Maddie Phillips and Anjelica Bette Fellini in Teenage Bounty Hunters

How Does This Work So Well? “Teenage Bounty Hunters”

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” sounds like the worst aspects of this insipid cultural moment boiled into one jaw-droppingly terrible reality show. It knows this, and often satirizes the very culture that would prize such a thing. Instead, the series is an ambitious and cleverly written hourlong comedy that has real love for its characters and the quickest wit outside of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.

The pitch for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is incredibly simple. It’s basically in the name. Twin sisters Sterling and Blair go to a strict, evangelical, private high school while moonlighting as bounty hunters. The show finds easy ways around the “Wait, what?” questions that follow.

How can teenagers be bounty hunters? Their bounty hunter mentor tells everyone else they’re older. How do their parents feel about this? Sterling and Blair keep it a secret from them. Are those parents completely oblivious? Yes, but for a reason. What’s that reason? That’s a secret they’re keeping from Sterling and Blair.

It takes some trust to buy into any show when you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on a core secret, and all the characters on “Teenage Bounty Hunters” quickly assemble two or three shoes to drop throughout the show. It should be a mess with this many characters hiding secrets from everyone else. And yet, the series paces these out and foreshadows them across its 10-episode first season in ways that feel pretty natural.

Series that should be a mess yet somehow aren’t are my favorite kind of show. They have too many plot threads, they’re too stylized, they try to focus on too many characters, they try to tackle too many issues. OK, so that last is a bit of a problem from time to time (more on that in a minute). In terms of the storytelling, presentation, comedy, and dimension of its characters, though, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is a resounding success.

Jokes on Jokes, and Pinpoint Timing

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” relies on quickfire dialogue that barely gives actors a chance to breathe. It would seem like a strength of this approach would be moving on quickly from a joke that doesn’t work. Slap enough at the wall and something will stick, right?

Yet if you look at the history of this kind of comedy on film, the opposite holds true. From Marx Brothers movies to “The West Wing”, “Gilmore Girls”, and the aforementioned “Maisel”, when you’re plastering joke after joke at the audience at record speeds, everything has to stick.

This kind of comedy is like an old string of holiday lights. If one of the bulbs is broken, all the bulbs after it won’t light up. If one joke lands flat, the string that follows won’t work. Every scene acts like a circuit that needs that electricity to keep running through every single joke, look, and pause for the rest to light up.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” does this just as well as that vaunted group of shows two paragraphs up. Really. Across its writing, performances, and editing, it can go on episodes-long runs before a single joke falls flat. That it can keep its comedy rolling so quickly and effectively means that suspension of disbelief essentially becomes a given.

After some initial ramp-up, the show is nesting comedy beats inside comedy beats. It quickly feels like a top comedy that’s mid-stride in its third or fourth season, where everything lands because every actor is so in sync and the writers are still fresh with ideas.

There are some good reasons for this. If you look at the crew, it’s a combination of newer voices like showrunner Kathleen Jordan, and experienced producers and tech staff who’ve worked on an enormous range of the last few years’ best dramatic comedies. The “GLOW” and “Orange is the New Black” threads are particularly strong:

Executive producer Jenji Kohan was creator and showrunner on “Orange is the New Black”. Cinematographer Mike Berlucchi arrives straight out of “You’re the Worst” and “Mythic Quest”. Editor Amy Fleming has edited series running from “House” to “Orange is the New Black”.

Each episode is directed by someone different. I won’t list all the names, but the talent comes with resumes that include “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “Dollface”, “Girls”, “The Good Place”, “GLOW”, “One Day at a Time”, “PEN15”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Weeds”, and “You’re the Worst”.

The point is, comedies aren’t supposed to be this sure of themselves straight out of the gate. By the time anything falters, that’s about when you’re realizing this is a show that can also punch you right in the feels. It establishes itself as a much more straight-ahead comedy than some of the shows I’ve mentioned. It’s not a comedy-drama, it’s a comedy, period. That it can pick and choose moments to become emotionally galvanizing without going into drama territory is a testament to how good and emotionally thorough the comedy is here.

