The First Wives Club, the series launching on BET's upcoming streaming service, BET+, is a not a one-to-one replica of the beloved 1996 movie starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton — and the differences go beyond the fact that in this adaptation, the leads are all black women.
Jill Scott plays Hazel, the closest equivalent to Hawn's Elise. But rather than being a washed-up actress, Hazel is a recording artist given the boot by her no-good man. Michelle Buteau, who broke out this year in Always Be My Maybe, plays orthopedic surgeon Bree, who is in the middle of a divorce from her cheating husband. And Ryan Michelle Bathe plays Ari, an attorney who, for the time being anyway, is still married to an aspiring politician David (Mark Tallman). Truth be told, First Wives Club probably made the right call in not mimicking the movie's setup completely, and based on the first few episodes shown to critics, the departure works just fine. This First Wives Club, from Girls Trip scribe Tracy Oliver, is more like a spiritual sister to the flick, largely because of its underlying message of sisterhood and, as Rihanna might put it, getting what you're owed.
"A lot of people ask about the historical significance," Ryan Michelle Bathe told TV Guide via phone, "but it never felt to me like a reimagining as black women. I wouldn't call it a [revival]. It felt like it was about, as women, we are taking the baton. That's a different thing."
Though the original is "definitely in the top 10" of movies Bathe loves, she hasn't spent a ton of time worrying about how purists will judge the show. (That said, she probably will care about the opinions of Goldie Hawn, whom Bathe likes to think of as her "auntie-in-law in show business" since Hawn's daughter Kate Hudson appeared in Marshall with Bathe's husband Sterling K. Brown.) Rather than get bogged down in fans' potential hot takes, Bathe poured herself into Ari, who is questioning how to find fulfillment in the midst of a complicated marriage. "Ari gives up a great deal for her husband's dream," Bathe said. "She has to go along with the dream and she has to stop practicing law. At the end of the day, that proves not enough for her."
That snag in the proverbial sweater exposes another hole in her marriage, one that grows bigger and bigger as Ari's decision to act as Hazel's attorney only further illuminates' issues in Ari's own relationship. At the outset of the series, Ari is seen as composed, professional, and cool-headed. But as the legal situation with Hazel's ex become more complex, Ari gets increasingly frustrated, causing her to lose her polish. Bathe gets funnier the more frazzled Ari gets, and it doesn't take long into the nine-episode season for Ari to go fully off.
"It's code-switching," Bathe said. "One of the things that drew me to the role was that Tracy understands what code-switching is and how we have to [do it], or make the choice to do it. That's not something we see a lot on TV, even in our black-driven shows and movies, where it's either one 'proper' way and one 'real' way. That's not how it is. We've been taught to present in a way that gets us farther professionally, but that doesn't mean we don't have different ways of communicating with our friends."
Bathe said she relates to Ari on several levels, including how they're both "educated, ambitious, and ride or die for our girls." And, like herself, Bathe said that Ari also has quite the mischievous side. "With too much time on her hands, she gets into stuff she shouldn't," the actress teased.
By the time the season concludes, Ari's mischievousness will get the best of her. And though First Wives Club isn't trying to recreate the film, Bathe hints that Ari's wily behavior leads to an incident that will prove familiar to fans of the flick. "There's scaffolding," she said. "I'm not going to tell you more, but Tracy found way to put physical comedy in there. A lot of stuff goes down every single episode; every one was like a little movie."
First Wives Club Season 1 will be available to stream starting Thursday Sept. 19. on BET+