Sunday, August 19, 2012

Magnificent In So Many Ways, The L Word Season 1 Still Bows To Irksome Showtime Conceits!

The Good: Interesting characters, Great acting, Engaging stories
The Bad: I’m pretty much sick of protagonist Jenny Schecter and actress Mia Kishner already, The appearance of blow
The Basics: Outside an annoying protagonist and the standard pay-cable use of drugs, the first season of The L Word on DVD is engaging, fun and well worth picking up!

I am a big fan of several pay cable television shows, but there are a few conceits that have really begun to piss me off. With very few exceptions, shows on HBO or Showtime use their creative license to push out edgy shows that have either more nudity/sex or violence. I can live with that. I can even live with a few of them where they trade off episode to episode which of those envelopes they are going to push (like one episode that is exceptionally violent, followed by one that is all about the gratuitous nudity). Invariably, pay cable television shows also push the envelope with language and talking frankly about topics that they could not on network television. They also seem to be committed to having characters do drugs.

That just bugs the crap out of me. I’d like to enjoy a show where the characters are smart, sexy, talk like real people and aren’t so vacuous, bored, or boring where they feel like they have to do drugs. And it’s always fucking blow. And it is most frequently used by the sage or artistic characters. In the first season of The L Word there are mushrooms used by the artist (Jenny Schecter) and ecstasy and cocaine used by the sage (Shane). And there’s plenty of weed, but I don’t so much care about that. But the moment Shane started appearing on screen doing drugs, it pulled me out of The L Word in a way that made a show that seemed engaging and original appear just like any number of other television shows on pay cable. In that regard, I expected better.

In its first season, The L Word focuses on a small community (nine people) within Los Angeles, who are finding their way through the world. Seven of them are, at the very least, bisexual, one is a man and one is the half-sister of one of the most stable, out lesbians in the group. The first season focuses mostly on the characters of Jenny Schecter and Better and Tina. Jenny moves to Los Angeles to be with her long-term boyfriend and she discovers that her neighbor’s lesbian lifestyle intrigues her. While she plans to marry Tim, she finds herself fascinated by the owner of a local lesbian hangout, The Planet. As Jenny falls more and more into love and sexual obsession with Marina, she and Tim fall apart.

At the same time, Bette Porter and Tina Kennard are settling down to start a family of their own. Having been together for seven years, they are focused on getting Tina pregnant so they can begin the next phase of their relationship. Bette, however, is very focused on her work. Working at a small art gallery, she is determined to bring the controversial art exhibit Provocations to the gallery and that often causes her to neglect Tina, who has given up her own work to be with Bette.

Surrounding Jenny and her odyssey into sexual ambiguity and Tina and Bette’s very stable relationship are the friends they share. Tim and Jenny are neighbors to Tina and Bette and as Jenny becomes sexually obsessed with Marina, Tina and Bette find it uncomfortable to be around Tim and not reveal what they know or suspect. Tina and Bette are friends with the promiscuous Shane, the openly bisexual Alice and the still-closeted Dana. Bette’s sister Kit comes around with increasing frequency to complicate Bette’s life.

The L Word in its first season continues to try to find its own voice. About mid-season, it begins following the model of Six Feet Under (reviewed here!). For at least half of the fourteen episodes (the pilot is split in two parts), the show begins with a teaser that is tangentially related to the rest of the episode and then is referenced later in the work, much like Six Feet Under would begin each episode with a death and then have the body be worked on later in the episode. While this is not the worst way for the show to go, it does make it feel a little more formulaic or familiar than some other Showtime shows I have watched and reviewed.

The first season of The L Word manages to avoid some of the worst soap opera elements that it seems to want to veer toward. However, the season is quickly derailed from perfection (it opens so well!) from the drug aspect and the focus on Jenny Schecter and the performance of her by Mia Kirshner. Jenny is literally wide-eyed and eager when she arrives in Los Angeles, but through the course of the first season, he sexual exploration takes a disturbing turn as the writers of the series make her younger and younger in her emotional responses. She literally giggles, jumps up and down and acts more like a teenager as the season goes on and (ironically) is less mature than Tim’s swim student. Her character devolves emotionally as the season progresses and when that is factored into her indecision and the way she blithely glides from experience to experience without and real sense of consequence, it makes it virtually impossible to empathize with her character.

Jenny Schecter’s character is not aided much by the performance of Mia Kirshner. While Kirshner is able to land some of the most poetic and romantic lines that could otherwise have come across as canned and blasé, much of her performance ultimately is opening her eyes wider and staring with her jaw hanging loose. There is only so much of that one may watch before they get entirely bored of it. For me, it was by about episode 3 and the fact that her performance does not vary as the season goes on made her virtually unwatchable.

