Showtime's long running lesbian drama/comedy/soap opera transforms itself for its last season into a murder mystery... And then abruptly terminates in one of TV history's most unsatisfying series finales.
The L WordDistributor: Showtime/Paramount
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Mia Kirshner, Laurel Holloman, Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moennig, Pam Grier, Rachel Shelley, Daniela Sea
US Release Date: 2009-10-20
The sixth and final season of Showtime’s long running lesbian drama/ comedy/ melodrama/ soap opera/ farce/ meta in-joke/ [fill in the blank] The L Word opens with a scene that most fans of the show have probably been longing for since… well, probably since the very first episode – the dead, drowned body of Jenny Schecter being wheeled out of Bette and Tina’s living room on a stretcher. This is meant to shock and surprise, killing off one of the show’s central, and most reviled, characters. It’s supposed to be a shot out of the blue, and kick off the season with a genuine bang! Except that, after five previous seasons of schizophrenic unpredictability and enough craziness to fill out 20 seasons of an average daytime soap, nothing is ever shocking or surprising on The L Word – not even trying to transform the show, in the 11th hour, into a murder-mystery.
I mean, if anything, the only shocking thing here is that it took them this long to kill off Jenny. She’s had it coming for so long, and it’s hard not to see why everyone – both on the show and in the audience – had had it with her. Pretentious, narcissistic, petty, condescending, prissy and petulant (and those were her good qualities), Jenny walked the thin line between obnoxious nuisance and complete sociopath, disrupting and destroying everything and everyone around her. The swath of destruction she cut is legendary in the annals of television history.
But while everyone seemed so sure that she was the devil incarnate, to me Jenny never seemed to behave out of deliberate malice so much as a supremely oblivious state of permanent solipsism. She was always too far gone in her loopiness to be genuinely evil. In grand soap opera fashion, she became such a grotesque, so much larger than life, that it was actually impossible to hate her. She was just too cartoonish to take seriously as a villain.
Of course, she was also impossible to regard as a real human being as well – she was like some irrational force of nature, informing, coloring and directing everything around her according to inscrutable whims. She was electric and magnetic, enlivening every scene she was in with anticipation and horror of her wild unpredictability, drawing you into her madness until you found it starting to make sense. Brat, bitch, minx, charlatan – she devoured whatever hate was thrown at her and reformed it into something transcendently weird and sometimes wonderful. I love her, and aside from the members of Fisher family on Six Feet Under, she is my favorite television character of all time.
The key to unlocking her, and what I think is sometimes forgotten, is that everything she did was informed by a sly intelligence, one that often got lost in the shuffle of her daffiness and outrageous behavior. She seemed to forget it too, sometimes, but every so often she would have a moment of clarity, and you could see that she always knew exactly what she was doing. Nothing was an accident. And I think this might be the key that unravels and explains the show, the entirety of The L Word (not just the final season). Because, without faith in some sort of overarching, inscrutable intelligence guiding the ship, the show frustrates and infuriates to no small measure. More on this theory in a moment (I might not be right, the evidence might not stack up, but I hope it does).
But first, back to the beginning of the season in question. Now, at no point during any part of its run did The L Word ever give any indication of being or wanting to become a murder-mystery – which is exactly what this late inning switch up makes perfect sense. This is a show that has… thrived (I guess) on continuous reinvention, resetting things with wild abandon with each season, or even within each season – or even from episode to episode. Or even within an episode.
Of course, it’s only “reinvention” if one’s being charitable. It could just as well be (and probably is) a case of terminal sloppiness. The only real consistency of the show has been its perennial inconsistency, an inability to stay on point, to head in any one direction for long, to sustain and execute any sort of grand plan.
In the first (and still best) season, The L Word was a fairly straight forward, fairly serious ensemble drama (with touches of comedy) about a group of lesbian friends living in LA. It concerned their lives and lusts, the travails and joys of falling in and out of love, and trying to navigate the tricky sexual politics and mores of the lesbian scene and social circles. While not nearly as bold as it thinks it was or could have been, the show was well written (at first) and the cast was across the board fantastic (actually, they were to the end -- you could make a case for this being one of the great ensembles of actresses ever on TV, even if the characters themselves occasionally suffered mightily from misguided writing).
A full account of the proceedings of the show from that point onward up to season six would probably exhaust and/or crash the PopMatters' servers. Schizophrenic doesn’t even really begin to cut it. The tone, themes, pacing , and plot switches were so varied and frequent and so often nonsensical that at this point, thinking back on the show, it’s impossible to keep track of what happened when, to whom, and why (oh… there was never a why!), even with a detailed episode guide and character chart in front of me
But, most damning, if we just disregard all the crazy plotline, and just focus on the main characters (and even forget the secondary characters, who seems to come and go and be forgotten with alarming ease), we see this same loopiness at work in the very core of each major player, who change so radically sometimes as to make you wonder whether they were replaced by some evil (or, in the case of Helena, good) doppelganger.
It’s so hard to get a critical handle on this that it makes you wonder if rational discourse on the show is even possible. It’s impossible to pinpoint whether all this fussing around and mutation is the result of creative restlessness or supreme laziness. Were the show’s writers self-aware of the show’s wildness, of its tendencies to go flying off the rails in spectacular fashion? And did this become self-perpetuating, a corner impossibly more difficult to paint oneself out of, thus feeding the monster?
Was The L Word a put on? A parody? A parody of a parody? A Trojan Horse that was much smarter than it let on, cloaking its more serious agendas – art, family, sexual politics, lesbian social issues – in the trappings of a farce? Was it some sort of meta-commentary on the very nature of television itself? Or really just the trainwreck it so often appeared to be?
