With so many strong broadcast dramas dominating industry buzz, it seems that several fine series on pay and basic cable have slipped below the radar, generating less interest than other strong cable efforts have come to enjoy in recent years. This is an especially frustrating circumstance for Showtime’s lesbian-themed drama The L Word, which has been mining the depths of raw human emotion with a sublime effectiveness similar to FX’ Nip/Tuck at its humbling humanitarian best or HBO’s The Sopranos in ferocious high gear.
The L Word will likely never be as strong a series as those, but it deserves more attention than it gets. Several storylines this season have explored relationships gone wrong and the wrenching consequences of past personal issues left unresolved with an intensity and intimacy that simply is not evident in most television fare. When such bare emotion is displayed on the screen within the confines and context of semi-serialized scripted drama it becomes distressingly clear how subdued so much of television is, not to mention the increasingly sterile output of Hollywood’s mainstream movie machine.
Cast of The L Word
Like the spectacular fourth-season finale of The Sopranos, in which Tony and Carmela’s marriage literally exploded in a torrent of psychic violence so vivid and real and uncomfortable that viewers felt as if they were trapped in the very same room, certain sequences on The L Word momentarily seem to stop the world. Tellingly, those scenes are generally quiet, rather than volcanic, and they are propelled by words (and silences) rather than visuals. The closer the viewer pays attention the more she or he takes away from these scenes. This is a noteworthy achievement in the current noisy television environment, and the credit goes to series creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken and a very fine cast of gifted actresses.
Beals, Moennig, and Kirshner Stand Out
There isn’t a poor performance in this show’s ensemble, but three women in particular have carried most of its emotional weight of late. Jennifer Beals as Bette, struggling to hold herself together following the end of her long-term relationship with partner Tina, mounting problems with her career and her elderly father’s illness; Katherine Moennig as Shane, a young woman who enjoys a satisfying sex life and carefree substance abuse but is incapable of, and seemingly disinterested in, real relationships; and Mia Kirshner as Jenny, a bi-sexual basket case with unresolved issues from her childhood that are only beginning to make themselves known. The ongoing revelations into the psyches of Shane and Jenny, the painful peeling back of their emotional barriers and their efforts to both resist and submit to the truths about their own lives are at the molten core of the narrative, their individual stories made more intense by their shared feelings for another woman. By contrast, Bette has already found her own center, but she is brutalized just the same by the realities of life’s ongoing changes. As Shane and Jenny grow softer, Bette grows increasingly tough. If we weren’t in a renaissance of television drama, on broadcast and cable, Beals, Moennig, and Kirshner would be front-runners for Emmy nominations.
Kirshner is especially mesmerizing. In fact, this young woman is delivering a performance unlike any on television today, and she brings the best out of anyone with whom she interacts. A scene in which an emotional Jenny sat transfixed while a closeted, middle-aged ‘80s action-movie star (played by Tony Goldwyn) came out to her and tearfully admitted that his life had been a personal failure despite his huge professional accomplishments was unforgettable simply for its sheer connectedness.
Silliness: Melissa Rivers and Strap-On Penises
For all the serious drama at hand, The L Word has served up its share of silly surprises, including tennis pro Dana losing her fiancée Tanya to a suddenly gay-curious Melissa Rivers; Shane taking a job as assistant to the head of Paramount Pictures, a madwoman with an explosive temper played with heavy-duty gusto by Camryn Manheim (who is clearly having a blast); and Dana and Alice experimenting with strap-on penises and nipple clamps.
One wildly uneven plotline that has run through much of the season has centered on Mark (played by Eric Lively, the lone male in the cast), a director of Girls Gone Wild type videos who moved in with Shane and Jenny and secretly hid video cameras around their house, recording their every conversation and sex act. Mark was determined to use his footage to create an important documentary about lesbian life, until Jenny discovered one of his cameras and Mark aborted the project. Not surprisingly, Shane and Jenny were plunged into deeper emotional turmoil by this violation of their trust.
In most shows, the women would get revenge and/or throw Mark out. But, for better or worse, The L Word isn’t like other programs. Jenny dared Mark to remain at the house and deal with the Pandora’s Box he opened up. Kirshner scored again in this story, barely restraining Jenny’s rage after a contrite Mark stood before her naked and offered himself to her.
The lack of buzz for The L Word is disappointing, but in that regard, this show is no different than several other high-profile cable offerings of the moment. There is little talk about HBO’s Deadwood, outside of ongoing praise for Ian McShane’s consistently strong, Emmy-worthy work as blue-talking businessman Al Swearengen. Meantime, FX’ The Shield isn’t making much noise, despite the much-heralded addition to its cast this season of Glenn Close as Captain Monica Rawling. Perhaps this is due to the dismantling of the Strike Team, the unstoppable force at the center of the narrative for its first three seasons. We want to see Vic, Shane, Lemansky, and Ronnie working together, not separately, and not at odds with each other.
Indeed, the last cable drama that had people buzzing was Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, which concluded its first season with a slam-bang season finale a few weeks ago. Perhaps the situation will change in four weeks, when the traditional broadcast season comes to a close, and broadcast’s best shows go dormant for several months.
By Ed Martin