Reviews

The L Word

David Swerdlick

Now that The L Word has considered many of the broad topics of the day (with the notable exception of a same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony), it can do its own thing.


The L Word

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Erin Daniels, Pam Grier, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Mia Kirshner, Eric Lively, Katherine Moennig, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Shelley
Network: Showtime
Amazon
I could be demure like girls who are soft,
For boys who are fearful of getting an earful.
But I gotta rock! I'd rather be a ladyman.
-- Sleater-Kinney, "Ballad of a Ladyman"

The good news is that The L Word has done away with the Henry Miller-esque dream sequences that opened several episodes last year. The return to vignettes about how lesbians got-r-done back in the day is a welcome stylistic u-turn back to a path leading from Olivia Records to Olivia Cruises, Billy Jean King to Martina Navratilova, and Barbara Jordan to Tammy Baldwin.

Blending these "story of us" flashbacks with Alice's (Leisha Hailey) chart -- the inspired and mildly risqué diagram that chronicles the interconnectedness of lesbian sexual encounters à la Six Degrees-of-Ilene Chaiken -- allows The L Word to honor the struggles of the past. Marilyn (Christine Chatelain) is seduced by Teri (Jill Teed) at a gathering of suburban housewives, Teri gets it on with Toni (Laura Mennell) in a Castro District alley, Toni loves Sister Agatha (Naomi Joy Gallagher) on the back of a charter bus, and so on.

If only executive producer Chaiken would also return to Season One's elegant theme-song-less intros, with ambient music playing as credits rolled on the first scenes. Instead, she's still using last year's title track by Betty. While Betty's appearances on the show were good, the current theme song and accompanying title sequence, attempting to be campy and provocative, are at best corny, at worst tawdry. Chaiken defended the song to the Village Voice a few months ago, saying, "To me, that song is fierce and feminist and in-your-face." No. It is 60 seconds of audio-visual torture.

From its beginning, The L Word had focused on Jenny (Mia Kirshner). Last season, she succumbed to apparent childhood demons, shifting from a complex, hard-to-categorize character into a walking emotional meltdown. Her transformation started with promise: she shed her hideous wardrobe, and had Shane (Katherine Moennig) cut her hair, in a touching scene where she cried even as she achieved the transformation she wanted. But then Jenny spiraled down into self-flagellating performances at a Sunset Boulevard topless bar, and eventually, cutting. This depiction was not itself problematic, but it didn't seem motivated. Season Three has begun backfilling Jenny's story by introducing her repressive mother (Margot Kidder) and stepfather (Stephen Aberle), and suggesting why she is ambivalent about her Jewish upbringing.

Bette (Jennifer Beals) also lost her way last year, grappling back to the break-even point in her marriage to Tina (Lauren Holloman) after having an affair that also cost her professionally. The extremely moving episodes where she and Kit (Pam Grier) cared for their dying father (Ossie Davis) were some of the series' best. Bette went from shrieking, pleading, and repeated displays of what can only be called "the Jennifer Beals face" to triumphantly beaming in the finale as her newborn daughter Angelica (Olivia Windbiel) was passed from the arms of one auntie to another.

Now that The L Word has considered many of the broad topics of the day (with the notable exception of a same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony), it can do its own thing. It has evolved from a groundbreaker into a fairly cozy representation of a sorority of glamorous lesbians desperately seeking themselves. From menopausal Kit's attraction to male nanny Angus (Dallas Roberts), to Moira's (Daniela Sea) situational passing for a man, to Tina's horny internet chatting with men, the series remains in the mold of an Aaron Spelling melodrama while taking on discrete social issues.

Shane and Carmen's (Sarah Shahi) interracial and (sort of) butch/femme romance is sweet and refreshing, but at times cringe-worthy. Previous narratives have been introduced in midstream: Bette and Tina are an established couple, Dana an established pro athlete. By contrast, Shane and Carmen had sex 20 minutes after they met, but it took all of last season for them to get together for real. Because Shane doesn't have a biological family to lean on, her relationship potential is wide open. But Carmen's tight-knit Latino family, a draw for the emotionally thirsty Shane, might not be able to handle their daughter's sexual orientation.

Only a soap opera would have the audacity to recast Helena (Rachel Shelley) as anything other than a self-obsessed billionaire vampire. But she's now transformed (via Tarot-inspired spirituality) into Alice's new wingman/nurse and possible love interest. A year ago there was doubt about whether the group would welcome Bette back, yet Helena seems to be integrating with ease. This discrepancy underscores the identity crisis -- racial and otherwise -- playing across Bette's face from week to week.

What remains a compelling ingredient in The L Word's mix is the portrayal of Bette and Kit's nontraditional family. Bette is more uptight than her older sister. In the episode "Lost Weekend," she attempted to play the role of diplomat by defending her nephew's (Colin Lawrence) conservatism, affirming that, "David's entitled to his own opinion." This immediately backfired when she planted him in front of her adoption social worker (Cynthia Stevenson), and he announced, "I don't believe in gay adoption... So I'm afraid that it would be hypocritical of me to stand here and vouch for you."

Is it too much to ask for a straight African American male character who is both supportive of his recovering alcoholic mother and at least open-minded about his lesbian aunt? In light of the homophobia that persists in some communities of color, David reflects the clash of beliefs that exists within many families. But would a young, urbane physician in L.A. with a semi-famous, R&B-singing mom and gorgeous aunt really hate on them to that extent?

The most significant vibe adjustment in Season Three is the new girl on the block, Moira. She's more overtly butch than sultry, androgynous Shane (who observes, "I wouldn't necessarily call Moira a 'stone' butch"). It's a new twist for the show, one that may mollify criticism like that recently offered by Judith Halberstam in Girlfriends. She writes that The L Word has made a "rather blatant attempt to give the stereotype of the dowdy dyke a wide berth." Moira is, however, unsophisticated and working class; you can almost feel the dirt under her unmanicured fingernails. It's a stereotype that needs complicating.

Must The L Word always "make a statement" about the diverse lesbian universe? Or, should it strive to show that lesbians are regular gals: shoe shopping, kibitzing, and scoping out the hot... chicks? It does a bit of both and for the most part, succeeds. Since lipstick lesbians have gone mainstream, we'll see whether this series will deliver whatever comes next. That won't necessarily be about lesbians, straights, or bisexuals, as much as it will be about women, at liberty to live their lives in their own ways, with less of a nod and more of a wink to those who would measure them.

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