I hope not, because it would be a shame if a show with so many flashes of brilliance, with so much potential, were just a joke. But at the same time, it would be rather unfortunate if the show “meant” everything that appeared on screen. The L Word cannot afford to actually be what it appears to be without pleading artistic bankruptcy – but at the same time, it cannot not be this as well, because that would be to admit some sort of defeat.
And this is where Jenny swoops in and saves the whole thing. Now, if you know the show, you know that the seat of Jenny’s obnoxiousness lied in her career as a fiction writer. The self-indulgence, the preening, the poseur behavior, all stems from her love of artifice (indeed, the whole beginning of the show was predicated on her “trying on the role” of lesbian and her sexual reawakening). Along about season four, Jenny got the brilliant idea of turning her life up to that point (so from season one through three) into a novel, with all the main characters of the show appearing in thinly disguised versions of themselves, and going through similar stories. And the next obvious step, of course, was to turn it into a screen play and make a movie out of it.
Which, of course, is exactly what happens, with Jenny somehow landing the role of director of the film within the show that is about the show itself, entitled Les Girls (a neat little pun, depending on how you pronounce the first word, and the emphasis and accent you use). Seasons four and five then revolve around this journey down the meta rabbit hole (nothing new or particularly clever -- it was also used to great effect on Seinfeld) of turning the show into a show about the show, and in the end, the whole thing flamed out and blew up in Jenny’s face (the repercussions of which linger into season six).
But this got me thinking. What if the whole thing, all of it, the entirety of The L Word, were just the ramblings of Jenny Schecter, but once removed - the whole swath cut directly from her overheated, narcissistic imagination? What if it were all just one of her fictions, some grand meta-novel? What if she was sitting just outside the frame the entire time, clacking away at her computer, with that smug look of self-satisfaction that she would get sometimes after some petty triumph? What if it were all some Charlie Kaufmann-esque mind trip, where the author loses herself in her own creation?
Because it would explain everything: the mood swings of the show, the constant wild vacillation of characters, the inability to stay focused and on point, the lapses into lunacy and silliness, but also the moments of great poignancy and intelligence, of the coherency that would come out of nowhere and flash for a moment before lapsing back into the pressure cooked nonsense of its normal course. It’s all from Jenny, it’s all in Jenny. That’s the show - The J Word.
And in the end, in the last shot of the show, there she is looking out back at us from a television screen (a screen within the actual screen you the viewer is watching -- in a home video Jenny’s made for Bette and Tina) waving her hands above her head and saying, with a wink, “That’s it!”, looking at us coyly one last time out from under her bangs, with that inscrutable smile and crazy gleam in her eye. It’s like she was saying “Were you not entertained?!” Never so much, Jenny, and probably never so much again.
…Oh. Wait - You want to know about Season Six though. The final season, the last hurrah? Does The L Word ever act like things are winding down? No. Does the show go out with a bang, as promised? No. Is it satisfying, in the details? Sort of.
In typical L Word fashion, there is some tackling of tricky and/or tough issues – violence against gays and lesbians is addressed directly by Alice at once point; the surprise pregnancy of woman-to-man trans Max seems at first like a desperate “ripped from the headlines” gimmick, except that actress playing Max is able to turn it sad and tragic and haunting all at once (despite the writers still not knowing what to do with this character); and Bette and Tina are once again combating prejudice in their new attempts to adopt a child.
But of course, as always, the show’s serious concerns are incidental to the hookups and the break ups, and the meltdowns and the wigouts. So we also have typical love triangles (Alice and Tasha and their new friend, whatsherface); and a new big one, the inevitable trainwreck of Jenny and Shane, with a dash of Nikki on the side. This has always been the meat and potatoes of the show, the soap opera engine that always delivers. But the returns have become less and less.
Jenny manages to do something to piss off every major player on the show so each has a reason to want to kill her (one of the ongoing jokes of the season is one character storming off screen, clutching her hair, and screaming “I’m going to KILL that bitch!” or some close variant). But do we find out what happened to Jenny? Was she murdered, or did she kill herself? An accident, perhaps? I don’t know, but does it matter? If we want to know who really killed her, we need only look in the mirror. We all killed Jenny. She died for our sins…
And for creator Ilene Chaiken’s sins of an aborted season of eight episodes and a hatchet job series finale that is so abruptly different from every episode in the final season, that it seems like watching a completely different show. Par for the course, of course! Was it the betrayal that so many long time fans of the show thought it was? Probably. It wasn’t so bad, but it left everything hanging with no satisfying resolution.
When you’ve come to love television characters, to care about them as if they were your own friends, as irrational as that is, you want some sort of fitting send off. The L Word does not honor this promise, and for that I guess it should be ashamed. I don’t care what kind of hatchet job Showtime is responsible for to only order a short season – Ilene Chaiken knew how many episodes she would have to wrap things up with, and still couldn’t deliver in the end. Bah! I like my idea of blaming it all on Jenny better.
I’m also going to blame Jenny for the paltry extras included with the DVD set. Now, given Showtime’s deplorable handling of the end of the series, I didn’t expect them to go all out, and really, they never have on previous collections (hell, the extras for seasons four and five were actually episodes of other Showtime shows, if I remember correctly), but I really wanted… well, something, anything with the cast and crew. Some sort of wrap up and retrospective. Or at least an apology from Ilene Chaiken.
Instead, there’s a 25-minute feature interviewing various lesbians of various ages and social backgrounds about their lives and experiences. This is not without merit, and is actually a fine piece, as far as it goes. But except for mentioning The L Word briefly, it has nothing to do with the show specifically. A group of photos taken by Jennifer Beals, and an excerpt from semi-regular cast member Marlee Matlin’s autobiography “round out” the offerings.