The Good: Moments of character (Alice, Tasha, Max), Moments of performance, Narrative creativity
The Bad: Focus on Jenny, Not all of the narrative experiments work, Guts the character of Shane, Soap operatic qualities, Dawn Denbo subplot
The Basics: While trying to be fresh, The L Word clunks along in its fifth season, undermining much of the prior seasons’ character growth.
When I love a television series, there is very little that can keep me from plowing right through it. In the case of The L Word, I’ve enjoyed the first four seasons (despite the fact that the only casualty in the entire series was my favorite character!), but it took me two tries to get through the fifth season and since completing it, I’ve been sitting on the review for about a month. The reason is, honestly, I was caught between a 3.5 and a 4 out of ten rating. If the series had still been on the air when I watched it (and I thought I had any influence by reviewing it), I probably would have bumped it up to a four, if for no other reason than to encourage the creativity and the season’s lone heartfelt moment (I’ll admit, the climactic moment between Alice and Tasha in one of the last episodes of the season brought a tear to my eyes!).
But, as I had been warned by a friend and fan of the series, The L Word Season Five shows a marked decline in the show. While I enjoyed the way the producers, writers, and directors played with the narrative – many of the episodes have teasers that are campy dreams, alternate scenes – actresses on the set of the film Les Girls acting out prior scenes from the series and homages to other works – the fifth season goes into dramatically shakier territory and to go there, the series severely undermines much of the character growth of characters, most notably, Shane. As well, the fifth season – which has expanded the cast yet again – has a number of tangent stories that essentially go nowhere and, in the process, end up creating a much more soap operatic show than The L Word has been. In other words, realism is sacrificed for melodrama and those living outside Los Angeles are likely to find the season even more offputting than the prior ones.
Jenny rewrites the screenplay to Les Girls as Bette and Jodi work on their (now) long distance relationship. Jodi returns to Bette almost immediately, while Jenny becomes more a part of the Hollywood machine to get Les Girls made into a feature film. Max’s working for Alice is going well, though Alice marginalizes Max and she misses Tasha. Shane and Paige make a move toward being together, but Shane (characteristically) flips out. With Helena in jail, she becomes terrified by and enamored with her cellmate. Jenny continues to go through assistants while Shane goes through an entire wedding party following her breakup with Paige. As Tasha faces discharge from the military, Alice starts to fight for her.
Tina uses her friendship with Jenny to get her studio Les Girls, though she quickly discovers that the hassle of working with the increasingly difficult Jenny might not be worth it. Max and Kit discover a fan of Jenny’s, Adele, at The Planet and hook her up as Jenny’s new assistant. Max, though, starts to notice that Adele might not be all that she seems. Kit, for her part, is soon overwhelmed by competition from a new lesbian bar in town, one that goes to war with the Planet. With Jenny romancing the star of Les Girls and Tasha fighting for her military career, tensions in the group begin to run high . . . which puts Tina and Bette on a collision course with one another again!
In order to set off the ridiculous plot that has a new nightclub opening in Los Angeles that starts to mimic and poach from The Planet, Shane has to almost completely revert to her original characterization. Following her fleeing Carmen at the climax of season three (reviewed here!), Shane was in the perfect place to develop in season four (reviewed here!). The writers of The L Word smartly developed Shane; as she became closer to her father, she made a conscious effort to reject his parenting patterns by essentially becoming a mother to her young half-brother in season four. With his departure, Shane and Paige were together to raise Paige’s son and almost immediately that entire arc and years of character growth were cut down. The point of undermining Shane’s calculated and worthwhile character growth? So Shane could get into a threesome with Dawn Denbo and her girlfriend at the new nightclub in order to set off the jealous war that Denbo would then rage on The Planet.
This is not a good reason to ruin a character.
Shane is not the only character problematically undermined in Season Five. In order to make the growing passion Tina has for Bette work, the viewer has to forget how Tina was shattered by Bette cheating on her. But that is the folly of The L Word; none of the characters are reliably monogamous, though many claim that they want that type of love and lifestyle.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jenny Schecter. Jenny has become progressively worse over the seasons and in the fifth season she is the embodiment of the spoiled brat (there’s another B word or even C word that more accurately describes her character in this season!). Jenny has completely lost any sense of humbleness as she becomes a Hollywood stereotype and a jerk to everyone around her. In fact, despite the fact that Bette calls her out on her poor behavior, there is no real reason why any of the characters consider her a friend any longer (though, to be fair, she does get Shane a job as a hair stylist on the set of Les Girls and Shane stands by her for that reason).
