Girlfriends was a sitcom that ran from 2000 to 2008 back when The CW was known as UPN. It will also probably surprise people to learn that the series was executive produced by Kelsey Grammar, as the show is quite different from Frasier. Girlfriends was not the best comedy around, but it was a very important one for several reasons; every so often it tackled real world issues such as HIV, mental illness, miscarriages, and same-sex relationships. The series, as the title suggests, also featured a predominantly female-oriented cast.
The show followed the perspective of Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), the den mother of the group and a successful lawyer working to find love. Rounding out the cast was Maya (Golden Brooks), the only one of the group who was married; unlike the others she is more working class, serving as Joan’s assistant at the law firm. That’s something that often causes her to clash with Toni (Jill Marie Jones), Joan’s childhood friend who comes from humble beginnings but is determined to marry into financial security. Lynn (Persia White) is the more carefree one of the group, though it is easy to be carefree when you rely on others for food and shelter. At the beginning of the series, she is forced to finally stop prolonging her education and begin her life. The central male figure for the series is the girls’ only guy friend, William Dent (Reginald C. Hayes), a fellow lawyer at Joan’s firm who brings a dry wit and interjects when the ladies begin to rant against the opposite sex. But he is also quick to lend a hand or protect them in any way that he can.
Season 1 is the most pivotal season, in my opinion, as it sets the stage for this world. Each character goes through some kind of development: Joan manages to form a stable relationship, albeit with a damaged partner. Toni probably has the biggest story arc, as her materialistic desires cost her a chance at love. Lynn must learn to support herself and not rely on her friends with hilarious results. Maya, for the first time in her life, gains some independence and a semblance of a life outside of what she’s known.
Season 2 is the most gut-wretching for Maya, who manages to blow up her home life by engaging in an emotional affair with a work colleague. Toni suffers some setbacks as well, as her actions from the previous season result in secondary heartbreak as well as a rift in her friendship with Joan. Speaking of Joan, her relationship with Sean (Dondre Whitfield) comes to an end. She temporarily stops associating with Toni and engages in some risky behavior with a man half her age. I see season 2 as a rebuilding time for Joan, who finally really begins to stand up for herself. Lynn continues to bounce from household to household with a brief intermission of living with her Jamaican beau before she ends up at William’s house, where the two attempt a no-strings attached relationship.
In the aftermath of previous season, Maya desperately attempts to put the pieces of her marriage to Darnell (Khalil Kain) back together to no avail. This season has the most emotional sequence of the series in the episode “Handling Baggage,” when Maya and Darnell finally decide to call it quits. Newly-single Joan is quickly taken off the market once again after she meets actor Ellis (Adrian Lester). William has an important decision to make regarding helping his lesbian sister and her spouse gain a family. He also finds love in the form of a driven and demanding woman by the name of Monica (Keesha Sharp). All I can tell you about the Monica and William relationship is get used to seeing her. A rift also forms between William and the girls, as he —under the influence of Monica — begins to display a more ruthless attitude. Toni finds love in the most unlikely of places and takes a trip down the altar, while Lynn finally meets her birthmother and — through this relationship — discovers her love for documentary filmmaking.
In Season 4, Joan’s relationship with Ellis is threatened by her growing attraction to his agent, Brock (Malik Yoba). The chemistry is notable from their opening scene during a rainstorm. Come on…a meeting during a rainstorm just screams passion! However, Joan remains conflicted after Ellis makes it clear that he is finally ready to take their relationship to the next level. Lynn’s new boyfriend Sivad (Saul Williams) expresses discomfort about her friendship and living situation with William following the revelation of their previous relationship. For Toni, wedding bliss is not all it’s cracked up to be when she discovers that her doctor husband Todd (Jason Pace) is not as financially stable as she thought. The result is a marriage that lasts about as long as their courtship. (Well that’s what happens when you decide to get married on like the fifth date!) Maya begins to move on from her divorce, which opens the door for a relationship with a pro athlete as well as possible new career opportunity. During the latter half of the season, William achieves a career milestone while Joan discovers that she is not happy in her chosen career and decides she needs a change. Following his career success, William re-examines his relationship with Joan and confesses to her that he wants more.
I’m going to cut in here as this is the point where the series took a turn for me, resulting in very predictable storylines and a pattern of falling into the same kind of plots that have become overly familiar for many TV watchers. For example, the decision for William to develop feelings for Joan…can anyone see the whole Friends Joey/Rachel scenario occurring here? (Because I can!) Also, I must admit the chemistry between Joan and Brock was much more entertaining than William and Joan. With Joan and Brock, there was a sense of taboo as they both knew it was wrong and it showed that Joan was capable of breaking her own rules for the sake of love, given that is what normally happens in real life.
