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Fall TV Preview: 'Girlfriends'

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Networks were feeling awfully randy this development season: No fewer than six Sex and the City rip-offs were on the drawing board, thanks to HBO’s successful and libidinous sitcom quartet.

One of the few to get a pickup for fall was UPN’s Girlfriends — which was dubbed in early thumbnail descriptions as an ”urban” Sex and the City. (Groundbreaking!) Besides the customary X-chromosomed cast, the African-American foursome also do the City girl thing by talking about their carnal exploits around restaurant tables. Check out this exchange over cocktails: Single attorney Joan (Lyricist Lounge‘s Tracee Ellis Ross) laments, ”You guys, I just came to the saddest realization today. I haven’t had sex in a year.” Her cheeky friend Maya (Golden Brooks), the only married one in the group, tries to sympathize: ”Damn, girl, you sure you’re still open for business? I mean, you know what happens when you don’t wear earrings.”

”Let’s face it, there’s nothing new in the sitcom world,” admits executive producer Mark Alton Brown (Designing Women), who also employs another well-worn TV trend by having Ross’ character address the camera. ”You struggle mightily to fight the sitcom status quo. You twist it in new directions to make it feel fresh.”

The good news is Girlfriends does have two unique things going for it: It’s the first UPN sitcom executive-produced by Frasier‘s Kelsey Grammer (he developed it through his Paramount-based production company) and it’s the only fall show to star the daughter of ultimate diva Diana Ross — not that Tracee’s pedigree comes in handy around Hollywood. ”One misconception is that it helps me get acting jobs — it doesn’t do anything,” says Ross with a laugh. No matter: The 27-year-old actress didn’t need any assistance nailing the role of the ambitious, marriage-ready Joan. ”The lines just rolled off my tongue,” she says. ”When I left [the audition], I was thinking I was able to be myself in the part, which is rare.”

While Girlfriends is wedged in Monday night among all of UPN’s other ”urban” shows (Moesha, The Parkers, The Hughleys), Brown is making every effort to keep the comedy from being written off as just another ”black show on the black night on UPN” by exploring universal themes like pity sex, dating a friend’s ex, and finding love on the Internet. Adds Ross: ”The beauty of this show is that first and foremost, we are girlfriends, women connecting to each other. That can create a broad appeal.” And who knows? The show’s sexy quartet may ultimately trade the inevitable Sex comparisons for those with an earlier, color-barrier-busting comedy. ”Living Single was groundbreaking at the time,” says Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil, ”and we’re going to take it to a new level.”

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