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Social Studies

Reality TV

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 2/20/2008

This week, the CW publicly revealed that it has, after an eight-year run, decided to unceremoniously cancel Girlfriends. The last two episodes aired back-to-back on Monday, Feb. 11 and there are, as of this column's writing, no plans for a series finale. This makes me sad. When it's all said and done, I believe Girlfriends was one of the most important African-American shows to ever grace the television screen and I think it's worth having a proper sendoff. So, if the CW ain't gonna do it, I'm going to give it a shot.

Created by Mara Akil and debuting in the fall of 2000 on the now defunct UPN, Girlfriends followed the misadventures and love lives of four, well, girlfriends; the high-maintenance Toni, the free-spirited Lynn, the round-the-way girl Maya, and the glue that holds the group together, the main character Joan. Set in the Los Angeles area, the first season was frankly pretty forgettable. To be honest, the first couple of seasons were really just a low-budget Sex and the City knockoff. To be fair, they weren't the only ones but I always understand when I talk to people and they say that they gave up on the show fairly early because, well, in the early years it wasn't that good.

Then something interesting happened: Girlfriends began to expand past the initial premise of focusing on the women's love lives. While that remained a part of the show, Girlfriends also began to address issues such as AIDS in the black community, color consciousness within the race, the evolving role of religion, the ins-and-outs of interracial relationships, etc. In the current television environment where there's an alarming dearth of roles for and shows featuring African-American casts, Girlfriends was on the forefront of topical issues and many times stood alone in addressing subject matter than was important to the black community.

More pointedly, I was more impressed by the fact that, issues aside, Akil and the other show writers moved Girlfriends into a direction that allowed the four characters to mature and change. While she was, arguably, just a "sistagurl" caricature in the beginning, Maya has had a fascinating character arc where she and her husband have dealt with her infidelity, examined what the American Dream means to the working class in the late 20th century, and just this past season addressed the pain of losing a baby. Likewise, Lynn was originally framed as a sort of biracial, hippy, sexually liberated nymph but over the years she too has evolved into a three-dimensional character who has challenged conventional notions of race, realistically addressed the repercussions of her sexual attitudes and, I believe, was ultimately one of the most well-constructed fictional examples of a member of the overly educated, underemployed, nihilistically attitudinal Generation X.

And while the heart of the show, Joan and Toni, both went through similar journeys and evolutions, it was their relationship with each other that is probably the show's largest contribution to television history. Y'know, the thing about the vast majority of television friendships is that they stay pretty static. Fred and Barney, Lucy and Ethel, Ralph and Norton, Jerry and Elaine, and Kramer and George; on TV, when people start as friends, they end as friends. But Girlfriends did something much more complicated with the two main characters.

Over the years, Joan and Toni's relationship evolved and, perhaps, clarified itself so that the show posed the question of whether or not the two were actually friends or just two people trapped in a toxic, codependent relationship. While there were certainly plenty of "you my sista, girl" moments, the two often undermined, belittled, and betrayed one another to the point where they had several pretty intense falling-outs culminating in last season's abrupt departure of Toni's character from the show. And while this plot may have been informed by actress Jill Marie Jones' real-life departure from the show, it was certainly one that had organically developed over the years. Now that the show has been cancelled, it is a plot that begs the question of whether or not some friendships can simply just run their course. It was pretty heavy stuff for a little sitcom but this scrutiny of the nature of friendships was very well constructed and realistic.

Y'know, The Cosby Show gets most of the acclaim and credit for its contributions to the history of black television and it probably should. The problem is that, pretty early on, the show as tagged as Important and, to a certain degree, that self awareness informed everything Cosby and company did. Girlfriends never had to deal with that problem. While it had its audience, it was never a huge crossover hit and, with that relative anonymity, it very quietly became one of the best African-American shows to ever grace television. And I will miss it. H

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