In this current pandemic world, escapism on TV comes in many forms e.g. documentaries (”Tiger King”), reality shows (”Love Is Blind”), films (”Palm Springs”) and game shows (”Floor Is Lava”).
Netflix’s young adult dramedy “Teenage Bounty Hunters,” by its title alone, fits that category as well. Debuting last Friday, the show — set and produced in Atlanta and created by Atlanta native Kathleen Jordan — has been consistently in the top five of most popular shows in the United States on the streaming service.
The premise is not complicated: two wealthy Atlanta teen twins crash their dad’s truck and stumble into the world of bounty hunting, a means of making some quick cash to fix said vehicle. It helps that Sterling (Maddie Phillips) happens to be a freakishly good shot.
“The show is fun. It’s not pretending to be anything it’s not,” said Anjelica Bette Fellini, who plays Sterling’s fraternal twin Blair. “People have been saying to me that it’s just what they needed. It’s like the Sour Patch gummy bears Blair loves to eat. It’s a little spicy, a little cutting on the tongue but at the end of the day, it’s sweet.”
“Teenage Bounty Hunters” pays homage to early 2000s TV shows “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as well as 1995 film “Clueless” by elevating female teen protagonists. In this twist, they attend a conservative private Christian academy where sex before marriage and being gay are frowned upon.
Jordan, 31, based the series on her own experiences growing up in a Christian community in Buckhead and attending Westminster Schools, which also graduated Brian Baumgartner (”The Office”) Ed Helms (”The Hangover” and “The Office”) and Brooke Baldwin (CNN).
It’s no coincidence that the twins’ last name is Wesley, which happens to be the same name as a major road in Buckhead near Westminster: West Wesley Road.
“I felt like I didn’t belong” at Westminster, Jordan said. “A lot of the stories we tell on the show are based on my fantasies on how I wish I acted in high school.”
And as the daughter of the late Hamilton Jordan, former chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter four decades ago, she was a political anomaly: a liberal among conservatives. She also considered herself to be a minor rebel. “I wore some studded belts and Doc Martens,” she said. “I went to a lot of Nine Inch Nails concerts. I spent time at the Masquerade. But I was also a cheerleader.”
Jordan said the twins each represent parts of her own being.
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Sterling is ostensibly the more innocent and less cynical of the two. Her primary extracurricular activity is leading a Christian student fellowship and has been dating the same boy going back to fifth grade. In the opening scene, she quotes Scripture while simultaneously exploring her sexuality.
“There’s so much more to Sterling than meets the eye,” said Phillips.
Blair has more overt gumption and confidence. A lacrosse player, she is more apt to jump into the fray, to just do what she thinks will resolve an issue quicker. During a stakeout in episode two, Blair goes into a nail salon without Bowser’s permission and causes the target’s girlfriend to flee following overtly invasive questions. Later, Blair redeems herself by kicking in a door, then whacking the target with a cane.
Fellini, now in her 20s, embraced playing such an empowered teen. “She really knows how to articulate her feelings and desires,” she said. “We see the girls jumping on cars, being fearless. But they also trip and fall. The girls are both messy and strong.”
Ultimately, the show works because of the chemistry between Phillips and Fellini as the twins. Jordan said of all the combos they tried during auditions, this one clicked immediately.
“As soon as Anjelica walked in, we were operating on the same frequency,” said Phillips. ”If I were auditioning for Blair, I’d walk in the same way: a little bit nonchalant, an effortless, easy-going, cool vibe. We both kind of blacked out. We found ourselves doing things we hadn’t done before as actors. After the audition, she asked if we could go to dinner. So we went. We said, ‘Let’s manifest this!’ I literally had a vision of us cuddling.”
The twins keep the bounty hunting a secret from everyone they know, working as “interns” with an actual bounty hunter named Bowser while serving yogurt at his side hustle Yogurtopia. He’s played by “A Different World” star Kadeem Hardison with a comical world-wariness that evokes Roger Murtaugh in the “Lethal Weapon” films.
Indeed, Hardison said he went into the audition for Bowser with a very specific character in mind, combining elements of a wolverine, Popeye, Denzel Washington in “Training Day” and Robert De Niro in “Midnight Run.”
“He played the role as if he’s completely exhausted by these two girls,” Jordan said. “It’s such a funny take that we never could have anticipated or directed.”
Bowser becomes an unlikely mentor and friend to the young ladies. “Over time, his gruffness towards them turns paternal and familial,” said Jordan. “They have a real bond. I wanted to see an unlikely friendship on-screen. Why not two 16-year-olds and a man in his 50′s?”
In the second episode, the teens discuss sex and ask Bowser how his sex life is going. His response: “Would you please just leave me out of whatever the hell you two are yakking about?”
The dialogue is zippy and amusing. At one point, after Blair helps Bowser figure out how to track a target down on social media, she self-commentates: “Okay, can we all take a second to acknowledge how smart I am? I mean, I really should be doing better in school.”
One of the most creative elements in the show is when time freezes and the twins “talk” to each other via a gauzy lens effect and close-ups of their faces. Nobody else hears this telepathic conversation, which Jordan calls “twin vision.”
“It created such an intimate connection with the audience and the girls,” said Phillips. “They have this phenomenal connection. It’s not necessarily scientific or biological but it’s spiritual.”
At one point, Blair tells Sterling: “I’m surprised my love for you didn’t absorb you in the womb.”
Sterling earnestly replies: “I would absorb you if I could.”
“The show is heightened reality,” Jordan said. “They’re teenage bounty hunters! We wanted as much of the comedy to stay grounded so a little sprinkle of magical realism goes a long way.”
Jordan’s knowledge of the Atlanta is readily apparent with properly sprinkled-in references throughout the ten episodes including neighborhoods (Druid Hills, East Lake, Castleberry Hill), transportation markers (Peach Pass, I-85, MARTA), eateries (Chick-fil-A) and reality shows (”Little Women Atlanta”). In episode three, when Sterling’s boyfriend Luke mentions UGA, he reflexively adds “Go Dawgs.” And the other characters immediately chime back, “Go Dawgs!”
The show shot in areas such as Midtown, Duluth and Bostwick with interiors at Third Rail Studios in Doraville.
The script in episode nine calls for Bowser and his arch-rival bounty hunter Terrance (played by rap star Cliff “Method Man” Smith) to track down a “skip” at Tyler Perry Studios. In reality, Perry turned down a request to use his actual space so Atlanta’s EUE Screen Gems masqueraded as Perry’s studio instead in an amusing scene that features extras dressed in Madea outfits.
Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX
Credit: TINA ROWDEN/NETFLIX
IF YOU WATCH
“Teenage Bounty Hunters,” first season’s ten episodes available for all Netflix subscribers.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.