Friday, March 21, 2014

Groundbreaking, Declining, The L Word The Complete Series Is A Tougher Sell Than It Should Have Been!

The Good: Some truly interesting characters, Great acting, Engaging stories
The Bad: Focus on Jenny Schecter, Soap opera/cable television conceits
The Basics: For six seasons, The L Word presented the convoluted lives of a tight community of Los Angeles lesbians who struggle with defining themselves as individuals and within society.

When I first started risking my hard-earned dollars on DVD sets of television shows I had never seen, I was pretty cautious. After all, I only had limited dollars and sometimes, I stupidly pursued shows that were canned remarkably quickly while their DVD prices were still comparatively ridiculously high, like Carnivale (reviewed here!). But that strategy came to inform my reviews in a significant way; I began to truly think about the enduring qualities of the works I reviewed and how much viewers could expect to rewatch a show or series and derive pleasure from it. So, while I was originally exceptionally excited about The L Word, I soon discovered that it was a series of diminishing returns and that the DVD boxed set for the complete series was a much tougher sell than it ought to have been.

To be fair to the executive producers and creators of The L Word, the show had some daunting perception problems. While I think American adult audiences were well-past ready for a show that focused on the lives and loves of a lesbian community, the series had issues both conceptually and with its fan base that made it harder to continue the show with a level of creativity and realism that the series needed. On the production front, The L Word suffered because the series focused on Los Angeles lesbians. While there are lesbians all the world over, Los Angeles is hardly the indicative culture for . . . well, pretty much anyone. The L Word’s use of Los Angeles as a setting allows the producers to use a supermodel good-looking cast, have characters with incredible, high paying jobs and virtually no money worries (until Max comes into the mix, The L Word has characters in incredible jobs who might whine about losing their jobs, but have no apparent chance of actually living anywhere near the poverty line, which takes the punch out of some of the stories that skirt around discrimination issues), and compel the creators to fall into the cable-normal, but real-life anything but universal drug culture conceits. While The L Word might capture, in an entirely soap operatic way, the lives of some Los Angeles lesbians, the idea that the show was truly groundbreaking is diminished some by the representation of the culture as a splinter of the upper class is somewhat off-putting. At the other end of the spectrum, as is well-detailed by the bonus features which include featurettes on the fan response to the series, The L Word suffered because fans wanted it to be everything to everyone within the community and it couldn’t. As the series went on, new characters that were introduced were either poorly used (the Paige plot worked great until Shane’s character was reset once again) or were pointless (Papi!) and it’s hard not to suspect that some of the pull toward characters that did not quite fit the series came from fan pressure.

The ultimate result is a series that is erratic and is littered with as many problems as the series has triumphs. The show focuses on one of the least likable protagonists ever to grace the small screen; The L Word The Complete Series manages to accent that the series is truly about Jenny Schecter, who starts annoyingly naïve and develops into an utterly reprehensible, loathsome character. When the series is not focusing on the tragically unlikable Jenny Schecter, it follows the cyclical growth and reversions of Shane McCutcheon and the meandering, on-again, off-again romance of the series between Bette Porter and Tina Kennard, who (as the series progressed) it seemed the producers did not know quite what to do with.

The L Word: The Complete Series includes all six seasons of the Showtime series, though the discs are new pressings specifically for the boxed set. All of the bonus features from the original pressings of the discs are preserved, so fundamentally, there is little difference between the Complete Series boxed set and the compilation set of:
Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four
Season Five
and Season Six

The series begins in Los Angeles with nine characters, who are in the process of finding themselves or finding their place in the lesbian scene in Los Angeles. Jenny Schecter 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 tennis pro Dana. Bette’s sister Kit comes around with increasing frequency to complicate Bette’s life.

