Tuesday, August 21, 2012

After A Rocky Start, The L Word Season Two Hits A Wonderful Stride!

The Good: Interesting characters, Great acting, Engaging stories
The Bad: Intrusive soundtrack at the beginning, Jenny Schecter/ Mia Kishner
The Basics: The L Word Season Two begins with an oppressively obvious soundtrack and annoying character combinations, but evolves into a pretty fabulous season of television.

I recall when I was in college and Ellen DeGeneres was “coming out” on Ellen how a good friend of mine (at the time) and I had some wonderful debates. In the final season of the series, there was an episode where Ellen, in encountering an ex-boyfriend, has to ask herself if she really was gay. I remember enjoying the episode quite a bit and thinking that the episode did a good job of illustrating the complexity of human relationships and identity. I recall she was upset because she thought that it added a layer of ambiguity that she thought undermined the strength of Ellen’s “coming out.” Regardless, the episode did show some complexity and I like how it presented the gay community as anything but monolithic.

By the time the second season of The L Word aired, viewers were, no doubt, used to a complex set of characters to portray “lesbian culture” as it actually is: a truly diverse subculture willed with all sorts of people with different beliefs, political leanings, and senses of personality. Unfortunately for people who do like complexity, The L Word Season Two undermines itself by creating a different sense of a monolithic culture. If The L Word Season Two is to be believed, there is no sector of the lesbian subculture that actually respects fidelity, honesty, and/or monogamy. That’s not me saying that; that’s actually “in the text.” By the end of the second season of The L Word every character has had sex with someone who is married, engaged, or otherwise in a relationship (or while they, themselves, are married or in another relationship that leads them to lie about the affair). EVERY character. For those who don’t follow my reviews to know I am actively involved in Gay Rights, I preface the following comment with my unabashed acknowledgement that I am openly gay friendly and politically active:

Note to the producers of The L Word (even knowing the show is over): if you want to change the perception that lesbians and gays cannot be trusted because they lead a “secret double life” and thus lie (due largely to the pressure from the dominant culture and its own faults) to protect themselves, the very least you can do to debunk the perception is have at least one set of characters on your show who are entirely honest. The characters in The L Word (at least in the second season) are not lying to save their lives from homophobes or persecution, they lie to one another because it’s convenient and they genuinely don’t care about how others think or feel.

It seems like I keep starting my reviews of The L Word with notes about what I don’t like, but the truth is, once it got past its first few “speed bumps” (in terms of production, not so much content), the second season of The L Word actually is quite wonderful. Part of the way I know that is that I continue to think about the show and process what I saw, which is not something I do when I blow something off or it is not any good. But, to finish off my last notes on what I did not actually like about the second season, I hate the opening credits/theme song (it actually reminded me of one of the ridiculous ones that they came up with on Ellen as a parody!) and the season starts off with an intrusive, annoying use of the soundtrack. Several early moments and transitions are gutted by the use of music that does not fit the moment. Later in the season, like the use of “Finally” when Dana and Alice hook up, it seems the producers and musical directors have found the right balance, but at the beginning, the clips in the show feel self-referential and intrusive.

That said, the second season of The L Word is, at least, equally enjoyable to The L Word Season One (reviewed here!). Picking up shortly after where the first season ended, the second season of The L Word is heavily-serialized, adult programming. While the first season was mostly focused on Jenny Schecter and the Bette and Tina relationship, the second season relegates Jenny Schecter to a subplot and brings Shane to the forefront instead, which makes for a more interesting direction for the season. The subplot between Dana and Alice also takes a more important role in the season. It is impossible to discuss the second season of The L Word without revealing some of how the first season of the show ended. As a result, for those who want a pure viewing of the first season, this is your last chance to stop reading and get that!

