The L Word Plays on

[Note: For those of you who’ve never seen The L Word, or for those of you who are inveterate fans, the essay I wrote during the show’s earlier seasons might be useful. Here’s a link to the piece, “Fans of Lesbians on TV: The L Word’s Generations,” on FlowTV, posted April 29, 2005.]

Season four of The L Word is settling into its rather campy groove, dispensing with the histrionics of last season with dispatch and throwing our lesbian heroines into the latest melodramatic and comic plot twists. The putrid theme song by the female rock group Betty sets the tone, with its one word adjectives and trying-to-be-sexy verbs that pretend to describe the whole of lesbian “lives and loves.” But somehow, that entirely superficial, tuneless list song sums up what the show is all about.

In this season, Bette (Jennifer Beals), who was summarily fired from the museum where her terrific Provocations exhibit caused such a stir in the show’s inaugural year, has miraculously become a dean at California University, a fictitious (in more ways than one) institution of higher education where Bette’s immediate superior is Vice Chancellor Phyllis, played by guest star Cybill Shepherd. Even though this story line is among the show’s most unbelievable, the position returns Bette to the work place, where she demonstrates strength of character and balances out the other L women’s propensity to lounge about gossiping. Bette’s authority in the workplace influences her status with her friends, giving her pride of place as the L girls’ look-to friend/role model.

The other women seem younger than Bette. They work at jobs that allow them simply to exaggerate their social selves, Shane as a hairdresser at a punky skate boarders’ boutique, Alice on her tell-all, chart-drawing radio show, Tina as a studio executive who never appears to do anything, and the now penniless Helena as a caterer. Helena’s new skill represents another of season four’s miracles. Just a few episodes ago, Helena—the scion whose access to her inheritance was abruptly terminated by her art philanthropist mother—seemed unable to even juggle the phones at Shane’s salon. Now, she’s managing to produce caviar blinis at a moment’s notice for chic guests at the Vice Chancellor’s fundraiser.

Bette’s work, when she has it, has always lent The L Word its gravitas, its one intellectual and often political strain. This season promises not to disappoint, since Bette has already demonstrated her authority in the classroom, as well as her facility with odious, conservative fundraisers. When Bette tours one of those potential donors through the studio of the university’s artist-in-residence, Jodi (played by Marlee Maitlin), refuses to bow to Bette’s pressure to censor one of her students’ most provocative pieces during the visit. Maitlin’s character neatly points out Bette’s new hypocrisy; she who once spoke eloquently of the need for her museum to display art that crosses lines of social propriety is now putting her pretty words to use in the service of the dollar. Jodi lets Bette know in no uncertain terms that that just won’t do. This brief contretemps has lent the show a whiff of its former at least casually progressive politics, which have been sorely missing in recent seasons.

Last Sunday’s episode (Episode 5, “Lez Girls,” February 4th, 2007) offered the most unadulterated, adult sexual tension I’ve seen on the show in a long time. At the Vice Chancellor’s fundraiser—the one Helena caters and Bette should be working—sculptor Jodi and her ASL interpreter cajole Bette into stepping out with them into the yard to smoke a joint. Maitlin and Beals catch a vibe of genuine pleasure in each other’s company; their flirtation is sexy and fun, even with the intervening presence of the queer interpreter, who adds an element of both prurience and frisson to the seduction. Jodi is in the middle of blowing pot smoke into Bette’s ready and willing mouth (in a moment shot in romantic silhouette), when Alice and Phyllis burst into the yard fighting, requiring Jodi and Bette to postpone the moment (and to make us wait for its consummation, no doubt, in the next episode).

Cybill Shepherd has been amusing but disappointing as Phyllis, the newly Sapphic administrator. Her silly performance of a character whose authority is virtually nil unfortunately counterbalances Bette’s newly rediscovered seriousness. Where Bette/Beals is almost convincing delivering her art history lectures and explaining modern art to donors, Shepherd’s administrator never seems to do any work, and carries herself like a floozy instead of a professional. She’s constantly popping up to waylay Bette in the university’s halls, and spends way too much office time confessing her long-repressed attraction to women. Her affair with the ever willing Alice is way over the top, a romp of unbridled lust and experimentation that even Alice begins to find too much.