The show completely takes the piss out of hypocritical evangelical culture, but in a way where the people making fun of it also inhabit and adhere to it – or at least to portions of it. As teenagers and students, Sterling and Blair have to know how to thrive in it as well as question those hypocrisies. Their bounty hunter mentor, Bowser, is Black. He has to survive it while looking at it from the outside and understanding that it often threatens his safety.

Maddie Phillips Elevates the Whole Thing

The trio of bounty hunters plays incredibly well off each other. Sterling is played by Maddie Phillips. She’s the more responsible teen – or at least the one who follows the rules more often. Blair is played by Anjelica Bette Fellini – a rebel who struggles figuring out who she wants to be. They’re both fairly new names, but they do the heavy lifting on the vast majority of the show’s comedy. In particular, Phillips is giving a clinic on comedy performances.

If you’ll go with me on a quick tangent, I’m re-watching “Scrubs” right now and I remember when that show came around and Zach Braff was being compared to Tom Hanks. (Hanks first became a household name in a sitcom called “Bosom Buddies”.) Now, Braff is fine and all, but I can’t imagine what we were thinking trying to make that comparison. Allow me to make a better one: the performance Phillips is giving in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”? This is early Hanks territory. Whether it’s playing off of Fellini or taking over a conversation with dueling monologues of determination and self-doubt that keep interrupting each other, her performance is a damn announcement.

Most of the projects I’ve mentioned center on a legendary comedic performance surrounded by other strong performances. Even the Marx Brothers wouldn’t have been the Marx Brothers without Groucho. “The West Wing” was a drama first, but it also stands as a generational comedy because it had Bradley Whitford – as well as Martin Sheen and Allison Janney – to carry it just that little bit further on that front. “Gilmore Girls” had Lauren Graham running laps around what was a pretty strong supporting cast. “Maisel” has Rachel Brosnahan in a state of constant acceleration that makes CERN look antique.

Am I putting Maddie Phillips among that group? Right now the only thing separating them is doing it across multiple seasons. I realize that’s asking a lot from Netflix, which never saw a show it didn’t like canceling, but yes – she’s at that level. (EDIT: Yep, Netflix canceled it after one season. I still recommend the hell out of that one season, and I’d have still written 3,000 words telling you so.)

The supporting cast isn’t forgotten either. Fellini plays the comedy more aggressively, and that works for her character. Blair doesn’t get quite the complexity in character development that Sterling does, but where Sterling carries more of the series’ larger arc, Blair carries more of the bounty hunting plot that’s internal to each episode.

Kadeem Hardison plays Bowser. He’s an actor I’m familiar with, but who I haven’t seen in much. Hardison led “A Different World” in the 80s and early 90s. I was a kid then, but I know it was one of the most important comedies of that era. Neither is “Teenage Bounty Hunters” the first dip into this territory for him. He played the father to spy K.C. (Zendaya) in Disney’s “K.C. Undercover”. I can’t tell you how similar this is or isn’t to that role, however. All I have to assess is what he does on-screen. As a triple act with the twins where he plays the comedic straight man, he comes off as a big, gruff teddy bear. The series is wise to give him a complex backstory with his own history and problems so he can be a full character with his own arcs and secrets.

The rest of the cast appears to vary in quality more than it does. Wait, does that sentence even make sense? Let me explain. The twins’ parents are played particularly hokey at first. There’s a good reason for this beyond making comedy out of the moral cowardice of their evangelical hypocrisies, but it takes a while to get there. Where the parents at first come off as annoying and like they’re visiting from a different genre, they eventually become characters who are keenly aware of the concessions they’ve made and what they thought those concessions would protect.

Meanwhile, Sterling and Blair’s life at private school leans toward the clique-ish and political. “Clueless” and “Mean Girls” would be good comparisons, and like those two films, there’s an understanding here of how the meaninglessly superficial blends directly into the dangerously traumatizing.

