Whenever Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks that the world is cruel and heartless, she reminds herself that she can see Leisha Hailey, in all her cuteness, naked anytime she wants on DVD.
Our reviews of The L Word: The Complete Second Season (published November 2nd, 2005), The L Word: The Complete Third Season (published January 3rd, 2007), and The L Word: The Complete Final Season (published November 5th, 2009) are also available.
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
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…
Facts of the Case
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*):
• "Livin' la Vida Loca"
• "Lez Girls"
• "Luck Be a Lady"
• "Lesson Number One"
• "Lacy Lilting Lyrics"
• "Little Boy Blue"
• "Literary License to Kill"
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."
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
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.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Episode of The Tudors
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