The theme of family strife among the wealthy is so universal that we’ve seen it play out recently with a New York media empire (Succession), a Montana ranching family (Yellowstone) and two shows about vineyards owned by people of color (Promised Land, Kings of Napa). So now we have such a series taking place with a South African family who owns a massive beauty empire, with an element of revenge mixed in for good measure.
Opening Shot: A woman walks into a shower and washes off what looks like blood. Then she starts putting on makeup.
The Gist: Worldwide brand Bhengu Beauty is about to unveil the new face of their brand, after taking submissions from the social media users. It’s an important day for Don Bhengu (Dumisani Mbebe), the mogul that built the company from nothing; after criticism over the company’s overreliance on light-complexioned models and Photoshop, the chosen winner, Zinhle Manzini (Rosemary Zimu), is a beauty who more reflects South Africa’s Black population.
Zinhle has been living in the Bhengu’s mansion for a few weeks, under the strict rule of Don’s first wife Grace (Nthati Moshesh) — he is also married to the younger and more dyspeptic Thando (Angela Sithole), whom Grace constantly criticizes as a low-class drunk. Don and Grace’s kids — Ndu (Oros Mampofu), Linda (Nambitha Ben-Mazwi) and Phila (Jesse Suntele) — all work for him and jockey for his approval.
On the night of the reveal, a picture of Zinhle is used that shows her with a much lighter complexion, embarrassing Don and Grace. As he tries to pin blame on either Linda or Phila, Ndu accompanies Zinhle back to the mansion, mainly because he has a thing for her.
Another issue comes up the next day, as Don has a heart attack while having sex with a young woman named Ruby (Nandi Mbatha); when Grace finds out, her first thoughts are a succession plan and a plan to get Ruby out of the way, especially after a recovering Don tells her that he wants to marry Ruby and create more heirs.
Zinhle, meanwhile, gets permission to go to her hometown of Soweto to attend a cleansing ceremony for her recently-deceased cousin. This is when she and her brother Bonga (Mpho Sebeng) discuss more of their plan to exact their revenge on Don and Grace, whom it turns out they knew during their childhood, and are likely to blame for the death of their cousin. As it was, Zinhle almost smothered Don as he lay unconscious after his heart surgery.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Savage Beauty definitely feels like a pulpier version of Succession mixed with an already pulpy show like Revenge. ABC’s recently-canceled Promised Land also comes to mind.
Our Take: Created by Lebogang Mogashoa, Savage Beauty is certainly a soapy watch, but it’s not a guilty pleasure. Why? Because it deals with some pretty serious class issues. Mogashoa and his writers are adept at showing viewers that Zinhle’s presence in the Bhengu family isn’t by accident, and that there’s more to her winning this “face of Bhengu Beauty” contest than it seems.
What Don and Grace did to Zinhle, her brother and her cousin when they were younger is yet to be mentioned, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that their cousin died of something cancerous and that Bonga has scars all over his face. It’s not until the end of the episode when you realize that Zinhle is scarred as well, but does a fantastic job covering up her scars with makeup.
So it’s not a stretch to think that Don and Grace, who seems to be more heartless than her husband is, went to the lower-class neighborhoods in Soweto to test early versions of their beauty products on people there, with horrific results. If you watched the docuseries Not So Pretty, you know that some of what goes into personal care products shouldn’t be on people’s skin. So imagine if early versions of Bhengu Beauty’s products were so toxic that they burned people’s skin and internal organs?
Again, the show isn’t trying to lay all that out in the first episode, which is smart. We just know that Zinhle is out for revenge, that Don Bhengu is a pretty bad man who considers women fertile wombs that are used to crank out heirs, and that Grace will do anything in her power to stay the family’s queen and keep the pie from being split any more than it already is.
There are some parts of South African life, like the fact that Don Bhengu is polygamous, that may cause you to reach for your handy Google machine. But for the most part, a show like Savage Beauty would have fit well at an American broadcast network of basic cable channel, minus some of the language and nudity.
Sex and Skin: Ruby and Don have sex and there is plenty of nudity to be seen there.
Parting Shot: Zinhle takes her makeup off to reveal the extensive scarring on the back of her head, running down to her shoulder.
Sleeper Star: Nambitha Ben-Mazwi’s Linda certainly seems like the Shiv of this family, who seems to be the most “normal” one, or at least the one who’s working the hardest for her father, but just never gets the recognition she deserves or wants.
Most Pilot-y Line: Grace looks at all the flowers and cards sent to her home and says, “You’d swear I’m the one who had a heart attack.” Nah, she’s not bitter at all.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Yes, Savage Beauty is a pretty pulpy show. But it’s pulpy in very good ways, with a revenge plot that speaks to both South Africa’s class issues plus issues like colorism and the marketing of toxic beauty products to women.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.