Despite its rather lame attempts to position itself as the gay and lesbian network of note, Showtime has managed the unexpected. From the network that brought us the consistently awful Queer as Folk comes The L Word, an intriguing new lesbian soap opera that hooks its viewers slowly and leaves them wanting more.
The plot swirls around a complicated circle of friends living and working in modern-day Los Angeles. At the heart of the bunch is the committed couple, Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), who are trying to have a baby while warding off marital problems.
Rounding out their lives are a gang of quirky friends: Dana, the closeted tennis pro (Erin Daniels); Alice, the bisexual magazine journalist (Leisha Hailey); Shane, the resident heartbreaker (Katherine Moennig); and Marina, the exotic café owner (Karina Lombard).
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Our entrée into their world comes through the straight couple that moves next door to Bette and Tina. Sweet and adorable, the couple has no idea what's in store for them. Jenny (Mia Kirshner), unbeknownst to her boyfriend Tim (Eric Mabius), develops a crush on Marina and, well, things evolve from there.
But The L Word isn't a frivolous girl-on-girl romp, thank God. It aims much higher than that. Though it includes the obligatory steamy sex scenes that are essential to homo dramas on pay cable, the show struggles to satisfy the intellect as well.
Jenny and Marina, for example, meet at a party and connect through a shared love of books. Sultry and sophisticated, Marina appeals to the young Jenny's sense of awe at people who've lived more life than her. Jenny's growing fondness for Marina is based more on her own evolution than, say, drug-induced horniness.
The show stumbles into the political as well. Dana, the closeted tennis star, battles her friends' charges of homophobia because she won't announce her sexuality for fear of losing lucrative endorsements. Stymied by the closet, Dana's love life is thwarted even though she's desperate for a girlfriend.
Shane, the take-no-prisoners heartthrob, is perhaps the most interesting character. Charming and aloof, she's the queen of one-night stands. Jilted lovers lie around her like landmines. Moennig plays her with remarkable bravado, boyish and feminine at once.
The largely no-name cast -- save Flashdance alum Beals and ‘70s cult icon Pam Grier -- is appealing and performs admirably. It's refreshing to know that Showtime has the courage to stand on the talent of a crew of unknowns to anchor its new Sunday nights. The network also gets its props, of course, for adding a serious attempt at lesbian drama to primetime.
But like any soap opera, The L Word walks a precarious tightrope -- lean too far in one direction and risk becoming ludicrously inane, or lean too far in the other and risk becoming sanctimonious and even boring.
In its first few episodes, the show wobbles in both directions. As Jenny falls for Marina, she slowly begins to crumble. In a rather tortured scene, Jenny runs furiously through the night to the café, where Marina is working late.
Once inside, Jenny leans against the door and whispers breathlessly, "When I'm around you, I become dismantled." (That must be the feeling I get after polishing off four martinis on an empty stomach.)
When not teetering on the ridiculous, the show can stray into the didactic. As Bette and Tina search for a sperm donor, one of whom happens to be black, the writers use it as an opportunity to grapple with race in America. A tough subject, not often handled well in any genre. The problem is licked, thankfully, before the end of episode two. America, of course, wasn't so lucky.
The show produces a certain richness that saves it from its bouts of melodrama. The acting is solid, the production values sound. As the story unfolds, it just gets more compelling. It's difficult to say what's so attractive about The L Word or even what the "L" stands for. I hope, in the end, we'll agree it should mean "laudable."