As Season 4 of The L Word, Showtime’s lesbian soap opera, reaches its conclusion Sunday night, I find myself in an unprecedented situation. Usually, around Episode 10 of each 13-week series, I reach a point where the thrill of seeing hot lesbians on television is exceeded by my annoyance with the characters and their catastrophic choices. This year, I don’t want them to fold up their Stella McCartneys. Gone is the random self-destructiveness of Season 3, the sour romances of Season 2, and the annoyingly straight sex of Season 1. The L Word has always been aspirational and glamorous, but now it has located America’s G spot: Even more than sex and shopping, we are obsessed with our careers. L now stands for labor. The L Word has become a workplace drama—and it is very satisfying.
The show went off course at the end of Season 2 when Bette, always the keystone, got fired from her job as director of the California Arts Center. In Season 3 she traded her power suits for yoga wear, losing her bearings—along with the franchise. Fortunately, that season’s crazy plot lines (Bette kidnapped the daughter she co-parents with her ex rather than negotiate a custody agreement; Alice, the most down-to-earth of The L Word crowd, became a crazy stalker) were abruptly wrapped up and forgotten in this season’s debut, when Bette started her new gig as dean of a university art department. She might still dress like a gallerista, but she acts like an educator. Her work seems almost normal: giving lectures, raising money, and attending dreary faculty meetings.
In fact, all the regulars have gotten real in their work lives. Tina is still a movie executive, but she no longer works at Helena Peabody’s rich-girl’s fantasy of a studio. This season we’ve seen her at the office—sucking up to spoiled writers and sitting through potty pitches from pretentious directors. Shane has always had a job—she’s a high-end hairdresser—but this year she found her vocation as a mom, or at least as a temporary parent for the 10-year-old brother she barely knew. OK, she did model for a Hugo Boss underwear ad, but that was only to pay her brother’s medical bills. Who among us hasn’t done the same?
Even mega-rich Helena, previously a human ATM machine for Los Angeles’ lesbian community, had to find work when her mother cut her off from the family cash. After brief stints as a receptionist and a caterer, she became a globe-trotting high-stakes gambler, bankrolled—more or less—by her new girlfriend, but at least she lost bets now and again. Pre-op female-to-male transman Max, who spouted techno-babble as a programmer for rocket scientists, faced workplace discrimination and met Grace, the woman who may well persuade him to keep his breasts, when she applied for an internship.
Even the writers got real jobs. Alice left behind freelance journalism and became a dot-com entrepreneur, turning her longtime obsession, The Chart, into a social-networking site. (In a not terribly subtle stroke of synergy, several women associated with the show launched a real social-networking site called ourchart.com.) And Jenny, a character whose sole purpose is to annoy (hey, it works for reality TV) published two books, got stories in The New Yorker, and sold the movie rights. Best of all, this year we didn’t have to watch her in the process of creation. Instead, she spent her time doing what real writers do: torturing her friends, agent, and editors, and taking a lot of meetings.
I suspect this new focus on work is a reflection of the show’s maturity. After all, at a certain point, rational motivations—like paying the mortgage—overpower our libidos. And yes, with all this season’s focus on work, there was less sex but more passion. Less bedroom action, but at least four sex scenes in cars. (The show’s new sexual libertine, Papi, managed to combine work, sex, and cars—turning the limo she drives into the site of numerous conquests.) There were no established lesbian couples at the outset of Season 4, and with some glorious exceptions, when women got together, it was after much anticipation bordering on frustration. While early seasons of The L Word reeled us in with explicit scenes, now that we’re hooked, the old ladies are shifting the action to the boardroom. No matter, we can leave all the rumpy-pumpy to the girls on South of Nowhere. They’re still too young to worry about work.