Teen dramedies are essentially a dime a dozen in the current TV landscape, and newer shows on both broadcast networks and streaming services have had to find a way to set themselves apart from the rest. Netflix has become a particular powerhouse in that subgenre, with Stranger Things, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Never Have I Ever being just a few of the streaming service's recent smash successes. Teenage Bounty Hunters, which hits Netflix today, might not initially seem like a show that could join that roster, as its very name arguably conjures the image of a fictional show playing on a TV within an actual show, but like its two protagonists, Teenage Bounty Hunters will absolutely surprise you in so many ways. The 10-episode first season occasionally skips a beat here and there, but it culminates in an earnest, joyous, and genuinely hilarious watch.
Teenage Bounty Hunters opens on Sterling (Maddie Phillips) and Blair Wesley (Anjelica Bette Fellini), two fraternal twin sisters growing up in a conservative religious community in Atlanta, Georgia. After a series of events leaves the duo strapped for cash, they unintentionally cross paths with Bowser Simmons (Kadeem Hardison), a veteran bounty hunter who mistakes them for his contemporaries. Once Blair and Sterling come clean about their ages, Bowser agrees to continue teaming up with them, under the guise of them working at his frozen yogurt shop after school. Together, the trio tracks down a very wide array of "skips" in Atlanta and beyond, as Blair and Sterling attempt to juggle their new double lives — on top of all of the usual troubles of being a teenager.
Blair and Sterling's unconventional quest for their identities and their "work-life balance" is almost a metaphor for Teenage Bounty Hunters itself, as the show starts out strong, but manages to evolve into something unique and special as the episodes progress. The series' approach to humor is a consistent highlight, as it strikes a balance between authentic and genuinely ridiculous, which makes sense with the series' executive producers including Orange Is the New Black and GLOW's Jenji Kohan. There is a wealth of jokes relating to the religious community Blair and Sterling exist in, which will certainly ring true for a lot of viewers who grew up in the South. But at the same time, no joke or comedic set up comes across as punching down or will make you genuinely feel bad for laughing at it. This all contributes to a tone that feels oddly rooted in reality, to the point where viewers might actually forget about the bounty hunting part of Teenage Bounty Hunters — but not in a bad way. That is especially the case when it comes to the portrayal of the show's teen-aged characters, who are unabashed with their emotions in a very endearing and watchable way. In a year where a pandemic has ruled out a lot of face-to-face interactions and interpersonal relationships, there's something cathartic and almost nostalgic about seeing Teenage Bounty Hunters' high school characters (and even some of the older ones) wear their hearts on their sleeves, without the emotional ennui that has become a staple of some other teen shows.
That unashamed tone and energy lend itself well to the themes that the series tackles in Season One, many of which are too well-crafted to dive into here. That being said, the season does feature an LGBTQ+ storyline that might be one of the best-executed and most heartfelt "teenagers coming out" storylines I've seen in a while. The series manages to be surprisingly feminist and progressive despite its conservative setting, especially when it comes to normalizing female sexuality. Again, the series' approach to sex strikes a balance between raunchy and earnest, in a way that explains why the series was initially titled "Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters." Beyond that, there's a wonderful through-line throughout the series of women trying to find their identity in a society rooted in white patriarchy, with one female character subtly summing it up by telling another, "I'm still learning to hear my own voice." Overall, Teenage Bounty Hunters is the closest anything on TV has gotten to filling the void of Sweet/Vicious, the criminally underrated and short-lived MTV series surrounding a pair of college girls who moonlight as vigilantes who target sexual assailants. In a sense, Teenage Bounty Hunters feel like the younger, peppier sibling of Sweet/Vicious — it doesn't necessarily get as dark as its predecessor, but it still has a similar sort of feminist spark.
The real highlights of Teenage Bounty Hunters are Phillips and Fellini, both of whom shine in every single scene they're in. Both characters start out as sort of teen girl archetypes — Phillips' Sterling is the Type-A, people-pleasing sister, while Fellini's Blair is the more free-spirited, self-proclaimed "slutty twin" — but subvert basically every expectation as the season goes along. Together, their chemistry is the perfect blend of mesmerizing and high-spirited, and there's a sense that they could (and should) continue playing these roles and acting against each other for many years to come. Hardison's Bowser is a great complement to Sterling and Blair, managing to be a consistent and exasperated straight-man to their teenage antics, while also being given plenty of room to flourish as his own captivating character. While much of the series' supporting cast does an admirable job, a few clearly stand out as the season goes along. Devon Hales might be the dark horse of the series as April, Blair's high school rival whose presence on the show evolves into something so much more soulful and unexpected than a stereotypical mean girl. Clifford "Method Man" Smith Jr. is also a bonafide scene-stealer as Terrance Coin, a rival bounty hunter of Bowser's who boasts a viral Internet presence.
On a lot of technical levels, the series doesn't necessarily do anything revolutionary, but it effectively and energetically helps move the series along. The cinematography of night-set scenes will occasionally be almost surprisingly dark (I found myself cranking up the brightness on my computer a handful of times throughout the season), but never in a way that is completely distracting. One of the biggest technical strengths is the series' soundtrack, which is an excellent blend of genres and eras of music (including the best use of Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness" in recent memory). And, hey, any show that can narratively justify multiple Kacey Musgraves needle drops is one worth praising.
Teenage Bounty Hunters is the television equivalent of a glass of lemonade on a hot day: it's very sweet, sour when it needs to be, and unbelievably refreshing throughout. The show isn't completely perfect, but it makes up for its handful of shortcomings in so many ways, with a captivating cast, a nuanced approach to humor, and an unabashed, feminist heart at its center. If the first season is any indication, Teenage Bounty Hunters might be one of the most genuinely fun Netflix originals in a while — and it hopefully isn't done telling its story.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Season One of Teenage Bounty Hunters is now available to stream on Netflix.