Monday, January 7, 2008

Liked It: Thoughts on the L Word Season 5 premiere

Last night, the L Word had its fifth season premiere. It was good. So good, in fact, that fans of the show might dare to call it, “Season One good.”
“Season One good” is a shorthand for everything that worked so well in the first season of Showtime’s sapphic drama: Great fashion, glamorous and fabulous characters who hung out together and seemed to genuinely like each other, insiderish dialogue, tons of romantic intrigue, and, of course, lots and lots of sex. Season One was shallow but smart—like a soap opera written by a Bard graduate. It didn’t hurt that I developed a whopping girl crush on Shane (Katherine Moennig)—the laconic, shaggy-haired lady killer. (Apparently, I wasn’t alone in this crush. There’s actually a t-shirt you can buy that says, “I’d Go Gay For Shane.”)
I actually still kind of liked Season Two, but there were signs that things were unraveling. Ilene Chaiken, the show’s Svengali-like creator, is obviously a very smart woman—but maybe not quite as smart as she thinks. When L Word is on target, it’s a juicy guilty pleasure. When it tries to get serious about art and politics, it gets maddeningly pretentious.
With each passing season, the show seemed to take itself more and more seriously. Transgenderism, gays in the military, censorship, cancer, sexual abuse were all taken on with grad school studiousness. Straight people were often a target—straight men in particular—saying ridiculously ignorant things (from last nite’s eppy: “What does the T stand for in LBGT—tentative?”) and being as unhip and unglamorous as Chaiken could depict them. (A gay/straight “mixer” in Season Four is particularly painful.)
Often, the most annoying character was writer Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner, not her fault), clearly a surrogate for Chaiken herself. It was Schecter who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse—and it was she who often led to those two most dreaded words in television: Fantasy sequence. In them, she was often at a carnival (?) being chased by frightening carnies or people with pig snouts or bearded ladies. You’d watch those sequences and think, “Yada, yada, yada. . .can we get back to the breakup between Tina and Bette?”
As the seasons went on, the L Word was kinda all over the map. Characters would have these radical personality changes: rich Helena Peabody went from a delectably bitchy villainous in Season two to a veritable Mother Theresa in Season Three. Likewise, funky, spunky Alice (the sexy and funny Leisha Haley) turned into a pill-popping stalker in Season Three—but recovered by the end of the season, only to deal with the show’s biggest misstep (and bummer), the death of adorable tennis pro Dana. Way too many new characters entered the picture, the least welcome of which was the transgender Max (Daniela Sea). Nothing wrong with introducing this character, but the actresses’s monotone delivery and puppy dog passivity made her difficult to warm up to. What’s more, all these new characters were beginning to feel like interlopers. Didn’t we have enough characters as it was?
Chaiken obviously had read the message boards where fans were clamoring for more group interaction, a la Season One. Sometimes she tried to force this action—a scene in Season Three where the gals sat around a table at The Planet (the show’s answer to “Central Perk”) discussing euphemisms for the vagina was particularly forced and unfunny. Season Four got a little better—a scene where our West Hollywood fashionista heroines attempted a pickup basketball game was genuinely entertaining. But in many cases, it just seemed like the L Word had lost its groove.
So why did I keep watching it? That’s a natural and fair question.
Give credit to the stellar cast (particularly Jennifer Beals, who shines as alpha femme Bette), who often elevated the crummy dialogue and absurd scenarios with their nuanced performances. And yes, give credit to Chaiken, who managed to do just enough to keep me intrigued (or at least, optimistic that things would get better.) (But no, I can not give credit to musical director and sometimes writer Elizabeth Ziff. That inane theme music HAS to go.)
Last night seemed to reward me for my patience. A lot of the extra characters have been kicked to the curb (Papi, we hardly knew ye), Shane is back to her hound dog ways (yay for slutty Shane!), Bette and Tina are making googly eyes at each other, and the group dynamic seems frothy, fun, and real.
Keep it up, Madame Chaiken. At this rate, we might be referring to future seasons as “Season Five good.”

No comments: