Aasif Mandvi, Bless This Mess, Christine Lahti, Dickinson, Evil, First Wives Club, Friends, Godfather of Harlem, Goliath, Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, Hisan Minhaj, James Spader, Katja Herbers, Katy Keene, Kurt Fuller, Leavenworth, Looking for Alaska, Michael Emerson, Michelle Buteau, Michelle King, Mike Colter, New York City, Party of Five, Robert King, Room 104, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Tracy Oliver, Transparent, Tribeca TV Festival
September 16, 2019
by Carla Hay
The third annual Tribeca TV Festival (which took place September 12 to September 15 in New York City) once again offered a diverse mix of programming representing various TV genres. This year, the entire festival took place at the Regal Battery Park Cinemas in New York City. In most cases, a new episode of a show premiered at the festival, and there was a post-screening Q&A with stars from the show and at least one executive producer. The event also featured a 25th anniversary reunion of “Friends” executive producers who curated two episodes from the classic sitcom. There were also “Tribeca Talks” celebrity conversations with Emmy-winning actor James Spader (who was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg) and comedian Hisan Minhaj.
At the festival, I saw the first-episode premieres of two new series: The comedy “First Wives Club” (which launches on the BET+ streaming service on September 19) and the crime-drama “Evil,” which debuts on CBS on September 26, 2019.
“First Wives Club” Review
The “First Wives Club” show is the TV version of the 1996 comedy film that starred Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler as three wives getting revenge on their ex-husbands, who dumped them for other women. The movie was rated PG, and the TV series (whose showrunner is “Girls Trip” co-writer Tracy Oliver) is definitely for mature audiences, since the show has nudity and explicit language that can be seen in R-rated movies. People will inevitably compare the TV show to the movie (which are both set in New York City), so here’s a helpful summary of the similarities and the differences:
In the movie, the three women (who have known each other since their college days) are reunited in the beginning of the story because of the suicide of their college pal Cynthia Swann Griffin (played by Stockard Channing), who’s been depressed that her ex-husband married a much-younger woman. Keaton played Annie MacDuggan Paradis, an intellectual, super-organized type who likes to pretend that things are going better in her life than they really are. Midler played Brenda Morelli Cushman, the loud-mouthed humorous friend who’s still very bitter over her divorce. Hawn played Elise Eliot Atchison, an Oscar-winning actress who drinks heavily and has become so insecure about her looks that she’s addicted to plastic surgery.
From the beginning of the movie, Brenda is already divorced from her sleazy ex-husband Morton Cushman (played by Dan Hedaya), an electronics-retail businessman who’s gotten engaged to his gold-digger mistress Shelly Stewart (played Sarah Jessica Parker). Brenda and Morton have a teenage son, who’s often embarrassed by Brenda’s blunt attitude. Annie has a better relationship with her own child: She and Aaron have a young, adult lesbian daughter named Chris (played by Jennifer Dundas), who helps Annie get revenge on Aaron.
The movie shows the breakup of Annie’s and Elise’s marriages. Annie’s ad-executive husband Aaron (played by Stephen Collins) leaves her for Annie’s therapist Leslie Rosen (played by Marcia Gay Harden). Elise’s movie-producer husband Bill (played by Victor Garber) has been cheating on her with ditzy actress Phoebe LaVelle (played by Elizabeth Berkley), who’s young enough to be his daughter. Annie and Brenda gave up their careers to become housewives and stay-at-home mothers, so their divorces have a different type of identity crisis than Elise’s divorce, since Elise has no children and still maintained her career throughout her marriage.
In the TV show, Ryan Michelle Bathe is Ari Montgomery, the counterpart to Keaton’s Annie MacDuggan Paradis. Ari is an attorney who has given up her law practice to become the campaign manager for her senator husband David (played by Mark Tallman). In the first episode of the series, Ari and David are having problems in their marriage (he’s become bored and uninterested in her), but Ari is still projecting an image to the world that her life is perfect. Although Ari and David’s kids are mentioned, they are not seen in this episode. However, in the Q&A after the screening, it was revealed that Ari and David have a lesbian daughter (whom Buteau called “gender-bending”) who first appears in the show’s third episode. The daughter’s name is Versace, and she’s played by Tara Pacheco. At the Q&A, Oliver declined to elaborate on what Versace’s storyline is in the show.
