I feel obligated to point out, as if you couldn't have guessed from the byline at the top of this review, that I am not a lesbian. No, I'm not an excruciatingly sensitive lesbian-identified male either. I have no personal experiences I can use as any sort of point of reference to offer anything resembling insight into The L Word, the Showtime original series that debuted this past January. I do have a thing for cute, skeletal, ghostly pale brunettes, and the idea of watching a TV series revolving around Mia Kirshner groping topless attractive women wasn't entirely unappealing. I was very pleased to discover that The L Word holds a much greater appeal than that, though -- it's a clever, well-acted series that deftly juggles wickedly funny comedy and emotionally wrenching drama.
The L Word is set in Los Angeles, where a twentysomething budding writer named Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) has just moved, reuniting after some months with her longtime boyfriend Tim (Eric Mabius). Hailing from the Midwest, the leap to Los Angeles is fairly jarring. Jenny finds herself living next door to a pair of long-time lesbian lovers: workaholic art museum director Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) and former executive-slash-mommy-to-be Tina (Laurel Holloman). Bette is in the process of bringing a highly controversial art exhibit to the California Art Center, finding herself pitted against an overly cautious board, competing museums with heftier resources on tap, and incensed right-wing religious groups. Tina's struggling with her floundering relationship with Bette, one that seems idyllic from the outside, as well as trying to eke out some sort of identity for herself now that she's not gainfully employed. Bette's half-sister Kit (Pam Grier) more obviously shares her African-American lineage, trudging along in the early stages of A.A., trying to make ends meet as a singer, and attempting to reincorporate herself back into a family from which she's entirely alienated herself. Alice (Leisha Hailey) is a quirky journalist who's fond of playing a lesbian-tinged Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, connecting everyone in the greater Los Angeles area through their various lovers. Unlike most of the other characters who are unabashedly lesbian, Alice sees herself as a bi-sexual and becomes embroiled in a couple of relationships with men throughout the course of a season, including an inhumanly sensitive lesbian-identified male named Lisa. At the center of many of those trysts she's documented is Shane (Katherine Moennig), who would probably be labeled a man-eater if not for the whole lesbian thing. A former streetwalker and relentless womanizer, Shane's claimed to have bedded around a thousand women. A friendship from her days on the streets propels her towards success as a hairdresser, but the heartbreaker soon finds the tables turned as she falls for the wrong woman. Dana (Erin Daniels) is an up-and-coming tennis player who still hasn't mustered the courage to lurch out of the closet. Despite twelve years having passed since her first lesbian encounter (with someone who's famous now, so she can't tell you who it is), Dana still hasn't developed any sort of gaydar, relying on her friends to engineer a covert operation to determine whether or not the ridiculously cute sous chef at the country club (Lauren Lee Smith) plays for her team. All of these friends wile away their free time at a coffee shop called The Planet, which is run by the exotic and worldly Marina (Karina Lombard). Everyone seems enthralled by Marina, including Jenny, who quickly finds herself ensnared in a torrid affair that she's not going to be able to keep a secret for long.
Given what I've gleaned over the years about DVD Talk's demographics, I'll get this out of the way first: yes, The L Word has quite a bit of sex, and most episodes feature at least one encounter. I think Jennifer Beals is the only member of the main cast who's not seen fully topless, and some of the random extras scattered throughout bare pretty much everything. This isn't Cinemax After Dark territory with lots of soft-focus photography, a soft, lightly jazzy saxophone, and slow, determined motions. The sex scenes in The L Word are unflinching and not overly romanticized, frequently frenzied and aggressive. The L Word is more concerned about telling a story than merely titillating viewers, and those whose sole interest in the series is seeing topless women lick each other are warned that these scenes are heated but make up a small portion of the overall runtime.
The L Word probably plays better on DVD than it does on television. The way it's structured, a conflict is rarely resolved in the episode in which it's introduced. Things bleed from one episode to the next, and there's thankfully very little exposition. This isn't a series of tidily bundled, self-contained episodes, but really more of an eleven-hour movie. The L Word is a rare instance where I probably wouldn't recommend watching an episode first to decide whether or not to pick up this box set. The pilot does a good job establishing the characters and setting the foundation, but it doesn't have a strong hook to leave me ravenous for more, and the other episodes are so reliant on what's come before that it's difficult to jump directly in the middle and come away with much. It's amazing how briskly paced these episodes are, and despite the eleven hour movie comparison I made a few sentences up, this season feels like it's maybe half that length at best. You know how the old adage about fun, time, and flying goes, and since this is the type of show where I can pop in a DVD to kill a little time and quickly find myself having watched seven episodes, I'd say The L Word definitely lends itself to marathon viewing.
