The L Word‘s fifth season began January 6th with a tepid episode full of exposition. Some of it explained the absence of last season’s key characters (the “manny” played by Dallas Roberts, now dumped and gone, who’d fallen in love with Kit and then summarily cheated on her with some low-life babysitter) and some of it didn’t (what happened to the sexually irrepressible Papi)? Written by Ilene Chaiken, the series’ creator and head producer but not its most talented scribe, the forgettable episode heralded a new low for the lesbian comic soap opera. (See the official show site).

Even director Angela Robinson, who usually brings a light touch and firm sense of humor to her vision of the show, couldn’t rescue the script from its burdensome task of resolving old issues and setting up new conflicts to drive this season forward. Jodi returned to LA with no explanation; Bette screwed up yet again, decorating Jodi’s new loft and demonstrating her infinite capacity to be controlling. In the show’s continuing campaign to beat Bette down, Jodi retaliated by blindfolding her lover and topping her sexually (in one of the least erotic interactions Jennifer Beals has ever performed on film).

In fact, most of the first episode’s relationships felt flat and perfunctory. Alice fretted about Tasha, watching images of the Iraq war on CNN with increasing distress, as she presumed her girlfriend had shipped out for her latest tour of duty. At the episode’s end, Tasha somehow appears at Alice’s door, still in LA, still alive, still ready and willing as Alice pulls her into the apartment, strips off her clothes, and lowers her to the floor for another desultory sex scene.

Shane immediately got into trouble, revving up this season’s sexual escapades with a realtor who had just shown her and her erstwhile girlfriend Paige a possible apartment. Shane’s inability to just say no to any pretty old thing, and her utter incapacity with the appropriately placed white lie (she can’t tell Paige she’s “in love” with her) infuriates Paige, so she sets Shane’s salon/skateboarding rink on fire. Noble, guilty, uninsured Shane refuses to press charges.

Meanwhile, Tina pined for Bette as they played house with their adorable little daughter, Angie, trying to get her enrolled in the best nursery school programs on the tony side of LA. Their pseudo-domestic moments stirred my nostalgia for the days when Bette and Tina really were a couple, flaws and all, but their tentatively rekindling interest in each other bodes well.

In one of the episode’s few highlights, Shane, Tina, and Alice visit poor Helena, who’s been thrown in jail because of her botched betting fiasco from last season. The visiting trio parade down the hall between the cells—a hilarious catwalk in which Shane flirts with the women behind bars, as though Clarice Starling had been played by an out Jodie Foster. When they meet Helena, to school her in appropriate prison decorum, the three warn her not to “drop the soap,” a tip she utterly fails to understand.

Pam Greer as Kit gets her own perp-style walk between the prison cells, doing her best Foxy Brown as she arrives to meet Helena in the visitors’ room. Kit’s instructions are more precise than the white girls’; she tells Helena to get a “daddy,” quick.

The best moment of the first episode comes as Jenny writes her screenplay for her ridiculous roman à clef, Les Girls. As Jenny rewrites history, Beals, Holloman, and Moennig act out her script in a fantasy sequence with perfect satirical irony, a winking campiness aimed directly at the viewer. The L Word itself has come to approximate Jenny’s bad writing, and the actresses seemed to be signaling that they know where it’s all headed through the flames of the show’s debacle.

But happily, Episode Two—directed by Jamie Babbit (of the lesbian films But I’m a Cheerleader andItty Bitty Titty Committee fame)—turned things around enough to make The L Word worth loving to hate again. The show even seemed to wink at its own self-seriousness; writer Cherien Dabis piled on rapid, richly obvious allusions to other filmic melodramas. Jenny’s new star-struck assistant, Adele, brings with her clear shades of All About Eve; it’ll be fun to watch as the obsequious side-kick develops into a threat to the entirely self-absorbed, profoundly insufferable, completely oblivious diva.

