Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys debuts tonight on the Sundance Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The Sundance Channel has been quietly cranking out some of the best long-form documentaries anywhere over the past five years or so, including The Staircase and Nimrod Nation, arguably two pinnacles of the form. The network's been a little quieter in recent years, but now, it's returned with Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, which is about exactly what it sounds like it's about, only not as lascivious as the title would suggest. The show, executive produced by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, isn't as trashy as it might seem at first blush, but it's also far from the best of Sundance's efforts. The series aims to be one of those shows that quantifies a certain cultural movement (in this case, the idea of women who are best friends with gay men), pinning it down for further study, but it ends up being far too formless. As it turns out, straight women's friendships with gay men are ... fairly similar to any friendship that any person has had ever, no matter how frantically the show tries to sell them as different.
The problem is just how formless the show is. Every segment cuts haphazardly between four different couples wandering the mean streets of New York City, never suggesting a kind of context that could be drawn by viewing any of these groups in succession. The series just thinks that presenting a bunch of straight women with gay best friends will help us draw conclusions about this type of relationship. Instead, the cutting suggests that a single episode about any one of these couples might be entertaining or insightful, but an episode that tries to be about all four couples will feel rather pointless. Indeed, there's very little story here. We're just expected to be entertained by hanging out with these people, and that's too rarely the case.
Probably the most entertaining couple is Elisa Casas and David Munk, who met at NYU 30-some years ago. Now, the two are facing middle age with a certain wry acceptance, when it doesn't seem like they completely and utterly hate each other's guts. They work together at Elisa's vintage clothing company, and frequent topics of conversation include how little Elisa exercises and how much Botox David has injected into his forehead (he jokingly claims to be unable to raise an eyebrow). David's a genuinely funny guy, and Elisa makes a good sparring partner for him. While the storylines tossed at the two are pretty light on incident (David struggles with his boyfriend; Elisa prepares to say farewell to her daughter for a while), the two are good company, and when David shows up at Elisa's birthday party in mime get-up, hoping to avoid conflict by having an excuse to not talk to anyone, then caving in and talking after just eight minutes, well, that's fairly entertaining. I don't know that I'd watch a full show about Elisa and David, but as a sidebar to some other show, they'd be a lot of fun.
After those two probably come Rosebud Baker and Sahil Farooqi, two college pals now making their way in the big city, as Rosebud (no, seriously, that's her name, but a lot of people call her Bud) tries to make it as an actress and tries to get the semi-closeted Sahil to embrace life as a gay man (and approve of her new boyfriend, subway busker Jason). Again, not everything here works, but Rosebud and Sahil are reasonably entertaining characters, and Rosebud's attempts to get Sahil to embrace his homosexuality are the closest thing the show has to an actual, compelling storyline. When she drags him out to a gay club (that one of the other couples is visiting for a birthday party, though the two groups never meet) and he protests that that's not HIS kind of gay, her frustration is palpable. The best moments of this storyline largely involve Rosebud angrily exhorting Sahil to stick money in some muscled guy's underwear or something else stereotypically "gay," as though both have learned what it means to be homosexual from watching too much Will & Grace.
Then you have Crystal McCrary and Nathan Williams, business partners who endlessly repeat themselves. Crystal was once married to an NBA star. Now, she's a single mother, also trying to get a movie deal together for a book she wrote with a fellow NBA ex-wife. Nathan's her partner and friend, yes, but this is another couple where the two seem to be constantly on the verge of strangling each other, particularly when Nathan talks incessantly about having a child. Now, if you can't see where this is going from episode one, then you probably haven't ever seen a reality show or read a chick lit book about a woman with a gay best friend, but the show takes an endless amount of time to get to the point, and Crystal and Nathan simply aren't interesting enough to spend that much time on.
And finally, there are Sarah and Joel. Joel's about to get married in Iowa (and the show makes much note of the irony of this), and his fiance may be the best character in the whole damn show. He takes great delight in needling essentially anyone involved with the enterprise and spends much of his time making Joel honestly believe that their Iowa wedding will be in the middle of a cornfield (in a very funny sequence). The two have the closest thing to a stable, romantic relationship on the show, and that's nice to see, since Joel's straight woman best friend, Sarah, has been so obviously warped by spending all of her time with Joel and her ailing mother. When she talks about the man she imagines as her dream guy, he's pretty much a Jewish version of Joel. When Joel announces his engagement, the look of anger on Sarah's face doesn't need the dramatic sting on the soundtrack (in general, the show is overscored with clunky music cues). The central story here is whether Sarah will find love, but this girl is so obviously messed up in so many ways, despite being a reasonably successful author with a serious Amy Adams thing going on, that the jokey way this plays out feels like a disservice. Again, it seems as though a whole series about these two might have worked, but as a segment of an ongoing series? No.
Another big problem here is that the show doesn't trust us to remember anything about who these people are. The characters endlessly repeat themselves, explaining their basic situations over and over, until even the most dense of audience members should get the picture. Previous Sundance docu-series trusted the audience almost implicitly to get the point, so this lack of confidence is saddening. All Nathan does is talk about wanting a kid. All Rosebud does is endlessly recount the story of how she met either Sahil or Jason. And on and on and on. It's not good TV. It's just filling time until the next thing comes on. The show also has a series of unfortunate segments that may as well be termed PSAs, where the various characters intone their thoughts on such topics as the term "fag hag" (they're against it) and gay marriage (they're for it). It's not immediately clear why these even exist, although at least they don't involve the various people in the show repeating themselves.
Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys isn't as awful as much of the above description will make it sound, but it fails to suggest a good reason for its existence, other than somebody coming up with the potentially catchy title. There's probably a good show to be made about each of these couples, and the show's steadfast refusal to blend the four storylines together is admirable (even if it makes the show feel somewhat more disjointed). But the overall picture here is of a bunch of people who wanted to make a documentary series, thought they had a pretty good idea for one, and then simply couldn't figure out a way in other than letting the title do most of the work for them.