I am not a lesbian, but while watching the first episode of The L Word (Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m. ET) I found myself trying to figure out which character I most identified with. I know it’s not Shane (Katherine Moennig), the heartbreaker; nor the brooding, mysterious Marina (Karina Lombard); and it’s probably not Dana (Erin Daniels), the uptight professional tennis player who is afraid to come out of the closet. If I were to be self-deprecating I would say I’m most like Alice (Leisha Hailey), the scatterbrained, bisexual magazine writer, but I don’t let people walk all over me like she does nor can I see myself keeping a Friendster-like chart of whom everyone I know has slept with. Which leaves me, regrettably but truthfully, to choose between Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), two yuppies—Bette is a curator for a small art museum; Tina recently quit her job at a movie studio so the two of them can start a family—in a 7-year relationship who work and squabble and reunite like an old married couple you’d find in real life (or a rerun of thirtysomething).
Our entrée into the world of these six friends is Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a fiction writer who moves to Los Angeles to be with her swim coach boyfriend, Tim. Tim happens to live next door to Tina and Bette, and Jenny quickly finds herself drawn to Marina, who owns the Planet, the West Hollywood cafe where our ensemble cast gathers when they’re not embroiled in drama elsewhere. The sexual confusion Jenny experiences over the next six episodes is unnerving, erotic, and real, and because Jenny doesn’t know anyone in L.A. except her boyfriend, there are no long talky scenes during which she can tiresomely wonder aloud about what she’s doing with her life. Her attraction to Marina develops as an open secret, through intense scenes that are short on dialogue and long on meaningful looks. It’s convincing stuff, and the viewer is left to wonder, as Jenny does, how far will it ultimately go?
With the exception of lesbian references like “nipple confidence” and “hasbian,” as well as some cable sex scenes, The L Word often feels like it’s not about being gay at all. The show is not a Fodor’s Guide to the lesbian experience, and unlike its male companion, Queer as Folk, The L Word makes no effort to ground itself in topical issues. Bette and Tina’s quest for the right sperm donor plays as comedy, not as politics, while in a later episode when Bette’s father rejects her efforts to have a child with Tina, the disappointment they feel is not presented as a commentary on the culture at large. It’s dad, not society, that is backward and old-fashioned. Queer as Folk took on issues such as barebacking—the practice of having anal sex without a condom—and whether or not the soul of the gay pride parade has been compromised by corporate sponsorship. But then again, that show was set in Pittsburgh, a far grittier place than The LWord’s Los Angeles. At times, the show’s characters seem to be breathing such rarefied air—Bette and Tina aren’t merely in couples therapy, they’re seeing one of L.A.’s hottest personal gurus—that you not only forget they’re lesbians, but that they live on Earth.
I’m not sure how the lesbian community will respond to The L Word, but I imagine it will be a mixture of disapproval and delight. As with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, some will find it easy to enjoy the clean, aspiration-filled fantasy, while others will be disturbed by the pointed lack of reality. If anything, I think this show finds its place as a dramatic substitute for Sex and the City. (This seems to be the producer’s intent: Ads for the show read, “Same Sex, Different City.”) Just as Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda served as comic surrogates for different attitudes toward sex and men, the characters of The L Word perform a similar function, and not just for women and same-sex couples. Shows like HBO’s dismal Mind of a MarriedMan prove that we haven’t quite figured out how to dramatize sex and relationships from a man’s point of view without sliding into bad taste and stereotypes. And yet ever since Pride and Prejudice—even men can find more in common with Elizabeth Bennet than with Mr. Darcy—stories about women have had more universal appeal. I think I know which lesbian I am on The L Word—who it is, I’m not telling—and I’m eager to find out how her story turns out.