The L Word – A case of managing expectations
I’ve just started watching the L word – I know a few of you PMed me and were wondering when I’d get round to it. Well, just to let you know: I got ’round to it!
Oh, yeah right, I hear you saying… here’s a guy who thinks he’s keeping up with the Jones’…
So, I realise that there are like, already 6 seasons and I’m far behind everyone else. but, hey… I’ve been tired.
Watching the first series has been a serious exercise in expectation management. Let me tell you why.
Fox Television’s “24” started a revolution in modern television action drama programming. Indeed, we might think of Pre-24 and Post-24 action and drama series programming as fundamentally different entities.
Pre 24 TV drama series, might include typical sleuth programmes such as Cracker, Taggart and Morse where a case is solved each week and the reset button is pressed. Even shows where continuity would have added so much, like the eponymous X-Files that were opened and closed conveniently each episode were crippled by the Scooby Doo Syndrome where audiences were forced to suffer from lines like “If it wasn’t for that gosh-darn-it dog and those pesky kids!” week after week after week. Promises of deep, intriguing and rewarding viewing were stunted by the “43 minute memory span” of a typical episode.
In X-Files, for example, it got to the point where I’d slap my forehead and shout things like,
“For Fuck’s Sake Scully Open Your God Damn Eyes!!! You Lost Two Hours of Your Life when You Were Taken on Board an Extraterrestrial Spacecraft Last Week, Experimented On and had some kind of Alien Chip Implanted in you and Now You’re Going on and on Like an Old Woman About a Man Who Claims to have seen an Alien!?!”
and I just plain lost interest at the end of season Five.
It would appear that Sci Fi suffered the most. It was as if no studio wanted to give their viewers credit for continued interest, despite the seven year run of, say, Star Trek Next Generation, which had only insignificant episode to episode connections but would have done much better with stronger ones.
Notable TV exceptions to this sad situation included lower budget classics such as the socio-religio-sci-fi epic “Babylon 5”, where individual episodes (after the experimental first season) were bound to a strong story arc with deep character development and long evolving plot threads. Yet still, one show “cheap shots” would take precedence over continuity. The more modern “The 4400” and “Taken” also took steps to fortify the overall story even at the expense of a little viewer responsibility.
The breakthrough was arguably reached with Firefly (by Buffy’s Joss Whedon) which spent it’s whole, tragically and unforgivably truncated 14 episode life, just building up the characters’ backgrounds and relationships one by one without even getting to the core of the story! How’s THAT for character development? Sadly this show was voted out with a “paltry” 6 million viewers, just below the contract renewal threshold. Still, it wasn’t bad figure for a country and western infused sci-fi potpourri that tackled rocky topics such as blind loyalty, freedom of expression and sexuality, religious beliefs vs atheism, the connections between politics and syndicated crime head on, sometimes all in the same episode!
Among this suffering there was, ironically, a raft of cheesy melodramas and two-bit soaps and even crappy sitcoms that often had far deeper arcs and much more intricately twisted plots, not to mention the obligatory “previously…” bit at the beginning of every week to key the audience in to any recent developments they may have missed/forgotten/not bothered to consider/just made up. And this is exactly the sort of TV where this kind of thing is least necessary, where daily plots would probably have sufficed.
Bring out the Jack!
But the Jack’s Sleeping!
Then You’ll just go and have to wake him up!
On the fateful day of 6th of November 2001, Drama programming would forever be changed when Jack Bauer blazed onto the screen and single handedly saved America from all manner of evils, in one of the hottest, most radical concept series of all times. