Originally posted Monday, June 17, 2019 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Robin Givens’ eyes gleam with a mixture of hatred and fear as a troublesome man she knows refuses to leave her office, his effort to intimidate her partially succeeding.
“You really are unhinged,” said Givens as Stephanie Carlisle Lancaster, wife of the Atlanta mayor. “Security! My office... now!”
The man pumps up the drama by saying, “This is a courtesy visit to let you know I’m not leaving Atlanta. If you make the slightest move on me, I will ruin you.” He comes in even closer to her, invading her personal space. “Don’t think I can’t!”
The minute the director yells “cut!” Givens relaxes and smiles. Smiles are indeed in order for Givens. She has the leading role in Atlanta producer Will Packer’s first scripted drama for OWN called “Ambitions,” debuting at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
The 18-episode first season, set and based in Atlanta, debuts Tuesday, June 18 at 10 p.m. after Tyler Perry’s soap-drenched drama “The Haves and the Have Nots,” now in its sixth season.
Packer - creator of films such as “Girls Trip” and “Ride Along” as well as a recent ID documentary on the Atlanta child murders - is an important producer of fresh content for Oprah Winfrey’s network now that Perry has moved all new projects over to Viacom and BET.
“It’s my first foray into hour-long dramas,” said Packer in a recent interview. “I love the idea of powerful, good-looking, influential people behaving badly. It’s a mix of ‘Scandal’ and maybe ‘Dynasty.’” Executive producer Jamey Giddens was a soap journalist by trade and brings that sensibility to the show, he added.
Packer not only brought Givens in but cast two veteran actors in Brian J. White (”Chicago Fire,” “Ray Donovan,” “Scandal”) as her cheating Atlanta mayor husband Evan Lancaster and Essence Atkins (“Half & Half,” “Are We There Yet?”) as her former college friend Amara Hughes who is now a U.S. attorney investigating the mayor.
“As crazy as things are in the real world, we can take from that and get inspired and push it even further,” said Packer. “It’s what soap opera fans expect.”
But he said he’s friends with Kasim Reed, the most recent male Atlanta mayor, and insists none of the storylines have to do with him. This despite the fact that in both cases, there’s a burbling corruption scandal that may (or may not) lead to the mayor’s front door.
“Kasim couldn’t have been mayor doing the things that Brian’s character gets away with,” Packer said. “I was talking to Kasim over the weekend. He’s aware the show is coming. He said he can’t wait to see it. He’s going to find it fun.”
Packer said he did not research into the actual workings of the Atlanta mayor’s office. “It’s the Hollywood version of what Atlanta politics looks like,” he said, though his writers’ room is based in Atlanta.
There are references to Atlanta neighborhoods and landmarks such as Snellville and Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. A councilman bemoans how Old Fourth Ward, for instance, has become “loft houses and overpriced condos.”
While Givens’ character wears her ambitions on her sleeve, Atkins’ Amara is far more conflicted. “Amara has a lot of layers,” Packer said. “She moved to Atlanta and what we don’t know is she’s running from her past and past mistakes. This is supposed to be a fresh start.”
But naturally, this is a soap, so her past catches up to her and the rivalry between her and Stephanie will only get hotter and brighter. “Amara Hughes,” Stephanie says after digging up dirt on Amara, “that hypocritical, lying slut.” And shocker: Amara is married to a man who was Stephanie’s college squeeze Titus Hughes (played by Kendrick Cross). Of course, Stephanie still wants some of that.
But Amara came to Atlanta dedicated to her husband. “She is resolute in trying to make amends,” Atkins said on set. “That’s really the foundation upon which I anchor everything from.”
And given this show is called “Ambitions,” the mayor aspires to be governor. His fashion designer mistress, played by Atlanta actress Erica Page, uses him to boost her career. Stephanie wants to take over her daddy’s law firm. Amara wants to take down the mayor.
White, who recurred on “Scandal,” said he has enjoyed the atmosphere on the “Ambitions” set, which was largely shot at Tyler Perry Studios. “There’s freedom to create,” said White, who has owned a home in Atlanta since 2005. “”They let us do our thing. On ‘Scandal,’ there were 650 people at the monitor. We don’t see studio execs here as much. We have one or two producer collaborating. They’re really trusting.”
Packer is proud that the show was not only shot and written in Atlanta but post-production was done locally as well, which is still not common. And of the seven directors used season one, six were minorities.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.