Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks she has figured out what this mysterious "L word" is. Probably it's "logarithm." But her back-up guess is "lesbian."
Our reviews of The L Word: The Complete Second Season (published November 2nd, 2005), The L Word: The Complete Fourth Season (published October 23rd, 2007), and The L Word: The Complete Final Season (published November 5th, 2009) are also available.
"I want to believe for all the rest of us who are flailing around in this abyss trying to feel what we're supposed to feel in order to connect in meaningful ways. I want to believe that real, true connection among human beings is actually possible."—Alice
Caution: Seeing as how the show prides itself on shocking twists and high drama these days, revealing spoilers through the end of Season Three becomes a necessity in reviewing it.
The L Word has always been the classiest of nighttime soaps, but there are episodes or moments when it strays into the realm of a really well-written dramatic series. In its third season, the wildly popular series about a group of mostly lesbian friends achieves fewer of those, but embraces what we in the queer community call "dyke drama" more fully than ever before. If surprise deaths, surprise weddings, surprise couplings, surprise cheating, and surprise pregnancies are your cup of tea, you'll be floored by what these ladies can pack into 12 episodes. About that last one—the writers get an awful lot of mileage from it, for a show about lesbians…
Facts of the Case
All nine of the girls are back this season, with two new additions to the regular cast. As we start the season, six months have passed since Season Two ended with the birth of baby Angelica. Bette (Jennifer Beals), the resident power lesbian, finds that identity compromised by unemployment. Back together with her jilted lover, Tina (Laurel Holloman), the couple works toward Bette's second-parent adoption of Angelica. Shane (Katherine Moennig) seems to have evolved from the ultimate lesbian player into a domesticated, monogamous girlfriend to Latina DJ Carmen (Sarah Shahi). Crazy Jenny (Mia Kirshner) is a little less crazy, with a few months in cutter rehab behind her and a butch new girlfriend, Moira (Daniela Sea), to make a road trip back to California. Bette's older sister, Kit (Pam Grier), has business bustling at The Planet, but is bothered by obscure health problems. Bratty heiress Helena (Rachel Shelley) has suddenly become friendly and agreeable, and is hanging out a lot with Alice (Leisha Hailey). Which brings us to the biggest shock of the season opener: cute, intensely crushable, radio show hostess Alice has been dumped in our absence by tennis pro Dana (Erin Daniels), who has gone back to her ex, the "soup chef," Lara (Lauren Lee Smith)! Oh, and don't forget the token guy: this season, the rotating slot is filled by Dallas Roberts, who plays sweet and sensitive Angus, Angelica's nanny, or "manny." Speaking of which, last season's token guy, Mark, seems to have dropped off the face of the earth with nary a mention.
This set includes all 12 episodes of the third season, distributed over four discs. I've listed the opening scenes from "the chart" so that you can follow the connections made through the season, and also the sexy bits…not that anyone would even think about skipping over the deep social issues and going straight for the hot parts (*cough*):
• "Labia Majora"
• "Lost Weekend"
• "Light My Fire"
• "Lone Star"
• "Late Comer"
• "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way"
• "Losing the Light"
• "Last Dance"
• "Left Hand of the Goddess"
There seems no doubt these days that, contrary to the lyrics of its much-loathed theme song, The L Word has precious little to do with "the way that we live." Even for a community high on drama, the things these women do and say often as not strain the furthest limits of believability or just don't make sense. Plus, there's the problem of the vast majority of them being intensely wealthy and glamorously feminine. As a couple of L.A. viewers noted in The L World, a documentary about the show included in this set's special features, "The L.A. world from The L Word is definitely not the L.A. world that we live in. Those women on the show have money, and have these really good jobs and everything…we go to work and go to night classes just to get by." A friend hilariously follows this comment up with, "I wanna see some lesbians goin' to Food For Less and buying some goddamn Cup-o-Soups on that show!" But the reality check to these kinds of complaints is twofold in the particular case of The L Word. One, it's TV. And like most TV, it seeks mainly to entertain rather than to reflect reality as it is. Another fan in The L World confirms, "I don't want to see my real life. I'm boring! I go to work, I come home, I'm nice to everyone. I want to see more suspense and drama and sex, maybe things I fantasize about." Two, those who want "the way that we live" to look grittier should search deep inside their souls and ask themselves if they truly like Go Fish. This 1994 low-budget, black-and-white exploration of the lives of "real lesbians" fulfills all the community-representation requirements of those who criticize The L Word, and it is also one of the most universally loathed films I have ever encountered. I think I am the only person I know who can even drudge up a sentiment like, "I liked it—well, I really respect what it's trying to do." And nobody likes it the way queer women like The L Word.
