“Our music is about representation. It’s about being heard,” explains Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), the lead singer of the band that gives the new Peacock import comedy We Are Lady Parts its title. Saira’s explanation for why she plays music is a fairly trite one out of context — what wannabe rock, pop, or hip-hop star hasn’t expressed a similar sentiment before in fiction? But once you understand that Lady Parts is an all-female, all-Muslim punk band in London, Saira’s battle cry about the importance of representation becomes the key to the enormous appeal of the show.
Representation matters in storytelling for reasons both altruistic and practical. It’s a fundamental social good for audiences to encounter people who look and talk like them in the stories they consume, and also for people from other groups to be exposed to characters who aren’t at all like themselves. But making TV shows and movies and books about the kinds of characters who aren’t usually featured in them is also smart creatively. It can often breathe new life into every stale plot twist simply because of the nature of the people involved. ABC made a lot of comedic hay in the 2010s with shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Speechless, where creaky sitcom hijinks suddenly felt novel because no one had told them through the eyes of first-generation Taiwanese-Americans or a special needs family, respectively.
We Are Lady Parts has its moments of everything old being new again, like when the band’s would-be lead guitarist Amina (Anjana Vasan) asks a platonic male friend to pretend to be her date at an engagement party, then realizes that they’re acting out the plot of the Debra Messing movie The Wedding Date. But the backgrounds of Amina, Saira, and their bandmates — surly drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed), gentle bassist Bisma (Faith Omole), and ruthless manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse) — create comic tension in nearly every scene.
These are Muslim women trying to be heard in a genre that hasn’t traditionally had room for them, and is not regularly featured on the playlists of their friends and family. This is not what anyone expects of them, especially the pathologically shy Amina — she initially vomits from stage fright whenever she tries performing in public — whose goals before meeting the band are to get her microbiology Ph.D. and settle down with a husband, like she believes every good Muslim girl should. So every space they enter feels like hostile territory, whether it’s Saira confidentially marching in or Amina being dragged along while looking confused and frightened about how she got there.
The show’s creator and director, Nida Manzoor, is acutely aware of both the clashes within and without the band. Lady Parts are a real melting pot of the British Muslim experience, from Saira wearing short sleeves to show off her tattoos and working in a Halal butcher shop, to Momtaz keeping her face largely covered while selling sexy lingerie for her day job. Even though Amina tries to present herself as more traditional, it’s clear that she and her parents are much quirkier than she’d like to admit, and some of the show’s best jokes involve her mom and dad oversharing as they meet with each new prospective husband.
And make no mistake: This is a very funny show, with a cast of versatile and game performers. Anjana Vasan is a particular delight, with an innate understanding of how to get laughs just from small changes of expression, intonation, and posture. As the band’s very reluctant new member, she’s meant to be our point of entry into their world, and she is everything the show needs(*). But everyone does well with their various corners of the world, like the unwavering enthusiasm of Faith Omole as Bisma tries explaining the comic book she writes on the side, a horror story about women who become homicidal maniacs when on their period. (“Think Handmaid’s Tale meets Rugrats!” she tells some prospective readers.)
(*) Amina also has an overactive imagination, which allows Manzoor to put Vasan and her co-stars into fantasy sequences echoing famous bits of pop culture like Casablanca. On the one hand, the real versions of the characters are so instantly vivid that the show would probably do well just sticking with them. But it becomes another instance where the shift in perspective — in this case, having Vasan channeling Ingrid Bergman — is entertaining in and of itself.
Fictional musicians are generally easier to make convincing than fictional comedians, and for the show to work, we have to believe that this band sounds good enough for Amina to be seduced away from the familiar and safe life she has envisioned for herself. There’s a scene in the second episode where she dismisses a man who dumped her as a “Bashir with the good beard,” and moments later the entire group is improvising a song with that phrase as its chorus. On the one hand, it sounds too instantly polished for any band, let alone a punk quartet that rehearses in garages and the butcher shop. On the other, you will be happy to have it rattling around in your head or days afterwards, which is ultimately more important.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that despite her many reservations, Amina eventually comes to enjoy being part of the band. This extremely satisfying debut season won’t take nearly as long to make you feel the same way.
Peacock is releasing all six episodes of We Are Lady Parts on June 3rd. I’ve seen the whole season.
From Rolling Stone US