Harlem Showrunner Tracy Oliver on the Season 2 Finale and Embracing Messy Women

This story incorporates spoilers for the Harlem season 2 finale.

Tracy Oliver craves stories that put women’s messiness front and center. Those with compelling characters with big emotions who come undone, or who comfortably take up space while prioritizing their pleasure and peace, even when it rocks the boat.

Oliver, who’s the series creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the favored Prime Video dramedy Harlem, knows these portrayals might be much-needed affirmations for ladies. Threaded throughout Oliver’s work are reminders that it’s perfectly okay to live life outside the confines of societal expectations and to still be figuring things out as you age.


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“It’s vital for me to point out the messiness because that’s real life. We frequently say things that we shouldn’t say, or due to our emotions, call or text things that we shouldn’t after which immediately regret it or feel embarrassed the following day,” shares Oliver. “I can’t let you know how persistently me and my girlfriends are like, I can’t imagine I did that. We accept those flaws and people differences and emotional impulses that come up in one another since it’s human. That messiness never really goes away. As you age, you turn out to be smarter but you’re still vulnerable to creating mistakes and getting your feelings hurt and never at all times acting in your best interest.”

In season 2 of Harlem, we pick back up with the quartet of 30-something best friends—played by Meagan Good (Camille), Shoniqua Shandai (Angie), Grace Byers (Quinn), and Jerrie Johnson (Tye)—as they proceed exploring and constructing their respective versions of a joyful life. Each woman finds herself at a crossroads, confronting her desires in the current day, the way it differs from the life she had envisioned for herself, and at times the contention with personal, societal, or familial benchmarks of successful maturity. As each character traverses various highs and lows, we see them also navigate the attractive possibility that may arise when life as you understand it falls apart.

“What I’m attempting to do through the show is subtly show that there isn’t a right or unsuitable option to be a lady,” continues Oliver. “Any alternative that you just resolve to make that fulfills your personal goals and your personal happiness is correct for you. It doesn’t matter what society has to say ultimately.”

She’s taken an identical accepting approach to her writers rooms, selecting to “hire mostly women, mostly people of color, and create a protected space for them to talk up and feel heard and to be big and take up space,” she says. “And never have someone tell them they’re doing an excessive amount of just by existing.”

Ahead of Harlem’s season 2 finale, ELLE.com connected with Oliver to debate honoring women’s joy and pain onscreen, the famous members of the family who inspired a serious season 2 plot twist, and the importance of showing the nuances of girls of their thirties considering motherhood on TV.

One among my favorite Harlem episodes is episode 3 from this season. We get a heart-warming take a look at Angie spending time along with her family, and the affirming foundation that helped her grow right into a confident and self-assured adult. Are you able to speak about coming up with that episode and finding the precise fit to play Angie’s mother?

There are quite a lot of different interpretations of the character Angie. I feel she is probably the most confident and self-assured and probably the most liberated of the friend group. She’s the least prone to be caught up in what society has decided women must be and she or he doesn’t feel a must make herself smaller. Once I was serious about that, I used to be like, that sort of woman grew up in a household that encouraged it. She didn’t grow up in a household that silenced her and that told her she wasn’t adequate.

Sherri Shepherd immediately got here to mind when serious about who embodies that vibrancy and same physicality but older. We were fortunate enough for Sherri to say yes and she or he totally got it. She knew Angie’s mother needed to be loving and soft, but in addition a tell-it-like-it-is mom who tells you directly how she feels. The environment is loving and nurturing, and Sherri really nailed it. It was also just vital for us to rejoice dark skin in that episode and for none of it to feel negative. I wanted to point out a Black family who looks like that and who feel like they’re worthy and that they’re beautiful they usually’re proud.

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Angie (Shoniqua Shandai) and her mother (Sherri Shepherd).

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

It looks as if many Black women viewers of the show feel protective of the character Angie, specifically, due to colorism and Hollywood’s history of treating dark-skinned Black women unkindly on screen. Is navigating those sensitives and avoiding caricatures or harmful stereotypes something you and the writers discuss and take a look at to be extra mindful of?

It’s tricky. Angie’s the character that we spend probably the most time talking about colorism or navigating certain things. It’s a tough conversation because on one hand I understand where the necessity to portray a darker skinned Black woman in a positive light or to not be overly sexualized comes from. At the identical time, I disagree with quite a lot of it. I don’t wish to fall into the respectability politics trap where now we’re silencing someone who looks like Shoniqua or we’re saying someone who talks and acts in a bigger than life manner should make herself smaller or that she shouldn’t be on the screen.

I saw a comment once that said, “Why couldn’t Shoniqua have played the Quinn role?” That’s not who Shoniqua is as an actor. When she walks right into a room and life, she just commands attention. She has this big hair and exquisite brown skin and she or he wears shiny and daring colours. To make her smaller and to place her right into a more reserved part strips Shoniqua as an actress away from what makes her a star for my part. After which also, where we will go together with the character is now more limited. If we put a darker skinned actor into the role of Quinn, who’s needy and codependent and hopelessly romantic and desperate—it’s not likely funny when you’ve a darker skinned woman of size playing that part. That will make me feel like we’re making fun of Shoniqua. I’m like, no, let’s flip that.

