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What a Straight Guy Learned About Life from The L Word

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For years I was vaguely aware of The L Word, the Showtime series about young, trim, sexually voracious and marginally employed lesbians in Los Angeles. Since I don’t get premium cable, I never saw the show. Finally, I ordered the first season from Netflix and instantly got drawn in. The show wowed me from its opening sequence, with scenes of slinky women dressing and primping before a night on the town, and never stopped. I watched DVDs as fast as Netflix could deliver them.

This happened despite the fact that The L Word didn’t count bald, middle-aged straight men as its target audience. It unabashedly made gay women its focus. As a more or less typical guy, I missed nuances that women instantly picked up on – one commentary praised the great clothes. That part of the show sailed right over my head except when the garments were being unbuttoned, unzipped and unworn.

Still, I appreciated The L Word beyond the tasteful nudity and softcore sex scenes judiciously sprinkled into every episode. I connected to the show on a human level. More than its heaving body parts, The L Word’s heaving mental parts spoke to my life through great writing and the daily dramas of friendship, yearning, love gained and love lost, creativity, and the enjoyment of life. A good story is a good story, no matter what the characters’ sexual orientation.

Every episode had pithy dialogue to which I related, as when Bette Porter, played by Flashdance star Jennifer Beals, tells lover Jodi Lerner, played by Marlee Matlin, “You are a fucking heartbreaker.” I could have used that line a couple of times over the years.

I’ve watched every episode and clicked through fan sites to refresh my memory of the show. It began with Jenny Schecter, played by Mia Kirshner, moving to Los Angeles for marriage and a writing career, and ended last spring in a police station, with the characters being questioned after a death at a party. Looking back, some key themes especially resonated with me. They speak to what a straight guy learned about life from The L Word.

The Thrill of the Hunt

The L Word showed lots of sex, energetically consummated in bedrooms, kitchens, swimming pools, cruise ships, tents, toilet stalls, cars, elevators, bathrooms, offices, trailers, and prisons. Happy sex, sad sex, mad sex, bad sex, cheating sex, blindfolded sex, interracial sex, solitary sex, secretly observed sex, sex while dressed like characters from The Love Boat, sex involving knives, mommy sex, morning sex, sex with “fox terrier-like enthusiasm” as I once noted about Jodi with Bette, sex between women, sex between women and men, sex between two men where one was still biologically a woman (with the age-old consequence, resulting in a freaked-out father-to-be) and even sex with actress Cybill Shepherd, in her great comic turn as college administrator Phyllis Kroll.

But I really liked what comes before the sex – the seduction.

Seductions were always key to the show. When Jenny moves to L.A., she falls under the sway of Euro-cougar Marina Ferrer. The build-up made their frenzied ladies-room kissing all the hotter. Variations on that theme echo through the show – the first encounter, the eye contact, the delicious uncertainty of what might happen. Characters meet, they drift apart, but the sexual magnetism draws them together. I especially recall the tango of attraction and repulsion between Helena Peabody and Dylan Moreland, a filmmaker who had sued Helena for sexual harassment. Their back-and-forth stretched over several seasons. It turns out Dylan carries a flame for Helena, and Helena, reluctantly, admits her lust for Dylan. Helena tells her friends, “I’m having dinner with Dylan.” Somebody asks, “Are you a masochist?” Helena replies, “I can’t help myself. Dylan colonized my thoughts.”

They finally lay their cards on the table. Dylan says, 

“I’m madly in love with you, Helena, and I always have been. Always. I get it, really. You want to see me, you don’t want to see me. I understand, really. I was just hoping…never mind.” 

The action moves ahead and I wrote in some notes, “Quiet, crackling tension, reaching out, struggling. Hold hands, long searching gaze, kiss, tenderness, a sigh. Helena unbuttons her blouse, sense of taking the plunge.” Later, in a scene vibrating with menace, Dylan takes a huge kitchen knife and slices Helena’s shirt. I didn’t see THAT coming.

Helena and Dylan triggered memories for me, of hesitant and hopeful moments balanced between friendship and lust. I recall a picnic seduction one summer day by a lake. I had low expectations for the encounter based on a frustrating history with this woman. Then, to my stunned delight, she leaned over and kissed me. I got her drift and we took the plunge – stopping only to shoo away the honking Canadian geese that wandered too close to our afternoon idyll. Later, standing by our cars at sunset, she told me, “I could bolt at any time” – a warning that Shane McCutcheon gave her ever-thwarted lovers many times. And like a character mesmerized by Shane, I ignored her signal, so pregnant with prophecy.

Men are Eeeevviiiilllllll

As a man, I was naturally curious about how The L Word would treat my gender. In a word – poorly. While it’s been said that “lesbians don’t hate men – that’s what straight women do,” The L Word displayed plenty of bile toward its male characters. Almost every male came across as violent, uneducated scum, sneaky players or twisted new-age twerps. Jenny’s fiancé, Eric the college swim coach, is tall and buff, and gets pushy when Jenny realizes she’s gay. Alice Pieszecki, the occasionally bisexual writer, gets involved with a “lesbian-identified” man who calls himself Lisa and spouts off about how sensitive he is; in fact, he’s the most annoying character on the show.

