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I want to be Shane from 'The L Word'

I want to be Shane McCutcheon from The L Word when I grow up. One of the great TV characters of our time doesn't need you, but she pays attention. The fact that she doesn't need, or appear to need much, is part of her way with the ladies in the first two seasons of Showtime's sorely underrated series, which I guess ends sometime soon after how many years?--I don't have Showtime.

I was intrigued enough by an episode of the current season on my parents' cable to rent Seasons 1 and then 2, wondering as I watched if The L Word's reputation as junk food comes from critical discomfort with sex--there's a lot of it, and the way the actresses throw themselves into these scenes abides by a standard unheard of in the PG-13 era, either with what's revealed physically or played dramatically. "For those of you who don't have Showtime, the premise of The L Word is that beautiful women like to have sex with one another," goes a typical quip (David Kelly in the New York Times literary blog), but what part of that equation is supposed to be too much? Watch enough L Word or television in general and the beauty doesn't look so iconic or impossible. As Slate's Ariel Levy wondered, why shouldn't lesbians be as fantastic as anyone else onscreen?

As for the sex, it isn't just a hook on The L Word, it's daily exercise for the lifeblood. Physical intimacy becomes an extension of the dialogue, and most problems between characters aren't sexual, they're emotions surfacing in the bedroom. So when Bette (played by the astonishing vivid Jennifer Beals) realizes that the woman she loves (a pregnant Laurel Holloman playing a pregnant Tina) is now evidently a more experienced lover for seeing another woman, Bette has the sex of her life while realizing Tina needs her less. It's painful to watch, and yet it makes you want to move to the bedroom. The L Word embodies a different ethos than we're used to seeing in movies or television, starting with a tested tolerance for polyamorous relationships among friends. Like all movies and adult TV, the show uses too much music for sex scenes. But it gets explicit for story, not sidebars--most scenes aren't even a turn-on until they are. Sex on The L Word is as necessary and expected as the next meal.

Shane isn't that kind of feast for me, though actress Katherine Moennig is beautiful, punk-looking, and as deep-voiced as Kathleen Turner. She's just endlessly compelling as a fictional heroine, so I watch her sex scenes with the attentiveness of someone hoping to learn something. It's a plot-given that she has this effect on other characters, which feels like a contrivance at first: "What's the big deal about Shane?" is a joke before it becomes a question. I keep expecting the mystery to collapse under the weight of this conceit, but partway through Season 3 the show remains surprisingly light, even as it stumbles--I've managed to forgive the wooden walk-ons by non-actor celebrities, the not-quite-satirized pretentiousness of the talk about art and fiction-writing and documentary-making, and much of the rest of the first half of the second season, where a new creative team seemed to take over, adding a still-annoying theme song, overcooked cinematography, and grating fiction-within-the-fiction set-pieces based on the apparently terrible short stories of the newly lesbian Jenny (Mia Kirshner). The show so unceremoniously wrote out Jenny's dominating love interest from Season 1 that I hardly expected the writers to develop the other characters so well (now Jenny's shallowness contains the depths).

Yet Shane is their truest achievement, and for once there seems to be something at stake in a character learning to love. She begins The L Word as the woman who leaves the club or party every night with a different woman, or comes home with a number of them. The joke among her friends, told with forgiving affection, is that every time Shane walks into a crowded room, someone leaves in tears. But then one of her "victims" launches an imbalanced campaign of flyering and postering, warning other women of this heart-eating menace, and what does Shane do? She approaches the woman as she would a friend, and none of the reasons they hooked up in the first place have worn away. The non-neediness in Shane, which we're led to believe is a mechanism of self-defense left over from her foster childhood, seems so ingrained it could be pure temperament--she probably didn't have many needs before realizing the few she had wouldn't be met.

So Shane has all the time in the world for other people. That is, until the next person comes along. She's also up for fun without being easily disappointed. "Where were you? You missed Peaches," she tells to her roommate Jenny, not sorely, just in a way that says, Hey, life is going on: You should be part of it. Shane is as game for a concert by Heart if she can watch her budding girlfriend enjoy it. She doesn't appear to own CDs or books. A hairstylist, she listens to people and wants to see them beautiful. She knows how to focus on the eyes looking at her.

There have been drug issues, drinking and fighting, and the church confessional where Shane admits to giving herself maybe too freely. She doesn't think she's anything special. But the sorority of the show is so natural and bright, you imagine arriving as lesbian in Los Angeles would improve your social life even more than it would your sex life. There are more group discussions in The L Word, which is geographically close to The Hills and a country away, than in Sex and the City, where the tenuous connection of the four friends became poignant (I went from loving the show to losing track, and finally found the movie unwatchable). There's an age difference and career/class difference between the shows, but that divide also haunts The L Word, as Tina and Bette moved from the world of roommates and parties to "things" and babies. At one point in Season 1, Shane and other friends perform an intervention with the pregnant couple because they are becoming boring. I'll let Hollywood GLBTers judge the accuracy of this sociology (though I suspect grocery clerks and hair stylists don't live in houses next door to wealthy museum curators--class only comes up at the harrowing end of the episode "Lobsters" in Season 3), but I recognize the phenomena tweaked here as real.

So is Shane? Rumored to be based on Sally Hershberger, she would seem too good to be true. There are no immediate family members to make claims on her time (though a fellow hustler from the old days shows up long enough to make you wish her past away). Shane's friends are her family, and she allows men in. The roundtable cafe conversation where Jenny tells Gloria Steinam that Shane isn't a feminist (to illustrate that "not all lesbians are feminists") feels like contrived nonsense. Without apparent insecurity, or anything she can't handle either way, Shane enjoys freely rather than womanizing, observing the hurt she can cause with sympathy. She's a top who doesn't mind being topped, and maybe that's where she's losing herself in love. Or maybe she's just gained the habit of eternally rolling with it.

When Jenny tells Shane that Shane reminds her of the boys she used to date in high school, you can imagine what Jenny's talking about, except this stone gathers some moss. Shane can hold her own in a fight, and delivered one of the more emotional (and painful to watch) punches in TV, but she doesn't domineer or push or manipulate. She's the polar opposite of Season 2's most magnetic head case, the wealthy Helena Peabody, so needy in her power that she must constantly call attention to it.

Even if Jenny meant the mysterious gentle schoolboys who withdrew from love into their art (or whatever), Shane never loses sight of the world form her own head. She behaves as if she's in love with the person she's with--that is, until she actually falls in love with one. Just as lesbian sex is better than straight here, the lesbian masculine ideal (explored by Shane, and by Kelly Lynch's wonderful drag king Ivan) is off the Clash/James Dean/Humphrey Bogart charts. We see this partly through the eyes and video camera of a straight male roommate who falls in love with Shane in the platonic way boys fall in love with rock bands: When Shane cuts the guy's hair, we notice his handsomeness for the first time, and he looks a little more like the youth rebels Shane herself might resemble if she weren't so completely un-self-possessed.

None of this comes across in stills, and barely does in the Youtube footage you find--you really have to rent the series. Katherine Moennig arrives at Shane's pain in such a sideways-direct, un-Brando-esque way that you begin to wonder how much of the actress is in the character: Her approach to commanding The L Word parallels Shane's position behind her family of friends. When she forgives Jenny's self-absorption and half-conscious manipulations, recognizing a lost soul, Moennig also yields to Kirshner's performance. Shane appears to see through everyone, and with the kindness to not make a show of that knowledge. This is her solidarity, her feminism and humanism. Since I won't see more of the character, I hope to see more of Moennig.

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