The third season of The L Word picks up six months after the second left off. Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a former cutter, is recuperating with her parents in Skokie, IL; Shane (Katherine Moennig) is taking a chance on monogamy with Carmen (Sarah Shahi); and Bette (Jennifer Beals) is petitioning to adopt Angelica, the baby her partner, Tina (Laurel Halloman), delivered in Season Two’s finale.
Alice (Leisha Hailey), poor Alice, is reeling from a case of the post-breakup crazies. Medicating herself with multiple antidepressant prescriptions, she has turned her bedroom into a shrine to her ex-girlfriend Dana (Erin Daniels), with the requisite candles and photos (the most unsettling is a life-size cutout of Dana). Alice not only spies on Dana and her new girlfriend, but she also chases Dana in her car through L.A.
Yes, heartbreak can drive a person to do psychotic things… but Alice? Let’s forget for a second that the writers’ decision to send Alice off the deep end deprives viewers of one of The L Word‘s greatest pleasures: Hailey’s understated comic timing. The bigger problem is that Alice’s extreme change is startlingly unmotivated. Such inconsistency is even more evident in Helena (Rachel Shelley), Season Two’s manipulative rich bitch who has miraculously transformed into a Mother Theresa (still draped in couture, natch) by the start of Season Three. It’s as if Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan has become Crystal Carrington overnight. “Six months later…” is not character development.
When The L Word‘s writing isn’t lazy, it can be overwrought (the pseudo-intellectual dialogue penned for the insufferable novelist Jenny induces the most shudders). Too often, attempts at button-pushing are exaggerated to the point of button-pounding. Take the opening sequence of Season Three’s “Lobsters,” in which two nuns at the back of a dark tour bus masturbate each other underneath their habits. The image alone is shocking, but then the audio kicks in: a repetition of the Hail Mary prayer in voiceover that progresses from breathy to orgasmic. The sequence could be considered profane, but it’s too over-the-top to be taken that seriously.
Because The L Word is one of the rare TV shows to explore sex and gender (as well as represent a spectrum of desires and orientations), it’s frustrating when it lapses into such incoherence. Season Three does offer a few highlights, however, and the biggest storylines were also the most controversial among fans: Dana’s death from breast cancer; and the introduction of a transgender character, Moira/Max (Daniela Sea), who started transitioning from female to male. The creators clearly anticipated backlash for their decision to kill off Dana; they followed the episode in which she dies with a short segment titled “Goodbye to Dana” (included among the DVD set’s extras).
Part public-service announcement, part self-promotion, it refers to the episode as “groundbreaking,” and several L Word actors and producers share heartrending breast cancer statistics and provide justification for the choice to pursue this upsetting storyline. Producer Rose Lam says, “Our show seems to be the only one that’s not afraid to talk about [cancer], and with the type of reality you don’t usually see on TV.” I would argue that Thirtysomething broke this ground more than 10 years ago when Nancy suffered from ovarian cancer, and did so with more depth and insight. Granted, that series benefited from a 24-episode season, whereas The L Word has only 12 each cycle. But why The L Word wastes narrative time on throwaway musical performances by the B-52s, Sleater-Kinney, and Betty (especially Betty) is beyond me.
The handling of Dana’s illness did stand out in one important respect. In the episode, “Late Comer,” Dana’s need for a mastectomy is juxtaposed with Max’s desire for one (an elective mastectomy, a.k.a. “top surgery,” is part of the transition to malehood); here we see how frustrating it is to be limited by one’s own body in any capacity, whether by disease or birth. In one of the season’s most touching scenes, Max tells Dana why transitioning is a life-and-death issue for him, just as breast cancer is for her: “The first time I tried to kill myself, I was 10 years old.” Growing up as a girl, he felt so disoriented in his body, he believed suicide was his only option. “I hoped that if I came back, God would put me in the right body that time.”
Though the female body is still presented as a source of erotic pleasure in Season Three (see Sarah Shahi’s playful striptease in “Lost Weekend”), it is also figured as a vexed site where the personal and political can clash. For instance, as Bette and Tina’s romantic relationship dissolves, Bette’s petition to adopt their daughter, Angelica, is thrown into question. Not Angelica’s “natural” mother, Bette is at the mercy of the court (and Tina) when it comes to being declared a legal parent. On several occasions, the nursing mother Tina takes Angelica from Bette’s arms and snaps, “She needs to be fed,” as Bette stands by helplessly.
Here, The L Word reveals how biology can become a trump card in a power struggle between lesbian parents. Since Bette didn’t deliver Angelica and is unable to breastfeed her as an infant, she is always in danger of being relegated to second-class status as a parent or labeled the child’s “other mother.” This story is the one we haven’t seen on TV before.
The producers of The L Word go to great lengths to listen to and cultivate their fan base, giving talks across the country and sponsoring “fanisode” contests, in which viewers can dream up their own scenarios for L Word characters and demonstrate their writing chops. Some of this effort involves commercial branding, to be sure — this DVD’s “special features” include sweepstakes announcements (read: colorful promotions) for Olivia cruise tickets and a “Celebration of Love” wedding package at the Fairmount Chateau Whistler (a setting in the last episode).
But for the most part, the “reaching out” seems sincere, especially since several features on the DVD include critical views of the show. Though the viewer-participants in “The L World” documentary offer mostly praise, a few people voice disapproval and disdain. Eileen Miles, a poet/novelist from San Diego who hosts L Word viewing parties, says, “We all hang out, and it’s like a gang of dykes who have a show to laugh at.” A.L. Steiner, a visual artist in New York, describes her feelings for the series as a “love/hate” thing: “I can’t not watch it… but the details are absurd.”
Even a cast member is heard complaining in “Goodbye to Dana.” Moennig, who plays Shane, discusses how angry she was when she learned about the breast cancer storyline. “I was pissed, and I’m still upset,” she says. “I don’t agree with it.” It’s encouraging that The L Word gives its detractors a voice. Let’s just hope the creators have taken some of these criticisms to heart in the making of Season Four.