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Harper Stewart, the ambitious, obstinate protagonist of Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man franchise, has always had questionable decision-making skills and terrible timing.
In the eponymous 1999 film, the young writer, played by Taye Diggs, avoids telling his best friend Lance (Morris Chestnut) that he slept with his fiancée (Monica Calhoun) in college until days before the couple’s wedding (in which Harper is the best man). The news threatens both the nuptials and the stability of the friend group, forcing Harper to work some eleventh-hour magic. In The Best Man Holiday (2013), more after-school special than its predecessor, Harper surreptitiously tries to convince a still angry Lance to hire him as a biographer while struggling to support his pregnant wife, Robyn (Sanaa Lathan).
The lessons Harper learns after each narrow win never seem to stick, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Best Man: The Final Chapters, the staid 8-episode miniseries that serves as the franchise’s coda. Fifteen years after the events in The Best Man, Harper still navigates his ambition, his marriage and parenting with a familiar and frustrating clumsiness. His friends face their own problems, too: Lance, Quentin (Terrence Howard), Murch (Harold Perrineau), Jordan (Nia Long), Candy (Regina Hall) and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) have settled into the grooves of adulthood, which include the merry-go-round of breakups, career highs, personal lows and existential crises.
Lee ushers his beloved characters — which helped launch the careers of a cadre of talented Black performers — into new decades of their life. There’s a nostalgia-laden sweetness to The Final Chapters, which, like Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That, observes these characters’ misadventures in middle age. When Lee introduced this college gang to the world on the cusp of the new millennium, representation for aspiring bourgeois Black characters was sparse. The industry, still lacking when it comes to diversity, also couldn’t shake its inherent hostility toward Black performers. In the years since, several television shows (Insecure, Harlem, Run the World) have inherited and revamped the model set by The Best Man, Living Single and others. But The Final Chapters isn’t courting the audiences of the more recent ventures; it’s trying to grow alongside the original Best Man demographic.
The franchise, which now includes Insecure’s Dayna Lynne North as a showrunner, has shed some of its overt misogyny by giving the women in this friend group meatier plotlines. Jordan is a newsroom executive finding ways to manage her stress and take better care of herself. Robyn wants to merge her passion for community organizing with her work as a caterer. Shelby, a Real Housewives alum, gets the entrepreneurial bug and launches her own businesses. And Candy pursues a graduate degree while helping Murch, her husband, run their growing number of charter schools. The increased screentime gives Lathan, De Sousa, Long and the incomparable Hall an opportunity to explore their characters and imbue them with greater dimensionality.
Even though the women play larger roles, the emotional core of the series remains the friendship between the four men who started it all. Harper, Lance, Quentin and Murch reflect different shades of an older, more conservative Black professional class. Their concerns have shifted from sex and marriage to securing their legacies, acquiring generational wealth, combating corporate racism, caring for aging parents and trying to understand their mercurial teens. Conversations — about life, about being Black men in the United States — take place over poker nights, where DP Greg Gardiner’s camera pans around as each person stiffly confesses to their troubles and voices questions haunting them. How do they define themselves now? What dreams have they left unrealized? What opportunities have they abandoned? What blessings do they wish to celebrate?
The Final Chapters revolves around these new matters and some old ones. Committing to rituals (poker night, book club, dinners with friends), saying goodbye to the past and relinquishing the temptations of the ego are central to a bulk of the episodes. “Paradise,” the first episode, begins with a brisk montage summarizing the first two films before picking up two years after The Best Man Holiday. Quentin has decided to get married, perhaps partially motivated by Mia’s deathbed question of who will care for him. His fiancée is international model and icon Xiomara (Nicole Ari Parker), a woman who has converted the whiskey-pounding, slick-talking Lothario into giving up alcohol and taking up meditation. That transformation leaves Quentin with a discomforting self-seriousness, one that Harper immediately worries about upon arrival at San Pierre, the fictional island where the wedding is being held.
The first three episodes capitalize off the raunchy, infectious energy of The Best Man and parts of The Best Man Holiday, giving the illusion of freshness. The guys adopt, for the most part, the same personas as in the films and try to decide whether or not Quentin is making a mistake. Once the dust of the most recent wedding settles, the series struggles to find its footing. The weight of too many storylines and the earnest desire to give every character a chance lead to uneven pacing and threads that inspire déjà vu. In “Paradise,” Harper must again confront his friends about a proposition to exploit their lives: His first novel — the one that kicked off the series and the group’s troubles — is being turned into a film and he’d like their blessing. Although there are glimpses of growth, Harper still struggles to be straightforward about his ambition and honest about his commitments. It’s hard to endure the same journey once, let alone three times.
The Final Chapter promises a kind of character development it only partially delivers on. Part of that can be attributed to the tendency to tidy up Big Conversations with pat remarks and swift expository dialogue. The interactions between characters lose the warmth of the earlier films and take on a coolness more typical of friendly strangers. A few moments in the latter episodes manage to resuscitate the familiar energy that made the franchise so popular, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is missing.
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