The real issue for me is in focus and development. In the first three episodes, the only person who gets any character depth is Keauno, who shyly and awkwardly takes his first steps into being his full gay self. He says he’s “proudly out, learning to be gay,” which means he’s falling in love with every guy who looks at him. Relatable!

The mundanity of life is set to music as the cast sits around, looking at their phones or laptops, though the cast also has to occasionally stumble through conversations were they pretend to have planned something. And of course, there’s the logistics of filming a reality show in the middle of a pandemic. When one person goes to a bar to interview for a job, cameras are already inside, behind the bar, and that’s not just showing up organically.

Even with those kinds of producer pushes, the show struggles to really get going, and find stories. I suppose that’s what can happen in real life, and I certainly prefer that to latter-year Real World casts’ adherence to the drink/hook up/fight template.

The Sweet Life: Los Angeles

The Sweet Life: Los Angeles's core cast: Jerrold Smith II, Cheryl Des Vignes, Jordan Bentley, Tylynn Burns, Briana Jones, P’Jae Compton, and Amanda Scott
The Sweet Life: Los Angeles’s core cast: Jerrold Smith II, Cheryl Des Vignes, Jordan Bentley, Tylynn Burns, Briana Jones, P’Jae Compton, and Amanda Scott (Photo by Jessica Perez/HBO Max)

While Twentysomethings: Austin is like wading into the pool starting from 30 feet away while The Sweet Life: Los Angeles is like being dropped off a high diving board into the deep end.

Its seven central cast members are not strangers living in a house and having their lives taped. They already have lives and relationships in progress that are now being filmed for a well-crafted and sometimes heavily stylized TV show.

Among them are Bentley, who owns a streetwear company, Hypland; Tylynn, an event planner; P’Jae, a manager with a new record label; Cheryl, who owns a fashion label; and Jerrold, a podcaster who also works in marketing.

While there are seven central characters, we meet that cast alongside even more people in their very first scenes, which is a lot of people to keep track of at first. I appreciate how that first episode tries to just immerse us in their lives, but with brand-new people to meet and history to catch up on that informs the current conversations, it’s a lot all at once.

It also gets a little stilted. When we first meet dating couple Jerrold and Cheryl, they’re on a picnic date, and she says, “I’ve known you since sophomore year of high school,” which is obviously for our benefit, not something they’d actually say. Likewise, the early trip to Palm Springs for a birthday party is clearly the kind of Real Housewives trip that we’re all now familiar with.

By the second episode, I had a better sense of the group, and the dynamics, which inform the relationship drama that fuels The Sweet Life: Los Angeles.

The series, which comes from Issa Rae’s production company and has been renewed for a second season, has beautiful cinematography interjected with self-shot footage that adds a sense of authenticity.

There’s also a lot of lightness and humor, which the supporting characters contribute to, too; P’Jae’s mom, Juanita, is amazing every time she’s on screen.

Tylynn, an event planner, says in the first scene, “I’m just trying to explore what L.A. has to offer outside of partying.” In the first episode, she throws a “Black is Back” party for the group to celebrate their successes. Of course, drama starts quickly, and mostly focuses on outsiders coming in.

“‘Black is Back’ is about the progression of Black people. It’s not a space for you to act selfishly and bring people who are not invited. Ya’ll can take that someplace else. Not at my events,” Tylynn says in an interview.

The party mirrors the show: it may want to “gives an honest and unique look into what it means to be young, Black, and in constant pursuit of one’s dreams” and focus on them “building their careers as tastemakers and influencers in the city where they grew up,” as HBO Max said, but the show’s ultimate focus is nearly entirely on drama.

But it’s watchable drama! After listening to a conversation between two friends who both have overlapping interests in the same woman, Jerrold says, “I truly hate to see Jordan and P’Jae in this predicament, but also, this is better than cable. This shit is hilarious.”

Twentysomethings: Austin

A charming Real World throwback that sometimes struggles to develop a story. B

What works for me:

  • The cast, and their general charm and kindness
  • The interstitials just showing them living their lives, set to music

What could be better:

  • More character development
  • Episodes broadening their focus

The Sweet Life: Los Angeles

A charming Real Housewives-ish show that immerses us in the social lives of Black friends in L.A.. B+

What works for me:

  • A show that follows people living their actual lives
  • The light and entertaining drama
  • The self-shot footage in the credits

What could be better:

  • A slower on-ramp to introducing the central cast
  • More focus on their work lives

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