By Jeremy Backlow
Originally published on Advocate.com March 02 2004 1:00 AM ET
If all of my fantasies to create the perfect television show could come true—complex characters with a flair for melodrama, a Melrose Place–like setting, a superbly smokin’ leading guy, and boundless homosexuality—it would probably be something like The L Word. Quite simply, Showtime’s latest creation is my idea of brilliant television. It comes much closer to HBO’s Six Feet Under and Sex and the City in terms of quality programming than whole seasons of Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy put together. After all, any show liberal enough for Gen. Wesley Clark is certainly good enough for me.
I live a very twentysomething gay New York City life, and I have about two lesbian friends (former collegiate Barnard peers notwithstanding). The lesbian world isn't a scene that I know much about. Yet I am now officially hooked on this driving and passionate lesbian drama. Watching episode 3 of The L Word back-to-back with a preview video of the fourth season premiere of Queer as Folk, the difference in quality is manifest. These women’s lives are more like my friends’ than any of the characters in Queer as Folk. I find myself asking if these shows are even on the same cable network.
On The L Word, characters live adult lives and face adult issues. When Bette and Tina face an uncomfortable moment in their therapist’s office, I don’t get that “after-school special” feeling of embarrassment that’s aroused every time Brian and Mikey have a little fight. The L Word doesn’t have a moral matron wearing PFLAG buttons who preaches the virtues of the good ol’ days of gay and lesbian liberation. Their central dramatic story line doesn’t involve fighting evil mayors for control of the local bathhouse.
Like the people in my life, people on The L Word wonder whether they’ll ever have children and then proceed to sleep with all of their friends’ friends. They talk about everyone in their group behind each other’s backs, and have the same done to them in turn. They are ambitious, driven, and confident, and yet completely confused about the next steps in love and relationships.
Isn’t that Melissa Etheridge’s girlfriend (Tammy Lynn Michaels) handing out flyers with her character’s ex-girlfriend’s mug shot on them? Is that a splash of lesbian “Mrs. Robinson” action that I saw previewed for an upcoming episode? The L Word spins lesbian pulp fiction better than Lynne Cheney ever could back in her day.
I relate to all of this and more in The L Word. Furthermore I’m witnessing more female breasts than I’ve witnessed since…well, the Super Bowl halftime show. All of this and I’m broadening my horizons of the sacred feminine. And I’m sorry, but did somebody actually have the genius idea to cast Snoop Dog in this show? Fo’ Shizzle, hizzle!
The acting in this show has nuance, subtlety, and stupendous range. I see into these characters’ lives with Brechtian clarity. Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier (as a lush dyke-bar DJ) provide a pop-culture junkie with enough IMDB nostalgia to Flashdance right back to 1983. Leisha Hailey is as cute as a bug in a rug, and approaches journalism with an abstract aloofness that I closely identify with. Karina Lombard and Mia Kirchner are hotter than the backroom at the Cock in New York City on a Friday night. Erin Daniels plays her lesbian tennis player character without a hint of cliché (and who can’t relate to the goofy awkwardness that her character exudes around her crushes?) Katherine Moennig as Shane works every inch of her femme-butch realness.
And then there’s Eric Mabius, the amalgamation of all the most perfect husband-material qualities rolled into one man and put forward on the small screen.
Their lives are interesting, their dramas are real, and—perhaps most important for me—they make Los Angeles feel sexy again. Watching The L Word allows me to fantasize about the L.A. life that I dream of living from way out here in snowy and cold New York. This is the L.A. that I grew up watching on L.A. Law and Melrose Place. It’s the place where high-powered art executives seek out threesomes with starving artists and then try to win over an heiresses with charm and knowledge. It’s the place where peeking through a fence at a neighbor’s swimming pool stirs blossoming fantasies and provides titillating material for a breakthrough first novel.
In episode 2 the ladies actually stage an “is she or isn’t she” lesbian intervention at a tennis club using text messaging on their phones—most certainly the type of activity that I would perform daily with my cool L.A. friends in my fantasy would-be cool L.A .life.
It’s all a far cry from Pittsburgh.
Showtime has already ordered a second season of the series just two episodes into the first season. If that’s not a sign of confidence, than I’d like to ask the now-unemployed cast of NBC’s Coupling what is? I am hesitant to use the phrase “universal appeal”—because, after all, aren’t the only things with true universal appeal Paris Hilton and a good falafel? Yet Ilene Chaiken has created an American television series that is universally sexy—to the straight male gaze, the gay male sensibility, the sensible straight woman’s sensitivity, and the sensitive lesbian’s libido. The show is executed through the cautious avoidance of bad writing and easy stereotypes and the daring sincerity not to try to represent every facet of the lesbian experience. By staying focused it stays effective.
I see my life as I know it to be in The L Word, and I expect many others do as well. And I for one will keep on watching.