Let’s have the stereotypically beautiful woman with Eurocentric features be the one which’s desperately trying to find love and the darker skinned woman with curves be the one who’s most comfortable in her skin and probably the most unapologetically loud and assured. That, to me, feels more progressive. I’d never switch those two. I at all times wish to rejoice a lady that appears like Shoniqua, and construct her power and support her greater than tear her down on screen. I see enough of that.

harlem season 2

Angie (Shandai) and Quinn (Grace Byers).

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

This season also included Camille and Tye exercising their reproductive freedom in refreshing ways. One selected to freeze her eggs as a just-in-case option for the longer term, and the opposite realized she didn’t want kids. What made you would like to explore those elements of girls considering motherhood?

It was coming up in the author’s room in a possible way. When you even approach 35 otherwise you pass 35, there’s a conversation. And should you haven’t already had kids, there’s a conversation of, sigh, what do I do? It’s very nuanced because some people want kids entirely contingent on a partner. After which some people don’t actually need children but are also sort of ashamed to confess that. Well, there are two thoughts: Will I regret this later because I currently don’t? Am I gonna feel ashamed not having kids while existing in a world where women are sometimes told their purpose here is to have kids? After which there are women who’ve infertility issues and feel ashamed of it. They did all the pieces right and began early and have the partner and still can’t have kids. I just wanted to point out that it’s a really complicated conversation and really nuanced. It’s not only yay or nay for certain people, it’s contingent on quite a lot of various factors.

In consequence, we see Camille and Ian part ways after going through a lot together. Why did that feel like the precise alternative to probe for those characters?

There’s a growing number of girls who’re uncertain about in the event that they want children, and should you’re in a relationship with a partner who does, it’s not a problem to comb under the rug. It’s a serious source of incompatibility so far as life and future goals together as a pair. And since Ian so deeply desires to be a father and we’d established that in season 1, we knew it was something that we desired to explore with them. We also loved exploring how our goals and life plans evolve over time. A number of times we predict we would like things because society tells us we do after which once we really do some soul searching, we realize that desire didn’t come from us and that we were following together with what is anticipated. We just wanted a personality that’s in a relationship with a person she likes to grapple with not sharing the identical desire he has about raising kids.

harlem season 2

Camille (Meagan Good) Ian (Tyler Lepley).

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

How did the creative alternative come about for Tye to search out reference to someone unexpected, like Aimee, who takes things slow, and the Zoe plot twist?

Through Tye we get to explore quite a lot of toxic relationship patterns and we desired to see her meet a pleasant, smart woman who’s mature and robust enough to talk some truth to Tye. Ultimately, we would like Tye to learn easy methods to love and be loved and whether she finally ends up with Aimee or not, she’s a step in the precise direction.

Tye’s messiness once more can have some consequences in her love life and force her to essentially dig deep if she desires to make some real changes. The Aimee-Tye-Zoe triangle stemmed from a silly writers room conversation about how each Zoe Kravitz and Lisa Bonet are an insanely beautiful mother/daughter duo and us riffing on what it’s wish to spend holidays at the home. From there, we thought it might be crazy to this point two women, one older, one younger, after which realize they’re related. We hadn’t seen that before and we wanted to search out a conflict that you just didn’t see coming.

jerrie johnson tye

Tye (Jerrie Johnson) and Aimee (Rachel True).

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

Quinn’s mental health spiral was one other big storyline this season. It was super sad, nevertheless it also felt powerful and relatable. Her journey showed the immense pain that may end up when a lady is socialized to view being partnered as the final word prize while also looking outside herself for joy and validation.

In season 1, we set the stage for season 2 through comedy. We sort of made light of Quinn’s desperation to be partnered and her codependency. Even along with her friendship with Angie, a part of wanting Angie to live along with her relies on just wanting someone around and never feeling whole on her own.

With season 2, which was throughout the pandemic, it just felt like so lots of us were going through mental health struggles. Through the character Quinn, we decided to explore what happens whenever you do spiral and also you haven’t quite handled the inner stuff that began with childhood and her mom. She didn’t get the nurturing and the love that Angie got from her family in her household, so she’s in search of that love she didn’t get through partners. The Isabela breakup isn’t entirely the explanation; it’s been a buildup.

For Quinn’s whole life, she’s been in search of some sort of safety and security and wholeness in another person. When that didn’t work out it’s like, why am I unlovable? After which all the pieces from there starts to unravel and sometimes it’s hard to tug yourself back up whenever you get to that place. It’s more just the lifetime of rejection and emotional abuse from her mom and we see the repercussions of that in season 2.

juani feliz

Quinn (Byers) and Isabela (Juani Feliz).

Emily V Aragones/Prime Video

So lots of us are hoping for an Isabela and Quinn reunion. Any probability we’ll see them reunite in season 3?

We love Isabela and Quinn too and I personally love Juani Feliz, the actress who plays Isabella. I actually hope we will discover a option to reunite them again, even in the event that they don’t find yourself together because they were so great on-screen.

This interview has been frivolously edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Headshot of Martine Thompson

Martine Thompson is an artist and author. She’s obsessed with exploring mental health, TV & film, perfume, and different facets of beauty culture.

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