Showtime Entertainment // 2007 // 626 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // October 23rd, 2007
Phyllis: "I think I'm a lesbian, Bette. In fact, I know I am...I sure as
hell hope it's not too late for me. Do you think it's too late for me?"
Bette: "It's never too late, Phyllis. It's never too late."
Spoiler alert! I can't talk about the dyke drama without, you know, talking about the dyke drama. Plot points through the end of Season Four will be discussed.
Lightening the mood considerably after last season's death of Dana, The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season continues the show's mission to explore the many facets of "the way that we live" in a mostly fun, fast-paced atmosphere. New characters take on issues like coming out past fifty, how the deaf communicate in relationships, reconciling queer sexuality and liberal politics with serving in the military, and in Papi's case -- well, what kind of rules one has to follow to have sex with over 1,000 women. Returning characters branch out into new professional fields -- academic dean, Internet mogul, screenwriter, professional poker player -- and, of course, new relationships. The main question about Season Four is, can a twelve-episode season juggle thirteen major characters and a massive number of separate storylines? Oh, and of course, how many times can we spot a Betty band member on screen? You'll be pleasantly surprised by the answer to at least one of these questions...
Season Four picks up right where Season Three left off: in Canada, with the aftermaths of Shane's decision to abandon her fiancee Carmen and Bette's decision to abduct baby Angelica. After those debacles are quickly resolved, Bette (Jennifer Beals, Flashdance) starts a new job as dean of a prestigious university's art department, where she answers to Chancellor Phyllis Kroll (Cybill Shepard, Moonlighting), a married woman who has been questioning her own sexuality for over thirty years, and also works with a passionate deaf sculptor named Jody (Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God). Bette's ex, Tina (Laurel Holloman, Loving Jezebel), tries to readjust to straight life. Shane's (Katherine Moennig, The Shipping News) bottoming out is interrupted with unexpected parenting duties. Helena (Rachel Shelley, Gray Matters), now penniless, must find (*gasp!*) a job. Kit (Pam Grier, Foxy Brown) and Angus (Dallas Roberts, 3:10 to Yuma) face a tough decision about Kit's accidental pregnancy. Jenny (Mia Kirshner, 24) gears up for her memoir's publication day. Alice (Leisha Hailey) starts an social networking site for queer girls based on her (in)famous chart. And Max (Daniela Sea)...well, he kind of just lifts weights and goes to work.
The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season includes all twelve episodes of the fourth season, spread over four discs, with most of the extras on the fourth disc. Along with quotations and plot descriptions, I've noted the sex scenes for each episode...not that anyone would even think about skipping over the deep social issues and going straight for the hot parts (*cough*):
* "Legend in the Making"
Helena: "One credit card with a $3,500 limit. I can't even buy a pair of shoes for $3,500!"
With Peggy cinching the Peabody family purse strings, Alice has to teach Helena to live without riches. Jenny dumps Max and continues her affair with le French Jenny, Claude. Kit makes a decision about her pregnancy. Bette's on the run from Tina after her little abduction incident, and Shane's on the run from sanity as she uses drugs and booze to cope with leaving Carmen at the altar. But reality comes crashing back for Shane when she receives a gift from her father's jilted wife...
Sexy Bits: Shane's underwater nipples, Jenny and French Jenny having bondage fun with their bedroom door open, French Jenny and Marina making out
* "Livin' la Vida Loca"
Alice: "Circles are good, yeah, circles...I think I really like circles. Yeah, circles. Circles are really great, Papi."
Two missing daddies structure this episode: Shane tries to locate hers and Shay's absentee father, and Alice searches for the mysterious "Papi" (Janina Gavankar), whose name means "daddy," but who is turning out to be a bigger lesbian player than Shane. Meanwhile, Jenny has an eventful interview with Stacy "vagina wig" Merkin (Heather Matarazzo) and Max takes his boss's daughter on a date.
Sexy bits: Alice and Papi and magic circles
Phyllis: "Bette, did you just say something about a crazy hot women's party?"
Dyke drama attacks Bette's new workplace on two fronts: Nadia, her TA, takes ambition to a whole new level with her incessant flirting, and Phyllis, her boss, targets Bette as her way into the lesbian community (and into Alice's pants). Tina throws a "mixer for [her] gay and straight friends" that turns out to be just as awkward as it sounds.
