What begins as a female version of the “Wassup” guys in the Budweiser ads ostensibly turns into a black version of “Sex and the City,” landing UPN a ribald sitcom that could test the boundaries of network TV — provided “Girlfriends” is given a chance to blossom. Pilot, in which the four principals are drawn, is a generally flat half-hour; episode two picks up steam and generates a healthy dose of gut-busting laughs. For his first exec producing project, Kelsey Grammer has gone tawdry, albeit clever, a considerable distance from the humor of “Frasier.”
Central character is the single lawyer Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), a 29-year-old woman with a healthy moral code, a distaste for her trampy friends and a desire to elevate the social and speaking skills of her promising assistant, Maya (Golden Brooks). Toni (Jill Marie Jones) is the sluttiest of the group, constantly attempting to attract the eye of well-dressed, loaded men. Lynn (Persia White) is the free-love expert, a hippie chick whose friendship with Joan dates back to their college days. Well-cast bunch is sexy and energetic as they concentrate on men, careers and more men.
Lone male in the regular cast, Reggie Hayes, plays William, a lawyer at Joan’s firm. He darts in and out of scenes with wisecracks and sob stories, and his sense of timing recalls Mark Curry (“Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper”) and Meshach Taylor (“Designing Women”). If his role transcends those past TV characters on which it appears to be based, this could be the start of good things for Hayes.
First episode concerns Toni dating one of Joan’s ex-boyfriends, a toe-sucking specialist named Charles (the hunky Jason Winston George). Joan goes through the usual emotional turmoil and the inevitable fight brought on by too many nosy friends.
Second episode, the far funnier “One Night Stand,” has Joan going a bit nutty after a year of celibacy. Episode is loaded with the sorts of zingers usually heard on “Sex and the City.” Wisely, dialogue in both episodes is never forced for the sake of a joke.
Despite 13 assorted producers, sitcom has the distinct feel of a singular voice — Mara Brock Akil, whose credits include “Moesha” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.” Direction by Leonard R. Garner Jr. succeeds in establishing the characters but is generally mundane.
The show’s sets could use some improvement. Joan’s much-praised “great” house is about one step above Mary Richards’ second apartment, and the bar used in the second episode more closely resembles a cafeteria than a dating hotspot.
Schedule could play in “Girlfriends’ ” favor, given its lead-in of “The Hughleys” and competition of “Becker” and the second half of “Ally McBeal.” Review cassette was a rough cut with no final music.