Tina is now five months pregnant, having re-inseminated herself before Bette had her affair on her with Candace. In no mood to forgive Bette, the fallout creates tension between Bette and Tina’s mutual friends. Shane continues to deny the emotional impact of her relationship with her wealthy benefactor and Dana and Alice work to deny what their kiss actually meant as Tonya builds corporate sponsors for her wedding to Dana. Kit takes over the Planet following Marina’s attempted suicide and Jenny struggles to find exactly what her sexual identity is. As Shane falls for Carmen the D.J., she finds she really needs her privacy and she moves in with Jenny. While Jenny slowly unearths a traumatic childhood memory, she and Shane take in an aspiring filmmaker, Mark (because of his ability to pay the rent).

When the Peabody Foundation is turned over to Peggy Peabody’s daughter, Helena, both Bette and Tina find themselves unfortunately influenced. Bette discovers Helena has no real love for the arts, but she soon moves in on the gallery at which Bette works. Tina, at the same time, develops a romantic relationship with Helena and as her child comes closer to due, she struggles with the pull from both Bette and Helena.

The L Word Season Two trades off the sexual ambiguity struggle of Jenny Schecter for a much more interesting internal conflict involving Shane. Shane, who has been a player the entire series, begins to develop a greater sense of sexual maturity. Her exploratory youth (helped along by the fact that she was a hooker as a child) comes to an end in this season as she realizes that it is no longer emotionally fulfilling for her. Unable to completely express how she has fallen in love with Carmen, Shane continues to sleep around, but she also stops herself several times from doing the same, especially as Carmen rejects Jenny.

Throughout the focus on Shane, there is an important thread with Mark, who actually creates an additional sense of betrayal for Shane. While that sense of betrayal leads Shane to a greater understanding of what she wants in a relationship with Carmen, it also serves to push Jenny to the psychological break she needs to uncover the repressed memory. Unfortunately for viewers who want clarity, Jenny’s story is not made explicit in this season, so there is something of an anti-climax for the character.

The L Word Season Two is sufficiently complex, which is nice. As soon as Tonya is out of the picture, Dana and Alice openly begin their relationship and it proves to include elements that are seldom explored in film or television. Alice’s desire, for example, for Dana to use a strap-on, but not be a man, explores the sexually complicated nature of Alice’s bisexuality. And Tina’s pregnancy does not mean the end of the end of her sexuality; The L Word Season Two has an unabashed presentation of her sexuality and that is something I, at the very least, had never seen in a show before now!

While the show continues to have a strong soap opera quality in the relationship between Bette and Tina and Tina and Helena, it feels remarkably fresh. After Tina uses a civil rights lawyer to pursue a separation agreement with Bette (the lawyer is played brilliantly by Jane Lynch!), the sense of conflict between them is raised. The introduction of Helena is interesting and provides the requisite conflict to keep the estrangement of Bette and Tina realistic.

Like all worthwhile television, The L Word succeeds (as much as it does) because of the strength of its characters. In the second season, the primary characters include:

Bette Porter – Her professionalism slipping as she drinks her way through the break-up with Tina, she drifts when Tina rejects her attempts at reconciliation. Deeply hurt by the rejection, she reverts to a more promiscuous incarnation of herself while still working to win Tina back. She helps Kit bankroll the Planet and finds herself once more in conflict with her father, who is dying. When Helena Peabody joins the Board of the gallery she works at, she finds her professional future imperiled as well,

Tina Kennard – Very pregnant now, she struggles to find the right time to break the news to her ex, Bette. Her non-profit is given a huge grant by the Peabody Foundation and she finds herself under Helena’s influence, though she still craves Bette in her heart. After her rejection of her lawyer, she moves back into the house she and Bette shared. Struggling with both sets of feelings, she slowly sees Helena’s true nature,

Alice – Openly and eagerly bisexual, she starts a tryst with Dana. After taking a radio job, she and Dana go public and she finds herself succumbing to jealousy,

Shane McCutcheon – The sexually promiscuous hairdresser, she finds herself actually developing serious emotional ties to Carmen after a one-night stand. She befriends Mark and works to forgive him after his betrayal of her and Jenny,