Sexy bits: Bette and Nadia in Bette's car
Alice: "We've got the game on Sunday; we've gotta train. And I still have to teach you how to slap the asses."
Game on! Papi challenges Alice and her crew for control of the West Hollywood basketball courts (where Alice and her crew have probably never been before). Jenny embarks on an insane mission to prove that Stacy Merkin's girlfriend is a bad person. Bette meets Jody and clashes with her about a student's political sculpture.
Sexy Bits: Alice coaches Phyllis on a very special skill
* "Lez Girls"
Alice to Jenny: "Oh, wait! [Monet] is talking to me -- so weird...He says don't ever fucking compare yourself to him."
Jenny's short story "Lez Girls" appears in The New Yorker and causes a stir among friends who see a little too much of their reality in her "fiction." Angus can't resist the incredibly wooden and overdone flirting of Tina and Henry's other nanny, Hazel. At Phyllis's party, Bette gets to know Jody better (with the help of some pot) and Alice feels guilty when she meet's Phyllis's husband.
"Sexy" Bits: Angus and Hazel make out
* "Luck Be a Lady"
Everyone: "You're looking very Shane today."
Shane's underwear billboard goes up and she becomes an unwilling poster girl for androgyny. When the girls all come to a big casino-themed party with the new celebrity, Helena tries her hand at another trade: high-stakes poker. Alice's crush on Papi's "angry friend" Tasha (Rose Rollins) gets complicated when she finds out what she does for a living. Jenny's Merkin revenge mission intensifies.
Sexy Bits: Bette and Jody get off on a sculpture (literally)
* "Lesson Number One"
Paige: "Since we already did the time, we might as well do the crime."
Helena faces the prospect of paying her debt to Catherine (Sandrine Holt) in sexual favors. Alice visits Tasha at work, on the military base. Bette and Jody console a heartbroken Phyllis. Shane and Paige (Kristanna Loken) wind up teaching a bunch of ten year olds about lesbianism.
Sexy bits: Bette and Jody in Bette's bed, naked Helena and Catherine during strip gin rummy, Shane and Paige in Shane's kitchen
* "Lexington and Concord"
Tasha (yelling): "The question is, why the fuck am I here?"
Alice (yelling back): "Because we wanna fuck each other!"
As Jenny negotiates a "Lez Girls" movie deal, Kit has a record release party that serves as a venue for her personal drama, too. Bette and Jody argue about monogamy while Alice and Tasha argue about the war in Iraq (with considerably hotter results).
Sexy Bits: Shane and Paige in a car, Helena and Catherine with a bunch of money, Kit and Papi in Papi's bed, Alica and Tasha getting aroused with a political argument
* "Lacy Lilting Lyrics"
Leonard: "What can you ladies do to a woman that I can't do to a woman? Explain to me the big mystery!"
Shane loses Shay when their father returns. Alice has an impromptu party in her bed when a bunch of friends show up -- and Phyllis's husband, Leonard (Bruce Davison). Tina and Jenny interview more potential "Lez Girls" directors.
Sexy Bits: Tasha and Alice naked in bed
* "Little Boy Blue"
Jody to Bette: "You can't handle it -- that communication is different with me."
Max's mom has died and he travels back home to Illinois, accompanied by his new friend and intern, Grace. Helena and Catherine bet on something new: horse racing. Bette throws a dinner party to introduce her friends to Jody, but her efforts backfire.
Sexy Bits: Helena and Catherine do it at the race track
* "Literary License to Kill"
Kit: "I guess I'm not a lesbian."
In a rare moment for the series, a character turns out not to be gay when Kit has underwhelming sex with Papi. Jenny catches flack from all sides with the insulting book version of "Lez Girls" out and her incompetent attempt at screenwriting. Tina tries to keep Jody from slipping through Bette's fingers, and Tasha gives Alice some tough news.
Sexy Bits: Papi goes down on Kit, Grace goes down on Max
* "Long Time Coming"
Tina, telling Bette what to say to Jody: "I never should have let you go. I would do anything for another chance. I'm not afraid to make a fool out of myself."
Alice faces the prospect of Tasha returning to Iraq and the gang throws her a going-away party. Shane and Paige consider moving in together. Tina regrets leaving Bette, while Bette makes a romantic gesture in the hopes of getting Jody back. Plus, a new coupling occurs that is perhaps more perfect than any before on The L Word when Phyllis finally finds love.
