'First Wives Club': TV Review

First Wives Club - episode 101 - Ryan Michelle Bathe -Mark Tallman - Publicity -H 2019
Karolina Wojtasik/BET
Bland, broad and blue.

BET+'s sitcom reboot of the 1996 film stars Jill Scott, Michelle Buteau and Ryan Michelle Bathe as a trio of scorned wives digging themselves out from marital hell.

When The First Wives Club premiered in 1996, the splashy feminist revenge comedy was a surprise overnight hit and eventually grossed six times its modest budget. Although the film directly appealed to middle-aged women ??— many of whom could relate to the plight of three seasoned protagonists who are ditched by their philandering husbands for younger ingenues — it became a cult classic for generations of young women to come.

I watched the movie repeatedly on HBO as a child, glorying in the devilish rage that fuels Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler's vengeance. In ninth grade, I even devoured the little-known Olivia Goldsmith novel on which the screenplay is based (actually quite a racy book). I rarely use the hackneyed buzzword "empowering" to describe, well, anything. But The First Wives Club, replete with clever legal and financial payback, felt empowering.

If only BET+'s First Wives Club felt like much of anything at all. Luckily, no memories of the original film were harmed in the making of this flavorless TV sitcom. (All nine episodes drop simultaneously via this video-on-demand offshoot of the cable network.) A nod to the original story in structure only, First Wives Club features three long-married college friends who reunite after some years of passive estrangement to support each other through divorce, adultery and plain-ole matrimonial discontentment.

But that's about where the parallels end. Instead, executive producer Tracy Oliver (co-writer of Girls Trip, one of 2017's funniest hits) uses the franchise name to launch a new story centering successful black women suddenly tossed aside in favor of shinier prospects. It's a winning conceit for a TV reboot, but the broad, blue humor — which works well in a 100-minute film — renders each half-hour episode a slog.

This may be the first single-cam comedy I have ever wished were multicam. At least a laugh track, an illusion of mirth, would alert me that an actual joke had been made. The show's hyuk-hyuk comic tone may have jelled better with the stagey hyper-reality that multiple cameras evoke. Without canned laughter, the beats manage to make you feel lonely, as though you keep missing pings of amusement that never arrive. One such thudding punchline: "Is that my fur coat?!" exclaims a character spying a homeless man in an alley. "He wanted a hand job, Hazel. OK, it got very dark. You're lucky I'm still here!"

Singer-actress Jill Scott (so winsome in HBO's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) stars as the show's analog to Goldie Hawn's character in the film, a resident diva navigating the betrayal of her producer husband. Trading an aging movie star for an aging R&B artist, First Wives Club uses Hazel's histrionic split from gaslighting Derek (Malik Yoba) as the dramatic locus from which most of the story's pathos and hijinks spring.

As recording opportunities slip away before her eyes, largely due to her ex's industry blackballing, she watches her former love commandeer their cash and bar her from the penthouse they bought with her earnings. (In a reference to Solangegate, viral security footage blasts images of Hazel lashing out at her husband and his snotty 20-something mistress, played by Tasie Lawrence.) Hazel's revenge game includes overspending on Derek's dime and running a heist in their apartment to retrieve her possessions.

Faring just as badly is Bree, a harried Fort Greene surgeon and mother whose stay-at-home husband (RonReaco Lee) cheated on her with a neighborhood mom. (Her part is closest to the one Bette Midler played in the original film as an unglamorous bigmouth whose schemes revitalize her self-image.) Michelle Buteau, a standout from Netflix film Always Be My Maybe, brings bubbly energy to the role of a bottled-up woman getting her groove back after decades of placid monogamy. Unfortunately, the show reduces her newfound sexual liberation to flat, farcical mischief, including a scene where she dons a fedora and trench coat to purchase Plan B at a local drugstore. (Remember what I was saying about a mitigating laugh track?)

Ryan Michelle Bathe plays their bestie Ari, a former attorney unhappily married to an Obama-like robo-politician (Mark Tallman) whose bizarre sexual habits signify their performative union. A coiffed perfectionist grinning through underlying fury, Ari gave up practicing law in order to support her husband's senatorial campaign. Like Diane Keaton's character in The First Wives Club, she's an intellectual who is also deeply in denial about her relationship. While Scott is soulful and Buteau spritzy, Bathe is their cold marble foil. Individually, they zing, but together they don't share much chemistry.

It took ages for this show to air, which is partly why the wan outcome is so disappointing. As rumors of a movie sequel have ricocheted in development hell since 2002, TV Land commissioned and eventually passed on a 2016 pilot about three young starter wives played by Alyson Hannigan, Megan Hilty and Vanessa Lachey. 

Like lurid dust bunny Why Women Kill, First Wives Club leans so heavily on the treachery of infidelity that the show misses opportunities to explore other types of toxic marriages. Hell hath no fury like a critic bored.

Cast: Jill Scott, Michelle Buteau, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Malik Yoba, RonReaco Lee, Mark Tallman, Taisie Lawrence, Tobias Truvillion, Tara Pacheco

Executive producers: Tracy Oliver, Karen Rosenfelt, Scott Rudin, Lilly Burns, Tony Hernandez

Premieres: Thursday, Sept. 19 (BET+)