Michelle Buteau plays Bree Washington, an orthopedic surgeon who is the counterpart to Midler’s Brenda Morelli Cushman. In the first episode, viewers see that Bree is separated from her businessman husband Gary (played by RonReaco Lee) because she found out that he cheated on her. (The other woman, who is described as a one-night stand, is not seen in this episode.) Buteau, who’s also a stand-up comedian in real life, seems to have some of the best lines in the show. In one scene that has the three friends on a high-rise window-washing platform (in a nod to a similar scene in the movie), Bree yells, “Bitch, you got us out here like brown-tittied Spider-Men!”
Jill Scott plays Hazel Rachelle, a fading R&B star who is the counterpart to Hawn’s Elise Eliot Atchison. Hazel isn’t as obsessed with her looks as Elise is, but Hazel is worried about her career and getting older in an industry that prefers young artists. Just like Elise, Hazel works closely with her husband, so when their marriage ends messily, her career is also in jeopardy. Hazel’s cheating husband is Derek Ellsworth (played by Malik Yoba), the head of her record company, and he’s been having a not-so-secret affair with a sultry young diva named Stella Bentley (played by Tasie Lawrence), whom he’s been grooming to replace Hazel as his next big hitmaker. The episode’s first big emotional meltdown scene comes when Hazel finds out about his infidelity, and storms into a recording studio to confront Derek. And yes, things get thrown, and things get broken.
The main difference in the comedy styles of the movie and the TV show is that the comedy in the TV show is less broad and more rooted in reality, which is why there’s so much adult humor in the show. And in a switch from how most adult-oriented TV shows portray sex scenes, in “First Wives Club,” the men, not the women, are the ones who are shown naked (backsides, not full frontal), at least in the first episode. That might be because “First Wives Club” show has a female gaze, since the majority of the show’s writers and directors are women.
In one hilarious bedroom scene, Ari and David have unsatisfying sex, but David thinks he’s an amazing lover. In the episode’s other sex scene, Bree takes home a hunky bartender named Jesus (played by Angel Garet) after he flirts with her at the nightclub where he works. Showing the sexual needs of the three main characters in the TV series is a big contrast from the movie, where the three main characters do not have any sex scenes, and only one of them (Elise) seems interested in dating again after her marriage ends.
At the Q&A, Bathe said she can’t watch her sex scene in the first episode: “I still haven’t seen it. I closed my eyes!” Tallman replied, “You’re really good in it. I’m just embarrassing.” Buteau said she was happy to represent for “thick” women: “My husband could not be more proud. As a size 18 broad, no one [on a TV show] is like, ‘Oh, go make out and open your legs.’ You’re usually [cast as] the best friend. Body positivity, all the motherfuckin’ way! Let’s go!”
Oliver also talked about how the show breaks convention by casting two “thick” women in leading roles: “I remember on day one of shooting the pilot [episode], Jill [Scott] came up to me and said, “Thank you for having two thick girls in your cast. I’ve never actually had that happen’ … Let’s expand the definition of what beauty is, and not just make this all about skinny women, and really diversify what everyone looks like.”
A previous attempt to make a TV version of “The First Wives Club” for the TV Land network fizzled in 2016. Vanessa Lachey, Megan Hilty and Alyson Hannigan had been cast as the stars of the show, which was going to be set in San Francisco. After the blockbuster success of 2017’s “Girls Trip,” Oliver was asked to do the TV version of “The First Wives Club,” which was going to be on the Paramount Network before the show moved to the BET+ streaming service.
Oliver said at the Q&A that in an industry where people have to beg for work and have to deal with constant rejections, being given this opportunity as a first-time showrunner “almost never happens.” She added that she was just as surprised when she faced no objections to her requirement that people of color would be the stars of the show: “That was the one opportunity I’ve had where I said what my parameters were up front, and they agreed to it.”
Another big change from the movie to the TV show is that there is no fourth friend who commits suicide in the beginning of the story. During the post-screening Q&A, Oliver explained: “With movies, you have the luxury of time. With a half-hour pilot [episode], if we’re laughing after a death within 10 minutes, it’s a little weird.” Instead, what brings the three friends back together is Hazel’s scandal-plagued and very messy divorce.