Sexy Bits: Shane and Paige accompanied by a strange fantasy of domesticity
There's something a little bit sad about what The L Word's opening credits sequence has accomplished through the magic of editing and digital technology. As new characters are added, they suddenly appear in old shots that never used to include them. And when old characters depart, they just as suddenly disappear from those shots, erased. As we compare one of the gallery shots from several episodes of seasons three and four, for example, we can watch Dana vanish, leaving Alice alone, and then be replaced by Phyllis and eventually Jody, too.
These digital erasures and additions are seamless enough, but they're also a poignant reminder of the narrative erasures and additions that have a much bigger impact on The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season. However much fans of the show might like Papi or Tasha or Jody or Phyllis or Paige, they still miss Dana and Carmen and Marina and Lara. With so many characters coming and going, the show is able to achieve a great deal of breadth this season and not a whole lot of depth.
Even a skimming, surface-level look at many of these new characters is worthwhile, though, as each really does add something that has been lacking in the series. As an older, married woman exploring her queer sexuality for the first time, Phyllis provides screen representation of a group that never gets it, and is probably much larger than most of us realize. On the show's comment boards, I've read postings from several women who have said they are in the same situation as Phyllis and that her character means a lot to them. Cybill Shepard plays the role with a great sense for both its humor and its import. She sells us on the comedy of Phyllis consoling her first girl-broken heart with a pint of ice cream and on the courage Phyllis displays in disrupting her very settled life to pursue her own identity and happiness, as in this exchange with her husband, Leonard:
Leonard: "It's a little late in the game for you, Phyllis, you're
fifty-eight years old...nobody is gonna be as good for you as I am."
Phyllis: "I don't care if I never had a lover for the rest of my life. My life is going to be so wonderful because I know who I am and I feel comfortable with myself."
Another new character, Jody, continues the series' love for symmetry and doubling in its girl-girl relationships. Just like Alice/Dana (both adorable and goofy), Jenny/French Jenny (both spontaneous and a little insane), and Helena/Catherine (both snooty and sophisticated), Bette and Jody are both passionate, strong-willed power players in the art world. As Tina affirms, "You met your match in Jody. She's as strong as you are. Can you handle it?" One can guess that communication might be difficult for these two, and Jody's deafness makes that dynamic even more interesting. My one complaint here is that Jody and Bette don't radiate chemistry for me, despite (or perhaps because of) the longtime friendship between Beals and Matlin. But at least all that industrial sculpture and welding gives the show a great excuse to make references to Beals' Flashdance days, as in this scene:
Not knowing too much about Latina culture myself, I'm not sure how great a representative Papi is, though I have my doubts. I also have my doubts about the way the writers frame her as a lesbian lothario. As the Elka and KC point out in their must-listen podcast about the series (see link on the right), the reason Papi gives for why she gets so much play is basically that she loves women. Elka reacts, "See that's what I've been doing wrong. All this time I've been trying to get pussy, I actually don't like girls very much!" As these lovely ladies also note, making circles when you go down on a girl doesn't really seem like a well-kept secret. But Papi is fun to have around, particularly in her attempts to engage Shane in a rivalry that the latter couldn't care less about.
Lastly, Tasha was my favorite new character this season. In addition to being crazy hot and introducing the topic of gays in the military, her tough vulnerability and reserved nature make her a great counterpart to mile-a-minute, extroverted Alice, who has to actually slow down a little and change the way she operates to work her way into Tasha's life (and, again, pants). The writers also find a way to smoothly integrate political debate into the narrative with Tasha (and also with Bette and Jody's initial conflict). Though they augment their firm liberalism with thoughtful consideration of a soldier's position in all the debate on this war, the writers and actors remain boldly and explicitly left-wing. That political positioning is a unique and refreshing contribution from this series, which is only possible because they've already alienated any strongly right-wing viewers by making their show all about lesbians! The writers consistently take advantage of this brilliant demographic twist, as in this scene in which Alice refuses to attend Tasha's going-away party:
Alice: "I'm not going to a party to celebrate that the person I care
for is about to leave for the most dangerous place on earth to fight in a
morally bankrupt war and may be coming home in a body bag. It would be
Shane: "You're wrong Alice."
Bette: "She's not totally wrong."
Bette: "It is a morally bankrupt war."
