Female Trouble

Joan Clayson's life looks pretty familiar to a lot of black women. She's a hard-working thirtysomething with a good job, terrific friends, a fly wardrobe ... and no man in sight.

Of course, Joan is only a character on the sitcom "Girlfriends." But her stories--and those of her friends Toni, Lynn and Maya--seem to ring true with many of today's black women. During the show's second season, which concludes next month, "Girlfriends" has become one of the top-rated sitcoms in black households.

For obvious reasons, the program is regularly referred to as a black "Sex and the City." And yes, it's a comedy about four gorgeous women in an urban setting (this time, downtown Los Angeles), and the fashion is fierce. But there are also striking differences.

The "Girlfriends" don't have endless amounts of money at their disposal. One of them is a secretary and another is a grad student. Nor do they have an abundance of hunky doctors and moguls to date and discard. On "Girlfriends," Lynn and her boyfriend live in a garage and Maya's husband is a baggage handler at LAX. Joan, a Buppie lawyer, has spent much of the last two seasons complaining she can't find a suitable guy. She has dated a sex addict and a man who worked in her mail room.

Executive producer Kelsey Grammer wasn't even thinking about "Sex and the City" when he decided to help "Girlfriends" get off the ground two years ago. Instead, the show's multiculturalism drew him in. "The industry has been slow to get this type of niche programming," says Grammer, star of "Frasier." "When the project came to me, I knew I wanted to help."

Creator Mara Brock Akil, a former writer for "Moesha" and "The Jamie Foxx Show," envisioned a program that displayed the complexities of black women, whose lives often differ greatly from their white peers. "Many black women might not ever get married, so their friendships take on a totally different level of importance," Akil says. "These women become your family. Sometimes, they're the only people you have."

Besides Joan (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, Diana's daughter), the "Girlfriends" family includes Toni (Jill Marie Jones), a gold-digging real estate agent, Lynn (Persia White), an eternal grad student, and Maya (Golden Brooks), Joan's secretary and the group's one married member.

When the foursome hit UPN in 2000, audiences didn't relate and ratings were just mediocre. The ladies seemed overly concerned with men--searching for them, sleeping with them and discussing why no good ones could be found. Critics called it derivative and juvenile. Spike Lee went further. The director said it was a stereotypical portrayal of black women that made them seem oversexed and vain.

"Early on, we may have been too consumed with writing fly-on-the-wall stuff about black culture," says Regina T. Hicks, who has penned several episodes. "Slowly, we began to realize that universal themes about the women worked better." Out went much of the sex talk, the raunchy jokes and the man-chasing. Instead, the writers worked to develop scripts that offered a more subtle look at black women's struggles in love, work, money and friendship.

Each of the characters became more fully realized in the second season. Lynn dealt with her boyfriend Vosco's unemployment and her own issues about being biracial. Maya's periodic splurges infuriated her working-class husband, which led her to question herself and at times, her marriage. Joan was asked by her law firm to defend a company charged with racism, earning the ire of her friends, and in another episode woke up at 30 realizing she'd been living her life too cautiously. Toni lost her job and had to refocus her life, finding religion in the process.

The season's most poignant story line concerned Joan and Toni, whose longtime relationship broke down completely over several shows. "I wanted to show that friendships have highs and lows and people fall out," says Akil. "It didn't wrap up with one episode, but it ended with them meeting up in church. That's very much a black thing, taking your problems to the house of worship."

After a full two years, the program's star looks at the show's evolution with pride. "The first season was about finding out who we were and making that work," says Ross. "This year we figured out who we are--flaws and all. And we're realizing that it's not only the men who have issues." Of course, they're not letting the guys off the hook just yet.