As for scenes from the movie that made it into the TV show, there are two memorable scenes that were mentioned in the Q&A. In the movie, Donald Trump’s first ex-wife Ivana has a cameo playing herself, and she gives this divorce advice: “Don’t get mad. Get everything.” (That became the tag line for the movie.) In the TV show, the famous ex-wife who delivers that line is Shaunie O’Neal, ex-wife of basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. The movie also has a memorable scene with the three women, dressed all in white, singing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Oliver said that the TV show also has a “You Don’t Own Me” scene, but she didn’t want to spill any more details: “I can’t say anything about that, but what I will say is that we do our own White Party and a version of that [song] in the show.”
One of the best things about the show is that the chemistry between the three main characters seems very natural, not forced. And if the camaraderie looks genuine on screen, that’s because the three women have become friends in real life. Oliver says it was a stroke of luck, because before the show began filming, “They never actually did a chemistry read together, which is a disastrous way to ever do a show about friends … I don’t know how it happened, but they loved each other immediately.”
Buteau said of the trio: “We’re all fire signs. We’re all only children. We all have so much in common. We’ve all had to fight for our place in whatever Hollywood was giving us. For this all-inclusive experience, it was like showing up to work with smiles every day. Also, working with boss-ass bitches who are moms and get stuff done, I follow you!”
BET+ will premiere “First Wives Club” on September 19, 2019.
Husband-and-wife TV showrunners Robert King and Michelle King, who created the Emmy-winning hit “The Good Wife” (as well as the spinoff “The Good Fight”), have another potential hit with the crime drama “Evil.” Just like most of the Kings’ recent TV series, “Evil” features a complex woman in the lead role, and the series explores themes that have to do with ethics, ambition, and gray areas of morality.
In “Evil,” Katja Herbers plays Kristen Bouchard, a skeptical female psychologist who teams up with priest-in-training David Acosta (played by Mike Colter) and carpenter Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) to investigate the unexplained mysteries uncovered by the Catholic Church. Kristen and David naturally clash in the way they investigate—she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and he does (which might remind people of the male/female investigator relationship in “The X-Files”)—and it wouldn’t be a King show without sexual tension. It’s revealed in the first episode that Kristen, who’s married with four young daughters, is sexually attracted to David, who has a colorful background as a world traveler and former war photographer. Kristen’s husband is frequently away from home, which explains why she’s feeling lonely. Because David is studying to become a priest (in other words, he’s preparing to lead a celibate life), it obviously adds a layer of tension to the “will they or won’t they hook up” subplot that the show is clearly setting up as an ongoing issue between Kristen and David.
The first episode of “Evil” is a little overstuffed with villains, and rushes through several things in order to pack in numerous plot developments, but the good news for crime-thriller fans is that this show definitely has plenty of scares and suspense. Without giving away any spoilers, the three villains introduced in the first episode are:
- A demon named George (played by Marti Matulis), who looks like something out of the “Insidious” movie series, and who taunts Kristen in what she believes are her nightmares.
- A suspected serial killer named Orson LeRoux , who is in jail while on trial and is repeatedly interviewed by Kristen and David. (Shades of “The Silence of the Lambs.”)
- A mysterious creep named Leland Townsend (played by Michael Emerson, the former “Lost” and “Person of Interest” actor who’s made a career out of playing mysterious creeps), who gleefully commits all sorts of mayhem.
Somehow, these villains are all tied in to an enigmatic group of evildoers called The 60.
Kristen’s therapist, Dr. Boggs (played by Kurt Fuller), is also introduced in the first episode. Fans of these types of shows can speculate that this character probably isn’t what he first appears to be. In other words, can Dr. Boggs really be trusted? We’ll have to wait and see. At the post-screening Q&A, “Evil” executive producer Robert King hinted at Boggs’ dark side, by saying that Boggs has “problems.”
There’s no shortage of real-life supernatural investigations to inspire stories for this show, so if “Evil” is a hit, it could go for years without running out of ideas. Expect to see many scenes of “possessed” people in this show, but Robert King also said don’t expect the show to be “all exorcisms, all the time.” “Evil” will also push some emotional buttons when it comes to debates over religion and spirituality.
