Saturday, March 21, 2009

The L Word: A Eulogy of Faint Praise

The first three seasons of The L Word are a frolic of nostalgia for the late-sixties-early seventies lifestyle as enjoyed by that swath of the Baby Boom who lived for Art and stayed twenty-something right on up to the maw of 40.

Lyrical, even evocative of early David Lynch, L Word starts out as the simple tale of Jenny, All-American EveryGirl, who leaves her corn-fed, midwestern small town existence behind to seek her fortune in Hollywood.

We know right away that this story is not just your typical night-time soap, because Jenny does not aspire to be a movie star.

She does not want to be an actress or a model. Our Jenny wants to be a Writer!

When she arrives in LA, where she will live with her corn-fed, midwestern small town womens' swimming coach of a boyfriend Tim, she expresses surprise at the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. That's just how innocent she is. And she has big googly smudgepotted eyes, with really looooong innocent lashes, that lower thoughtfully as she peeks at a couple of her new Lesbian neighbors romping in the swimpool next door.

Tim has her describe everything she saw in detail. He is really turned on, and they make sweet innocent corn-fed midwestern love.

It is through young Jenny's eyes that we are introduced to the other major characters, Bette and Tina, the Stable Relationship Couple with Issues, Alice the Adorable and Quirky EveryPal, Dana the Closeted Athlete, Marina the Predator Fatale and Shane the Irresistible Androgyne.

The juxtaposition of the comfortable traditional sitcomic stereotype characters with the kiss of quasi-surrealism in the editing, lots and lots of snappy Gilmore Girl-grade dialogue and a compact if predictable plotline that manages to peel away the layers of those characters while still retaining an ethereal and amusing lightness makes the first three seasons as delightfully addictive as even the most jaded viewer could wish.

We meet the L-Wordians in the full bloom of those halcyon days of friends as chosen family, the first yearnings of that second nest-leaving that can be more seminal than the first, a coming of age redux as the twenties march on, and instincts older than time, stirrings of nesting, wing-spreading, and through the show we watch this poignant, sometimes cataclysmic unfolding into adulthood's chilly Big Room.

It's entertaining enough to make you overlook the annoyance that once again, the victims are affluent residents of the SoCal enclaves, though the series does indulge in some diversity celebratin', The L Word's glossy ambiance of entitled and affluent SoCal whitefolks manages to be faithful to the subgenre of 90210, The OC, and their subsequent "reality" companions even beyond the enclaves, with significant storylines set in West Hollywood, East LA and beyond.

Though it may have the ring of damning by faint praise, the series does feature more people of color than its predecessors, and its "social issues addressed" list includes at least a glancing acknowledgment of the impact on the lives of individuals of societal perceptions of ethnicity: Bette, one of the main characters, is bi-racial, and the show gets points casting here. Like Bette, Jennifer Beals is a light-skinned child of one white and one African-American parent.

If previous teleworks, both traditionally scripted and "reality" flavor, have subjected the hapless SoCalaffluents, particularly women, to a repeated battering of stereotypical portrayals, drawing, over the years, a caricature of a population already popularly perceived as cartoonish, characterized by shallowness and exaggerated materialism honed to art forms, proudly insular, more proudly ignorant, essentially useless creatures whose principal talents are self-absorption, shopping, solipsism, and "tanning," a quaint custom of white people dyeing their skins orange, a key expression, along with aquisition of long blonde hair and large surgically attached breasts, of their collective desire to physically resemble each other as much as possible.

The L-word cranks that up a notch, giving us further insight into the nature of this fascinating demographic creation, presenting us with a portrait of beings almost unfailingly incapable of viewing or being in the presence of another human to whom they feel even the most fleeting and superficial attraction without hurling themselves immediately into each other, the mythical "nymphos" so whispered about by the zit-afflicted teenboy contingent since time immemorial, the heroines of generation upon generation of wet dreams, women who are not only willing, not only eager to engage in physical intimacy, but biologically and emotionally incapable of restraining the ferocity of their uncontrollable urges regardless of appropriateness of time, place, choice of partner, potential - or certain - impact on others, involved, traffic...

Someone somewhere decided at the first concept meeting that The L Word must not content itself with merely featuring lots of sex scenes. Every episode must be chock-a-block with not just any old sex scene, but Hollywood-styled pretty, pretty sex, most of it the kind of hot steamy girl-on-girl fantasy action so beloved of those adolescent males and "men's magazine" fans.

Although the show's credits feature many prominent women very prominently, and the main characters are Lesbians, one gets the sense while the dialogue and character development seem skewed toward a female audience, the sex scenes are very markedly designed to appeal to the customer base of the Girls Gone Wild series.

A kinder perspective, might compare it to the Bollywood convention of characters spontaneously bursting into big song-and-dance production numbers every fifteen minutes or so in the course of a two-hour movie, completely independent of whether such a thing would be something the character in question "would do."

Enjoying this show requires the viewer to ascend to whole new levels of suspension of disbelief.

This is really the best way to absorb the show as a whole, otherwise it becomes just too distracting. Although the Sex Scene-Production Numbers certainly impact the story line, and frequently constitute plot development, at the same time they sort of exist on a different plane, floating above characters or plot, presumably for the benefit of those pubescent males who have no interest in any of that, and simply fast forward through any scenes where the actors are clothed. (Though they should do so with caution, as the characters are not always able to contain themselves long enough to disrobe).

