With her new comedy Harlem, coming to Amazon Prime Video this December, Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver is getting a chance to tell her most personal story yet.
Below, EW has an exclusive first look at the series starring Meagan Good, Grace Byers, Shoniqua Shandai, and Jerrie Johnson as four best girlfriends in their thirties, living in the famed historically Black NYC neighborhood, who are helping each other navigate the turning points they're at in both their professional and romantic lives.
Sarah Shatz/Amazon Jerrie Johnson, Meagan Good, Grace Byers, and Shoniqua Shandai star in 'Harlem' on Amazon Prime Video.
Oliver says the idea came to her years ago, before Girls Trip, when she noticed "there just wasn't a lot of like Black female friendship stories on the air, and those have always been my favorites. I've loved Girlfriends, and Sex and the City, and even Living Single, though that was more co-ed." She states, "Usually what I do when there's something missing that I really want to see is I just decide, okay, well I'll just write it. So I did."
It took a few years, and a few hit films, for Oliver to finally get a chance to make the series though, but the universal issues it dives into remain relevant.
"I wanted to be able to explore career stuff, but not necessarily in this overly aspirational way," she said. "With Megan Good's character for example, Camille thought she was doing everything right. And then what we're doing with her in this season is that everything that she thought that you could script in life, that you could plan out perfectly and it was just going to go the way that you imagined it, all of it falls apart for her."
Oliver points out "a lot of shows that are faced with women in their twenties show your twenties as the time that you're young and you're crazy and you're figuring it out. But then, by the time you reach your thirties, you should just have it all mapped out." That did not resonate with the creator and many of her peers. "I was like, 'But I'm in my thirties and I don't have everything together.' And I have so many friends that are still figuring themselves out too, or even starting over... And so I was kind of like, 'Well, let's be truthful about how the thirties doesn't necessarily mean that you have it all together.'"
Barry King/Getty Images Screenwriter Tracy Oliver at the premiere of 'Girls Trip.'
Introducing her four leads, Oliver first recalls how for lesbian tech entrepreneur Tye, "I was adamant that we needed someone who was actually queer. I don't want to fake it. There's gotta be a queer Black actress out there that maybe we just haven't discovered." Enter Jerrie Johnson, who was one of the first actresses to audition: "I thought she was so tall and beautiful, and perfect for it, and so fun."
Oliver remembers "My co-showrunner Scott King, we laughed about the fact that she came in kind of like how Tye would, and she just commanded the room."
For Quinn, a fashion designer and hopeless romantic, Oliver did not expect she'd be casting Byers, whose breakout role was the evil Anika on Empire, bearer of one infamous moniker. "I had seen her as Boo Boo Kitty on Empire, and so I wasn't quite seeing how she could be Quinn because Quinn is so naive, and softer, and just not cunning and ruthless like Boo Boo Kitty."
Interestingly, what Byers did seem a fit for was Quinn coming from money, which feeds into a common misconception about the actress who actually grew up poor. "She just has this vibe to her, but it's totally not like her upbringing at all, but I thought she nailed it so convincingly," says the creator.
With the aforementioned Camille, an ambitious adjunct professor still trying to get over her recent ex (P-Valley's Tyler Lepley), Oliver wasn't convinced Good was a fit for the scholarly role. Luckily, Good was open to notes, which included locs (an eight-hour hairstyling process).
"This was before she knew she had [the role]," Oliver recalls. "And she was just like, 'I'll do whatever to prove that I can embody this role.' And then as soon as she did, we were all like, 'Oh, it's her. It's absolutely her.' And she was amazing. And I was wrong. You can be gorgeous and you can be smart and you can be strong. And all of these things put together."
"What Meagan brings also is a likability and a vulnerability to the character too," OIiver adds. "I really thought that whoever plays Camille should be someone that men like and think is attractive, but women also like, and it's hard sometimes to get that balance."
Sarah Shatz/Amazon Shoniqua Shandai, Meagan Good, Grace Byers, and Jerrie Johnson star in 'Harlem' on Amazon Prime Video.
Lastly, newcomer Shoniqua Shandai, who plays unfiltered singer Angie, was a favorite of one of the show's big name executive producers. "It's hard to make Amy Poehler laugh. And once Amy was watching Shoniqua, and was just laughing from her gut, I was like, 'All right, well, it's undeniable that this woman is smart and funny." Shandai's unique look also helped her secure the role. "I love that she's dark skinned. I love that she has this big, beautiful 'fro, she has a gap in her front teeth. I was like, 'So many people are just gonna love your look and love that someone like you is on their screen,' and she said 'I don't get these opportunities a lot.'"
In addition to representing what many women in their thirties go through, Oliver wanted Harlem to show what many women in their thirties look like. "People are really going to appreciate just all the variety of beauty on the show. None of them look alike. They're all different heights and weights and hair textures and complexions. And that's something that I'm also really conscious of, is making sure that as many types of women are represented as possible."
Balancing comedy and drama both on the career and romance fronts for her characters, the creator explains, "We do a lot of love stories with different people in New York, but always the center of it is their friendship. And no matter what they go back to each other, and they're honest with each other and not afraid to hurt each other's feelings." However, Oliver clarifies that Harlem "is not a show where women are insulting other women, or sleeping with other people behind their backs. It's a true love story between them and they're always there for each other."
Sarah Shatz/Amazon Studios Grace Byers, Shoniqua Shandai, Jerrie Johnson, and Meagan Good star in 'Harlem' on Amazon Prime Video.
All ten episodes of Harlem premiere Dec. 3 on Prime Video. Take a look at EW's exclusive first-look images of the show above.
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