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TV Review: ‘The First Wives Club’ on BET Plus

Caroline Framke

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Launching a series based on a beloved property is harder than it seems. On the one hand, you get the immediate boost of name recognition to lure in preexisting fans. On the other, straying too far from the plot and/or spirit of the original risks sparking their righteous wrath. It’s a tricky balance to strike, as Hulu’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and Paramount’s shelved “Heathers” reboot found out the hard way.

Enter “The First Wives Club,” a new series from Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”) that will drop simultaneously with BET’s new streaming service, BET Plus. The original 1992 movie starred Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn as a trio of furious wives in varying states of crisis, each learning how to stand up to their careless husbands and put themselves first. In that respect, the themes of the movie are pretty much timeless, and so Oliver doesn’t waste too much time trying to tie the show to its source material beyond some vague parallels between her lead characters and the film’s.

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The most obvious holdover is Jill Scott taking on the Hawn role of a histrionic diva with Hazel Rochelle, an R&B singer determined to fight the line from the music industry and her sleazy producer husband (Malik Yoba) that she’s past her prime. Hazel’s fighting the good fight in general, but her love of being rich and successful has also made her forget what it means to look out for other people’s comfort, a thing that only her nearest and dearest can ever point out. That inner circle hasn’t included her friends Bree (Michelle Buteau) and Ari (Ryan Michelle Bathe for a long time, but her suddenly ugly and extremely public divorce brings them back together so quickly that it’s easy to forget beyond the pilot that there was ever a gap in their friendship at all.

Together, Scott, Buteau, and Bathe make convincing partners in crime (sometimes literally, as in the case of a slapstick-heavy episode about the women trying to pull off a retaliatory apartment heist). Separately, they have a bit more trouble finding anchors in the scripts. Scott’s best in Hazel’s quieter moments, which are few and far between repetitive meltdowns. Ari’s status as a former attorney turned quietly simmering politician’s wife means that Bathe frequently has to play the buzzkill, but she’s so much more vibrant in the rare scenes when Ari gets to snap that it’ll be a shame if the show doesn’t let her lean into that mode more going forward. Buteau probably gets the least dynamic written material with the part of Bree, a frustrated surgeon whose once doting husband cheated on her, and yet hers is the energetic performance that most often leaps off the screen.

Though the TV show has more time to explore each woman’s past and desire for a more fulfilling future than the movie did, Oliver’s “First Wives Club” embodies the defiant spirit of that final “You Don’t Own Me” dance from the beginning. Its women know their worth almost immediately, and so the driving force of the story isn’t the search for self-esteem, but their push to get everyone else to take them as seriously as they take themselves. That plus their renewed friendship will make for rich narrative areas if the show leans into them rather than the early episodes’ flatter quests for revenge.

“The First Wives Club” premieres September 19 on BET+.

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