Dana Fairbanks – The out tennis player, she listlessly continues her engagement to Tonya despite the fact that her heart is not at all in the relationship. She and Alice work to not further their romance, unsuccessfully, and when she and Tonya end their engagement, she and Alice openly explore the full potential of their relationship. She has trouble telling Alice she loves her,

Kit Porter – A blues and R&B singer, she is Bette’s half-sister and wrestles less with her alcoholism after she takes over the Planet. She falls in love with a married man who runs a self-improvement workshop and reluctantly gives up on Ivan after she sees her out of drag. With Bette, she struggles with Melvin’s aging and death,

Carmen de la Morales – A D.J. who Shane meets while working for Arianna Huffington, she really likes Shane but wants a monogamous relationship. When Shane seems unwilling or unable to commit. She spends more and more time with Jenny,

Helena Peabody – The daughter of Peggy Peabody, she has no real love of the arts and takes over the Peabody Foundation with her own agenda. Moving to Los Angeles, she quickly becomes a predator on the scene, seducing Tina and working to exert influence over Bette. Fighting with her ex over children, she quickly establishes an m.o. where she works to control and dominate those around her,

Mark Wayland – An aspiring documentary filmmaker, he sets up cameras in Shane and Jenny’s house after he is pressured by his financers to come up with something juicier than he is initially developing. He comes to Shane’s rescue and works to earn her trust back after he hurts both her and Shane,

and Jenny Schecter – An aspiring writer, she gets the house when Tim leaves for a job in Ohio. She begins taking a class taught by a famous writer and in the process begins to expose a repressed traumatic memory.

The acting in the second season of The L Word is largely magnificent. As I noted as I watched the episodes, what a difference a year makes! Ossie Davis, who recurs in this season as Melvin (Bette and Kit’s father) looks thinner and diminished in this, his final role. He steals the scenes he is in, just as Charles S. Dutton is absolutely captivating as Benjamin Bradshaw opposite Pam Grier’s Kit. Even Mia Kirshner, who I was not at all impressed with in the first season, does a decent job as Jenny Schecter. To wit, when Kirshner as Jenny claims that Shane is her best friend, it is only later, upon reflection, that I realized how absolutely preposterous the claim is when she makes it (the two have had remarkably few scenes and have had no memorable exchanges or encounters at that point!). Yet, Kirschner sells the phantom relationship between the two characters.

In fact, the only other unconvincing aspect on the acting front is also an issue with the way the characters are written. Erin Daniels, who is absolutely magnificent in the second half of the season, is utterly unconvincing in the first half in the scenes she shares with Meredith McGeachie (Tonya). Daniels plays Dana as so smart and otherwise confident that how she lets Tonya continue to rope her along – when the two have no sexual chemistry and even less of a relationship – never seems right. Sadly, Daniels cannot make that convincing, though she and Leisha Hailey have amazing on-screen chemistry and Daniels is a treat to watch for the latter half of the season. As well, the scene where Daniels as Dana explains to Tonya her emotional state going into the engagement is powerfully and perfectly delivered; one just wishes it came about five episodes earlier!

While Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman continue their amazing performances as Bette and Tina, season two of The L Word truly gives Katherine Moennig the chance to breakout. Moennig does more acting with her eyes and body language this season to express Shane as a deeper, more conflicted character than she was able to in the first season, which is far more complicated to pull off than it may sound. Yet every time she has to enhance Shane’s burgeoning sense of desire and soul, even wordlessly, Moennig pulls it off.

On DVD, The L Word Season Two includes a few truly decent commentary tracks as well as featurettes on Gloria Steinem’s appearance and the newbies to the cast of the show. While I would have preferred more bonus features, it is hard to deny that there is enough wonderful content within the primary programming to enthusiastically recommend The L Word Season Two!

For other works with Laurel Holloman, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Angel - Season Three
Boogie Nights
The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love


For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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