Hit the Beach With “Tampa Baes,” Your New Reality TV Guilty Pleasure

The Florida-set lesbian docuseries gives bar brawls, emotional proposals, and everything in between.

Spoilers ahead for Tampa Baes

Paul O’Malley of 3 Ball Entertainment is the executive producer who first pursued developing Tampa Baes, but it is more accurate to say the show found him. In December 2019, he was emailed a pitch for a reality television series from Brianna and Haley, a lesbian couple in Tampa, Florida, who wanted him to document their queer friend group.

A queer person himself, O’Malley always aims to show “more diversity on camera,” so the pitch was right up his alley. “I was like, ’Is this a Christmas present?'” he remembers. “’A lesbian show?'”

O’Malley conducted some preliminary interviews and was overjoyed to find that there was, indeed, something there. Amazon Studios agreed and provided the backing O’Malley needed to execute the project. The final product, an eight-episode docuseries called Tampa Baes, drops this Friday (November 5) on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a breezy, neon-hued watch punctuated by everything from dramatic coming-out moments and lesbian bar brawls to a dreamy, beachside queer proposal.

Ahead of Tampa Baes’s premiere, Logo spoke with O’Malley and co-executive producer Melissa Bidwell about what the series adds to the LGBTQ reality TV canon. Find our full chat below.

Hi, Paul and Melissa! How did Tampa Baes come to be?

Paul O’Malley: I have been working in development for eight or nine years, and when it comes to any show idea, I take every email, call, writing in the sky seriously. A big thing for me since I am part of the [LGBTQ] community is that I really want more diversity on camera, whether it’s ethnicity, sexuality, whatever the case may be. I just think audiences are just ready for something new. And two of the cast members, Haley and Brianna, emailed me. They said, “Hey, we’re a fan of some of the shows you’ve done. Have you ever thought about doing a show in Tampa?” And just pitched me this hidden LGBTQ gem that was popping off down there. Once we started chatting and hearing more about their group of friends and their extended circle, we were really excited about it. And it’s really important for us as producers to find groups of friends that exist. The show’s not cast; it’s based on a group of preexisting friends.

Wow. It literally fell in your lap.

O’Malley: Honestly, every person that Haley and Brianna introduced us to got better and better and more unique. I’ll spare you the details of just how the show was developed, but we pitched it out, and Amazon instantly loved it. … We were really grateful to them because I didn’t want to be like, “Oh, they’re taking a chance on a gay show.” This is just a great show. It’s not a gay show. It’s about young people finding themselves, and they’re all at different stages. So once we sold it, we brought in Melissa.

Melissa Bidwell: Another friend of mine, who’s a showrunner and also a lesbian, had heard about the show. So I knew that something like this was happening before they called me. And then they shared the sizzle with me. I got to see some of the cast members. I’m a lesbian, and being that there was going to be a new lesbian show, I knew it hadn’t been done in a while. I was intrigued by that for sure. And then when I saw the cast, I found them to be very likable. I was like, “I think there’s something here.”

It’s hilarious to me that Brianna and Haley pitched the show.

O’Malley: Oh my god. It all makes sense, right?

Seriously. As a viewer, I loved their lesbian power couple rivalry with Marissa and Summer.

O’Malley: It was fun to watch. I don’t know if it was fun to deal with [laughs]. No, I’m kidding. We love both couples. I think our goal has always been to bridge the gap between straight and gay programming where young people and older people will just watch the show and be like, oh, I can relate to being competitive with another couple or having this issue.

Amazon Prime Video
From left: Marissa and Summer in Tampa Baes.

There were some very vulnerable moments in the show that made me emotional — Jordan coming out to her grandparents, Haley confronting her religious trauma. Why was it important to you as producers to show these painful realities of being queer?

Bidwell: When I would talk with them about allowing us to film certain things — Haley’s story is super sensitive, Shiva, Jordan — they all really opened up and shared. And I think the ones who have gone through much harder times coming out really did want to share so they could help another person maybe who’s watching be uplifted, and know that it is possible to make it through it in a positive way. I’m very hands-off in the sense that I’ll talk through what I think would be good for us to document, and I leave it up to them if they are comfortable sharing it. And the great thing about this group is they were all very open. Hopefully, people will watch and see those stories and be able to relate and be entertained.