Bette’s sister Kit Porter, played by 70s chicks-in-prison icon Pam Grier, falls in love with soulful younger musician Angus, who gets her pregnant and then has an affair. Shane and Jenny accept a male roommate, Mark, who talks a good game but secretly wires the house for video so he can tape the women and try to sell a video of them. Homophobic rednecks, crazed Christians, and scuzzy movie executives round out The L Word’s rancid take on men. In the very last episode, Bette even gripes about grubby men using the nice master bathroom in her house – a telling indication of what the character and the series really think about men.

It gets worse! Moira/Max, a transsexual, becomes violent during his transition to maleness, due to those pesky testosterone shots. Even a gay male character is a jerk – the guy impregnates Max and then ditches him/her when he decides he can’t handle fatherhood. Couldn’t the show find some normal guys who are honest, caring, and sane, and leave it at that?

Then again, reality may be a factor here; when I ran the “men are evil” notion past a world-weary woman friend, she quipped, “Only on The L Word?”

Mourning Becomes Pieszecki

Cancer has struck women in my life – my mother died of it in 1984, a cousin and her daughter have had it, and women I care about have, like Dana, endured breast cancer (they are all survivors).

Against this background, the yo-yo relationship between just-out-of-the-closet tennis player Dana Fairbanks and Alice Pieszecki meant a lot to me. They had fun (acting out their Love Boat fantasies), but they kept falling for other people, so they never stayed a couple. Then the great plot tragedy of the show hit. Dana got cancer. Alice and Dana struggled to connect amid the emotional chaos of illness and other lovers.

The series traced Dana’s unstoppable descent through surgery, treatment, anger, and death, followed by tributes, a funeral, and Alice’s mourning her loss. A devastated Alice builds a shrine to Dana in her apartment, complete with a life-size standee of Dana from a marketing promotion.

Dana does return briefly to Alice – as a ghost. This is their riveting exchange:

Dana: “What I know, Alice, is that you never know how long anything is going to last. The only thing any of us knows in this life is that anything can happen. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

Alice: “That’s too hard for me.”

Dana: “So, what are you saying, that you wish you never met me? That because I had to leave and that was really hard for you, you’d rather I never existed in the first place, hmmm? Would that be easier?”

Alice finally settles into a relationship with Tasha Williams, an Iraq war veteran, but Dana’s spirit haunts the edges of her emotions. In the series finale, speaking about Dana on a tape that Jenny makes for Bette and her partner Tina Kennard before they left Los Angeles, Alice muses, “She broke my heart and then she got sick.”

Slow fade and dissolve, like real life.

My Fantasy: “The L Word” Meets “24”

What about my other TV obsessions? On the one hand I like The L Word, with emotional coffee talk, sensuality, and the pursuit of creativity and pleasure. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of 24, with its terse conversations, explosions, and killings carefully sprinkled through each episode, and the pursuit of traitors and terrorists. Women who get involved with Shane McCutcheon wind up crying; women who get involved with Jack Bauer wind up dead.

Divergent as they are in tone and plot, the two shows share connections. Both are set in Los Angeles. Shootings on 24 occur with the exact same frequency as orgasms on The L Word – with similar sound effects, even. Most intriguing, both starred Mia Kirshner. She played crazy writer Jenny on The L Word, and ice-cold bisexual assassin Mandy on the first four seasons of 24. The 24 gig came first, and I can envision Mandy vanishing from 24’s world of violence to resurface as an artist determined to unleash emotional terror on her friends. The characters could be sisters.

Mandy/Jenny got me thinking. What would happen if The L Word women crossed over to 24? Who would thrive? Who would wilt? With her military background and no-nonsense attitude, Tasha clearly could hold her own with Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland. She could mix it up with any terror cell. The same goes for Shane, the most complex L Word character. She’s a capricious lover, but at her core Shane is ferociously dedicated to friends and family, ready to make any sacrifice for what she believes in. She’s also the character most able to stay awake for 24 hours in a row, thanks to her natural nervous energy and a range of chemical enhancements.

Others wouldn’t fare so well on 24. Bette’s personality and controlling tendencies would clash with Jack’s personality and controlling tendencies, not to say his penchant for casual torture for a higher cause. Alice would probably mouth off so much that Jack would lock her in a CTU holding cell just to get away from her.

The L Word: The Next Generation

With The L Word concluded, a lot of actresses are looking for new gigs. I've already seen some in other shows. Meanwhile, I’ve read about a possible L Word spin-off set in a women’s prison, although that seems unlikely. Showtime is now planning The Real L Word as a reality series, so that might be worth a view. The spicy series ended with all its plotlines woefully unresolved, and co-creator Ilene Chaiken has talked about a big-screen version. If that happens, I’ll watch it, taking notes and this time paying attention to the fabulous clothes, however they're worn or unworn.

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