In February, TV One tested a pilot of a promising scripted comedy set and shot in Atlanta "Born Again Virgin."
The premise: a 34-year-old single black female Jenna kept dating and sleeping with the wrong men. When she realized her body count had exceeded her age, she decided to take a vow of celibacy, using the term "born again virgin. She began writing a blog that quickly drew a big following. She shared her struggles and triumphs with two close, supportive girlfriends, Kelly, the workaholic publicist and Tara, the free-spirited actress.
For anybody who is a fan of "Sex and the City," this is more like "Sexless and the City."
“This whole born again virgin thing," said Tara in the pilot. "You can’t give up sex. You couldn’t even give up gluten!”
“Abstinence is all mental," Jenna explained. "I’m on a higher plane. I have reached a higher level of consciousness. I have evolved!”
Then Jenna met her hunky new neighbor Donovan (the often shirtless Durrell Babbs) and the challenge to keep her vow became significantly tougher.
After the pilot aired, Twitter was abuzz with positive feedback. Network executives sensed they had a hit, something TV One has struggled to find over the years as an older-skewing network competing against the likes of BET, Centric and Bounce TV. It quickly committed to 11 new episodes, then 10 more, which is unheard of for any new cable show that isn't helmed by Tyler Perry.
"Born Again Virgin" officially debuts with two back-to-back 30-minute episodes Wednesday night August 4 at 10 p.m.
This new show "best reflects our new brand direction," wrote Brad Siegel, a former Turner executive and head of Atlanta-based UP-TV, who took over the network a few months ago. "The pacing, quick and witty dialogue and eye-candy casting deliver everything for both male and female viewers looking for their next buzzworthy show."
Indeed, the show crackles with lighthearted girlfriend banter and robust physical humor from veteran actress Danielle Nicolet, who plays Jenna.
"My main goal was to keep this girl likable and sexualized," said Nicolet, whose credits include "Third Rock From the Sun" and "The Game." "I didn't want to play a nut. I think that kind of happens when people think of 'born again virgin.' You put on your gray sweatpants and tuck in at 9 every night. That is not this at all. She has a positive pro sex attitude. She is just trying to sort things out."
The show came from the brain of Ranada Shepard, whose husband Devon is an experienced writer and executive producer ("Weeds," "House of Lies," "Soul Man"). She kept feeding him and others her great ideas but realized the best way for her to get her concepts on TV was to write them herself.
Over several years, she pitched concepts that were rejected, but kept on writing. She submitted a script to TV One about women dating and there was a small role for a "born again virgin." TV One wanted her to focus on that character.
"I dissected who she was and designed the show around her," Shepard said.
Her goal was to make the conversations "real." "I was kind of over seeing caricatures of ourselves," she said, referencing black women. "I wanted to see who we really are. I wanted women to identify with Jenna, Kelly and Tara. In a way, they're all the version of one woman. They could be who I am now, who I hope to be or hope to have the guts to be."
It helps that her entire writer's room is women of color. "If we are going to tell authentic stories, let's tell our stories," Shepard said. And they all have experiences, writing for the likes of Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock and "My Wife and Kids."
She also wanted the trio to be supportive friends, not catty ones. (Again, echoes of "Sex and the City.") Kelly and Tara are childhood friends and brought Jenna into the circle, with all three living together. Kelly is successful in business, iffy in her private life, with Shepard excited about exploring both sides of her life. Tara, who was a successful child actress, is struggling to find work as an adult.
The women who portray the three main characters, during a media set visit last Friday to the loft in Castleberry Hills, seemed well cast given their off-screen personas. Nicolet if bubbly but grounded. Meagan Holder seems as grounded as her character Kelly. And Eva Marcille is a crazy bundle of pent-up energy, similar to Tara.
"We have really meshed well together," said Holder. "We're the girlfriends you want in real life."
"It's extremely realistic the way the girls fight for each other," said Marcille. "We don't judge each other." And her character is perfectly happy to "have more sex than necessary. If you can't drink, I'll drink for you! I'm taking one for the team literally."
"Kelly is buttoned up at work but sexy behind closed doors," Holder said. "That's like me." Referencing "Sex and the City" inevitably, she said, "Miranda works hard but she can be just freaky in bed. Friends just have to push her. That's Kelly."
They also like the lack of black stereotypes on "Born Again Virgin." "As women of color, we don't have to talk a certain way or act a certain way. This is not that show," Holder said.
"It's just about women," Marcille said. "Close your eyes and listen to the show. It's like music. It's the same plights and struggles all women go through."
Shepard couldn't be more thrilled by TV One's embrace of her vision. "It's a dream come true," she said.
Here's the pilot, in case you have you have yet to see it. Due to scheduling conflicts, the actresses who plays Kelly had to be subbed out. In the very first scene of the first episode tonight, that issue will be addressed in an inside jokey manner.
"Born Again Virgin," 10 p.m., Wednesdays, TV One
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