Shepherd’s portrait is too sincere to be campy, and although she’s clearly trying hard to fit into the scene (as a character and as an actor), she’s coming close to embarrassing herself. Too bad she can’t use what used to be her sultry sexuality, the much more indolent, subtle flirtatiousness that she demonstrated so skillfully with Bruce Willis back on Moonlighting, to give Phyllis’s new presence in the girl gang more nuance and texture. Instead, Shepherd seems hampered by her age and her weight, looking like a rather puffed up version of her younger self, a woman—perhaps just like Phyllis, her character—alienated from her body and forced to play the role from her neck up, even though she’s acting at desire that should emanate from much lower. Although Shepherd seems game for the sexual experimentation she’s portraying in the show, something about her eager puppy dog countenance trivializes what it means for a middle-aged professional woman with a husband and two college-age kids to choose to come out.

Other characters seem to be settling into a deeper sense of themselves this season. Alice has always been the show’s comic relief, in part because she’s written as lighter and less serious than the others, and partly because Leisha Haley is the most skilled at the wry comic turns the best The L Word writers offer. At the same time, Alice commands a larger range of emotions, again because Haley (along with Beals), is one of the show’s more accomplished performers. Granted, much of the time, the actors aren’t given a lot to work with. The script is often shallow, the dialogue inane. But the rotating stable of writers occasionally turns out some more accomplished, sophisticated dialogue, and when it does, Beals and Haley make it work.

Alice’s insane obsession with Dana in season three, after Dana left her to return to the “soup-chef,” was Alice’s nadir as a character; her hope for reconciliation was completely unbelievable and tedious. But once Dana was diagnosed with breast cancer (a gratuitous, manipulative plot twist that killed off Erin Daniels, another of the show’s better actors), Alice settled back into the reasonable character she’d been, rising to the occasion of caring for her friend through her death. Season four rewards Alice’s long-suffering loyalty by letting her be sexual again, first with Papi, the hot new Latina counterpart to the anti-monogamous Shane (who Papi derisively calls “Vanilla”). Papi’s centered herself on Alice’s chart by claiming attachments to over 1,500 women. When Alice investigates, trying to locate this miraculous lover, she finally finds Papi parked outside a Latino bar in a stretch limousine, into which Alice happily climbs to do her hands-on research. When Papi drops Alice off at her house the next morning, Alice introduces her to Helena, who becomes Papi’s next conquest. Papi becomes, by sexual approximation, part of the girl gang’s group.

Tina seems to be having second thoughts about her retreat back into heterosexuality, as it’s clear her sensitive new man might be less enlightened about gender and sexual equality than he’d seemed. The lingering sexual tension between Bette and Tina is ramping up a notch or two, even as they continue their recriminations and bickering. After all, Bette’s baby-snatching (the implausible ending to season three) was quickly forgiven and forgotten, and their new co-parenting arrangement easily decided. Happily, their lives as parents haven’t taken focus, a rather refreshing development, considering that these are, after all, wealthy lesbians who worked hard to have their child. Angus and Kit, in fact, are seen with their baby, Angelika, more often, since Angus continues to work as Bette and Tina’s “manny.”

Jenny’s true colors are flying this season, as producer Ilene Chaiken is apparently giving in to fans’ longtime dislike of her character. Her book was published to mediocre reviews, but Jenny’s become less of a maudlin, self-involved artist and more of a snotty, ego-centric writer, wreaking pathetic, Fatal Attraction-esque revenge on a reviewer for Curve Magazine who panned her book. Jenny also offends Alice by insisting that a story she wrote for The New Yorker (as if) is fiction rather than thinly veiled truth about her friends. The sniveling self-mutilator with strange fantasies and enigmatic flashbacks has found her evil stride as an arrogant, self-important cultural avatar, and the show’s writers seem to delight in just letting Jenny be bad.

Meanwhile, her ex, Max, is settling into his would-be manhood. After being cruelly rejected by his boss’s daughter when he reveals that he’s in the middle of a gender transition (she spits at Max, “I don’t date freaks”), Max prepares to lose his job, only to find that the politically and emotionally limited women’s studies major and would-be feminist he was dating has not, in fact, exposed his secret to her father. Max has moved up and down the meter of likable, sympathetic character-dom, but he seems to be evening out into a rather quiet, even tame masculinity. (Although still, it’s a white masculinity that secures ever more surely his privilege and his entrée into a powerful male world.)

Episode Five’s opening moment reveals Max gazing in the mirror at his very female body, removing his shorts and his dildo to stare frankly at his breasts and his penis-less bush. The moment is emotionally cryptic; it’s not clear what Max is thinking, whether he’s disgusted with his femaleness or coming to terms with its presence. While the moment seemed rather brave and almost moving, it was staged as a reflection out of time and out of context, shot against a floating black backdrop. Whatever Max felt about his looking was never clarified or revisited.