She deserves more space here, but Devon Halas also stands out as Sterling’s rival April. One more mention – Method Man has some of the best lines of the show as a competing, egotistical, and endlessly friendly bounty hunter with more resources and his own reality show.

What makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” particularly special is that our understanding of nearly every character will be turned on its head by the end of the 10-episode first season – this goes for many of the characters who only get a handful of lines here and there. That’s incredibly impressive storytelling. Despite how satirical “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is at points, that storytelling and care for even the minor characters of the show makes things feel lived-in and consequential.

Sounds Perfect, Right?

The show leans increasingly into some soap opera territory, and your mileage may vary on that aspect of it. If you’re buying into the comedy, emotional investment, and satire of the writing by then, it all feels part of the same fun package, and this factor lets those other elements shine. If you haven’t been pushed out by then, I really doubt this is what would do it.

Similarly, one or two of the situations presented veer a little more sitcom and don’t necessarily feel as natural to the show’s reality – they are satire, sure, but one moment shoehorns a very smart character into a bit that feels a little silly even for a series that takes its silly very meaningfully. The presentation and acting sell it, but I was still aware enough to be slightly taken out of the moment. That said, one or two of these moments across 10 episodes isn’t bad by any means.

The one major drawback to “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is that it thinks it’s more woke than it is. An early episode sees our three bounty hunters take a bounty who’s cutting the heads off Confederate statues. The episode uses its opportunities to satirize Confederacy-worshippers pretty well, but the most it’s really addressed directly is when Blair’s boyfriend Miles argues that the vandal herself is causing harm. It doesn’t analyze the moment more than this, and the moment isn’t about the issue itself. It’s about Blair and Miles having a disagreement on an issue where she’s presuming his viewpoint because he’s Black. Well that’s still showing something about Blair’s privilege, right? She assumes his perspective on an issue. Yes, except it’s really only ever addressed as Blair embarrassing herself and what it socially costs her. The depiction of the moment itself conveys a privileged perspective on the show’s part. It’s still about the repercussions for Blair, and not the issue or the Black voices that have something to say about it in the episode.

The most we get is the bounty hunters agreeing with their target’s actions before they proceed to arrest her anyway. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” identifies the root harm in calling out the hypocrisies within evangelical culture, but it uses that to center its story more on its protagonists than on any community impacted by that harm.

Another episode features Sterling competing in a forensic debate meet. The subject is reparations. That’s fine on its surface; it’s something high school forensics teams would debate. Yet the concept of reparations is then turned into a metaphor for Sterling’s mistreatment of a friend in the past – how one white woman has treated another and whether she owes her or not. This is an incredibly irresponsible co-optation of a serious topic, while shirking the topic and its meaning itself.

Neither of these makes “Teenage Bounty Hunters” as an entire series feel like it’s going in the wrong direction, but they are absolutely missteps for a show that clearly wants to be socially conscious. Misusing these real-world issues in these ways can diminish the legitimacy and foster misunderstanding about these serious topics.

Not every show is responsible for handling issues like these, but if you’re going to engage them while centering white characters, then…yes, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” has a responsibility to pay more attention and care more about the details of these topics.

In these two instances, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” treats issues of color as scenery, metaphor, or character development for white characters rather than as something that demands responsibility from the storytellers.

The show’s politics are squarely liberal/progressive, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. In fact, I’d say it’s an exceptionally good show on that front, and more willing to engage certain thorny LGBTQ youth issues than an idealistically presented show like “Love, Victor” (not that an ideal fantasy doesn’t also serve a meaningful purpose).

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” is definitely going in a good direction in general, but it doesn’t always go as far as it thinks it’s going when it brings up social issues that pertain to people of color. The few concerns about race that are brought up tend to center on personal impacts for Sterling and Blair, white characters. The show has the responsibility to follow through more than just that.

I still think this is one of the best comedies in years, and I will argue for it and urge people to watch it, but it makes some missteps and those are worth criticizing. It would make the politics a bit more consistent, and could make the show feel fuller and more inhabited, let alone more accountable. There are both ethical and storytelling arguments for artists doing this better.