As the series goes on, Jenny Schecter embraces her love of women and, in the process, becomes a famous author whose most significant work is made into a movie that she muscles her way into directing (for a time). Tina and Bette deal with infidelity, raising their daughter Angelica, and Tina’s less firm sexuality. Shane leaves a slew of one-night stands in her wake, gives up drugs and partying, finds true love (Carmen!), but has relapse after frustrating relapse. Alice has a long arc whereby her social nature leads her to create a website that opens a number of doors for her and ultimately puts her in a relationship with the far more straight-laced Tasha. Dana’s life explodes when she fires her manager and comes out, but is complicated by breast cancer. Kit becomes more influential when she buys the Planet and has unconventional relationships of her own (with a woman posing as a man and later with a transvestite man who sings, as a woman, at her club) and one of the antagonists, a tremendously rich woman named Helena Peabody, finds her way into the group when she romances various members and bails some of them out of some real scrapes.

Outside the cable television conceits of drugs, The L Word is largely solid in its presentation of a realistic view of the lives of the characters. To keep things interesting, the show unfortunately uses the tried and true soap opera conceits of lies (made and then truths revealed at inopportune times) and infidelity on a pretty consistent basis. The L Word is not at all about long-term loving couples who are mature, realized, and truly comfortable with who they are. They are all people in the process of becoming and, as such, the show can be unfortunately erratic as the writers struggle to define and redefine the characters. To their credit, at the outset of the series, Shane is almost as unlikable as Jenny, but she develops (despite some unfortunate reversions) into an incredible character who is worth watching and who has moments of emotional triumph and revelation that are among the best of the series. In a similar fashion, it is not until Tasha appears and has a very political (and personal), compelling arc with Alice - while most of the rest of the characters are floundering for purpose and decent stories – that Alice’s character actually falls out of the Los Angeles fantasy life and becomes a very meaningful and real character.

That said, a severe detraction to the entire series is 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, her 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. In subsequent seasons, her character breaks down and when she is put back together, she becomes a nasty, mean-spirited woman who stops caring about anyone except herself. That makes her impossible to watch and unlikely to root for.

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. In the later seasons, her range is stunted to looking put off by anyone saying anything to her and that makes Schecter into a terrible character, though Kirschner’s body language sells much of that horribleness.

Like all worthwhile television, The L Word succeeds (as much as it does) because of the strength of its characters. Over the course of the series, the primary characters include and are defined as:

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. Later, she embraces social work to make the world a better place and then goes back to work to strike out on her own,

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. When she starts getting tired of cocaine, parties, and promiscuity, she finds herself meeting women who actually love her for her talents instead of just her body,

Dana Fairbanks – A tennis player who is on the cusp of making it big, she remains in the closet for half the first 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),

Helena Peabody – A wealthy socialite, she whisks Tina away from Bette when the two are having trouble. When their relationship falls apart, she sticks around and gets into trouble, though she funds Shane’s wedding trip. She gets into serious trouble when she falls in with a gambler,

Max Sweeney – Brought to Los Angeles by Jenny following Jenny’s breakdown, she struggles with gender identification issues. Max decides to become a man, but finds that is much more complicated when her new friends are conflicted about supporting him and his romantic entanglements lead to a lot of self-loathing,

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 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).

The one to watch 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.

The two to wait for are Daniela Sea and Rose Rollins. Rollins plays Tasha in the fourth season and beyond and she is absolutely incredible. Tasha is a soldier and Rollins is entirely credible in the role. What could have been an unfortunately monolithic role that would serve only to add some political realism to The L Word is made into a viable and compelling character. Rollins gives a layered performance that is smart and interesting to watch.

Daniela Sea arrives as Max and when Max is apart from Jenny Schecter, the character takes off. Sea is arguably given the most to do as an actress (certainly the most that is interesting or positive) and she more than rises to the occasion. Sea has to play Max as conflicted and she keeps the character in a state of perpetual struggle without ever making Max seem whiny or annoying. Sea is captivating in emoting internal conflict and while Max might not initially fit in, his/her arc is one of the few that makes the last two seasons worth watching.

On DVD, The L Word The Complete Series 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. Featurettes on the groundbreaking nature and fan reaction to The L Word are not only good historical documents, but entertaining as well.

Ultimately, The L Word The Complete Series is worthwhile, but it leaves the viewer hoping for the show that this series paved the way for; a series with lesbian characters that does not seem like a soap opera or a cable television drama.

For other shows that premiered on Showtime, please visit my reviews of:
Dexter - Season 1
Dead Like Me
Weeds - Season 1
Jeremiah - Season 1
An American Crime


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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