When the WB and UPN announced that they would meld into a single network, the CW, critics predicted the death of most TV comedies featuring predominately black casts. They were right. The CW announced a first-season lineup last month that keeps just four out of nine mostly black UPN shows. While I’ve long been a member of the chorus grumbling about the dearth of African-American faces on television, I can’t say I’ll mourn for many of the departed. Canceled were One on One, a trite “urban” comedy written as though it should air on Saturday mornings; Eve, a generic gripe about single life; and Cuts, about an “ex-hairstylist to the rap stars.”
In fact, the death of UPN might be a boon for black television. Finally, the few good shows that emerged from the network won’t be weighed down by the stigma of its other shoddy sitcoms. The CW has renewed Everybody Hates Chris,Chris Rock’s genius ode to his rough childhood, and the glamazonian America’s Next Top Model. Also scheduled for clemency is one of UPN’s most-watched shows, Girlfriends, a sparkler of a sitcom that may finally flourish outside of the dreary confines of its former home.
What sets Girlfriends apart is its laserlike focus on women in their late 20s and early 30s living stylish, complicated lives—a rare commodity these days. Sex and the City spawned a gaggle of lesser programs that didn’t have the depth of character and snappy writing to survive, like ABC’s Hot Properties and UPN’s The Bad Girl’s Guide. But, even at the conclusion of its sixth season, Girlfriends is fresh, engaging, and funny as hell. Joan, Lynn, Maya, and Toni are sexy, ambitious thirtysomethings who share dirty talk, enviable wardrobes, and realistic friendships that include the occasional catfight.
Girlfriends’ characters refreshingly resist typecasting—there’s no pigeonholing the dumb girl, the timid girl, and the slutty girl (actually, Lynn is the slut, but she’s a slut with advanced degrees). Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross) is all wild-eyed enthusiasm and tearful breakdowns, a la Lucille Ball, but she also bites. She dates a handsome professional athlete this season, only to be dumped the same day she breaks up with two nicer guys for him. Then she blows off friends to go to the hipster party of the year and is mistaken for a prostitute because of her sexy dress. The night from hell that ensues makes you root for Joan and, at the same time, rue the snide attitude she’s adopted—there’s no Madonna/bitch complex at work.
In an era of FCC-neutered laffs, the girls plumb edgy topics like abortion, AIDS, and intraracial discrimination—an achievement for UPN, which will never be mistaken for HBO. Toni’s decision to abort a pregnancy sends her running to a bar in search of a stiff drink—not typical sitcom fare. (She doesn’t have the drink or the abortion.) The show also injects some needed adult humor into prime time. After they move to the suburbs from an apartment next to sex-fiend Lynn, Maya (Golden Brooks) tells her husband she’s glad they don’t have to hear the “constant whine of Lynn’s vibrator next door.” And William, the lone boy friend, delivers sexual double entendres with sweet, nerdy aplomb. Only he could deliver a line like, “I’ve gotta go wash my dickey for my date,” and not make an audience gag. The subjects are usually as compelling as the pithy writing. Toni (Jill Marie Jones) quips that she doesn’t want her soldier sister to “go all Abu Ghraib” on the woman who set up Toni to be carjacked.
The girlfriends include a restaurateur and former attorney, an “authoress,” and a real-estate agent. They don’t pretend not to want for more, and their muted, aspirational glamour isn’t far-fetched. And that’s reflected in Joan’s long struggle with being a lawyer. In one episode she accuses Lynn (Persia White) of sabotaging her life years before because Lynn did not mail Joan’s application to fashion school as promised. Hasn’t any woman of a certain age wanted to blame her unfulfilled destiny on someone else?
In fact, a soft focus on the characters’ casual affluence testifies to the gradual normalization of black women on television. In the 1970s, it came as a shock to all involved that Weezie and Helen lived in penthouses on The Jeffersons; meanwhile Florida Evans on Good Times was in a constant state of “Oh, Lord, what is we gonna do?” misery. In the ‘80s, the Cosbys’ self-conscious affluence gave way to a more down-to-earth depiction of black college life on the ‘90s hit A Different World. The Girlfriends come across as graduates of that school—women professionals who are black, but don’t spend much time apologizing for or explaining their blackness. The show does not shelve its characters’ color, but it doesn’t use race as an excuse to make them hyper-successful or sad-sack bottom dwellers. This tack might give network programmers a hint as to how to market other black shows—sitcoms need not be treatises on the socioeconomic status of the black community. Nuanced characters will suffice.
That is, if anyone watches. Show creator Mara Brock Akil has griped that UPN never provided Girlfriends with extra publicity because it was already successful by the network’s low standards. And, despite fan demand, there are no plans for a DVD release. The CW plans to air Girlfriends, along with its spinoff The Game and surviving UPN black comedies, Everybody HatesChris and All of Us, in a two-hour block on Sundays. I prefer not to think of it as the CW’s ghettoization of its black shows, but as a showcase for the cream of UPN’s neglected crop.