One thing the show does handle well is something a lot of shows about teenagers completely fumble:

Let’s Talk About Sex

The advertising for “Teenage Bounty Hunters” seriously undersells the show, focusing chiefly on the girls’ pursuit of sex. And sure, this is one aspect of the show and comedy’s built from it, but it’s not nearly the focus that the marketing makes it out to be. Netflix needs to have a serious conversation with their marketing department lately about portraying projects this way.

Sterling and Blair talk about sex realistically, it’s a part of their lives, and it’s something they alternately pursue, postpone, and discuss. The opening scene skirts a line where you don’t really know whether the show will handle things responsibly. Ultimately, the act of sex at a private evangelical school meets a full range of responses by everyone involved, and not involved. It’s both disappointing and unsurprising just how many damn people think their participation and input are necessary in a teenage girl’s sex life.

It really does feel like “Teenage Bounty Hunters” puts time and care into portraying two girls who are considering these things in a healthy, realistic way. That they have each other to communicate with in a supportive, informative, and non-judgmental way is the difference in a culture that refuses to give any kind of support or education and so leaves teenagers reeling when it comes to this topic.

I think of a show like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” in comparison – a show that I liked, but that did seem to treat high school students having sex as something entertaining and titillating for adults to watch. There’s a complicated conversation about how to handle that responsibly – one that the show gave to Sabrina herself, but threw to the wind the minute it could deliver high school-age characters (often of color) engaging in orgies.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be portrayed in a show – it’s a topic that needs discussion. I’m saying that the way to do it should veer much more in the direction of “Teenage Bounty Hunters” than the direction “Sabrina” or some other shows take it. It’s not titillating in “Teenage Bounty Hunters”. It’s confusing, serious, impactful, eye-opening, healthy, potentially harmful, and worthy of discussion and support among peers.

Characters like this don’t just need to have agency within the story, they also need to have a kind of agency over their portrayal in the story. The topic does come with storytelling responsibilities so that characters have agency and treat it realistically, instead of them just being translated into objects for the audience. Yes, we’re watching adult actors who are in their 20s, but we’re seeing them portray teenagers, and that context matters.

“Teenage Bounty Hunters” initially seems to challenge that line like so many shows, before filling in the mountains of context and consideration these characters have about their own agency, their expectations and position in life, their mental health in relation to sex, their religious community’s attitude toward it, and their own communication with each other about it.

Ultimately, “Teenage Bounty Hunters” offers one of the more complex and layered depictions of teenage romance and sex. It engages complications and a full, healthy range of considerations that teenage romances don’t often explore in genuine depth. Amid the heightened comedy and satire of the show, this feels like real teenagers figuring their way through these things, and made me think to many of the conversations I had with peers at that stage in my life – while it was a different time, and those conversations happen very differently among boys than girls, this is one of the only shows that makes those conversations feel real and necessary instead of just the pretext of popcorn fodder for a thirsty audience.

This Review is Really Long

That I’ve written this much on a show called “Teenage Bounty Hunters” hopefully conveys how complex and well-done it is as a whole. Before anything else, it’s a top-notch, quick-witted comedy. Its dialogue is superb. Its pacing is about as perfect as an hourlong comedy can get. Maddie Phillips gives a stellar performance. The increasingly complex character arcs are often emotionally poignant and pay off as the show goes on. It ends up having a great LGBTQ arc that engages issues not every teen LGBTQ series is willing to engage. It depicts teenagers communicating and making decisions about sex in mentally healthy ways that are too often skipped over in shows with characters this age.

Once or twice, the situation it puts a character in doesn’t quite fly, but the dialogue and performances within the scene always manage it through just fine. It does need to improve on how it engages racism and who’s centered when it does so.

I highly recommend it, and more than a lot of shows, I highly recommend talking about it.

You can watch “Teenage Bounty Hunters” with a Netflix subscription.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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