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.
After last night’s assessment of Nine, I’ve still got screen musical adaptations on the brain tonight. So I thought I’d draw our attention to one more, and add music video that references screen musical stars from the genre’s golden era, and another that recreates an 80s blockbuster many believe to be a screen musical of sorts (and whose protagonist shares a version of my namesake).
If you want to note that all three of the artists are women of color and international pop sensations praised for their dancing and maligned for their limited vocal ranges, gold stars for you. If you want to weep over the slurred, siliconed mess Paula has become and hope that Glee does an all-Janet episode, shake your fists at FOX. If you want to posit what it means that these movies seem to have influenced the performers and may tap into their dance training and on-screen personae, let’s chat in the comments section.
First up is an oldie but a goodie from my youth. While I hadn’t seen Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz when Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” started its rotation on MTV, it’s pretty clear that its takes its from the movie’s ”Take Off With Us” section. As if the direct mention wasn’t enough in the clip’s introduction, let’s compare the two. Warning: contents hot, and sexy.
Forever Your Girl
Directed by David Fincher
And here’s the source material, created by a director and choreographer who seems to have gotten women like Abdul, Madonna, and The Pussycat Dolls dancing (the last act going so far as to take cues from Sweet Charity‘s “Hey Big Spender“ for “Buttons“). Also, something tells me warm nuts are served on this plane. (Rimshot) Acid probably is too.
The next one is also from my youth, released at around the same time from a woman whose early video work Abdul choreographed. Janet Jackson’s “Alright” is an homage to the film musicals of Cyd Charisse, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cab Calloway. I especially love Janet in a zoot suit. Click on Ms. Jackson’s name and enjoy.
Rhythm Nation 1814
Directed by Julien Temple
And here are the pop star’s and music videos’ influences. The first one comes from Singin’ in the Rain, while the second one is from Stormy Weather.
Finally, we have a clip from former In Living Color fly girl and Jackson back-up dancer who makes an appearance in “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Glad,” a song about her big feelings for then-boyfriend Ben Affleck, retells the entire story of Flashdance, focusing on four dance sequences from the movie, especially the climactic audition scene. Unlike the source material, which utilized two trained dancers (one male) as actress Jennifer Beals’s doubles, I believe all J.Lo does all the dancing.
This Is Me . . . Then
Directed by David LaChappelle
And here are some of the dance sequences in question.