You need to be on board with the idea of wanting to watch a rich, privileged, self-centered brat trying to gain popularity in her new college and winning over a guy who already has a girlfriend if you want to enjoy ‘Miseducation’. If that sounds like something you can deal with, welcome to the life of 19-year-old Mbali Hadebe, a complete wannabe who is quite entertaining to watch due to her ridiculous antics, such as throwing an over-the-top party without telling her mum, complete with personalized fireworks that light up as #Mbali19 and ‘blessing’ her Cartier bracelet with champagne.
Created by Katleho and Rethablile Ramaphakela, the 2023 Netflix series “Miseducation” stars Buntu Petse as the protagonist Mbali, who runs off to a small-town university in Makhanda (it’s a real place, nothing to do with Wakanda) to save face after her corrupt politician mom, Brenda Hadebe (Baby Cele), faces arrest for embezzling student funds. But, attention-hungry as always, the teenager runs the campaign for a college presidential candidate and makes the most ironic promise of all – a reduction in student fees! Can Mbali make new friends, regain her popularity and win the hot new guy? “Miseducation” answers these questions in the course of six episodes.
Lunga Shabalala plays Sivu Levine, a third-year student who is also an Olympian and catches Mbali’s eye on her very first day. Sivu is running for the presidential election, and his strongest contender is Caesar (Mpho Sebeng), a student in his late twenties who’s been studying at the university for years and has been President multiple times. While Caesar has a clear political agenda and his campaign is race-driven, Sivu is all over the place and Mbali decides to help him as a way to win him over. To get close to Sivu, she befriends his sister Natalie Levine (Micaela Jade Tucker) with the help of her only friend on campus – Jay (Prev Reddy), an enterprising tech student with multiple side-hustles. While Mbali’s new little clique with African-Indian Jay and Natalie have an almost cliched campus experience, the writers offer some contrast in the story through Mbali’s roommate, Aphiwe, who comes from a poor family and is struggling with part-time jobs to cover her student loans.
It took me a few minutes to realize that this is a South African show because “Miseducation” is like most light American teen shows these days, featuring popularity-hungry teens, partying, backstabbing, romance, positive LGBTQ+ representation, and the controversial “cancel culture”. What does set apart this series slightly apart from the usual romantic teen comedies is the amount of screen-time dedicated to campus politics. Characters sometimes switch to speaking in Zulu, Xhosa, and other regional South African languages, but these brief language deviations aren’t distracting at all; instead, they add a cultural dimension to the plot. The cinematography is straightforward, featuring bright and colorful visuals that exude a summery aesthetic. Mbali often hangs out at a bar with Jay in the evenings, so those scenes are bathed in neon tints, which effectively shift the mood from the daytime settings.
The theme of a colonial hangover and how many South African students still feel the shadow of white supremacists looming over them was quite intriguing to me as an Indian viewer. For example, Mbali’s university is known as Grahamstown University, and one of Caesar’s biggest election promises is to rename their institution as Makhanda University, shedding its colonial nomenclature. In India, entire cities have been renamed to discard either colonial or Mughal legacies. Although “Miseducation” doesn’t deep dive into some of the political issues taken up by its student protagonists, it does provide a lot of food for thought with the small sub-plots involving ideological conflicts between students. And the writing is often funny and clever. For instance, when Caesar campaigns by shouting his slogan, ‘vote for change,’ a student humorously remarks, ‘You’ve been on the student council for nine years; the only change we need is for you to graduate.’ In a standout ‘Gen Z’ moment, two characters in the series choose to embrace their first intimate encounter, sealing the deal with a detailed consent form outlining their ‘DOs & DON’Ts’
Buntu Petse is amusing as protagonist Mbali, although, Prev Reddy and Micaela Jade Tucker are more entertaining as supporting characters Jay and Natalie, both of whom are trying to navigate their romantic lives while trying to have fulfilling friendships. Mbali does prove to be a reliable friend to the two of them a few times but her intrinsic selfishness always overpowers her. And because Mbali isn’t very likable, the emotional notes in “Miseducation” never hit a chord. So when Mbali is reduced to tears for biting her friends in the back, you’d probably say “you deserve it girl” in your head while watching the show.
The last episode culminates with the aftermath of the student elections and Mbali faces the music for all the scheming, cheating and manipulating she does for making things go her way. Will she solider through another year at the University, or will she run away again? The sixth episode ends with a character exclaiming “What the F…” and the end credits roll in before they can finish that sentence. It’s a hilarious twist that definitely makes me want to watch a season two.
You can stream “Miseducation” on Netflix.
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