As is often the case with premium cable series, The L Word consists of fewer episodes than average -- fourteen, if you count the feature-length pilot as two separate episodes as Showtime seems determined to do. One advantage of that approach is that the writers aren't as overextended and plot threads aren't unnecessarily prolonged. The season's remarkably consistent -- it's hard to point to a stand-out episode because almost all of them are excellent, and there are enough characters that even the clunkier episodes are redeemed by one of them. There aren't any episodes I'd point to as being particularly dismal, although there are some missteps along the way. Snoop Dogg has a recurring role as a rapper named Slim Daddy, and that entire subplot is excruciating. Another episode brings most of the group to the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, and aside from their hysterical reminiscing about their first lesbian trysts, the remainder of their trip is decidedly uninteresting. Since there are so many running subplots, a weak chunk of one episode is more than compensated for with the strengths of another story. Kit rehearsing as a hoochie dancer in a Slim Daddy video doesn't stir any interest, for instance, but this same episode offers one of the season's most powerful moments as Bette defends a provocative art exhibit in a heated televised debate against the incensed leader of a fundamentalist religious organization. The trip to Palm Springs may have been fairly bland, but that same episode further establishes an affair that shatters some of my previous impressions of one character and sets up a shocking act in the season finale.
Although my initial interest in watching The L Word was to see Mia Kirshner topless as frequently as possible, her character's one of the least interesting aspects of the series. For the most part, Jenny's disconnected from the other main characters; even late in the season, some in the group can't remember her name with any confidence. While everyone else seems to have a variety of different plot threads, Jenny's repeatedly hit the same few repetitive notes. Jenny has the least personality of the central characters, and it's hard to be all that drawn into a storyline about an unfaithful young woman bouncing between two equally unfaithful lovers. That sphere of disinterest extends to Tim and Marina, neither of whom are given much to do aside from act as Jenny's romantic foils. Everyone seems to be utterly fascinated by Marina, despite having a name that cries out for me to make some lame, painfully obvious joke. Whatever the appeal is, I don't see it. The rest of the cast is more than able to compensate for those weaknesses, though. I can't think of a show with an ensemble cast of this size where I felt so quickly emotionally invested in the characters as I do with The L Word. Much of what they go through is universal -- betrayal, budding love, carnal lust, uncertainty, starting a family, finding one's place in the world -- and something I'd imagine most people can relate to, regardless of sexual orientation. The writing, acting, and characterization are all strong enough that The L Word isn't about lesbianism; it's about this group of characters and the numerous and varying types of relationships in their lives. One of the themes of the show is how interconnected everyone and everything is, so it's appropriate that The L Word is such a widely accessible show.
Video: All fourteen episodes of The L Word are presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The pilot's fairly unremarkable looking, but once the season really gets underway, the image quality mostly looks great and offers a substantially above-average level of detail and clarity. The photography's also fairly stylized and translates well to DVD, frequently tossing on a blueish tint or blowing out the contrast for flashbacks. The weakest aspect of this DVD set is the clumsy compression, which admittedly is only infrequently a major problem, with each instance lasting a fraction of a second. Still, if this is an issue more widespread than just the DVDs I was sent to review, this really shouldn't have made it past any sort of quality control. A couple of examples are provided below, and yes, this occurs on several of the discs in this set, the DVDs are in immaculate condition, and these problems were verified with multiple players and multiple displays.
Other sections also have a noisy appearance, such as the grainy exterior shots of The Planet as Marina and Jenny stroll outside towards the Trans Am as well as the blocky water that opens episode 13. Again, these sorts of issues comprise a very tiny portion of the eleven hours or so that make up this season of The L Word, but they do put a significant dent in what otherwise would have been a very positive assessment of the video quality.