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

Bette Porter – A cool and collected professional, she is eager to bring success and controversy to the gallery she is the director of. While she and Tina try to work through a slump after seven years of their relationship, she finds herself deprioritizing things like therapy with Tina. But as Tina’s pregnancy progresses and Bette moves in on getting Provocations for her gallery, she becomes more secure, even to the point of meaningfully reconnecting with her half-sister, Kit. But with all of the stresses she is under, her eyes begin to wander to someone at the gallery . . .

Tina Kennard – Having given up her career to have a baby with Bette, she gets into the whole maternal nesting thing, despite how it makes her boring to her friends. She eagerly embraces therapy and group therapy and is committed to working on her relationship with Bette. She is the most visibly upset by keeping Jenny’s attraction to Marina a secret from Tim. Late in the season, she embraces social work to make the world a better place,

Alice – Openly and eagerly bisexual, she manages to escape the destructive cycle of a relationship with Gabby (with a lot of help from her friends!) and finds herself involved with a man who sexually identifies himself as a lesbian. She comes up with the relationship web that connects virtually every lesbian in Los Angeles with one another via six degrees of separation. She writes for a magazine and has a pain in the ass mother who is an aging actress and blowhard,

Shane McCutcheon – The sexually promiscuous hairdresser, she is stalked by an ex-lover and finds herself involved with a very powerful wife of a prominent businessman. She tries to help out her gay friend who is drug addicted and being passed around the Los Angeles gay scene and generally has the least in common with any of her friends,

Dana Fairbanks – A tennis player who is on the cusp of making it big, she remains in the closet for half the season. Despite developing an intense romantic relationship with (an incredibly alluring!) sous chef, she sacrifices her passion for a shot at a sponsorship from Subaru. When she discovers the company is embracing her homosexuality (and has built the advertising campaign around her being “the gay Anna Kournikova”), she eagerly comes out and discovers that being out doesn’t solve all of her problems,

Kit Porter – An aging blues and R&B singer, she is Bette’s half-sister and is no more loved by their father than Bette is. Wrestling with alcoholism, she gets a chance at a career resurgence when rapper Slim Daddy samples one of her old songs. She also begins to discover her own sexual openness when a drag king develops an attraction for her,

Marina Ferrer – The predatory owner of The Planet, she seduces Jenny without regard for her relationship with Tim and without telling the confused young woman that she is already in a long-term relationship with a costume designer who travels most of the year. Utterly vacuous and uninteresting, she continues to pursue Jenny even as Jenny tries to move on,

Tim Haspel – A swim coach, he loves Jenny and is absolutely shocked when he learns his long-term girlfriend has begun having an affair right under his nose. Heartbroken, he nevertheless marries Jenny, yet finds himself utterly disgusted by the person she has become (not because of her lesbianism, but because of her dishonesty, manipulative qualities, and emotional disregard for him or anyone else in her life),

and Jenny Schecter – An aspiring writer, she arrives in Los Angeles where she professes her love for Tim while getting more and more sexually and emotionally entangled with the exotic Marina. She takes life as it comes and shows less emotional awareness than even Shane, quickly degenerating from an interesting person to one who is meandering through life without any real purpose or sense of identity.

On the acting front, The L Word Season 1 is a resounding success. Jennifer Beals is incredible as Bette and she and Laurel Holloman – who genre fans will recognize from The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love (reviewed here!) – have great on-screen chemistry. Holloman is wonderful, though I noticed several instances where her character slipped into an enthusiastic (almost Southern) drawl out of nowhere. Leisha Hailey, Eric Mabius, Pam Grier, and Katherine Moenning give wonderful supporting performances as Alice, Tim, Kit, and Shane (respectively).

But the one to watch in the first season is Erin Daniels, as Dana Fairbanks. Daniels has a great sense of a physical presence and she emotes extraordinarily well through Dana’s internal conflict. She has amazing on-screen chemistry with Lauren Lee Smith (Lara) and she also has a wonderful sense of comic timing. Daniels manages to create a character who is instantly conflicted and compelling in an intriguing way without ever making her seem tragic or dull.

On DVD, The L Word Season 1 features a smattering or commentary tracks and featurettes that have the stars of the show gushing about it. I particularly enjoyed the panel discussion with possibly the worst-prepared interviewer (who was so busy promoting her own agenda and views that she was not at all listening to what the panel members were saying) of all time. I actually liked how one of the producers continually reminded everyone that the cast was not all-lesbian and that there was a man in the cast for the first season who added something distinctive to the show.

Outside a few (very few!) annoying conceits, the first season of The L Word is wonderful (I enjoyed the therapy scenes quite a bit as something distinctive!) and leaves one eager for what comes next.

For other works with decent lesbian protagonists or that deal with lesbian issues, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - “Rejoined”


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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