By Peg Aloi
Minx is not all jokes and sex humor.
This clever, funny, sexy series from HBO Max is my pick for the best new feel-good retro comedy of 2022. Set in the swinging ’70s, Minx effectively illuminates the shifting sexual politics of the era via mostly-accurate but occasionally outrageous situations. Ophelia Lovibond plays Joyce Prigger, a whip smart enthusiastic die-hard feminist writer and editor who wants to publish a politically savvy magazine for women. And yes, as her name suggests, Joyce comes off as a bit of a prig amidst all the freewheeling ’70s decadence swirling around her in Los Angeles. An ongoing trope finds Joyce being catcalled by the same group of construction workers every day she walks by them. She tries ignoring them, then introducing herself politely, then finally standing up to their obnoxious behavior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not much changes. And that could be the underlying message of a series set in a turbulent era, 50 years behind us: change comes slowly.
Joyce envisions a glossy yet erudite publication she has dubbed The Matriarch Awakes. Having spent months designing and planning its content, she brings her magazine proposal along with visual aids to a magazine convention where, apparently, pitches for new publications are being heard. Predictably, her lofty concept and dreary title don’t attract much interest from publishers. But she meets Doug Renetti, a well-known and relatively successful magazine publisher who oversees at least a dozen somewhat tacky porn and fetish magazines. He takes a shine to Joyce when he sees her stroll into the convention, all bright eyed and hopeful. He wishes her luck and later, finding out her efforts to take the convention by storm have failed, invites her to pitch to him. His publishing model is the absolute antithesis of what Joyce wants to bring into the world, but his business savvy and his open mindedness somewhat mitigates Joyce’s distaste for his rather sexist and overbearing attitude. Played by Jake Johnson, Doug is helplessly appealing, complex in a way that makes you hate what he stands for, but appreciate that he’s trying as best he can to evolve with the times.
Well, you can guess where this is going. Obviously Joyce, desperate to get her magazine out into the world, decides, after some reluctance and negotiation, to partner with Doug and work with his ragtag team of photographers, designers, and assistants. Despite his rather well-off empire, Doug runs things a bit haphazardly. His right hand is Tina (Idara Victor), a gorgeous and straightforward gal Friday who manages the staff and keeps Doug’s finances (mostly) stable. She clashes with Joyce at the first editorial meeting: calling her a racist with a half smile on her face. It’s an awkward and painful moment but Joyce seems to take it in stride, and the two eventually manage to work together well. Then there’s Bambi (Jessica Lowe), who has done some modeling and acting in porn herself. She is a sort of chief cook and bottle washer who tries to help out with everything. Despite her bubble-headed blonde vibe she’s very much in tune with everyone’s hang ups and can read them like a book. Finally, there’s Richie (Oscar Montoya), the unabashedly gay photographer’s assistant on Doug’s other magazines, who leaps at the chance to take on more responsibility with Joyce’s publication, becoming the creative director of the centerfold shoots.
One of the most controversial aspects of Joyce’s new publication is an idea Doug insists on before he will bankroll her first issue: there should be a fully nude male centerfold. Joyce balks at this but, shortly thereafter, Cosmopolitan debuts the same idea with a tasteful nude photo of Burt Reynolds (with his genitalia cleverly concealed). Women line up to buy it, so Joyce changes her mind. Of course, featuring an erect penis in the magazine (or in HBO’s series) would cross the line from softcore into hardcore (so to speak), so they decide to place the nude male in a more relaxed context. The audition for the magazine’s first centerfold model features an absolutely stunning montage of a couple of dozen men getting completely nude (most of them very enthusiastically). There are even close ups of their genitalia. The would-be models are all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ages. The scene is an absolute delight, shockingly refreshing and probably the most entertaining moment of this series. And it happens during the first episode. No shame in rewinding to watch it several times, friends.
In addition to struggling to maintain her feminist focus within the decidedly anti-feminist atmosphere at Doug’s offices, Joyce is also dealing with some personal life struggles. Her boyfriend Glenn (Michael Angarano) works in publishing, but is less than respectful of her efforts to create a women’s magazine. While they are on the outs, Joyce becomes involved with Shane (Taylor Zakhar Perez), Minx’s first centerfold model. In a bit of “turnabout is fair play” irony, she’s the one in it for a fun time while he decides he’s become a little more emotionally attached. And that reversal is the essence of Minx: a constant attempt to turn sexist stereotypical cliches on their heads. Having lived through the ’70s myself, although as a precocious kid and not an adult, I find myself thinking that Minx often views the decade through willful rose-colored glasses. It is an attempt to portray things as slightly less appalling than they actually were at times.
One of my favorite characters is Joyce’s sister Shelly (Lennon Parham), conventionally married with kids living in the suburbs. Yet she’s a smart cookie with a naughty sense of humor. She increasingly begins to take an interest in the magazine. She helps Joyce with various experiments in marketing and distribution, contributes some great ideas and eventually finds that her own attitudes about sex, marriage, and relationships are challenged and transformed via her experiences working on Minx. Shelly is a fascinating foil to Joyce, someone who thought she had everything she wanted and now — as times are changing — finds herself wanting something different and better. Conversely, Joyce thinks that she has everything she could want and realizes that, in some ways, her life is empty. It remains to be seen if these second thoughts will go in a sentimental direction, but the show’s cheery vibe suggests it might.
But Minx is not all jokes and sex humor. The feminist magazine’s debut generated some kickback, including run-ins with various high-minded religious groups. The rise of the Moral Majority is hinted at; it was in its infancy at the time, and later became extremely prominent in the ’80s. The fact that the series bothers to dig into this thorny opposition — in a more or less plausible way — gives me hope that some of the semi-prurient and occasionally predictable storylines will come together in a more compelling fashion in season two.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She’s written on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, RadioTimes, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on Substack.
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