Damaged Goods, a new web-series written and directed by Vincent Martell and executive produced by the creators of the hit web-series ‘Brown Girls,’ was recently nominated for a YouTube Best Indie Series Streamy Award. The series follows a diverse cast of messy millennial roommates — Marlo, Ezra, Sanavi, Caleb — as they attempt to survive capitalism and Chicago, while also maintaining their relationships and exploring their egos. From Marlo’s Insta & wellness facade, Ezra’s high stakes side hustles, Sanavi’s traumatically racist and misogynist coworkers, and Caleb’s rocky attempts at self-sufficiency, Martell gives his audiences more than a taste of what life inside the pressure cooker that is the U.S. (post and, likely, pre financial downturn) is like.
And that’s just the drama as it exists outside of the house. When their struggles to assert agency (and pay rent) intersect, fuses are lit.
What makes this web-series particularly engrossing to watch, though, is how incredibly lonely each of these characters is (or becomes). Despite the parties, the sex, the happy hours, the social media, and the vibrancy of Chicago’s foreground, each character battles their own brand of isolation. “Damaged Goods” is a daring, true-to-scale model of the multiplicity of life as struggling young people of color in a metropolis seemingly one perfect for them. As a queer Black femme artist consistently failing to make do in New York City, I appreciated this show’s capacity to make real The Struggle without romanticizing it while still advocating for the humanity, humor, and intrinsic value of The Struggling.
About the Characters:
A seemingly self-possessed Black woman, Marlo spends her days as an Instagram influencer — she takes dozens of selfies before posting curated images of herself stretching, smiling, and drinking “tummy tea” online — and is an instructor for a POC-friendly yoga class. She is the homeowner in charge of collecting everyone’s rent.
The quintessential cool hustler with a heart of gold, Ezra is an uber driver/weed dealer who upgrades to selling crystal meth after driving a rich white woman who works in the trade. Though an artist at his core, his drive for financial stability makes him secretive and a tad self-destructive.
Telling the story of a brown woman working in a predominantly white male work space, is Sanavi. She finds herself “competing” with a white female intern and warding off a predatory boss at work while falling for Ezra at home.
An Asian, genderqueer partygoer, Caleb’s ego and lack of a work ethic leads them to some pretty interesting places full of fun and alarming consequences. They smoke, fuck, and lie in therapy, a resource soon to be stripped from them as their parents look to cut them off financially.
TL;DR: everyone is chasing the bag while being chased by their own demons.
It’s impossible to ignore that millennials are experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress:
Overall, millennials […] reported that they had a stress level of 5.4 out of 10. The researchers generally considered a stress level of 3.6 to be healthy. The numbers are also surprising because overall stress has declined across the country from 5.2 out of 10 in 2011 to 4.9 in 2012.
Though some might suggest that stress is unearned, statistics tell us it is not coming from nowhere. The convergence of lived personal experiences, informed and warped by capitalism and employment, account for the pressures millennials are facing:
Millennials in particular said work (76 percent), money (73 percent) and relationships (59 percent) stressed them out most. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that millennials might feel stressed overall because their unemployment rate is 13.1 percent, compared to the overall nationwide average of 7.8 percent.
As the rising costs of living meets our inability to earn livable — let alone thrivable — wages, we are tasked with creating new avenues of money-making. We are tasked with hustling. This need is explored in “Damaged Goods” specifically through Marlo and Ezra’s mirrored journeys, both of which has us asking about the often false dichotomy of legality and ethics. Marlo’s selling of “tummy tea” and broadcasting of a life she doesn’t actually lead is not illegal, but is it ethical? Ezra selling drugs is obviously illegal, but is it also unethical? They both carelessly question each other’s work, leading to a rift in their friendship and potential houselessness for Ezra.
Another reason this show is so important is because it showcases the importance of (chosen) families for young (queer) people of color. When we see any of their relationships work, it is a sight to behold because we were there to witness how much they each crave a reprieve from the chaos of work, social media, fatigue, trauma. The softness that starts to evolve between Ezra and Sanavi when they start hooking up and confiding their wants for their futures to each other feels so deserved and fought for when we know how tough the outside world has been on them. The trust that exists between Sanavi and Marlo has clearly been built over time if Sanavi knows she can go to her for guidance and empathy after an incident with her boss makes her question her own guilt.
So, then, when something as sharp and oppressive as capitalism drills its way into our relationships, it’s all the more heartbreaking to watch as those intimacies shatter. Or, rather, reveal that maybe those intimacies were never that strong to begin with.
As a Black femme who has watched my own friendships dissolve in an attempt to find work and avoid pesky low-balance reminder texts from Chase Bank and make art and survive daily anxiety attacks, chronic pain, and regularly scheduled depressive episodes, I understand the often damaging pressures of maintenance.
Though no one in the show is said to be living with mental illness, “Damaged Goods” does remind us that the threat of poverty and houselessness can still impact one’s mental health:
Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says that because stress is associated with situations where your survival or safety feels at risk, not having enough to survive on is definitely something that would trigger a stressful response in your body. And feeling stressed over a consistent period of time can be overwhelming and increase your risk for depression.
“When you have that chronic stress response, where every day you’re dealing with this situation, trying to move past it, [the stress] moves to being hurtful for the brain and the body,” she says.
Capitalism has often made me betray myself. I’ve stayed in toxic working environments to pay bills. I’ve not gone to see doctors because my insurance barely covered the costs of necessary tests. Couple living in New York and being neurodivergent with being poor, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for unabated anxiety. This is how stress “moves to being hurtful for the brain and the body.” It’s clear these are real stress factors for real Chicagoans. Despite its “livability,” the city is losing millennials these days, particularly due to the rising cost of living.
Most of the quoted sources above don’t speak to the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. Imagine the pressures of: home insecurity and being Black, losing one’s health insurance and being genderqueer, surviving a toxic work environment as a woman of color. “Damaged Goods” helps us do just that. Sure, it’s a mirror, but it is also a reprieve — we are not alone.
“Damaged Goods” has, possibly, one contender in the Streamy’s Indie Series category. But with its realistic writing and savvy directing, it’s truly hard to imagine that, come December 13, another show will walk away with that award.
Its first season leaves us with a climactic cliffhanger moment between Ezra and Caleb, suggesting that though the word “unapologetic” has come up a lot in describing this web-series and its core characters — unapologetically queer, unapologetically Black, and so on — some apologies might need to be made. Still, “Damaged Goods” makes the argument that our mistakes do not disqualify us from pleasure, care, surviving. Capitalism would have us believe we are all damaged for the ways we try to stay ahead of its fatal mechanisms. We have to be that much more vigilant about our community-building, self-care rituals, understandings of our privileges, and capacity to empathize.
Which, of course, is all easier said than consistently done.