The L Word

When it came time to review the fourth season premiere of The L Word, I was in a bit of a bind. I don’t have cable. So I headed over to Cattyshack, a lesbian bar in my Brooklyn neighborhood that hosts L Word screening parties on Sunday nights. Trying to take notes with a beer in one hand was challenging, but afterward, the whole not-having-cable handicap began to seem like a brilliant idea.

The L Word is more enjoyable to watch with a group, mostly because subtlety is not one of its strengths. As David Swerdlick noted in his review of last season’s first episode, The L Word has the “audacity” of a soap opera, including wild character transformations and peculiar interests, as when Jenny (Mia Kirshner) attempted to decipher the language of manatees in Season Two. In the privacy of my living room, such behavior looked demented, sad, and decidedly unsocial. But watching the fourth season’s premiere at Cattyshack was fun, and patrons had plenty to shout about.

Right off the bat, the irritating opening song by Betty received a chorus of boos (“Get a new theme song!”) and in an early scene, when a tuxedoed Shane (Katherine Moennig) washed up on a Malibu shore looking like she weighed about 90 pounds, a woman in the crowd yelled out, “Someone get that girl a bagel, for god’s sake!”, inciting laughter all around. A bitter exchange between ex-lovers Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), currently fighting over custody of their baby daughter, elicited cheers from the audience, especially Bette’s comment that now-straight Tina was never “qualified” to be her lover. (A few intermittent “Damns!” rang out.) But the moment that generated the most excitement by far was the return of Marina (Karina Lombard), a popular character from Season One who was shipped off to the Continent before the second season started. The excitement isn’t hard to fathom: where Marina goes, incredibly sexy trouble usually follows.

But true to form, the fourth season is already beset by hackneyed scenarios and logical inconsistencies. Shane, after deserting Carmen at the altar in Season Three, has crawled back to her toxic ex-lover Cherie Jaffe (played with witchy, cackling glee by Rosanna Arquette). The L Word would never send Shane on your average post-breakup bender; no, instead she must implode in a cocaine-fueled Less Than Zero-styled rampage that ends with a bloody car crash.

And when previously menopausal Kit (Pam Grier) visits a clinic to terminate an unplanned pregnancy — clearly a compelling situation in its own right — the show ups the stakes by having her accosted by pro-life activists who ambush her with photos of aborted fetuses. (Per The L Word‘s usual MO, this decision does show a little restraint; if the production budget had been higher, I wonder if the clinic would have been blown up by radicals with Kit inside). The L Word can’t seem to resist the urge to push character-driven storylines into Big Dramatic Issues territory, and though its desire to be politically relevant is admirable, most of these attempts come off as contrived.

Problems of chronology also abound. Even though the fourth season begins right after the last one left off, Jenny’s roman à clef, optioned a few months prior in “show time,” has already been edited, printed, reviewed, and packaged for book signings. In one scene, Jenny reads one of her notices aloud: the critic has described her book as “wincingly acute” (groan) as well as “shamelessly self-indulgent.” Fans have often complained about Jenny’s narcissism, so the dig that caps off the review seems like a little wink to them.

Alice (Leisha Hailey), the show’s other writer character, also has a new project in the works. In a lengthy bit of exposition, she explains that she has launched The Chart (her visual map of hookups among L.A. lesbians) online as, which has quickly blossomed into a busy social-networking site, à la MySpace. After MySpace was mentioned a second time in this episode, the woman next to me at Cattyshack turned to her friend and asked, “What’s with all the product placement?” Actually, it was more of an attempt at “subliminal product association,” for Chaiken and Showtime have produced a real-world version of (dubbed a “lesbian MySpace” by Chaiken) that went live on the night Season Four premiered.

In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Chaiken spins the venture as a case where “life imitates art” (or at least an occasionally entertaining soap opera), but it’s also a chance to cash in on the show’s popularity. Chaiken and co-founders Beals, Moennig, and Hailey all have financial stakes in the enterprise; like MySpace, the new site will “have a mix of branded pages and other types of ads.”

Chaiken has proved herself to be a savvy cross-promoter in the past (see the Olivia Cruises and Fairmont Chateau Whistler promotions in earlier seasons), but is designed to expand the show’s marketing power. Showtime CEO Matthew Blank tells Hollywood Reporter, “The show and OurChart will feed one another, but this is a new business that we hope will be very successful. We’re hoping to create a valuable asset that produces financial results for us.” (After all, merely collecting residual checks is so last century.) The site’s blogs, show tie-ins, and networking opportunities appeal to L Word viewers and beyond. And if Jenny ever starts communicating with the manatees again, disgruntled fans will have another venue to voice complaints, and an audience presumably larger than a bar full of fans.

RATING 6 / 10