OWN’s Family or Fiance is back for a new season– and did you know host Tracy McMillan’s life story is the basis for a new Hulu series starring Kerry Washington?
Hosted by the renowned relationship coach, the series is a high-stakes social experiment that brings real-life couples and their disapproving families together for three days to unpack their differences. After coaching sessions and tasks designed to strengthen bonds, will the families’ renewed understanding persuade them to bless the couple’s happily-ever-after, or will they be forced to choose between family or fiancé?
Shadow and Act Unscripted spoke with McMillian about the new season, relationship and family boundaries, a Hulu project that’s inspired by her own father’s life with Kerry Washington at the helm in Unprisoned.
So congratulations on another season of this show. How do you feel as if the show has progressed from the beginning to now?
I’m a lot sassier than I used to be. I have a lot to say to people. After doing 60 episodes of this show, you really see the patterns in these couples, and you want to just people think they’re very unique, but it’s like, ‘Nope. Cut to the chase. There’s nothing unique going on here.’ These are just patterns of how people relate. And my whole job is to call out the patterns and then kind of ask you, ‘Are you ready to change it or not?’ And that is really what the show is about – whether the patterns in the family, whether the patterns in the couple, it’s really about observing what’s happening and trying to get the couple to come to a place where they’re ready to make some choices.
What's your rule on having family involved in your romantic relationship business? How much do you feel is too much?
I think that in a couple, in order to be what is called secure functioning, which is to say it’s a working relationship that functions well and both people in the couple feel safe, their needs are met, they’re relaxed, their nervous systems are relaxed – The couple has to be number one. That means your partner has to be number one. So if in any part of your family is in a situation where they’re number one, and you see this often – the classic example is the mother and the son are in a relationship. And then the fiancee, the wife, or the bride is like knocking on the door, trying to get the man to partner with her instead of his mom – that’s a classic example. But I’ve seen it happen with sisters, brothers, and best friends. Any time family members or anything outside of the relationship gets in the way of the couple, it’s a problem.
How do you determine when family or friends is actually looking out for the person they love or if there's just some type of underlying jealousy there?
Well, that can be difficult to figure out. I will say, you always have to start with your partner. So let’s say there is a bride, and she feels like the groom is too hooked into the relationship with the mom – just to take the classic example. Now, is she jealous, or is she rightly wanting more partnership from her man?
I think the first thing you have to determine, and this is sort of a rule of thumb in a relationship, is if your partner has a problem, it’s a problem. You can never look at your partner coming to you and saying, ‘I have a problem with X, Y, or Z. How much you work, how much you drink, how much you talk to your mom.’ You can never look at that and go and dismiss it. So, I don’t care, or that’s your problem. Never. So the starting point has to be if your partner has a problem, there actually is a problem, and you have to start there, whether it’s jealousy or legitimate. So once you turn to your partner and go, ‘Tell me about it, I’m here.’ That’s when you get to it’ll become clear pretty quick.
Now, I will also say if it’s people in the family, a lot of times, people in the family do not like that the couple is putting each other first. They don’t like that because they’re used to being number one. Or there’s a saying when you stop pleasing people, people stop being pleased. So there are times when family members do not like people’s commitment to their primary relationship that I look at and go, ‘Well, you’re going to have to get used to it. You’re going to have to find a new way to relate to your family member.’
Can the relationship really survive when family members are at odds?
Well, it can, but it’s definitely going to be a lot harder. It’s like swimming up river, it’s a lot more difficult to be in a couple when the family is against you. It just is. Now, there are lots of situations. sometimes it’ll be a mother as against a daughter-in-law or doesn’t like her or hasn’t accepted her. That’s a tough situation because this isn’t just about the wedding. This is about holidays. Christmas, the birth of children – it’s about family gatherings – those tensions arise several times a year, or possibly every week when people live really close to each other. So they can survive, but it’s not as easy as when you’ve got the support of your family.
Who has been your favorite couple to follow or, you know, success story, I guess you could say?
Well, part of my professional commitment is that I don’t really get personally involved with the couples. I don’t go on their Instagram after. I’m not relating to them after. They’re not in my dreams. That’s not really what’s happening. We spent three days together. I have three, probably two-hour sessions with them. And at the end, when we take the family photo, and I say goodbye, I usually have a sense of how this is going to go for that couple. And very often, the couple has decided that in this process they’re going to do the work that it’s going to take to have a functioning, a secure, calm, loving relationship. And when that happens, I say goodbye to them, knowing I’ve done my work. All I’m there for is whatever’s in the highest good. I say it over and over. And sometimes, the highest good is breaking up. We have had those couples. And that’s also a satisfying ending because you know that you’re allowing people the freedom to move on to what is really best for them. And sometimes, the relationship they’re in isn’t that.
Now outside of the show, your own life story is about to be the basis for a new series that stars our beloved Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo. So what are you most excited about when it comes to this upcoming project, especially with having another legend like Yvette Lee Browser from ‘Living Single,’ working on it as well?
We wrapped eight episodes about three weeks ago, and it’s been incredible. Kerry and Delroy are both incredible, amazing actors. I was so moved. And I think part of what’s so special about it is that we are all signed on to it. What we want to do is help people understand what mass incarceration does to a family and to put a real human face on it. I want to do for mass incarceration is what Transparent did for trans people. I want you to meet a lifetime criminal and fall in love with him and see him as a human being in a way that I know people never have. Because when they meet my dad, they’re always like, ‘Wow, he’s so charming and wonderful.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and they can’t imagine that because his biography says he’s been in prison for 37 years, on and on. So what family or counsel and imprisoned have in common is that they’re both about the Black family, and they’re both about generational trauma. They’re both about how do we bring about healing in our families. So I sort of do the same job in both places. It’s just a little bit. One of them is a reality show, and one of them is scripted.
And how did the project even come about?
I’ve been writing about my dad getting out of prison pretty much since I became a television writer. So that was like 15 years ago. And I’ve done a lot of different versions of it. And I wrote a version before the pandemic. And usually oftentimes, what you do is you’ll have an idea and pitch it. This was something that was really just coming from my heart. And I wrote it on my own. And then I took it to a few different producers around town and had a great meeting with Kerry’s company, and they decided they wanted to come on as a producing partner. And then, after reading it, Kerry decided she wanted to star in it. And then, after two years of development, we started shooting the script. So it’s a very long process, but it’s been a magical process. It’s hard work, but there’s been so much grace associated with every process stage. And Delroy is unbelievable. He’s not playing my dad. It’s inspired by my life. It’s not my life. It’s very important to make that clear. My dad didn’t come to live with me. This is me working out some of the things that have come up in my own life. It’s not a documentary.