After turning him down, Joan realizes her feelings for William and attempts to confess multiple times during the first few episodes of season 5. As a result of his reconciliation with Monica (told you to get used to seeing her), Joan finds herself in the same position William was in the previous season. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the two to get together and even less time for the two to come apart as they rather quickly realize that they were better as friends. I must confess a bit of disappointment with how quickly this relationship was abandoned given all the set up. I had expected the pairing to continue for a full season before they broke up. With her marriage in disarray, a pregnant Toni works hard at a reconciliation with Todd, if for only to avoid becoming a single mother. In the beginning, I was supportive of the pairing of Toni and Todd as it added depth to her character with pursuing a relationship outside the norm. However, I must confess that the single mother angle became more appealing as it forced self-centered Toni to care for another person. It takes some time to get to that point, but it happens all the same. Lynn attempts to reunite with her birth father with limited success. Maya initially has success with the launching of her self-help book, but has trouble maintaining it. Fortunately, it is not all downhill for Maya, who manages to reunite with her ex-husband Darnell.
In the opening episode of season 6, Maya and Darnell re-marry but quickly learn that it won’t be as easy for them to pick up where they left off. I was pleased to see these two get back together, even though such a reunion was very predictable. This season also tackles tough subjects such as mental illness, as the sexually liberated Lynn explores her sexuality even further by becoming engaged to a suicidal woman. Despite trying to work things out for the sake of their newborn child, Toni and Todd decide to proceed with the divorce and quickly become embroiled in a nasty custody battle. Joan’s business struggles in the beginning of the season, but soon develops into a popular spot, causing her social profile to escalate. The new popularity results in a bit of a role reversal for her and Toni, with the former becoming the more inconsiderate one. It all culminates in Joan letting Toni down in a big way. There are two big developments during this season, the first being the Darnell character being brought into the fold and removing William’s status as the token man in this circle of friends. The second is the backdoor pilot that helped launch another popular UPN and eventual BET series, The Game.
Season 7 has a notable absence as Jill Marie Jones (Toni) opted to leave the series following the season 6 finale. Her character was given a decent exit, in my opinion. (Although the rift between Toni and Joan is never really resolved as Jones is mentioned but does not return to the series.) To fill the gap left by Toni’s departure, Monica is brought back and slowly becomes integrated with the group. This really works despite the similarities between Monica and Toni; both women are driven to have the best of everything and both have a bit of antagonistic relationship with Maya. In regards to Lynn, she continues her musical aspirations, meets a questionable executive interested in a quid pro quo deal, and eventually gains success thanks to a collaboration with Outkast’s Big Boi. The storyline with the music executive for me is like foreshadowing for the current crisis that is happening in Hollywood, with more and more stories about celebrities abusing their station and taking advantage of people. Granted this issue isn’t new, but I feel it gives the audience a look at how long this has been a problem. The back-and-forth with William and Monica is a central storyline towards the end of the season, but by now the numerous times this couple breaks up and makes up has become grating. Eventually they get it right and marry, but, in my humble opinion, it shouldn’t have taken so long. Joan also finds love by reconnecting with Aaron (Richard T. Jones), a man she met while building homes in New Orleans. But an old flame’s appearance makes her have second thoughts.
Joan decides to focus on the future she has in front of her with Aaron, rather than looking back at what could have been with Brock. Just as it seems like she may get her happily ever after, Aaron’s unit is recalled to active duty. Lynn manages to secure a record deal, but attempts to self-sabotage herself in order to be released from her contract after clashing with executives about her image. William and Monica prepare to become parents, while Maya and Darnell considering adopting following their miscarriage. The final season is the shortest season and will leave you hanging as it is quite clear the show was likely canceled due to low viewership. That means there is no proper conclusion to the series, so brace yourself for that.
Girlfriends was the longest running series for the UPN network, and with good reason. The show had the ability to balance light-hearted humor with real-world issues while providing a voice for its demographic when it needed it the most. Though the series does lose steam in its later years — especially after the loss of Jill Marie Jones — it is worth noting that the show managed to remain relevant for another two years before ending in 2008. I do wish that some storylines could have been wrapped up before its end, but nothing can take away the hours of entertainment that the show provided. Also, be prepared to get that theme song stuck in your head for hours. It is unavoidable.