The improbable second life of Friends as Gen Z’s favorite streaming show raised many questions about why a sitcom that debuted before most Americans had heard of email would prove so resonant with a young, tech-savvy audience. Or, perhaps the low-fi nature of Monica, Chandler, and company’s interactions answered those questions, since some of these new viewers admitted to feeling envious that the Central Perk group hung out together without anyone’s face being buried in a device.
The ubiquity of smartphones has been hell on scripted TV and movie writers for a long time now. Characters with phones in their pocket are immune to so many classic, useful storytelling tropes, which is one reason so many thrillers involve someone forgetting to bring along a charger or winding up in a remote area with poor cell coverage. But on an even broader level, filmed entertainment has struggled to find interesting ways to dramatize the lives of people whose lives are inextricably linked to their phones. Some recent shows like Heartstopper and Ms. Marvel have found smart ways to visualize texting and social media use, but a lot of others try to minimize that stuff (people on TV leave far more voicemail messages than people in real life do), because they can’t think of interesting ways to present characters scrolling and clicking all day.
The new HBO Max comedy Rap Sh!t does not run away from its characters’ screen dependence, but rather makes that a core part of both its substance and its style. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an interesting Insecure follow-up for creator Issa Rae and showrunner Syreeta Singleton.
Rap Sh!t follows a pair of former high-school classmates who drifted apart and are now reconnecting in their twenties. Shawna (Aida Osman) went off to college but didn’t finish, has dreams of being a socially conscious rap star but not the polish or gift for self-promotion to make it happen, and instead works behind the desk of a fancy hotel. Mia (KaMillion) is a single mom, estranged from her daughter’s music-engineer father Lamont (RJ Cyler), with a thriving Instagram following and an OnlyFans she uses to pay the bills.
We are introduced to them, the show’s other characters, and its Miami setting through a kaleidoscope of Instagram Stories, TikToks, live videos, and more. It’s a more modern (and slightly more organic) spin on the old cinematic trick of meeting characters through colorful montages of their past exploits. But it also becomes part of the text of Rap Sh!t itself. Mia’s social-media following becomes a key plot point, as Shawna and Mia reunite and realize they work surprisingly well as a rap duo. And among the central tensions in Shawna’s long-distance relationship with ambitious law school student Cliff (Devon Terrell) is his discomfort with her compulsion to document every aspect of her life — the seemingly glamorous ones, anyway — on the Gram rather than simply being in the moment. (And when that relationship enters troubled waters, the fact that each of them can see exactly what the other is up to through their Stories only makes things tenser.)
Mainly, though, it just feels natural for a show about young people in 2022. Rap Sh!t treats social media as both blessing and curse, but primarily as a fact of contemporary life.
On a technical level, this approach can be spotty. There’s rarely an appreciable difference in the style or quality of images in the sequences presented from the POV of someone’s feed versus from the “real” moments occurring whenever a character has stopped filming themselves. The only distinction is that you’ll see a red recording icon, a username, and/or comments from followers. But the show seems averse to vertical video, so instead we get what often would be the perfectly-cropped top half of what’s being shot. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Rap Sh!t only sometimes makes it look good, like a sequence in one episode where Shawna jumps on an online hater’s livestream to defend Mia from his endless negative reaction videos(*).
(*) There’s also a subplot about Mia meeting one of her richer OnlyFans subscribers in person, and many of their IRL interactions are presented as videos by her. Even with his face mostly cropped out each time, it does not seem like something this man (whose voice can be clearly heard) would consent to, even if she promised never to post them online.
Though Shawna and Mia are former classmates, like Issa and Molly on Insecure, the dynamic is different. They were not close as teenagers, and are still wary acquaintances when the series begins. Mia believes — not without justification — that Shawna has always thought she was better, smarter, and classier than Mia and her friends. And Shawna’s woker-than-thou instincts cause her to frequently underestimate her new partner as a caricature rather than a clever and complicated person in her own right. (In an early episode, Mia is incredulous to realize that Shawna is attempting to rap about student loans, to which Shawna replies, “Technically, I’m rapping as student loans.”) Osman (a former writer on HBO’s Betty who also co-writes this show’s sixth installment) and KaMillion have an easy and appealing chemistry together, and with most of the characters surrounding them, including Daniel Augustin as Shawna’s hustling co-worker and Jonica Booth as a pimp who wants to manage the duo’s fledgling music career.
The comedy is fairly soft throughout the early episodes, though Osman and the writers do a good job of presenting Shawna as a woman with a pathological inability to stay out of her own way. (She’s also very funny in a sequence where the duo and some friends are all rolling on Molly.)
But it’s an appealing core relationship, and Rae, Singleton, and the rest of the creative team have a firm handle on Shawna and Mia’s world, and how often that world is only visible to their heroines through one screen or another.
The first two episodes of Rap Sh!t premiere July 21 on HBO Max, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen six of the first season’s eight episodes.