In terms of the old characters, one of the most interesting storylines was Shane trying to be a parent. Her time with Shay was genuinely touching, if sometimes a little over the top (as when Shane and Paige teach kids about lesbians), and really took her character to a new and unexpected place.
This year's Helena Peabody Most Improved Personality Award goes to Max. Unlike in Helena's case between seasons two and three, the Max revolution is actually explained: he was taking way too much testosterone during his transition from female to male. Maybe Helena was taking too much estrogen in Season Two when she had that long bout of crazy cattiness? Max this season is fairly disconnected from the group, but he has satisfying adventures on his own that continue to serve as a sorely needed exploration of trans issues. I do wonder, though, what his operation doubts were about at the end of the season. I'm no expert on trans issues, but it seems dangerously unrealistic to have Max decide that he just wants to be a butch lesbian after all, and I kind of sensed that his story might be going in that direction.
Speaking of personality changes, Jenny hopped back on the crazy bus this season, after a brief return to sanity in Season Three. More than just unstable and confused and damaged, as she was in Season Two, Jenny is an out-and-out psychotic now, and a really mean one, to boot. The writers have apparently given up on making her character likable or relatable and have decided to just push her as far as possible into the realms of shock, drama, and comedy. She spends the season treating everyone around her dreadfully, labels herself a pariah, and then floats herself out to sea at the end. I will say that there was nothing quite as funny this season as watching Jenny try to play basketball with huge sunglasses on and a full cup of coffee in her hand. Actually, there was one thing as funny.
When Kit and Angus attend Tina's gay-straight mixer and homophobic men start talking about how gross gay male sex is, Angus comments:
Angus: "That whole dick-in-ass thing, I used to think it was kind of creepy and painful, but then I found this lube -- it's called "Boy Butter."
And, moments later:
Kit: "Come on, butter boy, let's slide on outta here."
Comedy was in abundance this year, with Helena and Papi emerging from the bushes, Phyllis at the "crazy hot women's party," the basketball game, the delightfully snappy phone call sequence that begins "Luck Be a Lady," and the action-packed sign heist in "Long Time Coming." But my favorite moments of The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season weren't funny or big or dramatic or flashy -- hell, they weren't even sex! They were the moments when we really got a feeling for the friendship that exists among these characters. While I do worry about who is going to appear and disappear next season with the intense character shuffling the show does, I feel much more at ease when I watch scenes like Alice cheering Shane up by helping her deface her underwear billboard, or Alice and Shane assisting Bette in a crazy caper to steal a big metal sign. When the wackiness ends and the three of them regroup, we get a sense of their unconditional friendship and the way they really are a community.
Hold on, I made a mistake. Actually, my favorite moments of The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season weren't that sappy. My favorite moments were every single one that did not include the band Betty on screen. Guess what? For once, that's all of them!
As for the discs themselves, they are marred by the same video and audio problems as Season Three and seriously inferior special features. Though the show is visually ambitious and often achieves great things in that department, the darker scenes almost always display irritating pixelation or graininess. Dialogue is often inaudible, and only closed captioning, not subtitles, is provided (which is unfortunate for a show that includes a deaf character). The special features are low on substance. They're mostly just contests, spots on contest winners, and promotions for causes and other Showtime series. Disc Four claims to have more special features when you insert it into a computer, but they did not appear nor could I find them when I did so. There are no commentary tracks, no interviews, no making-of featurettes -- there honestly isn't a single, well-made, substantive special feature. Getting free episodes of other shows we might want to watch is cool, but it does nothing to satisfy fans of The L Word who want material that is actually about the series they just purchased. The free episodes should be an additional bonus, not a substitute for real special features.
While a million characters and storylines doesn't necessarily make for the best viewing experience, there is one major factor that makes this overreaching forgivable, to me: the continuing shortage of respectful, compelling portrayals of queer women in the media. I suspect that if there were more than a handful of shows on TV making any serious attempt to portray the lives of queer women, The L Word would be content to take on fewer issues and cover each one more thoughtfully. What we do get on The L Word is much better than nothing, which is pretty much what we had before it.
Review content copyright © 2007 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 626 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode of The Tudors
* Episode of Californication
* GLAAD Promo
* Pam Grier and Leisha Hailey Promo for Much Love
* Script Writing Contest Winners Featurette
* T-Shirt Semi-Finalists
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site
* The Planet Podcast
* Season Two Review
* Season Three Review