he good news about The L Word, Showtime’s new lesbian soap opera, is that it’s definitely not masturbation material for drooling hetero dudes. You wouldn’t know this from the show’s ads, a schwingtastic display of toned torsos seemingly aimed at the cable network’s post-11 p.m. audience. I make this statement with some assurance because I am, by most accounts, part of that demographic and a drooling hetero dude.
So brace yourself for disappointment, boyos. If you were hoping to catch prime-time poon porn, the L stands for Look Elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you can live with a high-toned melodrama populated by lots of attractive women who, on occasion, kiss each other, you’re in business.
And when I say lots of attractive women, I mean lots. I counted 751 in the two-hour pilot. The plot is your basic ensemble set-up: one character, one crisis, with plenty of potential sexual permutations to keep us rubberneckers on board. Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) want to have a baby. Alice (Leisha Hailey) can’t decide whether to be mistreated by guys or gals. Lick-em-and-leave-em Shane (Katherine Moennig) is being stalked by a jilted lover who is supposed to pass as butch, but looks more like Pink.
And so on.
The best of these subplots features Dana (Erin Daniels) as a pro tennis player dying to practice her strokes with a local sous chef. The alleged crisis here is that Dana wants to remain closeted, which is a little hard to fathom, given that she hangs with a posse of lesbians and, by episode four, is tongue-wrestling her cutie pie in public. But whatever. At least these two are likable.
The same cannot be said of Jenny (Mia Kirshner) and her dumb coach boy toy Tim (Eric Mabius). Jenny is a writer. We know this because she sits at her keyboard with a constipated expression and smokes cigarettes and looks stricken when her pervy mentor yells, “Where’s your nihilistic passion?” What Jenny really wants is a room of her own in which to get down with Marina (Karina Lombard), the amazon who pours her coffee. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Vagina Woolf.
I was tired of Jenny after half an hour, and I’m sad to report that she’s the only one who gets naked for the next four shows. It turns out the pilot, which offered viewers several genuinely steamy scenes, was, well, a tease. There’s something unnervingly prim, cowardly even, about the way the camera fades to black when the action gets too heated. When Dana, for example, ejaculates during her inaugural coupling with the sous chef, all we see is her morning-after mortification. When Marina goes down on Jenny in episode five, both are fully clothed. Uh, right.
I’m not asking to see vadge here, or the kind of glib sexual hijinks that Sex and the City has leaned on for years. But I am asking to see an honest representation of what makes lesbians lesbians, which is — to court the obvious — the fact that they have sex with other lesbians.
The show blithely dismisses men as boring. Fine. Probably true.
But most of the coupling on The L Word consists of hurried groping. We don’t see any sucking or stroking or, God forbid, one of its stars strapping one on. In fact, the closest The L Word has gotten to a sex toy thus far is the syringe Bette uses to shoot baby juice into her beloved. Maybe I’m losing my nihilistic passion, but I wasn’t turned on.
More distressing, we don’t get any real sense of the prevailing dynamics of L sex. The show blithely dismisses men as boring. Fine. Probably true. But for God’s sake, tell me (or show me!) what makes women so much more interesting in the sack. It can’t just be that they can find the clit on the first try. They must also have a different emotional orientation toward the act, a different power paradigm. They probably don’t even fall right asleep after coming.
But, okay, let’s remember, I’m a hetero guy (sub-genus: drooling).
My friend Leslie, an actual L, was much less bothered by the dearth of sex. She and her posse — who gather every week to watch new episodes — were just ecstatic to be represented on the boob tube. It didn’t bother them that most of the actresses looked like supermodels. Heck no. They dug the cheesecake. I guess a decade in the desert with Ellen and Rosie will do that to a gal.
That said, most of them acknowledge that the show isn’t realistic. And they don’t care. As one of Leslie’s pals eloquently observed, “I’d happily watch a lesbian read the phone book on TV.”
I’m certainly not going to argue. In fact, I enjoyed the episodes I watched with Leslie much more than the ones I watched with my fellow drooler Billy, whose most cogent comment was, if memory serves, “Where all the titties at?”
I will say, though, that the hailstorm of self-congratulatory praise heaped upon the show by the press is a little silly. The L Word wants to be seen as edgy by virtue of its heroines, but it protects them from the vulgarities of the real world, choosing instead to create a lesbian fantasia in which everyone’s beautiful and rich and no one suffers much sexism or homophobia.
The question isn’t whether the world is ready for lesbians on cable.
This is the standard Hollywood treatment. The pimps out there have made a cottage industry of sanitizing marginalized communities for mainstream consumption (see: Cosby, Gump, et al.).
Still, there are a few bracing moments in which the careful gloss of melodrama is sullied by actual emotional danger. Shane may look like Johnny Depp on the Atkins diet, but she’s granted one exquisite scene in which she subtly reveals her past as a street hustler. Suddenly, the fear that drives her promiscuity makes a lot more sense. Likewise, watching Bette struggle to contend with her pompous father, who disavows any interest in his grandchild, carries a real sting.
The edgiest scene in the series comes from a bit player, a sinister cop who offers Tim a shockingly insightful disquisition on the "dangers" of homosexuality. His concern isn’t that gays are immoral, but that they’re more effective than het lovers because they know the equipment better. A truly scary thought for us droolers.
It’s here that The L Word shows signs of actually living up to the hype. The question isn’t whether the world is ready for lesbians on cable. It is (and always has been) whether the world is ready for lesbians who suffer in a way that feels transcendently human. Stay tuned. n°
©2004 Steve Almond and Nerve.com.