12 episodes; 10 hours, 26 minutes.
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Bruce Davison, Steven Eckholdt, Janina Gavinkar, Pam Grier, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Sandrine Holt, Aidan Jarrar, Mia Kirshner, Kristanna Loken, Jane Lynch, Marlee Matlin, Heather Matarazzo, Katherine Moennig, Dallas Roberts, Eric Roberts, Rose Rollins, Annabella Sciorra, Daniela Sea, Rachel Shelley, Cybill Shepherd.
In its fourth season, Showtime's lesbian dramedy "The L Word" moves along with ease and confidence. Perhaps no longer feeling the need to "explain" lesbian love, the filmmakers, led by creator Ilene Chaiken, just show it, and they let their characters' story lines breathe and expand. The core set of lead characters retain their essential qualities but also change in slight but significant ways, while new characters are smoothly integrated into the framework. You need not be a longtime viewer to pick up on the basic dynamics between the women (and the select few men in their lives), but loyalists since Season 1 will probably get more out of these episodes.
The season suffers a bit from "Two Towers"-like midseries syndrome; there's nothing as breathtaking as Season 1's climactic revelation of the true love of Alice's life, for instance, or as heartbreaking as the death of Dana in Season 3. Much happens, but by the end of the season's final episode, little is resolved. (Fans don't have to wait long for more adventures; Season 5 begins airing in January.) And for all the clever dialogue and subtle shifts in emotion, there are occasional clichés and clunkers ("Every time I looked at her, my head filled with pictures of you"). The series shifts frequently from high drama to low comedy, but is at its best when scenes combine both, such as nearly every moment that Leisha Hailey's Alice is onscreen.
Here's a breakdown touching only lightly on what happens to the main characters in Season 4, which aired from January 7 to March 25, 2007.
BETTE PORTER (Jennifer Beals)
Bette takes a job as dean of the arts department at California University, where her new boss, Phyllis Kroll (Cybill Shepherd), confesses that after 23 years of marriage she wants to come out as a lesbian. Bette falls in love with a deaf artist-in-residence at the school, Jodi Lerner (Marlee Matlin), but things don't go smoothly between the two alpha females.
TINA KENNARD (Laurel Holloman)
Bette's ex-partner is bored with her stab at the straight life, but is making progress in her new career as a movie executive. She works to turn friend Jenny Schecter's just-published first book into a film, and gets involved with the director on the project (Annabella Sciorra).
JENNY SCHECTER (Mia Kirshner)
The scarily unpredictable Jenny, a suddenly hot writer in L.A. thanks to her new book (a barely disguised tell-all about her lesbian friends) and a short story in The New Yorker (not bad for a neophyte), pushes her way around Hollywood, making enemies in the process. She concocts a demented revenge scheme against a magazine writer (Heather Matarazzo) who wrote a bad review of her tome.
SHANE McCUTCHEON (Katherine Moennig)
The boyish hairdresser/skateboard shop owner, who since "The L Word's" first episode has been the champ of lesbian promiscuity in L.A., must become a responsible person after her father's junkie wife drops her little boy Shay -- Shane's half-brother -- on Shane's doorstep. Shane nervously takes up the task of caring for the kid (Aidan Jarrar), and soon gets into a serious relationship with the single mother (Kristanna Loken) of Shay's school pal.
ALICE PIESZECKI (Leisha Hailey)
The series' most consistently entertaining character, Alice has taken her complex wall chart, which maps and cross-references seemingly all of the sexual connections within L.A.'s lesbian community, to the Internet. She notices a new player who keeps crashing her site through all her conquests, and sets out to track down the mysterious Papi (Janina Gavankar). Meanwhile, Alice meets Bette's boss Phyllis and is happy to initiate her into the life -- and does it so well that Phyllis falls in love with Alice and leaves her shattered husband (Bruce Davison). But Alice really takes to a friend of Papi's, Tasha (Rose Rollins), a tough, taciturn Iraq War veteran.
HELENA PEABODY (Rachel Shelley)
The British beauty Helena, cut off by her wealthy mother, has evolved (not altogether realistically) from bossy jet-setter to humble sweetheart. After failing at several menial jobs, she falls into a new moneymaking scheme -- high-stakes poker -- and falls for the beautiful dragon lady who has broken her in, Catherine Rothberg (Sandrine Holt).
KIT PORTER (Pam Grier)
Bette's older, straight half-sister continues to run the town's lesbian coffee shop/nightclub of choice, The Planet, and to resuscitate her singing career. But her beloved boyfriend and musical partner, Angus (Dallas Roberts), screws things up royally by screwing around, driving the alcoholic Kit back to the bottle.
MAX SWEENEY (Daniela Sea)
Max, formerly known as Moira, has nearly completed his transition from woman to man and passes himself off as male at the computer company he works for. He's such a nice guy that his boss asks him to take out his lonely daughter. The two hit if off until... Max also must face the family he hasn't seen in years when he returns home for his mother's funeral. But love seems to be in the cards for the series' most decent and selfless character.
The episodes themselves are what recommend the four-disc Season 4, since the extras -- at least those actually pertaining to the series -- are negligible. Nicely package in slim cases within an attractive cardboard sleeve, the set features standard still-frame menus that give brief plot synopses but no chapter headings. There are chapter stops, however, six or seven per episode. Disc 1 has three episodes plus a brief mission statement from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Discs 2 and 3 hold four episodes each, while the fourth disc contains the final installment and extras.
The chief extras are the first episodes of Showtime's new 2007 series "The Tudors" and "Californication." Nice to have, but some behind-the-scenes stuff or interviews pertaining to the series at hand would have been better. Instead we get a short PSA with stars Pam Grier and Leisha Hailey about protecting animals (?); brief interviews with "L Word" script contest winners (we never learn if or when the scripts will come to fruition); an ad for a contest to win a trip to Australia (again, ?); text bios; a photo gallery, and promos for CBS DVDs like "CSI" and "Numb3rs." The sleeve for the fourth disc mentions "Sundance Diaries With Kate & Leisha," but nothing of the sort is on any of the discs.
On the tech front, the series, shot on the Sony HDW-F900 video camera, has, as always, a rich, film-quality look. The widescreen image is enhanced for 16:9 TVs and monitors, and there are a variety of sound options: Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround, English 2.0 Surround and Spanish mono. Closed captioning is also provided.
A jewel in the Showtime original series crown, "The L Word" remains compelling viewing, having created through four seasons a large, rich group of characters and plot lines. References are made in this set to previous seasons (and one deceased character makes a surprise return), but viewers new to the show won't have any problems picking up on the situations and relationships, and they'll probably want to check out the earlier seasons.
The series initially set out to shock and titillate; now it feels comfortable, its characters having become our good friends whose sexual preferences are no longer an issue. (Still, its explicitness makes it inappropriate for kids.) Too bad this fourth-season set doesn't provide much beyond the episodes themselves.