Audio: As this is a character-driven show about relationships of varying sorts, the lack of sputtering machine guns and megaton explosions in The L Word doesn't exactly lend itself to an all-out sonic assault. It does feature Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (384Kbps) and makes good use of the six channels at its disposal, even if it's not going to be mistaken for an action-riddled Hollywood blockbuster. The emphasis is primarily on the front channels -- dialogue is rooted in the center, and effects such as cars panning across the screen and various bits of music offer ample opportunity for stereo separation across the front mains. The songs peppered throughout each episode are also responsible for most of the activity in the lower frequencies. All of that's pretty standard, but what The L Word does better than most is, when appropriate, really cram as much ambient sound as possible into the front mains and rear speakers. It goes beyond the traditional murmuring crowd noise, and it seems like quite a bit of time and thought were invested in making many scenes sound as bustling and immersive as possible. Sometimes even when characters are comfortably inside their homes, there's just enough light noise leaking in from the outside world to remind you that these people are supposed to be in a relentlessly active city like Los Angeles. I thought this was really nicely handled, and I don't have any complaints or concerns to rattle off about the quality of the audio.
These episodes default to Dolby Digital stereo (224Kbps), so be sure to stop by the the Audio submenu or keep a remote handy when starting each DVD. Each episode optionally features English closed captions and a dubbed Spanish track.
Supplements: The feature-length pilot includes running audio commentary by series creator Ilene Chaiken and actress Jennifer Beals. It's a light, conversational track where they talk about culling events from Chaiken's own life for the show, Tim's origins as an anthropology professor with a different actor originally cast, filming a lunch between Beals and Laurel Holloman to help hammer out the casting, reconceiving a number of scenes and characters, casting an actual artist in one small role as well as a, um, decidedly different kind of painter, meticulously analyzing a tape of love scenes from a bunch of different movies and TV shows, and the writers compiling a real life "board". Both Beals and Chaiken wistfully look back on various scenes that were cut, and it's kind of surprising nothing like that is included elsewhere in this box set.
The remainder of the set's extras are found on the fifth disc, which is dedicated solely to a slew of bonus features. This is completely unnecessary since one of the DVDs in this set only has two episodes, and these extras are so short that they should've easily fit onto that disc with room to spare. "Fashion Extra" spends a few minutes with the series' costume designers, who spout off their mission statement and go on a shopping spree to dress Erin Daniels' character. This is followed up by "Wardrobe Closet", a collection of small snippets of text briefly commenting on each character's style. The fifteen-minute "The L Word Defined" is a fairly promotional featurette, opening with comments from the talent behind the series on what they were setting out to accomplish, followed by the actors describing their characters. Somewhat more substantial is a sixteen minute Power Up-sponsored panel from 2003 featuring Ilene Chaiken, actress Leisha Hailey, Showtime exec Cindy Bell, and writers Guinevere Turner and Elle Herman. They talk about the series' genesis and the uphill battle of bringing it to television, the writing process from a staff of both lesbian and straight writers, and the assembly of its ensemble cast. The strangest extra is the four minute 'puppet movie', a chin-tastic short spoof of the series and the behind-the-scenes production. Various promotional stills cycle through the screen, two at a time, for a hundred seconds in the disc's photo gallery. To quickly spout off a list of some of the remaining extras, also included are a peek at the series' second season, several very short pieces of fan mail, brief cast bios, plugs for a couple other Showtime series, and a few random advertisements. I really enjoyed the series and would have liked to learn more about it, and I felt kind of let down by the lightweight extras on this set.
Each DVD features a set of animated 4x3 menus, and each episode is divided into several chapter stops. With the obvious exception of the pilot, recaps are also offered on each episode's submenu. Annoyingly, there is no "Play All" feature, so marathon viewing requires mashing a few more buttons than I'd like.
Conclusion: The L Word is a wonderful show that casts its net over a significantly larger audience than just lesbians, bolstered by excellent writing and a strong cast. Those with more of a casual interest may want to lean towards a rental -- I got caught up in the episodes so quickly that I easily polished it off in a couple of evenings, and aside from the audio commentary on the pilot, the extras are short and largely uninteresting. Regardless if you lean more heavily towards a rental or a purchase, The L Word is highly recommended.