If Daniela Sea were a more expressive actor, the moment might have revealed more, and built a sense of depth into a character who’s seemed, until recently, something of a sap to viewers who complained that the show was too unrepresentative of the “real” lesbian community (whatever that is). First, Max was Maura, Jenny’s butch working-class lesbian lover, upholding all the potential for “difference” (except racial and ethnic) in her one slight, awkward body. Maura didn’t fit in with Jenny’s friends because she wasn’t rich and superficial; instead, she was rough and tumble and “real” in the way that only a cable TV show can imagine working-class people to be, which means they have limited vocabularies and wear continually bemused expressions. Once Maura started taking testosterone and transforming into Max, though, the character quickly passed through a violent and hostile phase to find his calling as a computer wiz, rising quickly into the ranks of the middle class and finding potential succor as a straight white male. This recent unluckiness in love prompted the first opportunity for self-reflection Max has had since the character joined the show.

The funniest scene in all four seasons of The L Word has to be the basketball game Papi and her friends play against Alice and hers. The two groups (one predominantly white, with the exception of Bette and Kit, the other a mixed group of women of color) meet up on a public court in a scene staged like the rumble from West Side Story. Our heroines are clearly out-butched by the other women, but they do their best to rise to the occasion, flaunting their matching athletic wear and desperately clutching their Starbucks cups. Jenny is quickly undone when the ball knocks her cup from her hand, but the previously reluctant Bette feels her innate competitiveness take over. The game is called mid-way through when Shane’s brother breaks his arm skate-boarding, but as the women breathlessly leave the court, the ever high-achieving Bette suggests that they should practice for the next game.

The scene was one of the few in the show’s four-year history in which the writers seemed willing to poke cheerful, self-reflexive good fun at the characters, parodying in one sharply drawn scene the upper-middle-class fashionista fragility that makes them more comfortable in tony coffee shops than on public basketball courts. The satire is affectionate but pointed, the scene hilarious in its knowingness.

After four seasons with the L women, one of the things that strikes me most is the ongoing sense of community that deepens as their fictional lives proceed. For better or for worse, these women are family to each other, and their commitment to kinship continues to rewrite the codes of how our relationships might be defined. Narrative expediency keeps them moving among each other, in and out of sexual relationships, adding and discarding new love interests to and from the group, but the basic core of Bette, Tina, Jenny, Shane, Alice, and Kit remains strong and evolving. With the addition in the last two seasons of Helena and Max, the L gals continue to solidify and strengthen the force field in which they orbit together.

Although there seem to be fewer scenes this season at the Planet, the coffee shop/bar/performance space that Kit runs and where everyone hangs out, the women congregate in other places in other ways, always coming to each others’ rescue without question or complaint. When Shane’s little brother Shay runs away, they all drop their lives to go look for him. When Tina decides she needs to bring together her straight and lesbian worlds, they all suck it up and head to her party, at which the heterosexuals turn out to be a backward, retrograde bunch, soundly out-classed by Bette and company. Although you sometimes have to wonder how they’re able to free themselves up so quickly, the women are simply, clearly, there for each other.

The show’s approach to race currently seems sharper than it’s been since the first season, when Bette’s illicit affair with the African American carpenter set up a productive tension between her life with Tina and her white friends, and the entrée into a different racially identified community that the carpenter provided. In season four, with Papi and her multiracial friends coming round for basketball games and drinks in bars, and with Alice taking a shine to Papi’s mysterious, taciturn African American friend Tasha (played by Rose Rollins) and her motorcycle, the potential for exploring race as a more explicit dynamic among lesbians has, happily, returned. On the other hand, Janina Gavankar, as Papi, seems to be continuing the strange cross-race casting tradition that the woman playing Carmen began last season; if I’m reading her name correctly, Gavankar is of Southeast Asian ethnicity, rather than Latina. Why the producers can’t actually cast a Latina in a race-appropriate role is beyond me.

Who knows where Chaiken and her writers and directors will take us from here? The talent seems a cut above this season; the writing is for the most taut and wry, the characters seem to be growing into more complex, fully developed people, and the direction seems more creative, fast-paced, and less flat-footed than last season. For now, I’m having more fun watching The L Word than I’ve had in a long time. I’m finding it less embarrassing, more amusing, and even sometimes thought-provoking, which is all I need from a lesbian soap opera. For that, I’m delighted that it’s still on the air.

Watching happily,
The Feminist Spectator

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