There was plenty to specifically like (and loathe) in this third season. Leisha Hailey as Alice is the highlight this season, though she's always a highlight for me. You know that one celebrity you get to have sex with without your significant other getting mad? She's mine. Apart from how unbelievably cute and charming she is, though, she really does give an amazing performance this year, aided by the huge range of emotions the writers saddle poor old Alice with. She nails the laugh-out-loud hilarity of her clownish stalker phase with brilliant delivery of lines like, "This week is my birthday and it would be nice if Dana would just come by and give me a little prezzie—maybe kiss my eyelids…," or the moment she dumps a bag of their sex toys in Dana's lap and declares, "I didn't have time to wash everything." Then when Dana gets sick, Alice shapes up fast and Hailey acts through the emotional roller-coaster—from supportive friend to possibly getting back together to devastating loss to drained, empty depression. Her well-written radio show monologues about love and human connection are nice bookends to the season in the premiere and finale, and demonstrate the subtle shift from not-so-popular, crazy Jenny to Alice as the guiding emotional center of the series.
In addition to Hailey, strong performances abound from the always incredible cast. Erin Daniels gets to do a lot of dying and crying this season, which she performs well. Though I think the writers have really undercut her character for the past two years, alienating us from the most likeable and identifiable character of the first season. During the Alice-Dana-Tonya love triangle, we never really had any idea what Dana was thinking or feeling, getting Alice's pain and the comedy of Tonya's over-the-top personality instead. This season, the writers have her yelling at Lara—the sweetest, most adorable character on the show—in every episode. Even though we "understand" that she has cancer and excuse her behavior, it is still a very distancing element. Jennifer Beals, who is usually a nothing less than a force on this show, is a bit compromised this season by her real-life pregnancy, which meant a new object hiding her belly every week for Bette Porter—grocery bags, her baby, baggy meditation garments. Though guessing what she would use each week was fun, her incredibly dull Buddhism plot (aka, a tummy-hiding excuse for loose-fitting clothes and a lot of sitting cross-legged) was not. Watching her watch Tina head back to boystown was too painful. Although I agree with Bette's assessment when Carmen wishes Tina would "come back to our side": "Fuck that. They can have her." A surprise favorite this season was Rachel Shelley as Helena, whose character seems to have had a big hearty bowl of Quaker's Instant Personality Change at the start of the season (not unlike Carmen's homophobic family in the final episode). Would the Helena of last season ever have told Dylan, "I don't want it halfway and I don't want it at someone else's expense. We should just be friends"? Though it smacks of lazy writing, the fact that Helena is suddenly a kind person makes her a lot more sympathetic, and Shelley proves she can make sympathy as fun to watch as last season's cattiness and cruelty.
Speaking of personality changes, how about that sanity radiating from crazy Jenny? The writers seem to have gotten the message that the little romps through her troubled psyche we got in season two did not go over well with fans. To quote one from The L World: "Man, Jenny is pretty, but she is weird…Every time she writes…it's like where'd this come from? Why's she at a carnival? What the hell? Though nobody plays crazy like Mia Kirshner, it was refreshing to see Jenny being relatively collected and strong this season. The L Word podcasters Elka and KC (see link on the right) dubbed her Ninja Jenny this year after her handiwork with a tazer in "Lost Weekend" and that take-no-prisoners spirit translated to a lot of emotional strength, too. For the most part, she was a supportive girlfriend to Moira as she transitioned into Max, dealing reasonably with all the difficulties of that process. When Max's hormones make him violent and disrespectful to her, Jenny is firm: "You're becoming a completely different person…when you get the body you need, who's gonna live inside of it? Is it going to be that sweet, kind, compassionate, gentle person that I met, or is it going to be this mother-fucking monster?" But it's hard to analyze their relationship, as the writers seems to have conceived Max's role as to willfully misunderstand and be offended by anything anyone ever says to him—as, for example, when Jenny criticizes him for taking a job at a conservative, transphobic corporation and he accuses her of hating men. The arc of this female-to-male trans character, though revolutionary in its simple existence as a TV storyline, in the end is rather offensively executed. Considering the amount of serious consideration trans issues get on TV, it seems politically negligent to insinuate that Moira becomes a macho jerk who only cares about being "normal" once she transitions into Max. Hopefully, the character will return to be redeemed in the upcoming fourth season—and without the poorly-applied facial hair, please.
As for the only cast member with real facial hair, Angus the "manny" is by far the most enjoyable Y-chromosome carrying character ever on this show. This touchy-feely acoustic guitar guy is a refreshing change from assholes Tim and Mark who have previously represented mankind on The L Word. His devotion to Bette and Angelica is touching, and his relationship with older woman Kit does a lot to make her storyline more interesting, while leaving plenty of room for the cradle-robbing humor that keeps him from being a bore. Kit's tussles with Billy weren't as much fun as one would expect from an Alan Cumming guest role, and her record-deal plot was marred by Betty overexposure. But it's nice to see her settle in to a healthy relationship, and her point-blank confession to Angus that, "I'm pregnant," while shoveling appetizers into her mouth at Shane and Carmen's wedding was a great moment.
And what a wedding it was! We should have guessed how things would turn out from Shane's panicky, grief-and-cheating-induced proposal to Carmen's lackluster acceptance. But Alice almost had me convinced with her optimistic radio monologue about gay marriage at the beginning of "Left Hand of the Goddess." The writers instead chose to take a page from Joss Whedon's playbook and acknowledge that bad role models and a rough family life are hard—sometimes impossible—things to get over when embarking on one's own committed relationship. That storyline for Shane turned out to be quite powerful and believable—except for the part where she and her estranged father hold hands while walking around their hotel. Sigh. It was a rough season for the show's hottest couple, though we were treated to some excellent sex scenes before the big, painful break-up. While we did get an interesting look into Carmen's family life, she mostly had to just look sexy and act pissy during these 12 episodes. With what seems like her departure from the series after the failed wedding, we lose the two hottest bodies on the show (along with Dana).
