When it comes to on- and off-screen drama, it's hard to beat the comedy "Girlfriends."
As "Girlfriends" launches its seventh season at 8 p.m. on Sunday, its creator is biting the hand that programs the show -- the new CW network -- saying she's not feeling the love. The network denies the charge, saying it has much love. One of its core stars dropped out unexpectedly at the end of last season and has turned down pleas to make a farewell appearance. And the first episode of the season begins not with a joke but with one of the girlfriends jogging through the ruin and recovery of Hurricane Katrina-torn New Orleans.
The furor helps mark a milestone season for "Girlfriends," whose producers include Kelsey Grammer. The comedy is one of the longest-running series featuring a predominantly black cast since "The Cosby Show," surpassing the runs of ABC's "My Wife and Kids," Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show," and even NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." "Girlfriends" is also the most veteran UPN series to survive the WB and UPN merger that led to the CW.
Moving from the 9 p.m. Monday time slot it previously occupied, "Girlfriends" is the anchor of the CW's Sunday lineup of African American shows that includes "Everybody Hates Chris" and "All of Us," while also serving as the springboard lead-in for its spinoff, "The Game," which premieres Sunday.
On the eve of the new era, Mara Brock Akil, the key creative force behind "Girlfriends" and "The Game," calls this season "an exciting challenge."
But she is troubled that "Girlfriends" was not included in the CW's "Free to Be ..." billboard and bus-placard campaign hyping its programming. The push focused on "America's Next Top Model," "Gilmore Girls" and "Veronica Mars," while also giving a boost to "Smallville," "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Supernatural," which have not been on the air as long as "Girlfriends."
Akil said she was concerned when she first heard that the show "was moving from the Monday night slot where we've worked so hard to build an audience.... I know [CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff's] financial purse is tight, but to move us without a billboard around town when we're going into our seventh season doesn't make me happy. Will our fans know we're on, or when?"
She said that "Girlfriends" "has never had a billboard, even though more times than not we've been the No. 1 show in black households." She continued: "That's not right. If I meet this challenge, even though our numbers may be small, I will consider them double what they are, because we would have done it without marketing support. I know it's the reality of the business, but I don't like it."
Responding to Akil's comments, a network spokesman said, "When you're launching a new network, there are countless marketing priorities, including an overall branding campaign, which featured every show on the CW. 'Girlfriends' is one of those shows, and we are very proud that it's anchoring our new Sunday night as the most-watched program on television by African Americans since it premiered in 2000."
And in an interview earlier this week, Ostroff called the series an integral part of the CW's strategy to attract female viewers. "When 'Girlfriends' was on UPN, it was still going strong," she said. "It's very important for us -- it helps to bring in women. The show is so smart, and shows women in a realistic vein."
Making the transition even tougher for Akil is the unexpected departure of one of the series' main cast members, Jill Marie Jones, which caught Akil and the rest of the cast off-guard.
Jones' character, real estate agent Toni, was embroiled in several heavy-duty story arcs last season, which included a bitter divorce and custody battle, and a falling out with her best friend, restaurant owner Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross).
The departure of Jones and her refusal to make a farewell appearance still has Akil shaken. She said: "I would love for her to come back, but Jill doesn't want to return. I don't know 100% why she made this decision. She didn't tell me. All she said when we talked was that she felt it was time for her to move on. The door is not closed. We've asked her to come back and have offered different ways for her to return. But I completely wish her well. There's no drama involved."
Jones declined to comment. "There really is nothing to say," said the actress' publicist, Nicole Nassar.
"Girlfriends" will now deal with Toni's loss through Joan's struggles, said Akil. "We're going to show what it's like to lose a best friend and not have that last conversation to say goodbye."
That loss will be linked thematically to Joan's visit to New Orleans, where she went after her falling out with Toni and her other friends. The season opens with Joan jogging from the French Quarter to the 9th Ward, and was filmed guerrilla-style with a local crew.
Ross said: "The scene really opens the devastation that has been in Joan's life. We've always straddled the line between comedy and drama, and showing real life is what keeps our show fresh."
Akil said she knew it was risky to start the new beginning of "Girlfriends" with the sequence: "It's a little out of character with the show -- it's not the conventional thing to do, especially when the story is not about New Orleans. This was our way to reach outside the box, and pay tribute to New Orleans at the same time. It's our way of saying we don't want people to forget what happened there. We can't delve into it like an hour drama. But I'm proud of the way we did it."