Jersey Strong, a feel-good reality series that premieres Saturday on Pivot, chronicles the lives of two women—Jayda, a former gang member, and Brooke, a lesbian defense attorney. In a way, though, it’s really about Newark, N.J. Or, at least, about viewers’ perceptions of Newark.
Newark is Cory Booker, the supermayor (and future senator) who rescues people from burning buildings, but it’s also poverty, crime, and gangs. That association allows the producers to take a time-saving shortcut when it comes to establishing its main characters: Jayda is a Blood, and her boyfriend, Creep, is a Crip. They’re “Romeo and Juliet in the hood.” We know their gang affiliations, their relationship status, and their child-raising style (demanding)—but not much else. Why exactly does Jayda pull together a lunch party for a group of young single mothers who she then proceeds to mentor? Is it her job or a volunteer project? Is she a professional counselor or just a bit of a busy-body? When she shows up at the strip club where one of her mentees is shaking for singles, she comes off like a cross between Miss Jean Brodie and Carrie Nation, but she seems sincerely determined to find another job for the rookie ecdysiast.
Brooke is a bad-ass lesbian trial attorney, and her origin story is that after growing up in the suburbs of central Jersey, a run-in with the law the night before her high-school graduation filled her with determination to fight for the rights of the badly done by. In Newark that means representing the poor and powerless in their struggles against the establishment. In the scenes filmed in her legal firm we see her strategizing with clients about how to prove that they were abused by the police or the whole damned system. Brooke has a girlfriend, and while they don’t match the Montague-Capulet vibe of Jayda and Creep, Maggie is blonde to Brooke’s brunette, chill to her tightly wound.
Brooke and Maggie have issues—Brooke works too much, she frets about finding her place in the lives of Maggie’s two college-aged kids, and there’s awkwardness around the marriage question—but their issues aren’t that different from Jayda and Creep’s. Reality shows—heck, television shows generally—are far too enamored with parallelism, and sometimes it’s hard to see sanitation worker Creep and do-gooder Jayda looking for common ground with a couple whose finances are clearly far more secure. But when Jayda compares her engagement ring unfavorably to something Brooke has bought for Maggie, and Creep tells her, “Marry Brooke then,” it’s clear that we’re living in a world of marriage equality. (Albeit not yet in New Jersey.) There’s no suggestion that one of these relationships is any less legitimate than the other.
This is the state of the union in the fall of 2013: When a TV network wants to tell a genuinely inspiring story about individuals working to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, it turns to a former gang member and a lesbian (a lesbian trial lawyer who smokes, even). The times they are a-changing. For the better.