Marching Orders For...
Cringing. Freaking. Bitching. Drinking. This is the way I lived through the disappointing second season of The L Word. The show's audience was asked to accept crumbs of soft porn fashioned for straight male fantasy, and to pretend we don't have higher standards for narrative structure or content. The L Word writers need to get closer to the pulse of current queer-women's issues, and then be willing to ride complex themes out to more fragile edges—without, of course, losing the inherent Melrose Place feel of the show. It's a tall order, but why should we expect less?
There were hints of promise in the first season, when the show didn't excessively pander to straight tastes. There was sexual chemistry. There were complex relationships. Marina (Karina Lombard), the polyamorous cafe owner, gracefully seduced, confronted, and comforted her way through the episodes. Jennifer Beals, as Bette Porter, was the sophisticated—albeit sometimes tediously middle class—director of an L.A. art museum who experimented with power and took artistic risks. Kelly Lynch showed up as a drag-king car mechanic. The most compelling character was Shane (Kate Moennig), the street-wise hairdresser who possessed a willowy, sexy charisma.
The second season opened with a dreadful theme song, by the band Betty, full of Skinner Box behavioral gerunds ("talking... fucking... losing... cheating"). It foreshadowed the narrative disaster to come. The biggest disappointment of the second season was the storyline featuring Mark (Eric Lively) as the hetero voyeur. Mark moves into a house with Shane and ingénue artist Jenny (Mia Kirshner), then wires each room with surveillance cameras to make a documentary about his roommates' sexual secrets. The writers later twist this subplot back on itself so that Mark confesses and becomes the coffee-and-scone-fetching houseboy committed to paying for centuries of male exploitation, but it's too late. Mark's punishment is part of the same clichéd male fantasy that was the epicenter of the season. Shane undergoes a major transformation regarding intimacy, partially inspired by Mark's film. I couldn't buy that. Nor did I buy how Mark's creepy peek films sped up Jenny's saturated cycling through incest memories, circa some 1980s miniseries along a haunted circus theme. Where was the sincerity of pure unadulterated rage? Where was anger that didn't turn inward and twist?
The L Word never promised to be 100 percent realistic. Shane, for example, drives a brand new Jeep Wrangler, not an El Camino with a dented rear bumper. (The show magnifies the lives of beautiful, rich, L.A. lesbians, while most queer women I know struggle with money issues.) But if L Word writers can't portray financial realities for lesbians, they can at least approach relevant social and personal issues with a more intensive, unblinking gaze. The writers did a brilliant job exploring issues around the death of Bette's father, played by Ossie Davis, in season two. More of that level of writing and acting would be great.
Here are a few themes that L Word writers might want to tackle in the third season based on issues faced by queer women I know. One of my friends is planning to run for state public office, and she's building her base of support in a political climate markedly unfriendly toward queers. Several friends are fighting legal battles for gay marriage. Another friend lives in the Midwest and dates a tranny boy who just started taking testosterone. My best friend from college has ongoing struggles with mental illness and medications. Several friends went through major surgery and had to deal with complex reactions to their vulnerability from friends and family. Another friend goes on all-night cocaine benders and ends up in strange places like the Harborview ER. Issues of commitment, ambition, shame, identity, gender, intimacy, family, and survival are embedded in these stories.
Don't get me wrong. I also appreciate the pure entertainment value of The L Word and I want its light touch to continue. I like watching beautiful women having sex and wearing great clothes. But I also want to see the queer world I live in reflected back to me. Otherwise, I'd rather just watch Desperate Housewives. ■