Photo by Carole Segal/Showtime

The L Word, a new series on Showtime (debuting Sunday, January 18), is about lesbian life in Los Angeles. It is also about “lifestyle” life in Los Angeles, which is to say, it’s about people who seem to have been invented by the editor of a glossy magazine. In that sense, it may strike some viewers as a less druggy version of Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 film High Art, which centered on a young ingénue who ditches her well-meaning boyfriend for a more experienced woman who’s part of a cool lesbian scene.

In The L Word, Mia Kirshner plays Jenny, a cute young writer who’s just left the sticks to live with her boyfriend in West Hollywood but soon finds herself lusting after Marina, the vampy owner of an arty café. Apparently, Jenny has written a short story that’s going to be published in the next edition of the annual Best Short Stories of 2004, and to convey her deep reservoirs of creativity, Kirshner gazes soulfully into people’s eyes like someone who’s been reading Rainer Maria Rilke for six hours straight.

Jenny’s boyfriend, Tim, is one of the few characters on the show who isn’t part of what’s referred to as the “creative community.” He’s a swimming coach, and therefore belongs to the aquatic community. He’s so nice and reasonable, or, alternatively, so painfully earnest and ineffectual, that you know he doesn’t stand a chance in his romantic rivalry with Marina. The most he can hope for is to be a well-treated second fiddle.

Living next door to Tim ’n’ Jenny are Tina ’n’ Bette, a high-achieving gay couple whose earnings have just been chopped in half. Tina (Laurel Holloman) has decided to quit her job to bring up the baby they’re going to have as soon as they can find a suitable sperm donor. (Almost the first words you hear in the show are “Let’s make a baby.”) Since Bette (Jennifer Beals) is a big shot at the California Arts Center, locating someone who’s handsome, artistic, willing to masturbate into a cup and guaranteed never to vote Republican shouldn’t be much of a problem. In fact, it turns out to be harder than anticipated, and the search for a “good” donor, and, finally, for any kind of donor, provides the show’s most effective drama.

Their first stop is Sean, an artist whose paintings have remarkable texture but whose testes turn out to be not quite up to snuff. (His spermatozoa, a microscope reveals, look like they’re sleeping off a three-day bender.) From there things go rapidly downhill, with Bette and Tina ultimately seducing a biker who becomes suspicious when they ask him not to use a condom. Apparently, dykes stealing straight dudes’ sperm is a growing problem in the biker community. Indignant, he zips up his pants, puts on his helmet — hey, even tough guys gotta be safe — and roars off into the night.


As in Sex and the City, a lot of the action in The L Word takes place while the women sit around chatting over coffee. Gossip Central is The Planet, an airy, gay-friendly café owned by Marina (Karina Lombard), the femme fatale with the Charlotte Rampling eyes who is destined to seduce Jenny. Here we meet the rest of the gang: Dana, a rising star on the tennis circuit who’s out to her friends but closeted to the rest of the world in order to protect her sponsorship deals. Apparently, she’s already a top-ranked player, so one wonders why she has so much time to sit around drinking coffee as opposed to actually playing tennis.

Also to be found at the café is Alice, a bisexual journalist who specializes in “Best Of” stories, and Shane, a soft butch hairdresser with vocal cords that appear to have been borrowed from one of her male clients. Pam Grier makes an appearance as Bette’s half-sister. Conversation at The Planet tends to center on topics such as “bush confidence,” which has nothing to do with the president, and “nipple confidence,” which has nothing to do with the president either.

There’s plenty of sex in The L Word, and some full-frontal nudity, but viewers tuning in for hot girl-on-girl action will probably be disappointed. Somehow, the sincerity of the overall lesbian context has the effect of dampening any incipient lust — of the male variety at any rate. Since this will obviously be bad news to a lot of people (and don’t think Showtime executives aren’t counting on men watching), I’ll hedge my bets by saying that this is how it seemed after watching the two-hour pilot. Later episodes may prove me wrong.

Too often, The L Word is caught between glamorizing the lesbian scene and dramatizing it, with the result that it does neither successfully. The show’s creators want us to believe that it isn’t just about the characters’ sexuality, but unfortunately, their sexuality is the most interesting thing about them. Take that away, and they’re just a bunch of vapid Californians sipping overpriced lattes.

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