If you told me a decade ago that I would be spending a night at home on my sofa with my wife, watching an eight-episode reality series about a group of lesbian frenemies frolicking around Florida during a pandemic, well, that in itself sounds like a premise for a TV show that would never, ever get made. And yet, the past few years have seen a surge in LGBTQ+ entertainment created with mainstream audiences in mind (as opposed to, say, the lesbian web series I and so many Millennials downloaded to our iPods to watch in secret when gay people were very much not main characters—or even side characters—on TV).
Now, it feels like every streaming series has a token gay best friend or parent or side character that leaves a major gap in my once claim-to-fame that I watched everything queer. There’s too much to keep up with! And clearly, that’s a good thing. Although queer representation on TV has surged—2020 saw a record high of LGBTQ+ series regulars—there is still very much a gap in inclusive entertainment.
Enter: Tampa Baes. The Prime Video reality series debuted in November, chronicling the daily lives of an impressively large lesbian friend group in the Tampa, Florida area, which the cast claims is a queer hotspot. The premise for the show, which bills itself as a docuseries, is just following around a group of women (most of whom appear to work as nurses or cosmetologists) who all party together. It’s all kicked off by the return of Cuppie, on the heels of a bad breakup which temporarily relocated her to Orlando. (If I learned anything from this show, it’s Florida geography, and according to Google Maps, Orlando is actually not that far from Tampa Baes’ namesake city.)
To celebrate Cuppie’s return, longtime girlfriends and business partners (we don’t know what the business is) Haley and Murphy host a party, inviting the rest of their friend group to not-so-naturally introduce the cast to viewers. Naturally, there’s plenty of drama, and while viewers could likely care less about the spats between a bunch of non-famous random people on a streaming platform, I felt compelled to keep watching.
Tampa Baes is irreverent, silly, and completely unprecedented. It’s the type of mindless entertainment that’s simply not made centering queer people and experiences. Tila Tequila’s Shot At Love, the first big queer dating show, was certainly groundbreaking, but objectifying and problematic in countless ways. The Real L Word, Showtime’s reality series inspired by The L Word, followed a group of friends around L.A., but scenes bordered on pornographic, and in many instances, the episodes were more stressful and cringey than just zone-out, cotton candy-brain streaming.
Tampa Baes is absolutely that. Co-produced by two of its stars (the aforementioned hosts Haley and Murphy), the series is refreshingly free of the male gaze. There’s absolutely no sex (or any scandalous hook-ups) on screen, because this show isn’t about exploiting the women’s sexuality, but rather portraying some of the small day-to-day difficulties they face—living with your mom who won’t stop waking you up early, crushing on a straight girl, getting blackout drunk on a tiki barge. The show also digs into deeper themes, like coming out to grandparents, queer acceptance and religion, and a DUI—though all these issues are resolved fairly quickly, leaving screen time for bikini car washes (a touching scene about helping a friend, really) and plenty of nights out at the bar.
Tampa Baes stakes are extremely low, it’s relatively plotless, and it’s the type of bingeable indulgence often limited to a heterosexual world. The show isn’t about these women being gay, it’s about gay women being who they are, just living life with a touch of extra drama for the cameras.
By the final episode of the season, I felt like these women were people I know from my group text, or at least hear about in my group text. Their stories, though not remarkable, were the type of everyday accounts to share over a cup of coffee or a cocktail. Can you believe Shiva did that? How cute are Summer and Marissa? Why is everyone always wearing so much makeup and what’s with all the tall buns?
The show is far from perfect, but it’s great fun to watch. And as we enter our third pandemic winter, it’s the exact type of friendship-centric ensemble series we need to get us through.