Season Five on The L Word continues to be its best since the series began. Producer Ilene Chaiken and friends have returned to the fast and funny satirical premise that made the lesbian dramedy so appealing in the first place, and the characters have settled into their quirks and peccadilloes with an easy charm. The actors seem more comfortable with each episode, plying their trade with a wink and a nod to spectators as if we’re all now in on The L Word‘s best joke: the fantastic hubris that lets it aspire to be a cable tv show about “lesbian lives and loves.”That The L Word has always in some ways been a parody of itself is no longer an open secret, but now overtly delivered with delicious self-mockery through Jenny’s vanity film project, Les Girls. With the once tortured, traumatized nouveau-lesbian cutter now fully in bloom as dyke diva, Jenny muddles her way through directing her script, adapted from her eponymous novel. That Les Girls is itself a not-so-thinly-veiled, not-so-fictionalized version of stories told in the first season of The L Word makes the references even more fun. The show’s winking allusions to its own excesses make it even easier to forgive its interim few seasons of labored, unconvincing dramaturgy.

In last night’s episode (#6, see showtime’s web site for clips and on-line viewings), Jenny and company fly to Vancouver to scout locations. Jenny quickly denounces the city as a poor excuse for Los Angeles, and demands she be allowed to shoot in California. Since The L Word itself shoots in Vancouver, the producers poke fun at spectators’ early objections to the unrealistic Canadian locations that substitute for the city in which the show takes place. Les Girls moves its shoot to the very LA street on which Bette and Tina and Jenny and Shane live, mixing up the layers of reference and reality as The L Word‘s characters meet the Les Girls actors who play them.

Jenny’s moment coaching the women playing “Bev” and the film’s version of Tina through their first sex scene is a hysterical parody of the straight actors of The L Word rumored to have been tutored in the fine points of lesbian sex by Chaiken and her crew. Jenny gives the two embarrassed, befuddled actors an elaborate set of sexual instructions, to which they respond with terrified, awkward ineptitude. Frustrated, Jenny barks to her no-longer-so-abject assistant, Adele (Malaya Rivera Drew), that they need to hire a lesbian sex expert to teach the actors a thing or two, an obvious reference to The L Word employing Susie “Sexpert” Bright to instruct its performers while the first season was being shot.

Creating narrative stand-ins for the regular cast of characters lets the audience see how far Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, and the rest of the cast have come with their roles. And the utterly satisfying consummation of Bette and Tina’s re-simmering passion proved them once again the most believable, compelling couple on the show. Beals and Holloman’s affection for each other seems real, and their comfort with one another’s bodies makes their sex scenes convincingly erotic. When Bette, in the throes of desire, tells Tina that she’s missed her, the audience can only agree. After three seasons of watching other characters’ much less expert sexual fumbling, it’s good to have Bette and Tina back in action (and especially nice to watch Tina take control of their moves).

Even Kate Moennig seems to be loosening up as Shane (could it be those newly buff abs she’s now sporting?). While her hair still looks like a disaster (but then, what do I know?), her three-way with the SheBar girls and its aftermath has given her new spunk, as she stands up to defend The Planet and poor Kit’s reputation. Elizabeth Keener (Catherine’s look-alike sister) plays a mean jealous lover, and the conflict over lesbian capitalism is both funny and relevant, as the two establishments fight for the dyke dollar.

The ensemble of actors playing the core group of friends–Holloman, Moennig, Pam Grier, and Leisha Hailey–show their affection for each other with real conviction, their repartée and teasing now finely honed, warm, and easy. Hailey might have lost Rose Rollins’s Tasha to Alice’s dubious decision to out a famous African American football star, but Alice’s budding career as a talking head (now being prepared to audition for The L Word‘s version of The View, with sarcastic references to Alice taking Rosie O’Donnell’s “lesbian” place) promises more subtle political commentary from the always vivacious character. Alice might bear the burden of the show’s queer politics, but she handles her role as spokeswoman pretty well (except for her inexplicably naïve and ignorant jibes at transman Max, whose sole purpose these days seems to be videotaping Alice and figuring out what’s up with the suspicious, covertly ambitious Adele).

Cybil Shepard continues her run as Phyllis, the out Chancellor of “California University” where Bette serves as the art school dean. The plot’s recent controversy over “extreme” art proves that Bette’s become more conservative in her very responsible administrative position. Bette’s erstwhile lover, artist Jodi, now sings the anthem for free expression in the arts, defending her student’s right to put a gun to his head as part of his performance. Bette worries about donors and the school’s board of directors, a far cry from the Bette who mounted “Provocations” at the LA museum where she was the curator (in the far more politically progressive Season One).

If Phyllis’s lack of concern over the controversy isn’t believable, her new-found lesbian identity continues to serve The L Word as a source of both pedagogy and parody. Phyllis’s freshly introduced daughter, Molly (played by Shepard’s actual daughter, Clementine Ford), promises new sexual tensions and possibilities for the irrepressible Shane (whose recent vow of celibacy didn’t even last an episode).

Given that network television has been a wasteland these last few months while the writers’ strike ensured that the best scribes in the business will get the income they deserve, it’s been a pleasure to follow The L Word‘s more accomplished scripts, well-paced directing, musically evocative scores (fabulous to hear Joan Armitrading last night), and capable, relaxed, committed performances. Since the future of Friday Night Lights (my other favorite) seems in doubt post-strike, at least we’ve got the girl crew in Vancouver—rather—“LA” to entertain us. How nice that some of the best television available these days is by and about lesbians.

Indulging happily,
The Feminist Spectator

3 thoughts on “THE L WORD’s LATEST HIGH

  1. Well, I just reread my early post on THE L WORD’s new season, and can see that I’ve done a 180 here. Let’s just say that the fifth season has continued to improve since I first wrote, so that by the sixth episode, I can be as enthusiastic as I am here about the show!


  2. As a person who loves to theorize representations of lesbian femininity, I am SO GLAD to see you have kept writing about the L word. The show drives people completely nuts – in a good way, a bad way, a sex way – and I love how your comments cut through through that and make a slightly more objective attempt at considering the content of the show.

    I agree that the “meta” aspects to the plot in season five were what made it more amusing and intriguing. I think too that the explicit focus on filming and being filmed really brought home something that has been a theme from the beginning – attempting to position lesbians as both subject and object, and the difficulty of that endeavor. Jenny’s and Tina’s struggles with the film underscored that point and contextualized the L words general obsession with being filmed/watched (the podcasts, Alice on TV, jodi’s video art of bette, alice with that phone cam, mark back in season 3, and on and on…). I think its this object/subjectification is really what the L word has to contribute to a discussion of females and queerness in the media.

    I’m in school for something totally different right now (an MLS) but I think this summer I’m going to set myself a little course of L word theorizing. It will make my propensity to watch bette/tina scenes repeatedly seem so much less skeevy. (see, there I go, turning the object into a subject.)

    Anyway, I’d love to know what you thought about the conclusion of the season.

  3. Rey, thanks so much for this comment. I’ve posted, now, on the season finale (thanks in part to your prodding). Everything you say here about how the show plays with subjectivity/objectification is very smart and I think very true. And you’re right that the film-within-the-film subplot has allowed Chaiken and friends to underline that even more explicitly in thoughtful ways.

    Do share the theorizing you do on the show. I continue to believe it’s enormously important that this series has aired, and that there’s so much more to say about it, from so many different perspectives.

    Looking forward to more of your comments.

    My best,
    Jill Dolan

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