GIRLFRIENDS. 9 tonight, Channel 57.

LOS ANGELES - At a time when black sitcoms are losing their luster, the eighth season of "Girlfriends" is worth noting.

The CW comedy about three close-knit L.A. gal pals is the longest-running live-action comedy currently airing on prime time network television. Though like other UPN transplants on the CW, it has never hit Nielsen's top 100, "Girlfriends" is the second highest-rated comedy among black viewers (bested only by its 2-year-old spin-off, "The Game").

With 173 episodes shot so far (13 of 22 were filmed before the Writers Guild strike halted production), "Girlfriends" is just behind "The Cosby Show" with the most episodes produced for a black sitcom.

"And knowing that, if I got one more year, I could beat Cosby," series creator Mara Brock Akil said with a laugh. "I mean, come on, to be able to say I was right up there with 'Cosby,' that ain't a bad thing."

Not bad, indeed, considering that with ratings down last season, many had suspected the show wouldn't return at all this fall. Akil and the writers even wrote a final episode that tied everything together, including the lovelorn Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross) getting a marriage proposal.

Though CW executives are not willing to discuss the possibilities of a renewal until May, when series are picked up for the fall, there is another contingency plan in place if this season is the last.

"I think fans will be very happy," Akil said.

So does that mean Joan will finally get married? Akil would only reveal that "when we finally feel like Joan is really OK, I do believe the show is over."

While Akil and cast agree that they would not be opposed to coming back, they'd also be fine if they didn't. With nearly nonexistent promotion, network swaps and the loss of a principal cast member last season, just the fact that the show has endured is what's mattered most.

"It's not that I didn't think we could go this long, but it's totally outside my frame of reference," said Ross, who directed the scheduled Jan. 14 episode. "It was one of those things where I was like, 'Yeah, this is really good,' but who would ever think? What show goes eight years? It's not something you imagine."

A Northwestern University journalism graduate, Akil got her start writing scripts on the critically lauded "South Central" before moving to UPN's "Moesha," where she became a producer after four seasons. She landed "Girlfriends" just days shy of her 30th birthday.

"When I first met her, Mara had really not had the reins of a show before 'Girlfriends,' " said CW President Dawn Ostroff. "Over the years she has matured where she is not only able to handle the pressure of producing two shows, but she's just always thinking about where the characters are going and what's going to create the most drama and comedy for the series in the long haul."

Akil is one of only two black women producing multiple shows on the air this season (Shonda Rhimes, creator of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" being the other).

Even more significant is that Akil has two of the only three network prime-time comedies (including the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris") that feature a predominantly black cast - a dying breed amid television's increased interest in "color blind" series.

After years of criticism about the lack of diversity on the networks, much of broadcast television has moved toward multiracial casting, making black shows like "Cosby," "My Wife and Kids," "The Parkers" or "The Jamie Foxx Show" a thing of the past.

Although there are more black actors on television than ever before - thanks in part to cable - the absence of black shows means fewer working opportunities for black performers, writers and producers, critics say, as well as fewer authentic stories that represent the culture.

That unique representation, said Kelsey Grammer, whose Grammnet production company makes Akil's shows, is what made "Girlfriends" such a significant series.

"For 20 years I was on television watching everybody kind of piss and moan that, except for 'The Cosby Show,' there was really no show of color that was substantial," said Grammer. "But this is a real show about real people that I thought was an important step for television." *