By Divya Patel.
MTV's hit show Shuga recently returned for a fifth season, this time set in Johannesburg, South Africa. The show continues to focus on relationships and sexual health on the African continent. Teen dramas, particularly ones that seek to educate about sexual health and relationships, are very difficult to pull off earnestly. Many come off as patronizing or try far too hard to be relatable. It's a fine line between cultivating a believable, gripping drama and being preachy – but in this case, MTV Shuga strikes a brilliant balance, introducing characters and presenting them with nuance and depth before we get to see their various predicaments. Here's a recap of the season so far to get you up to speed:
Bongi returns to Johannesburg, missing her life in Lagos and the freedom it gave her. She bumps into Femi at the airport and agrees to catch up with him at his new job at Club Surge, where he’s working hard to impress his new boss, Rakeem. We meet Reggie, an old friend of Bongi’s, who is struggling between following his passion for art and his father’s insistence that he pursues a career in science. We are also introduced to Ipeleng, who is now working at Club Surge as a dishwasher to make ends meet after the death of her mother. Her boyfriend Q, a friend of Reggie’s, is missing her greatly due to her busy life. We also catch a glimpse of Tsholo, a “material girl”, saying goodbye to her father and wishing for a bit of the attention Zamo commands from the boys. Her friend Khensani, in love with Lionel, tells her that “love is a two-way street.” Towards the end of the episode, Ipeleng steps up and throws caution to the wind, introducing herself as the hostess for the evening. It’s a small, heartwarming moment of victory that she decides not to heed Rakeem’s belittling words and does what she needed to do. Bongi is attacked on her way to the club, and the thief makes away with her phone before Sol, driver and player extraordinaire, comes to her aid.
The episode opens with Zamo taking selfies, presumably for her Instagram. We find out that she has a son, Spoonkie. Meanwhile, in church for Sunday service, Khensani and Lionel flirt over text; he seems significantly older than her. At school the next day, Lionel is shown telling a student that he could “put both of his hands on her thigh and still that skirt would be short.” He is revealed to be Khensani’s teacher, and he continues to flirt with her after class. Ipeleng catches a glimpse of it on her way into the classroom. Zolani worries about his reputation at school, and we see Reggie doodle and text, clearly not interested in his dad’s class on forces. Ipeleng is back at school and excels in class.
Q encourages Reggie to get down with Zamo – “just hit it and quit it” – but Reggie insists that he wouldn’t do that to their friend. Q says that he’d rather be stupid than a virgin. We see Zamo caught between trying to live a young and carefree life, and dealing with the realities and responsibilities of motherhood. Wanting to go to the party that night, she gives Spoonkie a dummy dipped in brandy before leaving with Q, saying that it would put him to sleep. Q continues to ogle at other girls at the party and asks why he can’t have sex with others if Ipeleng won’t give him what he needs. He wonders whether she even loves him. Reggie tries to talk him out of this nonsense.
Bongi meets and embarrasses herself in front of Coalstove, who she asks for a drink before realising that he was the DJ, not the bartender. Tsholo and Khensani go to “watch some DVDs.” Eventually they arrive at the party, but it’s not long before the lovesick girl is being summoned by her teacher to the car. The episode ends with interspersed shots of the revellers partying and Spoonkie crying in his cot.
Reggie begins to question his attraction to boys and girls. Meanwhile Bongi and Coalstove are chatting while he packs away his equipment and we find that she has a beautiful singing voice. Bongi flirts with Coalstove back at his house, teasing him about his taste in music while he makes her tea. They kiss! After a misundrestanding about Coalstove's sister, Pumpkin, they continue their relationship.
Back at Club Surge, Femi has enjoyed a very successful night and we see Rakeem make advances on Ipeleng. Storm, his wife, is clearly unhappy and tries to recruit Femi to help her win her husband back, but he refuses to do so. Rakeem threatens Femi and gets very possessive over Storm.
The party has ended and everyone is getting into Sol’s minivan to go home. Tsholo cannot find Khensani, but Sol and Zamo convince her to get in the van. Zamo returns home and Sis B berates her about giving Spoonkie alcohol. Tsholo and Sol flirt briefly in the minivan and Reggie gets in trouble with his father for graffiti. Sol gifts Tsholo a smartphone to replace her “Tamagotchi”.
Reggie bumps into Diliza after work and have an extremely awkward first encounter. Reggie shows Diliza his artwork. Coalstove makes Bongi a track featuring her own voice. They have sex – and a very important conversation beforehand as well.
Rakeem interrupts Femi on his call with Sheila and stirs things. Storm is also intent on getting him into trouble, eventually lying to Rakeem about what happens.
Ipeleng is encouraged to enter the upcoming Science Expo by her teacher. The prize? Ten thousand rand. Q and Ipeleng fight when he keeps pushing for her attention and refusing to help. Eventually, Ipeleng and Quinton break up because she is struggling to balance everything going on in her life. Q gets really butthurt about being asked to take a break.
Khensani is throwing up in the bathroom while Tsholo revels in her new relationship with Sol. Tsholo talks Khensani into doing a pregnancy test, which turns out to be positive. Khensani imagines herself as part of Lionel’s family and does not want to have an abortion.
Aunt Nomalanga sits down with Bongi and Coalstove to make sure they are being safe and responsible. Bongi has an IUD inserted. She and Reggie talk about his relationship with Diliza; Reggie feels like there must be something wrong with him. Back at school, Q pressures Reggie into talking to Zamo.
Tsholo feels pressured into having sex with Sol and he is very clear about not carrying condoms.
As a teacher and a former teen, I can truly appreciate the different conversations that take place and can vouch for the fact that I've met Khensanis and Qs and Reggies. The story draws you in and you can't help but marvel at the complexities that have been written into the storyline. Take Ipeleng, for example: she is her brother's primary carer, she works hard at school and at the club, but she is also tenacious and willing to ignore orders if she feels they are wrong. She is defiant and doesn't have time for anyone who puts her down. I can't wait to see what happens for her.
One particular stroke of genius is the way that the show uses the polls halfway through and at the end of each episode to get young people to engage further with the issues that it brings up. It's also a great way to gather data on the opinions and beliefs of the audience, allowing the producers information on what the show might target next. In the digital age, it is more important than ever that young people are accessing information that is accurate and helpful – what better way to get that out there than a web series?
I also have to appreciate the diversity of the characters – the show doesn't shy away from the idea of homosexuality (although I'm waiting on them to overtly claim it), class differences and examining power dynamics (just look at the mess that is Rakeem, Storm and Femi's relationship over at Club Surge; or Lionel's obvious creepiness and his manipulation of Khensani). Of course, as a British Indian writer, there will be nuances that are lost on me, but for the most part, the show is highly relatable and extremely engaging.
You can watch Season 5 so far here.