Teenage life is hard. Your parents just don't understand, it's hard to learn how to floss, and boomers, amirite? (I am in my 40s, I have no idea what I'm talking about.) As one of the most tumultuous periods of a human being's life, teen time makes for perfect television. What better drama is there than heartbreak, bullies, and a pair of sweet high school girls nabbing fugitives on the run from the law? At least that's the case in Netflix's Teenage Bounty Hunters, a new dramedy produced by Orange Is the New Black's Jenji Kohan and created by American Princess writer Kathleen Jordan.
The truth is right there in the title: The leads, fraternal twins Sterling (Maddie Phillips) and Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini), are both teenagers and bounty hunters. They get into their new side gig through happenstance, accidentally wrangling a fugitive who was on the run from Bowser (Kadeem Hardison), a full-fledged bounty hunter whose side gig is running a frozen yogurt shop, which should give you an idea of the madcap tone the show bathes in. After dinging their dad's truck and needing money to repair it, Sterling and Blair decide to keep doing the gig for the cash and, presumably, because it's more exciting than sitting through Spanish class.
That's a pretty fun idea for a TV show and right in Kohan's wheelhouse — she once turned a suburban mom into a drug kingpin — of balancing regular, mundane life with a dangerous secret. But throughout its frequently raucous, sometimes excellent 10-episode first season, Teenage Bounty Hunters doesn't bother with balance, heavily favoring the first word of its title and pushing the last two to being almost a minor detail when it really could have used a lot more of it to stand out. Don't go in expecting an action comedy, expect a Netflix-ified take on a CW series, is what I'm saying. Still, Teenage Bounty Hunters is more than watchable thanks to introducing the world to a pair of bright stars, hyperactive dialogue, and bingeable, though not wholly original, storylines.
Originally titled Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters, and you're about to find out why, the series begins with Blair and Sterling, 16-year-olds at a suburban Atlanta Christian academy, hooking up with their boyfriends in parked cars. It's one of the many contradictions that Teenage Bounty Hunters loves to play with; while espousing the ways of Jesus, the twins are giving handies and thinking about sex nonstop — what it's like, how to have it, whether they should be having it. More contradictions: Blair, the heavy metal-loving rebel of the two, is holding on to her virginity, while Sterling, the prim twin, says au revoir to her V-card in the early minutes of the premiere episode. The girls' pastor secretly smokes cigarettes and challenges the married in his congregation to have sex every day for a week. The cute, kind Black kid who parks cars at the country club doesn't want girls to know he's the rich son of a powerful Atlanta politician. The secrets are as thick as the wealthy parents' Southern accents, and few people are as they seem in these hypocritical suburbs.
The early episodes move along at a brisk pace as Sterling and Blair deal with high school issues — catty rivals, cute boys, concealing their sexual indiscretions from the oblivious faculty — while also doing side work with Bowser. Bowser reluctantly agrees to help them out because there are some places two cute white girls can get into that a middle-aged Black man can't — an early target is holed up in a country club, for example — and because Sterling happens to be a great shot with a pistol and Blair has street smarts that come in handy, he tolerates their inane (and very funny) conversations about stupid stuff that happened in school years ago to people we don't know. But the cases rarely intersect with their personal lives, severely limiting the danger and importance of the bounties-of-the-week to the series. Teenage Bounty Hunters loses individuality from that, pushing the bounty hunting further and further to the side as the season goes along, and becoming a more traditional high school show about young Christian girls trying to get laid. Not that that isn't enough to hold a show, it's just that when a show is called Teenage Bounty Hunters, you want to see more of these teenagers being bounty hunters.
By the middle of the season, I almost forgot Sterling and Blair were bounty hunters, but boy oh boy did I know a lot about their boyfriends. It's a shame, too, because some of the skips have the potential to be interesting peripheral characters; they're mostly fun, bumbling criminals rather than actual dangers, and, with one major exception, only there for one episode and not connected to any of the main characters or plots. But even when there is some intersection to their regular lives — Blair gets caught in a situation when she sets up a date with her boyfriend while she's also supposed to be tracking a skip in one episode — it feels more like a sitcom situation than an effective use of its premise. I wanted Blair and Sterling to chase a perp, cuff him, and race into Christian fellowship huffing, puffing, and still covered in dust from the tussle. But Teenage Bounty Hunters silos school from bounty hunting in a way that undermines the whole concept of goody-goodies doing dirty work when their pastor's back is turned.
Teenage Bounty Hunters does one more identity change in its final crescendo, borrowing ideas from one of its clear influences, Jane the Virgin, and isn't shy about it with the episode titled "From Basic to Telenovela." That starts a three-episode arc right through the finale that's filled with twists so ridiculous that they wouldn't feel out of place on a parody of a soap opera, but by that time Teenage Bounty Hunters has established that it's not afraid to go into that territory, which is part of its charm.
The best reason to watch, though, is the eerie twin connection between Phillips and Fellini, who vibe off each other like they shared a womb. Though neither has a Wikipedia page, they're both skilled at capturing the high-energy over-emoting of ride-or-die siblings in the throes of puberty still trying to find their way with dialogue like, "Most people don't know what they want to do with their lives 'til they're old, like 25." The twinsiness is captured even further in moments when Blair and Sterling telepathically speak to each other, sometimes having entire conversations as the camera goes fish-eye on their faces and they rattle off dialogue to each other at hyperspeed. It's a neat trick to show off their connection, and mostly harmless fun until it almost becomes paranormal phenomena at a crucial moment at the end of the season.
Hardison, who is completely unrecognizable since his days as Dwayne Wayne in A Different World, gives the best performance of all as Bowser, a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter whose heart still aches from a broken relationship. But it's his paternal relationship with the girls that really makes things work. They each take playful generational digs at each other, usually ending when Bowser grunts himself out of a conversation while the girls tail him like puppies. Bowser's "Hmmmmrphs" are the best exasperations on Netflix since The Witcher's Geralt.
Between Hardison, Phillips, Fellini, some witty chit-chat, and a premise oozing with potential, the bones of Teenage Bounty Hunters are strong and sturdy. But the finished product couldn't quite figure out where to put and how to connect them. Season 1 ends expecting a Season 2, where things could improve if Teenage Bounty Hunters lives up to its title more.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Teenage Bounty Hunters is now on Netflix.