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The L Word

The L Word TV Show - The L Word Television Show
Airs: Sunday 10:00 PM on Showtime (60 mins)
Status: Returning Series
Premiered January 18, 2004
Show Category: Drama , Soap

The L Word is the intimate story about the lives and loves of a group of lesbian friends living in Los Angeles. The show has received a lot of praise for it's brilliant storylines and the portrayal of the lesbian community.
All new television shows fight comparison, and some wage other battles fair or unfair depending on what network they're on, who created the show and when it airs.

But Showtime's ambitious and superb new offering, "The L Word," may have more clutter to get through than most before an honest assessment can occur. After all, this is a high-profile "lesbian drama" from a channel that already has a high-profile gay male drama in "Queer As Folk." That means "The L Word" could be seen as Showtime's further exploration of niche dramas (it has an African American series in "Soul Food" and had a Latino drama in "Resurrection Blvd.," which led at the time to assumptions the channel, in keeping with its "No Limits" slogan, was merely offering up programs no one else was doing and therefore making a cottage industry out of being different).

While that may be the case, it takes nothing away from the fact that Showtime has allowed a creator, Ilene Chaiken, to bring to the small screen her vision of an expansive lesbian community in Los Angeles -- a feat she pulls off with only a few fits and starts.

Still, Showtime is promoting the series in a fashion that leaves little doubt that its ad department wants to link "The L Word" stylistically to HBO's "Sex and the City." It's not a very wise move primarily because there's no obvious connection other than one is a hit comedy that's leaving the air while the other is a fledgling drama in need of viewers.

But such is life in television -- sometimes you've got to cut through the crap to even get noticed.

"The L Word" should have little trouble doing that. Lesbians, despite Hollywood's fascination with them, really haven't had much to call their own. "The L Word" is a series that should not only attract that audience but, more important, not repel them with stupidity or gross characterizations. It helps, naturally, that this is Chaiken's baby and she's a lesbian. (If it were a network show, it would have been the brainchild of five straight males looking to capitalize on a trend.)

And then there's the sex-sells angle. "Queer As Folk" enjoyed free- flowing ink in newspapers and magazines when it first came out, not only for its gay content, but for its aggressive view of sexuality that showed no fear of censorship or certainly, prudishness.

So, yes, the rampant nudity and omnipresent lesbian sex scenes should be enough to stir interest all around.

But good for "The L Word." It's hard enough to launch a show, much less on Showtime, where original programming always seems to take a critical and audience-anticipation backseat to HBO. A little hype never hurt.

"The L Word" has its work cut out to keep the viewers who tune in for titillation, and build -- both in gay and straight audience -- an allegiance to a complex set of characters introduced in the 95-minute pilot, then fleshed out in a series of ever-improving one-hour episodes.

What Chaiken has done with "The L Word" is take a variety of hot-button lesbian issues and spread them out over a web of characters who are connected generally to West Hollywood and specifically to a hip cafe there. Imagine a lesbian "Friends," only smarter and better-looking. The friendships are the core of the series, and the neighborhood -- Los Angeles' trendy gay area -- serves as their safe zone.

Although "The L Word" is an ensemble, with all kinds of characters getting fresh, interesting story lines, the main players are Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), a couple together for seven years who are now trying to have a baby. Their next-door neighbor is Tim (Eric Mabius), a straight, open-minded, nice guy who (other than the ridiculous idea of having him drive a "muscle car") is a welcome creation in the realm of gay-straight characterizations. Tim is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a writer moving out from the Midwest.

The central themes of "The L Word" are the difficulties these couples have. Bette and Tina battle "lesbian bed death" while Jenny has her world turned upside down when the exotic and stunning Marina (Karina Lombard), who owns the hip neighborhood cafe, gloms onto her.

Into this mix come Kit (Pam Grier), Bette's half-sister, a musician and recovering alcoholic; Shane (Katherine Moennig) the rock-star-like lesbian dynamo who has plowed through most of the women in Los Angeles; Alice (Leisha Hailey), a bisexual journalist, who provides the comedy and Dana (Erin Daniels), a professional tennis player who's still in the closet but likely to blow that cover with her swivel-headed lust at each passing single lesbian, though her track record of actually getting anyone to notice her is woeful.

There are a few others as well, but this core group is well-sketched by Chaiken. We stay interested in their interconnected friendships and dramatic fates once Chaiken smooths over the inevitable bumpy spots of any character- establishing pilot.

It's clear that "The L Word" is a drama meant for everyone. It's not some exclusive lesbian-only venture - something lesbians will discover (and possibly mock) in the first few main scenes as the Big Issues being discussed have a clear Lesbian 101 taint to them. But that's not a major stumbling block. All storytellers want to bring everyone into the tent, and Chaiken is no different.

Discussions of "gaydar" and a comic rundown of how-to-spot-a-lesbian won't enlighten any San Francisco viewers, but the scenes neither flop entirely nor, worse, offend. There is a tonal shift that's a bit stark when Bette and Tina's relationship woes suddenly give way to Dana's unsophisticated flirtation with a sous chef at her tennis club. She doesn't know if she's being hit on so Bette, Tina, Shane and Alice arrive in some kind of "Queer Eye for the Clueless Lesbian" scene.

Another minor misstep is Tim -- and not just his car. The gaydar goes off long before he pulls off his shirt, but his too-good-to-be-true boyfriend routine ends up being sweetly tolerable. It's the fact that an open-minded straight male living in West Hollywood wouldn't know that Marina, working her smoky mojo on Jenny, is a lesbian. He can see it all around him, but not in her? Not quite believable.

These are minor quibbles. There is a forced nature to some of the dialogue as it frantically touches on those Big Issues, but a more natural sense of characters relating to one another begins to emerge at the end of the pilot and improves greatly in subsequent episodes. Chaiken and the writing staff are still working on the humor part. Some of it shines, almost unexpectedly -- as when Bette and Tina can't find a willing sperm donor. Other times it trips upon itself (is a scorned lover stalking Shane supposed to be funny or creepy?).

But the great success of "The L Word" is in getting past all the barriers put in front of it. By the end of the pilot, you want to follow these characters through their lives -- easily the most important aspect of establishing a series. The quality of the writing and acting relegate the sex scenes, hot as they may be, to supporting-role status. (It could easily have been reversed.) Ultimately, "The L Word" seems nothing like an obvious effort by Showtime to capitalize on "Queer As Folk," and more a series that has wonderful stories of its own to tell. And no, despite the ads, it's not the next "Sex and the City."

Maybe Showtime should change the promos to "Come for the Sex, Stay for the Characters." At least that would be truer, and certainly more deserving of the series.

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