The L Word, like all worthwhile shows, succeeds (when it does) because of the characters it presents. In the fifth season, the cast of characters includes:
Bette Porter – With her professional life generally placid, she focuses on her relationship with Jodi. Unfortunately for her, she has a disastrous weekend with Jodi’s friends (who are much livelier than she is), which ends abruptly when Kit is robbed at gunpoint at The Planet. She shares parenting duties with Tina and is furious with Jenny for what Jenny wrote about her in Les Girls. Despite loving Jodi, she finds herself drawn back to Tina as they share common challenges,
Tina Kennard – Quietly pines for Bette while putting up with Jenny at work. She is minimized this season until there comes an opportunity for her and Bette to rekindle their relationship and when their affair comes out during a bike-a-thon the group is on, she sympathizes with Jodi,
Jodi Lerner – The artist returns to Los Angeles for Bette. She complicates Bette’s professional life when she allows one of her artists to do a performance art piece where he appears to hold a gun to his own head. Personally, she is embarrassed by Bette when Bette is aloof during a weekend she plans with her friends. When she realizes Bette is still in love with Tina, she takes it poorly, publicly embarrassing her lover,
Shane McCutcheon – Cheats on Paige while looking for an apartment for the couple. When (probably) Paige burns down her hair salon, she refuses to press charges. She seduces an entire wedding party and gets involved with Dawn Denbo and, more significantly, Denbo’s partner. She stands by Jenny when the production of Les Girls is threatened,
Alice Pieszecki – Her star is on the rise. Her podcasts and radio show begin getting her real attention. That gets her invited to a posh, secret, gay’s only party in Hollywood. When Tasha accompanies her, she is shocked by a prominent athlete appearing at the party. She is furious when that same athlete is later quoted making homophobic remarks and Alice uses video footage to “out” him. When that makes Alice a bit of a celebrity, she is offered a chance to co-host a prominent morning show. As Alice is used against Tasha when Tasha is forced to defend herself against charges of homosexual conduct in the military, she accidentally stumbles upon Tasha’s salvation,
Tasha Williams – She is delayed from her deployment and when one of her fellow MPs sees her out in public with Alice, her career is menaced. After the hassle of convincing her JAG officer to advocate for her, she prepares to fight for her career, even as Alice is used against her,
Kit Porter – Is robbed at gunpoint, so she gets a gun. When Dawn Denbo makes a play to ruin her and The Planet, she gets into a murderous rage. On the verge of losing everything when Denbo is able to buy out The Planet, the most unlikely ally comes to her aid,
Max Sweeney – No longer determined to get gender reassignment surgery, the transgendered member of the group calls Alice out on her exclusion of transgendered individuals on her podcast. Max develops a crush on Jodi’s interpreter. Max is also the only member of the group to not trust Adele and work to expose Jenny’s new assistant,
Adele – A mysterious, initially mousy, young woman who is a fan of Jenny Schecter’s works. She becomes Jenny’s assistant and begins pursuing her own agenda. Her personal narrative contains a number of contradictions that only Max initially catches,
Phyllis Kroll – Alice’s former lover and Bette’s boss pops up periodically, though she offends Joyce and then later needs her legal services,
Helena Peabody – Absent most of the season, she is imprisoned for her crimes in the prior season before skipping town prior to her trial. She returns when her mother is dying after having fallen in love with her cellmate,
And Jenny Schecter – Returning to Los Angeles with the financial backing of a sugar daddy who is enamored with her work, she weasels her way into being the director of Les Girls. After Adele and Tina convince Jenny to cast Nikki Stevens as the lead in the film, Jenny and Nikki begin a romantic relationship which threatens production of the film! She treats everyone around her like a tool and exhibits little humanity in dealing with others.
In the fifth season of The L Word, the acting is fine, which sells many of the teasers – like the campy Charlie’s Angels parody that opens one of the episodes – but few of the performers are given much to do that actually stretches their talents. Arguably the best performance of the season is one of the most simple and profound: late in the season, actress Rose Rollins is able to stretch Tasha in a new direction. Adrift and without order, Rollins makes a simple moment of being compelling and fascinating to watch. The rest of the cast does what is asked of them, but there are no extraordinary performances for the remainder of the season.
The L Word Season 5 is not abysmal, but it lacks a compelling element to make it worth recommending or watching. The story of lesbian culture in Los Angeles has become unfortunately inbred in this season and, lacking anything real, it treads toward the melodramatic and soap operatic.
For other works with Wally Shawn, please visit my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The Princess Bride
For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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