Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.
I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.
Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.
1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.
2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.
3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.
4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.
But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?
Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.
But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”
But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.
Last night, my friend Erik came over with a copy of Allison Anders’s 1996 feature Grace of My Heart. As it’s loosely based on Carole King’s life and I read Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us this past summer, I was eager to see it. I haven’t watched Anders’s Mi Vida Loca or Gas Food Lodging, but I have seen Border Radio, which she co-directed. While Border Radio lacked much of a story, it looked great and is a necessary document of the 80s East L.A. punk scene. Thus, I thought Anders could bring something to a music biopic.
I also miss Illeana Douglas, who I used to see in more things. Remember how rad she was as Nicole Kidman’s sister-in-law in To Die For? I skate on your grave, honey.
Erik told me that Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” was originally written for the movie and later added to Washing Machine. In fact, the movie’s songs were written and performed by then-contemporary artists channeling pop nostalgia to evoke the Brill Building, The Beach Boys, and King’s Tapestry. This was a 90s hallmark evident in tribute compilations to Saturday morning cartoons and The Carpenters, as well as with supergroups formed to accompany biopics on The Beatles and glam rock.
So how would the musical contributions and on-screen appearances of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, Red Kross, For Real, Jill Sobule, and Juned inform the viewer’s understanding of the period? Also, would they work with compositions written by Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, and Joni Mitchell?
As it turns out, the music is the movie’s best asset. The movie has considerable promise and starts off well in its documentation of Edna Buxton’s professional ascendancy as songwriter Denise Waverly at the Brill Building and her struggle to become a female solo artist at a time when female musicians were either singers or songwriters. Thus, sexism and shifting gender norms is at the fore of the movie, which is great, as is its uncommented-upon racial integration. There’s also special attention paid to female collaboration between Waverly and various female pop acts. The movie also foregrounds the kinship between Waverly and songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit), who tap into teen singer Kelly Porter’s (Bridget Fonda) closeted lesbianism — she’s clearly meant to stand in for Lesley Gore — when they write “My Secret Love” for her.
I also like that the movie ends on Waverly cutting her first solo record, Grace of My Heart, which becomes hugely successful and era-defining in much the same way that Tapestry was and continues to be.
The movie’s main problem is that it simply packs too much in and resorts to awkwardly executed high melodrama in the second half. And for some reason, the movie thinks it also needs to tackle Brian Wilson’s onerous pop genius and descent into madness, and thus marries its avatar Jay Phillips to Buxton. There’s the additional misfortune of casting Matt Dillon in the role, who operates on only two modes as an actor: dumb and really dumb.
I’m also not fond of Douglas’s faked singing. While part of this is the movie’s fault, as Kristen Vigard dubbed singing isn’t a convincing match for Douglas, I have a hard time buying the actress’s musical performances throughout.
But to Douglas’s credit, amidst all that goes on in this overstuffed movie, she does a great job conveying how Waverly’s resultant experiences age, jade, and strengthen her. It’s a shame that the movie can’t always rise to the occasion.