In “Primetime Blues,” historian Donald Bogle writes, “For better or worse, the weekly primetime series (has) had a greater effect on viewer perceptions of African-American experiences than any other form of television.”
In the long-running CW show “Girlfriends,” that perception comes in the form of a trio of smart, sophisticated, drop-dead gorgeous L.A. women with good jobs, nice homes and highly sophisticated love lives. More than any other current TV comedy series, “Girlfriends” may represent where the image of black America in popular culture lies today.
“Our show may be a comedy, but for me and a lot of other people it represents something of the world we know in our lives,” says creator-producer Mara Brock Akil.
In short, it’s a long way from Louise Beavers in “Beulah,” or even Diahann Carroll in “Julia” to Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks and Persia White. Today, there’s a multiplicity of people, places and points of view in TV comedies, from wry observations about childhood experiences in “Everybody Hates Chris” to the career maneuvers of Vanessa Williams’s fearsome magazine editor on “Ugly Betty.”
“Girlfriends,” however, occupies another place in the current black epoch. This half-hour show seems at first a friendly bit of fluff. But now in its seventh season, the show consistently makes clear that race as an “issue” has been superseded by race as a far simpler fact of life and matter of style in “Girlfriends.” Even when dealing with domestic violence (“Time to Man-Up” episode), the characters of “Girlfriends” remain true to their comic nature. They don’t turn serious, avoiding that sanctimonious air of “a very special episode” that frequently haunts TV.
“The essential ingredient in writing a ‘Girlfriends’ episode is maintaining the emotional reality of the characters,” says series writer Mark Alton Brown. “Our characters have evolved and grown over seven seasons mostly in fits and starts. The bottom line is they are each other’s chosen family, and like family members, every action they take emotionally impacts the others.”
In other words, the women of “Girlfriends” have less in common with such women-centered black shows of the past as “227” and “Living Single” — not to mention “The Jeffersons,” “What’s Happening” or even the “Cosby” spinoff “A Different World” — than they do with the likes of “Friends” and “Frasier.” That similarity, perhaps, is no coincidence: “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer owns the production company, Grammnet, that produces “Girlfriends.”