The resolution of the Shane/Carmen wedding and Alice's character arc are two few examples of really good writing and directing this season. The creative team also does a really nice job with connection and symmetry this season, starting with the pre-credits snippets of "The Chart" that trace sexual connections from a woman named Marilyn that we don't meet until the final episode through characters we know and love. These segments are far more interesting and well-organized than the random sex scenes that used to precede the credits, and give the writers a chance to explore past moments of the characters' lives. It's great fun to see Bette have sex with a guy when she is just coming out to herself or a scene from the brief relationship between her and Alice. And showing the actual Alice/Dana break-up in "The Chart" segment months after we find out that it happened, when the two of them have gone through so much together since, is a rare stroke of genius from this writing team. They also establish a lovely visual motif in that scene to represent the several traumatic separations from Dana that Alice endures this season: a long shot of Alice standing at the left side of a long hallway, watching Dana leaving. The first time as they break up, the second time as Dana goes into unexpected surgery, and the third time when Dana has really left her in death.
Another instance of narrative symmetry that really worked is between Dana and Max both losing breasts. The tension created by the fact that it is a choice for one and not for the other provides a good opportunity for exploring the issues at stake in transitioning and also leads to one of the most touching moments of connection in the season at the basketball game.
Now, on to the inexcusable aspects of the season, of which there are four. The first is the botched trans storyline, as discussed above. The second is the small but unforgiveable scene during which we see Tina have penetrative sex with a man she just met without a condom. Is this really a gay show?!? Do we know nothing about AIDS—or pregnancy—for that matter?!? The third is the band that shall not be named—okay, I'll name them. Betty. For a comprehensive, pee-your-pants-funny rant on this subject, see Elka and KC's podcast for the episode "Latecomer." All I will say is that the amount of creative control, music, and honest-to-God screen time these girls get in the show is far from proportional to their talent. If creator Ilene Chaiken is dating band member Elizabeth Ziff, as the gossip goes, and that has anything to do with the show's persistent disregard for the fact that all the fans actively hate Betty's presence on the show, I'm surprised that Showtime execs haven't stepped in. The fourth inexcusable aspect is a big one: the death of Dana. The whole issue is pretty simple, in my mind. Dana was one of the very most popular characters on the show and Erin Daniels wasn't looking to leave the cast. I don't think there is enough ignorance in the queer community about breast cancer that the writers really needed to go as far as killing one of their most popular characters just to educate us. Though "Losing the Light" was a great episode and had moments of pitch-perfect melodrama (Alice proves her goodness through suffering and returns too late to be with Dana as she dies), the series will suffer greatly in the long term from this mistake. I think anyone in the business of running long-running television shows would affirm that it is wiser to wait until popular cast members want to leave, which they will, to do the big death storylines.
The special features on The L Word: The Complete Third Season are adequate. While most are little more than self-promotion and advertisements for Olivia cruises and Love and Pride jewelry, there is also a pretty high-quality, half-hour documentary about The L Word as a community-building event and the many diverse fans of the show. "A Goodbye to Dana" is the same insulting five-minute bit that was played after the broadcast of "Losing the Light"; it tries to convince fans that it was the right thing to do for the writers to kill Dana. In its brief five minutes, it is chock-full of condescending insinuations that to disapprove of this plotline would be to disrespect those with breast cancer and ridiculous rhetoric from Chaiken about the story "leading" the writers who "had no idea" that it would lead to Dana's death. The most satisfying aspect is the way many of the cast members' disapproval—particularly Moennig's—manages to shine through. Some commentary tracks or additional interviews or behind-the-scenes footage would have been welcome on this set. But knowing The L Word, anything extra we were offered probably would have been Betty music videos…
The L Word: The Complete Third Season is packaged in four slim cases housed in a cardboard outer sleeve. While the show works hard to provide interesting visuals, its look is compromised by spotty picture quality that tends to pixelate and/or wash out in darker scenes. The sound quality, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Dialogue is frequently muffled and the lack of subtitles makes this situation even more frustrating.
More than just a television series, The L Word represents a new kind of community builder for queer women. I watched every episode packed into San Francisco's little dyke bar, The Lexington, with several of my friends and about 200 other girls. In between the cheers, boos, and sounds of jaws hitting the floor during some of the season's more outrageous moments, I couldn't deny that something important was taking shape—a weekly tradition in a community that has been denied of so many traditions, to paraphrase one The L World interviewee. And for all the rants on the show's message boards and frequent declarations about canceling Showtime subscriptions once and for all, The L Word remains the show to love and love to hate for the queer girl community. It's great when it's good, and it's almost better when it's bad…
…thereby proving its guilt—as in guilty pleasure, of course.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• "A Goodbye to Dana" featurette
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