Likewise, Shane’s escapades at the wedding of the daughter of the unbelievably wealthy, fawning entrepreneur (played by Wallace Shawn, of all people) funding Jenny’s film echo with allusions to Warren Beatty’s Don Juan hairdresser in Shampoo. Shane arrives at the wedding to help put the bride’s locks in place, and winds up having sex with her, each of her bridesmaids, and finally, the mother of the bride, in a revolving door of farcical pre-matrimonial Sapphism.

Personally, I can’t see Shane’s appeal, and have to accept her as the resident lothario more on faith than on Moennig’s charisma. She’s supposed to be a hair stylist, but her own mop often looks like a rat’s nest. Moennig’s boyishness is appealing, but her flat, rail-thin body and her awkward sex scenes make her purported allure dubious. Shane goes through the sexual motions with each of her conquests in Episode Two, pumping their breasts without a hint of even fleeting desire. Then again, Warren Beatty wasn’t falling in love with his clients, either; he was servicing them, just like Shane.

Meanwhile, back in the prison showers, Helena does drop the soap and finds herself instantly accosted by two lumpy female inmates who press a knife to her beautiful long white neck. She’s saved by her cell mate, Dusty, whom Helena thinks is a vicious murderer (no doubt because the woman is butch, of color, inarticulate, and chows down the inedible prison food). Dusty thwarts the shower attack by claiming that Helena is “hers.”

When Helena and her new “daddy” wind up having sex soon after, Helena learns that Dusty’s doing time for tax fraud, not homicide, comically underlining Helena’s implicit racism. As silly as it all is, at least Rachel Shelley has settled into her performance, refining her comic timing every season. She’s given up the femme fatale role for the soubrette, and surprisingly, it works.

Bette and Jodi don’t quite make sense as a couple, but they do have art (and age) in common. As the more mature pair on The L Word, they dispense wistful, cheap wisdom. The clueless, eager Phyllis (toothsome, always game Cybill Sheperd) complains that her paramour, Joyce—played with a cocky old-fashioned butch strut by Jane Lynch—won’t get lost. Bette tells Phyllis patiently, “Some lesbians you have to break up with more than once.” Because Jodi’s deafness requires frequent translations, Bette and Jodi become The L WordGreek chorus, commenting on the action with a eyes rolling and eyebrows arched.

There’s already plenty to be arch about this season. Tasha’s about to be investigated under the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” for active homosexuality. Alice’s liberalism clashes with her girlfriend’s patriotism; that Tasha is played by the gorgeous African American actor Rose Rollins offers a hint of the racism through which the military is populated. (A recent article in The Progressive describes how high schools in East LA are targeted for military recruitment, while white, middle-class schools elsewhere in the city never host recruiters.)

But the politics of the war and the military’s policy on gay soldiers are addressed obliquely, as one of many loosely motivating subplots. The relationship between Tasha and Alice, while sightly (Rollins has gorgeous eyes), doesn’t generate a hint of chemistry. I miss the old days, when Erin Daniels and Leisha Hailey seemed to have so much good old erotic fun.

Likewise on the political front, Max, the transman, has so far this season been relegated to the wings. He decided not to have top surgery; in this episode, he offers Phyllis and Alice a pedagogical disquisition about how some transmen don’t need surgery to feel like guys. Phyllis’s earnest naiveté about lesbianism provides an excuse for The L Word’s many flat-footed explanations about queer girl life. (“U-hauling,” Phyllis murmurs, jotting the definition in her handy notebook of lesbian lore. “Transman,” she repeats, as Max tells his tale, as if she’s listening to a Berlitz tape.) Where the show takes Max’s masculinity remains to be seen; for now, he’s only an adjunct to the main story.

Regardless of their titillation value, the photos I see of The L Word cast celebrating their new season and the plot teasers I read in Entertainment Weekly and People and other magazines thrill me. I still can’t get over that the show is mainstream enough to be widely noticed, even though its very popularity is what makes it pander to the lowest common (presumed) denominator of audience taste. From what I’ve read, a subplot about female Turkish oil wrestlers (whatever that means) is coming up soon.

Waiting with bated breath,
The Feminist Spectator

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