O’Malley: It’s weird, what a camera does to you. And when we were developing [the show], we loved the idea that it was set in Tampa because it says, oh, you don’t have to move to New York or L.A. Maybe young gays have felt back in the day like, I need to move to a city that accepts me. Tampa is really great, and it shows you can find your tribe anywhere.

I wanted to ask you about the show’s cast. I know you mentioned it was a preexisting friend group, but the lack of dark-skinned lesbians and trans or gender non-conforming lesbians in the show is pretty glaring. The show already received flack for it when the trailer dropped. How would you respond to this criticism?

O’Malley: I appreciate you asking that. I don’t think any show in history has been able to capture everyone, but we totally hope that this will open the door for more shows and more inclusion. We are proud of the diversity that we have with these women, but it was a preexisting group. It wouldn’t have felt right for us to be like, “Oh, we feel like this person’s missing, go find this.” That’s just not who we are as people or producers. I keep on joking, people who feel like they don’t see themselves in this show, I hope maybe they’ll email me or another production company because there is enough to go around.

I also noticed there weren’t many explicit or sexually charged scenes in the show. Was that on purpose? It made me think about how lesbians are often fetishized in media.

Bidwell: I mean, I don’t know that it was an intentional thing, but I definitely wasn’t coming into the show wanting to make the reality TV version of The L Word — not The Real L Word, but [the scripted] L Word where it’s porn basically. That’s not what I choose to watch. We filmed the cast doing whatever they were comfortable doing, and I think some of them are more affectionate and show a little more PDA than others. But again, it was never, “Okay, for this scene, you two are going to be making out.” Also, it’s a first-season show. And I think being first-season cast members, they’re a little more reserved than they would be otherwise.

Amazon Prime Video
From left: Mack, Shiva, and Jordan in Tampa Baes.

There have been a number of attempts to capture the reality of queer communities on TV. I’m thinking of The Real L Word, Logo’s Fire Island. Where do you think Tampa Baes fits in the canon of queer reality TV?

O’Malley: Oh, that’s a good question. I feel like it is familiar, but it’s taking it to the next level. I do think it’s all about casting, and our cast is really great. They all are different personality-wise, where they are at their life, they’re diverse. I feel like it’s approachable. We’re not hitting it over your head that they’re lesbians. It’s just about a group of people.

Bidwell: I didn’t ever really think of this as like, oh, we’re doing this gay show, or, this is for a gay audience. The stories that I found intriguing and that I wanted to follow were more basic, everyday life things: dealing with friends, maybe having a falling out with a friend, taking advantage of a friend, and needing to apologize. And I love that it’s on Amazon. Hopefully, anyone who’s just flipping through one night looking for something to watch will see it and be intrigued by it and tune in.

Totally. It’s for a general audience.

Bidwell: Can I add just one thing too, because our post [production] team was… our crew from top to bottom in the field, in post, was very diverse in all different ways. We did have a lot of people who identify as gay in post. And I think when someone’s editing those storylines, and they can really relate to it, it [makes a difference.] My post EP, this guy Christopher Swanberg, was like, “Everyone’s watching the show and seeing it and loving it.” And I’m like, “Well, I owe it to Christopher and his team in post because they killed it.”

Obviously, you both have watched the raw footage a lot. What are your favorite storylines from the season?

Bidwell: I have two answers. One, the proposal was awesome because we had to be sneaky, and it was just a lot of fun. We really were proud of how that all turned out, and all of us while we were watching were getting emotional. I don’t normally have emotions like that when I’m working, so I was like, okay, I think this is good. I’m actually getting choked up. And then Olivia’s story, that whole DUI thing was super intense. It happened very early in filming. My earlier producing and even shooting was just running gun, stuff’s happening, and you’re running around following it like crazy, and that’s kind of what that was.

O’Malley: I’m really proud of the family dynamics with the girls. I loved the scene with Shiva and her family, and seeing visibility as an Iranian lesbian woman, and having her mom in the same room and talking about that. The word gay doesn’t even exist [in Farsi], and to me, I felt like — I mean, I’m proud of every scene in this, but that, I was like, okay, this is a really great thing for people to see.

The series ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Are there any plans for Tampa Baes Season 2?

O’Malley: There’s no official news yet, but we really hope we can give you the first word when we do get good news. Come November 5, hopefully people will react really well to the show. Fingers crossed.

Tampa Baes is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.