In creating the nine-episode first season of “First Wives Club,” Tracy Oliver had a solid starting point: the 1996 feature film of the same name. The source material centered on three friends who banded together after the death of a fourth to get revenge on the cheating men in their lives; it was rooted in some very real pain, but also consisted of comedic hijinks — a sensibility Oliver says is her own.
“I love a raunchy set piece, but I also love writing with heart and staying grounded,” Oliver says.
Her “First Wives Club” explores three distinct looks at marriages gone sour, from Ari (Ryan Michelle Bathe) and David (Mark Tallman), who look great on paper but haven’t been truly connecting well, to Bree (Michelle Buteau) and Gary (RonReaco Lee), who separate after he cheats, to Hazel (Jill Scott) and Derek (Malik Yoba), who also separate due to his infidelity as well as later revelations of his stealing money from her.
Oliver wanted to explore the “nuances” of marriage and divorce with the show, but she didn’t want to make it a maudlin exercise. “These women are empowered and have options and don’t need to stay in a relationship if they don’t want to,” she notes.
Inspired by the film, she did include a “window-washer scene” for Ari and Bree to get Hazel’s attention after her breakup, and she also turned Hazel wanting to get her stuff out of the home she shared with Derek into a heist.
“I really hadn’t seen a heist that had Black women in it, and I love those movies,” Oliver says. “Weirdly we were already doing the episode when I went to see ‘Ocean’s 8,’ and I was inspired by that. Why not do something stylized, fun and a little silly?”
These elements helped set the tone for the season that would also include a drug-trip episode and the kidnapping of Derek.
Oliver notes the characters in the source material and ultimately her own version of the story were older than her and were married and had kids, which meant the show drew heavily from the experiences of the writers she hired for the room.
One woman in particular, Leila Cohan-Miccio, had just had a baby and relayed to Oliver that “people were concerned about hiring someone who’d just had a baby,” Oliver recalls. “But that concern is not the same for men, and those conversations just led to us talking about the double standards in relationships.”
Additionally, although most of the scripts were done before actors were firmly in place, Oliver says that parallels between the portrayers and the characters lent themselves well to the story, too.
“I wasn’t [intentionally] casting a real singer for Hazel,” Oliver says, and “I was really uncomfortable with some of the content in the show after Jill was cast because it felt very personal, and I didn’t want it to be. If you have an actor who is playing an aging singer, you’re a little bit more removed from some of the realities that are in there. She was [also] going through a divorce. And she was honest with me that some of it hit very close to home, but she was game. She said to me, ‘This is my life and at least I can channel some of the pains that I am going through into the work, so let’s keep it in there.’”