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A blonde woman stands in her sun-dappled bathroom staring at a plastic stick. “I’m ovulating,” she says, beaming. “Let’s make a baby,” replies her partner with a passionate kiss. Standard post-Thirtysomething relationship drama stuff, except that the partner’s not some hunky guy—it’s Jennifer Beals. Yes, that Jennifer Beals, who accomplishes one of the most dignified comebacks in recent memory, erasing the ignominy of her Flashdance-induced career slide as she takes the lead in Showtime’s lustrous new series about lesbian pals in L.A.
With Sex and the City on its last legs (see review) and the media salivating over all things queer-eyed, The L Word straddles the zeitgeist. It’s perfectly timed to exploit a gap in the marketplace while also testing our tolerance. Although America has embraced the harmless homo-geniality of Carson Kressley, mainstream audiences remain squeamish about gay male intimacy. But The L Word offers something for nearly everyone: Lesbians can revel in glamorous visibility, straight women will find nuanced portraits of female relationships, and for hetero men, there’s the titillation factor.
Although I think of Sex and the City as a “chick show,” its subtext is frequently men: how to catch, fuck, fix, or ditch ’em. Whereas The L Word is virtually a phallus-free zone. L.A., as conjured by producer Ilene Chaiken and director Rose Troche, is not so much city of angels as city of women—smart, successful, impossibly thin women with perfect, choppy haircuts. They reflect the real lesbian world as much as Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda reflect the straight one. That is to say, not much. But it doesn’t matter, because these actresses radiate the same kind of luminous ensemble chemistry that has animated Sex and the City all these years.
The L Word clique revolves around Bette (Beals), the ambitious curator of a small modern-art museum, and Tina (Laurel Holloman), her aforementioned ovulating girlfriend, who has quit her job to work on getting pregnant, sending the power dynamics of their relationship dangerously out of whack. Most of Bette and Tina’s friends are also floundering, including the series’ sole recurring straight male character, Tim (Eric Mabius), who’s in danger of losing his gamine girlfriend, Jenny (Mia Kirshner), to her sapphic inclinations. Then there’s Dana (Erin Daniels), a rising tennis star who’s skulking in the closet; Alice (Leisha Hailey), their flaky bisexual friend who can’t keep it together with anyone of either sex; and Shane (Katherine Moennig), a luscious blend of Liv Tyler and Johnny Depp (with a touch of Keith Richards’s swagger) that makes my breath catch. Shane’s a gentle lothario who’s always around to comfort her friends but vanishes at the first hint of romantic entanglement—like Carrie and Mr. Big rolled into one.
The show’s hazy, sensuous pace sets it apart from the breakneck rapidity of so many current series. Characters amble through each hour-long episode, their problems and epiphanies lightly interwoven. The writing isn’t quite sharp enough yet to spawn repeatable catchphrases (“nipple confidence,” anyone?); instead, the ensemble excels at gentle situational humor, like when Tina and Bette haplessly try to convince a series of men to donate sperm. Or the pilot’s insemination scene, in which the doctor advises Bette that arousing Tina will speed up the process. Embarrassed but dutiful, Bette burrows under Tina’s paper gown, then pops up a few seconds later. “I find it inappropriate that she even suggested it,” Bette fulminates before going back down. “I bet she’d never do that with a straight couple!”
There’s plenty of sex, but this isn’t soft porn masquerading as drama. Careers jut in and out of the daily picture: Dana balances her agent’s insistence that she stay closeted with her own aching desire to feel at home in the world, and Bette tries to push a provocative exhibition past her museum’s conservative board. Meanwhile, Bette’s half-sister Kit (Pam Grier), a melancholy soul singer, spends her days trying to scrape together work and atone for a lifetime of bad decisions. The sisters tenderly chafe against each other, and you get a sense of the broader family dynamics later when their demanding father (Ossie Davis) visits. Alice’s family story line is more whimsical. Her mom turns out to be a needy B-movie actress (Anne Archer) who flirts with her daughter’s friends, yet still finds time to admonish her, “If you took a little more time with your face, maybe you’d have a girlfriend.”
Alice has plenty of girlfriends—the platonic kind, at least. She and her pals travel in packs, and everywhere they go resembles a hermetically sealed world of lesbian loveliness. But the writers cleverly transform this into one of the show’s ongoing themes: Characters often ponder the claustrophobia of their small, gossipy scene. Alice even designs a chart that traces the tangled, crisscrossing relations among L.A. lesbians. “Same girls, night after night,” she mutters despairingly. But if The L Word makes good on its early promise, I’ll happily take a weekly plunge into Alice’s wonderland.