Talking! Laughing! Loving! Breathing!

Is 'The L Word' just 'Melrose Place' with dental dams?

The L Word
Showtime
Sundays at 9:00 p.m.

I probably started watching The L Word for the wrong reasons. Lest you accuse me of blatant bi-curious rubbernecking, rest assured that my motives were chaste (though Jennifer Beals and tribadism are an admittedly seductive pairing). No, I started watching because I needed a potent chaser after a particularly effective episode of Grey's Anatomy. The romantic antics at Dempsey Memorial Hospital got me feeling deliriously McDreamy, and I wasn't ready to come down from my TV high.

I flipped to Showtime (generally a landfill) out of desperation and found myself sucked into Season 2 of Ilene Chaiken's controversial lesbian drama before you could say "strap-on." By the time Season 3's premiere rolled around, I was a full-on addict, Googling episode spoilers and writing "Mrs. Diablo Beals" in cursive on my notebooks. Now that's a fast-acting drug!

But for all my n00bie enthusiasm, the show isn't that great. There, I said it. The word "overwrought" comes to mind, and I'm not just referring to the horrendous theme song, which sounds like an outtake from Hair and helpfully informs us that lesbians enjoy "Talking! Laughing! Loving! Breathing!" just like normal people. The whole premise suffers from Aaron Spelling-itis: It's Melrose Place with dental dams. For one thing, nearly every woman in Chaiken's microcosm is stunning and well-built, and looks excellent while thrashing around topless in pools, showers, and other conveniently wet environments. Granted, the characters live in West Hollywood, where the guy who changes your oil looks like Eric Bana.

But even the token butches on this show appear to bathe in Crème de la Mer and shop at Daryl K. This is probably a laudable attempt to defy convention (no stereotypical diesels for middle America to mock), but the couples are so ridiculously pretty that the average woman longs to see a dimple of cellulite or an enlarged pore just to remind her that she's a member of the same species.

Then there's "The Chart," the L-Word's signature framing device. This is a cute idea in theory: We can trace each character through various hookups and love affairs, kind of like a Sapphic family tree. It's hard to keep up. Art-world maven Bette (Beals) is partnered with studio executive Tina (Laurel Holloman) who once strayed with wealthy Helena (Rachel Shelley) who has a crush on flaky Alice (Leisha Hailey) who used to be obsessed with Laura (Erin Daniels) but is currently getting kinky with a bloodthirsty goth named Uta. That sexual litany doesn't even include resident tomcat Shane (the sublime Katherine Moennig), who has fucked just about everyone, or Jenny (Mia Kirshner) an earnest, self-mutilating novelist who went from dating standard-issue men to shagging transgender boys in just two short seasons.

This tangle of relationships is fun to follow, but the writers' depiction of the romantic aftermath is beyond farfetched. For instance, we're supposed to believe that these people can all remain trusted friends--with minimal awkwardness--despite the fact that they can't seem to stay out of each others' Chip and Pepper jeans. I can't imagine any other show that would depict a woman visiting her dying lover in the hospital, accompanied by her lover's former stalker. No biggie, right? We're all buds! Or how about the way Bette politely fraternizes with Helena, a woman who just months ago slept with Bette's life partner?

In reality, these people would be avoiding each other, not enjoying civil, giggly brunches on sunlit terraces. This anything-goes tactic feels as if the writers are straining to assert the storied fluidity of lesbian lifestyles: See? We're generous with our sexuality! But the overall effect serves to cheapen the actual relationships. Everything is so short-lived and out in the open that nothing seems sacred.

One aspect of the show is predictably stellar: the sex scenes. You can't say they don't take risks. What other show would unblinkingly depict a pregnant character stripping down and receiving oral sex poolside? (The fact that actress Laurel Holloman was actually expecting at the time makes the scene all the more bold--one hopes she hangs on to some production stills for Junior's baby book.) Another daring scene featured Moira, a character who routinely wears a dildo under her pants, sticking the prosthetic into guest star Alan Cumming's eager mouth. This oddly artificial and yet incredibly hot encounter between a gay man and a lesbian bent TV convention in a real and exciting way. And although it didn't literally involve sex, an episode where scruffy Shane donned a dress and hair extensions to meet her closeted girlfriend's family had an undercurrent of eros that made fans squeal.

The L Word is clearly doing something right. Ratings are at an all-time high right now, and a surprising number of new viewers are discovering the show each week. Showtime is apparently ecstatic about its performance. I can't help but wonder if many of these newly baptized L-heads stumbled across the show as inadvertently as I did. It's like finding a smoldering crack pipe in the snow. Before you even realize what it is, you're hooked and babbling.

I guess I can suffer through the stilted writing and intrusive score if the reward is Kate Moennig in a wet tank top. Weren't we supposed to watch this for the sex anyway?

 
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