It’s long been my stance that true equality for LGBTQ+ people (at least in terms of pop-culture representation, one of equality’s least important measures) means there are enough TV shows and movies made about them that some can just be bad. Tampa Baes — an eight-part reality series about lesbians living in Tampa Bay, premiering today on Prime Video — is one such sign of progress. But, to paraphrase one of our community’s famous, milquetoast slogans, I think it’s going to get better.
The gist is this: A lesbian named Cuppie (provenance of nickname unknown) has recently moved back to Tampa Bay after a year spent elsewhere in Florida, and in doing so, introduces us to the community she’s rejoining. As viewers, we’re meant to be surprised that there even are 12–15 lesbians living in Tampa Bay, and I must admit that I was. In her introductory monologue, Cuppie defensively extols Tampa Bay’s many unsung virtues: primarily, beaches and nightlife.
Cuppie also informs us Tampa’s lesbian community is at war, led by two power couples supposedly desperate for “queen bee” status. On one side, we have Marissa and Summer, who insist they don’t care if they’re the top lesbian couple or not. On the other side, we have Brianna (a.k.a. Murphy, provenance of nickname unknown) and Haley, who care very much. Their rivalry is meant to be the show’s central conflict, but it’s somehow both overdescribed and underplayed. Only at the very end of the show’s fourth episode does it become clear why these couples dislike each other: Summer alleges that Brianna once invited her to “fuck at a CrossFit,” despite being with Haley at the time. (Summer declined.) Not coincidentally, this is when the show picks up steam.
Despite a straightforward reality-show format, Tampa Baes bills itself as a docuseries, and the tone is correspondingly confused. Too much of the early episodes is spent meeting cast members’ families (sorry, don’t care), with too little interpersonal drama. First seasons of reality series are always hard; there is so much introduction to be done, and especially here — there are 12 Tampa Baes, which is at least four too many. There is a reason the Real Housewives’ main casts are limited to five or six; too many more people and it’s too hard to like (or hate) any one of them.
Successful reality TV is made by meiosis and auxesis: larger groups of people dividing, cell-like, into smaller, shit-talking groups, which then rejoin and redivide again, all the while spreading said shit. Conflicts are interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted, beaten to death. The lesbians of Tampa Baes have too light a touch; the aforementioned cheating allegation would, on any Bravo franchise, become a season-defining arc, but here it’s bizarrely untouched. Brianna’s defense is that she wasn’t even in CrossFit three years ago, when Summer says this proposition occurred. She only joined last year.
I am, I’m afraid, making this sound funnier than it presents onscreen. Fucking at CrossFit would be meme-worthy in other hands, but Brianna (Murphy) is one of the show’s more charisma-less characters. She’s the closest we’ve got to a villain — in another underdiscussed scene, she shoves one of her few allies, Olivia, into a bathroom stall — but she’s expressionless, joyless, and not much fun to watch.
So absent is the show’s sense of humor that when Marissa reacts with surprise to a benignly funny comment made by Shiva, remarking, “That was a solid joke,” it feels existential. I want more happiness and fun for these young lesbians, and so I have some suggestions: more Shiva (a reality-TV natural), more Cuppie (a true character), less family (again, I’m sorry), more scene-setting. Without a shared workplace, à la Vanderpump or Below Deck, we need a better sense of the broader scene in which these women live and party. COVID-19 was a factor — the show was filmed this past summer, but as the real world opens, one hopes the show’s will, too. There is also apparent economic disparity between cast members; some work as nurses or bartenders, while Haley and Brianna, whose jobs aren’t mentioned, live in a sterile mansion with a weird billiards room; surely there’s room for more conflict here.
Also, Haley should dump Brianna — though that’s less of an editorial note, more of a rude stranger’s suggestion.
Because it’s foreshadowed from the beginning, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the finale features an engagement, and here, somewhat pathetically, I cried. There is real love between some (if not all) of the cast, both romantic and platonic, and real hatred too. The seeds of reality-television magic are in place; what they need now is rapid-growth drama fertilizer and a little time. Tampa Baes may not be very good, but I would watch eight seasons of it.