Trust Me: Blood & Water Is Like Riverdale — but with Less Murder and More Diversity
After watching just a couple of scenes, I can usually place a new TV series into one of two categories: There are the shows I’m going to take my time with, savoring each episode over the course of, say, a couple of months (think Mad Men and Living Single). And then there are the shows I devour in just one weekend (think Claws and Dead To Me). Blood & Water falls into the latter category.
Sure, it helps that the teen drama is only six episodes long, but the mystery element is the real draw, the hook that persuades you to let the autoplay lure you in for yet another 45 minutes.
The show premiered on Netflix May 20 and is the streaming service's second original African series, the first being the kick ass Queen Sono. But while they both hail from South Africa, the two couldn’t be more different. Blood & Water follows 16-year-old Puleng Khumalo (played by 21-year-old Ama Qamata) as she tries to figure out if one of her new classmates, Fikile Bhele (newcomer Khosi Ngema, 20), is her long-lost sister who was kidnapped at birth.
Surrounding this central plot is typical teen drama. The characters attend a private school full of Very Rich Kids who party a lot and hook up a bunch — often with people they have no business hooking up with. There are competitive class elections, love triangles, and back stabbing (though, not literally). It’s reminiscent of Gossip Girl but has a hint of Riverdale’s dark edge. However, a subplot that advances the show past the realm of your average teen soap is that Puleng’s father is being charged with human trafficking, which is a very real and prevalent issue in South Africa.
In an interview with Okay Africa, director Nosipho Dumisa speaks on the topic, saying: “In some way or the other a lot of us have suffered trauma, and I think when we conceived Blood & Water, the statistic was something like ‘every five hours a child goes missing in South Africa.’ That is an insane statistic. And that tells you how many people have had to deal with something like this. So I think generally, the world and South Africans are ready to be able to experience a new African narrative.” Adding this dose of reality within an otherwise light-hearted show adds nuance and a real-life element to the story (and is something that will hopefully be explored more in season two, which was confirmed earlier this week).
Another aspect of the show that makes it stand out from The OCs and One Tree Hills of the Western world is the fact that the cast is made up of majority Black actors. It’s something that’s presented as commonplace (which it very well might be in South Africa, but absolutely isn’t in the States) and isn’t pushed in your face. “We really felt like this time around, it was our opportunity to be able to put a diverse cast on screen and have them live their best life, see them in an inspirational world and still throw human problems at them [and add] our strength of adding mystery and tension,” Dumisa explains in an interview with The South African.
For those (myself included) who are unfamiliar with life in South Africa, Blood & Water also presents a side of the country that doesn’t just involve struggle or overcoming adversity, which is often the narrative we’re presented with for a lot of African entertainment. Viewers (of which there are a lot: Upon release, the show charted at number one on Netflix’s top 10 in multiple countries) are exposed to the languages of the country along with the hip-hop music that soundtracks it (South African rapper Nasty C even makes his acting debut on the show). The glitz and the glamour, along with the corruption.
It’s not perfect, but most teen dramas aren’t. It’s guilty of hiring actors who are too old to actually be in high school and it has a bit of a merry-go-round storyline. But what it does well is expose its viewers to a part of the world not often depicted on television in the States. And, in doing so, presents an international storyline with universal appeal.