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History of TV: Why 'Girlfriends' are the best friends

November 11, 2021
4 min read time

In September 2000, audiences were introduced to Girlfriends' Joan Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross), Maya Denise Wilkes (Golden Brooks), Lynn Ann Searcy (Persia White), and Antoinette “Toni” Marie Childress Garrett (Jill Marie Jones), along with Monica Charles Brooks (Keesha Sharp) eventually and “honorary girlfriend” William Jerome (silent “W”) Dent (Reginald C. Hayes).

The sitcom started on UPN before moving to The CW, where it ran its eight-season course under the guidance of creator Mara Brock Akil (Black Lightning, Moesha). Thus a show created and co-produced by a Black woman featuring four Black female leads entered the conversation at the turn of the century — and a very funny, poignant show at that.

The bonds of sisterhood

Shows centered around 20-something friendships already reigned supreme (like Living Single, Sex and the City, and Friends before it), examining what it means to be there for each other “through thick and thin,” as the Girlfriends theme song states. This idea of chosen family is a common TV trope, and the bond between Joan, Toni, Lynn and Maya was as fierce as any siblings; albeit siblings that occasionally squabble, as they tend to do. In the pilot, Toni chooses Joan over the boy that gets between them (played by Jason George of Station 19) and vice versa. Yes, they may bicker and have differing opinions, but from the first episode it’s made clear that these female friendships take top spots in their lives. They are a safe zone and a place to help build each other up — like with Joan’s mentorship of Maya, and their continued support of Lynn’s revolving door of dreams.

The complexities of character

It was Akil’s desire to spotlight the many complexities of what it means to be a Black woman that sparked Girlfriends.

“It was really simple for me,” Akil told Glamour last year for the show’s 20th anniversary. “I wanted Black women to feel seen. I was tired of us playing in the background and, in some cases, we couldn’t even play in the background. I wanted Black women to see and enjoy their complexity, to see their beauty reflected,” she said.

“I want them to know what was on the minds, hearts, spirits, and in the closets of Black women at the turn of the century,” she continued. “I wrote Girlfriends in 1999, and it aired in 2000 as we were approaching the turn of the century. I wanted to make sure Black women were in the now and in the future.

The four leading women have distinct personalities that embody different values, goals, wounds, and other character details that make them feel real onscreen. The ambitious and hilarious Joan anchors the group (and Girlfriends) around which dreamer Lynn, candid Maya, and confident Toni — until she leaves several seasons in — revolve. The multitalented Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish) won two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Joan, a nod to the fact that there’s so much more to these women than can be summarized in this space; but is also indicative of the excellent screenwriting (for which Akil won a BET Comedy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series). When distilled to its essence, it is evident that the way the women play off each other fuels the comedy, drama, and essentially story of the show. Resonating with a character can be both enlightening and uncomfortable, and having a relatable archetype onscreen can help draw an audience in.

Theme’s the thing

Along with strong friendships and the realm of support and boundaries they create, Girlfriends makes it clear that it’s never too late; you’re never too old to chase your dreams. Or in Lynn’s case, all the dreams. Each of the women had clear goals, largely in the career arena, that spoke directly to what Black women faced in the workplace and society at large — things that two decades later, should be a relic of the past and too often still ring despicably true.

Ironically, Akil’s producing partner on Girlfriends was Kelsey Grammer of Cheers and Frasier fame. On this, his first producing project, he was once quoted as saying he signed on because he’d “had enough of listening to talks of inclusivity from people who had no guts to act on it.” If only more of Hollywood would listen to that logic.

In retrospect

Girlfriends is back in the collective consciousness on Netflix since celebrating its two-decade anniversary last year, reminding us what it feels like to grow up and stretch one's wings — even after you’ve reached the age of adulthood. Sadly, Girlfriends never came to a satisfying conclusion due to conspiring factors (the Writers Guild of America, West strike and filming expenses, according to The CW). Deprived of a proper series finale as so many good shows are, if you do happen to sit through all 172 episodes, you might even catch a glimpse of throwback celebrities like Mo’Nique, Sinbad, Marcia Clark and Idris Elba (not exactly a throwback, but always worth mentioning).

Or give Akil’s game-changing show spin-off a shot: The Game, which stars Tia Mowry-Hardrict as Joan’s cousin Melanie and follows her professional athlete boyfriend. Notable is The Game’s fourth season premiere in 2011, which raked in 7.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable television history (at the time).

Catch Girlfriends on Netflix and CW Seed.

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