Overall, “Evil” is one of the better-quality new shows being offered on broadcast TV this year. Some of the scenes are so terrifying, that “Evil” looks like it could also be on a cable network such as AMC (home of “The Walking Dead”) or FX (home of “American Horror Story”).
At the post-screening Q&A, Michelle King said that, just like the female and male lead characters in “Evil,” she and husband Robert have very different beliefs when it comes to evil: “We don’t see the roots of evil in the same way. Robert typically thinks it comes through something religious, something demonic. I’m much more likely to jump to the psychological or the scientific.”
Robert King added, “When you look around and see some of the evil going on in politics or whatever, you kind of think there’s something going beyond …. what science can explain. When you see what’s going on with racism in this country, there’s something that holds people [to racism], and I don’t think it’s all in genes.”
Robert King said that “Evil” will include a lot of timely social topics. For example, in the show’s sixth episode, Leland grooms a male incel loner to possibly become a mass murderer. “If you’re not writing about that today,” said Robert King,”I don’t know if you’re awake, because you’re watching what’s going on with lone gunmen [who commit mass murders], how people are creating communities around anger, frustration, bitterness, racism.”
Herbers shared how she develops the character of Kristen Bouchard: “I work on intuition, and I go with what’s on the page. The scripts are absolutely incredible.” She also added that she works off of the flow of her fellow actors, but she’s not a Method actor: “I’m not one of those people who needs to go into solitary confinement … I did have to study psychology for about a year. I have very little knowledge of the Catholic Church.”
Colter commented on his David Acosta character: “I think he is a work in progress. He’s trying to achieve something that few people can, and be happy in that world.” Colter added that what attracted him to the role was that David was described as “the most interesting man in the world.”
When asked if Leland Townsend is “evil,” Emerson replied: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘evil.’ I think he’s playful. He’s a kind of a gamesman, maybe. He likes stirring things up. It delights him to watch things spin out of control. The wreckage appeals to him.”
Mandvi said that he’s had “many” supernatural experiences, so he’s almost the opposite of his Ben Shakir character: “Ben is a guy who really believes only in the things you can touch, taste, feel, smell, hear. He lives in a world of pragmatism and empirical truth. David needs that in his life as well.”
Christine Lahti, who is not in the first episode of “Evil,” was nevertheless at the Q&A. She plays Kristen’s divorced mother Sheryl, whom Lahti described as a “free spirit” and former rock groupie. “I’m the surrogate babysitter,” Lahti said, “My character is a little more comic relief than anything.” She added that Sheryl is “hungry for a relationship,” because she “got rid of [her] husband, who was very controlling, about 15 years ago.” Lahti teased that Sheryl does find love on the show, “but I’m not going to tell you who it’s with.” Robert King dropped a hint though: “She ends up dating somebody on this stage.”
Fuller said his Dr. Boggs character is “the person in this show that Kristen is actually honest with. She trusts [Dr. Boggs] and tells [him] everything that’s going on with her. If it wasn’t for her sessions with , she would spin out of control.”
Robert King said that members of The 60 will definitely be in the show. “Some may be in the White House, some may be in ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” he teased.
Here’s a photo recap of the festival:
Tribeca Talks: James Spader and Whoopi Goldberg
Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem” HBO’s “Room 104”
(Series premiere: Sept. 29, 2019) (Season 3 premiere: Sept. 13, 2019)
BET+’s “First Wives Club”
(Series premiere: September 19, 2019)
“Friends” 25th Anniversary Reunion
Amazon Prime Video’s “Goliath”
(Season 3 premiere: October 4, 2019)
AMC’s “Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America”
(Series premiere: October 13, 2019)
The CW’s “Katy Keene”
(Series premiere: Sometime in 2020)
Freeform’s “Party of Five”
(Series premiere: January 8, 2020)
CBS’s “Evil” ABC’s “Bless This Mess”
(Series premiere: Sept. 26, 2019) (Season 2 premiere: Sept. 24, 2019)
(Series premiere: October 20, 2019)
Hulu’s “Looking for Alaska”
(Series premiere: October 18, 2019)
Tribeca Talks: Hisan Minhaj
Apple TV +’s “Dickinson”
(Series premiere: November 1, 2019)
Amazon Prime Video’s “Transparent”
(Series finale: September 27, 2019)