Even during the Summer of Love, those dreamlike pre-AIDS years that saw the coming of age of the Baby Boom, where those who participated had few inhibitions about sexual activity, engaging in it early and often, and on the slightest provocation, (pun just left there), it was nothing like the L Word, where eyes meet, meaningful glances are exchanged, and the next minute is a full-on Penthouse video, plot and character tossed wildly across the room to land engagingly across the lampshade, along with time, place, and bits of fancy lingerie, which all the characters wear all the time, even when they are at home alone.

Before the show's debut, there was naturally a lot of interest, and many hoped, I think, that it might serve to reduce, even if only a little bit, the ignorance that spawns bigotry and hatred, and there are certainly storylines and dialogue that do have the potential for raising awareness of a number of social and legal issues that bigotry has created.

However anyone who looks to this show to "learn about Lesbians," or transgendered people, gay men, heterosexuals of either gender - anybody - would be well advised to hang onto that Bollywood song-and-dance metaphor with regard to actual sexual behavior.

No real people of any sexual preference or orientation behave like that, or have sex like that, unless they are doing it as performance art at best, or making that Penthouse video or a simple porn flick at most likely.

Ironically, what suffers most from this are the points in the story where the characters would be intimate. It's not that they aren't, just that by the time we get to a point in the story where there should be a real "sex scene," there have been so many that this is just another one, and like all the others, it is Bollywood Production Number Sex, that deprives the characters of any genuine sexuality, and thus deprives the viewers of a key and integral facet of the character.

Halfway through Season 1, I found myself doing the opposite of the teenboys - fast forwarding through the sex scenes as if they were commercials, not out of prudery, but a combination of boredom and curiosity born of real interest in the story itself!

No doubt to atone for an unacceptably low-level of regime praise in earlier episodes, in season 4, one of the most likeable and popular characters, Alice, is persuaded to jettison any previous aversion to crimes against humanity by being taken on a helicopter ride, given a kiss, and informed that her current object of desire is an old fashioned and traditional kind of girl who believes in invading other countries and waiting until she is "sure" to throw down and get freaky.

Her best friend is naturally the totally coolest lark in the exaltation; Kate Moenning's portrayal injects loveable fauxbutch playa Shane with more cool hotness even the producers will have dreamed of, back in those giddy pre-production days when the character's concept was carefully focus group-enriched to inspire girls who have never kissed a girl to reflect that if they ever were to do so and like it, it would have to be one like Shane.

Her gender-transcending and irresistible appeal is trumped only by that of Papi (Eva Torres), a stereotype-laden Latin American force of nature, the aforementioned best friend of the regime loyalist who reinforces the ideological dysfunction du jour of "supporting" the "policies" while disliking the on-camera talent.

Viewers who are sensitive to having their intelligence, along with a generous handful of population sectors, insulted will want to avoid this show, but the truly impervious devotee of vapid, mindless entertainment and Trash TV as an emerging genre should revel in it.

Season 4 is definitely where the series jumps the proverbial shark. This is where it all breaks down into desperate needy marketward graspings, not only at the predictable and presumably obligatory glorifying of atrocity, but greedily lapping up even the poker craze, culminating in one of the characters using crisp paper money to commit a sexual act on the disowned heiress, a connectivity that will cause the more fastidious viewers (the ones who have heard of Erich von Stroheim, anyway) to cringe.

To add insult to injury, Shane, the most awesome of all the principals, is shown wearing pointy-toed boots.

Yet to give credit where it is due, the scene where Alice and Shane spray paint the billboard is a truly moving expression of friendship, and the All Day Bed Party in the same episode (9) is as delicious as it is cheesy.

By the show's Swan Season, the most complex of all the characters, Max, whose story had heretofore taken us down roads of transgender whatitsreallylike-ology that Hilary Swank drove right by with windows rolled up, has been sensationalized into a groaningly predictable "pregnant man" scenario, smearing cheap tabloid sperm all over one of the potentially meatiest roles Daniela Sea (who does an awesome job in spite of it all) or anybody else is likely to get in any sitcom, ever.

Sweet Innocent Ingenue w/ long lashes Jenny has morphed into Evil Jenny, so evil, in fact, that she has either fallen off an unfinished exterior landing or been mysteriously murdered, evidently by one of the other main characters, who despite their assorted nuanced flaws, and ample respective Reasons They Might Have Killed Jenny, are all essentially Good People.

The series finale has been by now so thoroughly and vigorously trashed by pretty much everybody who saw it and deigned to say anything about it at all that there is little I can contribute to the pyre.

Was it by design that all the "loose ends," - and there was a big ol' tangled ball of them - were pulled out and made looser? Had the writers just come off a Majid Majidi binge of several days without sleep, and decided, as the deadline hurtled ever closer to their noses, to present their own interpretation, some sort of pseudo-deconstruction of the great director's precision-landed nonendings?

Or was it a case of mass writer's block, caused by mercury poisoning, the result of poor sushi choices in the days and weeks that preceded the handing in of that final script?

If truth be told, it was so non-final that I did not realize until well into the second half of the episode that it was the series final!

It was probably accidental, the presence of one smile-and-nod inducing plot point: The L Word ended as it began, with the main characters, Bette and Tina, together with issues, and with firm plans in place to resolve those issues by dint of obtaining a (second) baby.

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