Monday, January 26, 2009

Is The L Word is a Republican show?

There are two kinds of televised black holes, and I was sucked into both of them lately.

The first is when you become addicted to a TV series that's been going on for a while and catch up with it on DVD: You then sink into a black hole in which you compulsively watch episode after episode, wasting entire nights and weekends. Let's just say that the Sheila and I finally discovered the current iteration of Battlestar Galactica this weekend and were sucked into it. Don't even try to ask us for dinner over the next few weeks: when we're not at the theater, we'll be home watching this space opera.

The second kind of black hole is conjured by someone whose talent doesn't match his/her ego, leading to a rather different kind of sucking. Here, let me introduce you to Ilene Chaiken, the brain (I use the term loosely) behind The L Word. I've now watched the first four episodes of the new and last season, and I can only say that Chaiken has got to be one of the most inept writers to ever be put in charge of a TV series. It's not that crazy things can't happen on soaps, but they have to have an internal logic: they couldn't happen in our world, but they can make perfect sense within one specific fictional universe—which is why I can buy Cylons bent on destroying humanity in Battlestar Galactica, but I can't even buy the girls having breakfast together on The L Word, let alone some of the most delusional plot developments (imagine highly ironic quotation marks around the previous two words) cooked up by Chaiken.

But beyond these technical problems, my core issue with the show—and one that hasn't been raised, I believe—is that its value system is screwed up to the nth degree. I would argue that underneath its libertine surface and despite paying lip service to feminist issues, The L Word is a Republican show, and that is why it feels so jarring these days.

First, the entire show feels like a gated community: Let's live among people who are identical to ourselves and shut out all the others. Throwing in a black lesbian or a deaf one doesn't change anything to the suffocating sameness that binds the characters.

Second, the precepts followed by these women—except for Kit, Tasha and Max—include crushing the "little people," lying, cheating, abusing power, consuming conspicuously, worshipping money and appearances.

Take Bette, for instance. She's adored by the fans because Jennifer Beals is hottt and she also manages to make the character more sympathetic than she actually is. But look at Bette's words and actions: In addition to being a serial cheater, she's a rather unappealing snob who treats the people she perceives as inferiors like dirt (witness her recent and repulsive outburst when she called a hospital clerk a maggot) and often abuses her position (the episode with the grad student, and worse, when she tried to fire Jodi out of spite and with no professional grounds).

Or take Tina, Bette's girlfriend. She's had a different personality every season—only Helena had more—but one thing has remained constant: she's a spoiled, judgemental bourgeoise. Just recently, she was acting all superior because Bette has a bad record when it comes to faithfulness. But Tina herself had affairs! And her mild blond exterior only camouflages rather ugly behavior, like the way she treated her lesbian friends when she lived with a man.

And of course there's Jenny. It's fine that she's a total psychopath, every show needs one. But what I find jarring is that the other characters seem to think she's merely a wacky artiste. Jenny should be the series' ├╝ber-villainess, recognized as such and used as such in terms of storytelling. Instead, the last season's bad girl was club promoter Dawn Denbo—compared to Jenny, a lightweight in the evil department. So yes, I find it completely insane that supposedly sympathetic characters tolerate Jenny in their midst. Kick her out of the holy circle and fight her! That way you'd get actual stories, instead of what passes for plot on The L Word: endless processing about relationships.


Bec said...

Part of the reason I love the L word is it's terrible inconsistencies and ineptitude - there clearly is no internal logic, instead of character arcs there are character rollercoasters where you are forced to follow a shoehorned plot for one character just so another plot (almost) makes sense. If I didn't know better I would say it is written by series of dares - writters take cut up technique to extremes by each pulling a name/scenario/place/reason out of a hat - this week sees Name: Jenny
Scenario: Losing cellphone
Place : At the circus
Reason: So that she can't get the call from: Shane who is: trapped in a sinking boat because... etc.
Mostly it makes me think the show terrible and also to be unable to stop watching it. It is like a train wreck, but one where they say 'come, look without guilt, look at the carnage!' I am not even going to start about Jenny and her career as novelist/ screenwriter / first time director. I have heard of stretching the imagination, but to follow that one, the mind would have to be some kind of space age elastic.
To be fair to the writers, all the signs are there from the start. You needn't have gotten involved. When the title song tells you that the "way that we live (and love)" involves "Talking, laughing, loving, breathing" - Yes, BREATHING!! What a revelation! - then you really should know it will not be the sharpest tool in the shed. I am amazed the actors have stayed with it so long. I can't think of too many people who would be able to carry off ending every other sentence "Baby Girl!" without going postal.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

You may well be right about the way they get to these insane plots and characters arcs—or lack thereof. I just wish the show was nutty AND about characters that don't insult my intelligence. It's possible to have both: remember Bad Girls? Some of those plots were completely insane but the characters made sense and many were flawed and still appealing.

Bec said...

Ahh yes..Bad Girls. How I miss it! I totally agree - you can have nutty/bizzare storylines and characters that are understandable, likeable, totally engaging (even when it went to "Bad Girls - The Musical"!) - but I just gave up expecting it from The L Word. I just let the absurdities wash over me without hope of improvement, just with curiosity as to how low they will go - like a growing carsickness on a journey I cannot seem to end!

judy said...

All they needed was a story bible so the revolving cast of writers could keep track of the bad guys (gals) and the good. Instead there are bi-weekly personality transplants and dropped plotlines. I can't believe we haven't had an Evil Twin (TM) show up yet!

Don't even get me started on the travesty that is Jenny and Shane. What the hell? I miss Dawn Denbo. Sigh.

Wendy Caster said...

Speaking of Chaiken's ego: I was horrified that she attempted to have "very special episodes" about breast cancer and referencing the holocaust, etc. (1) This is a sex opera--it can't hold the weight of those topics. (2) The execution of those episodes was very, very, very, very bad.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

The problem is that Chaiken can't pull off anything remotely serious because she's such a ham-fisted writer. And she can't let herself fully embrace trashy soap writing because she seems to think it's beneath her. She's in a bind, really.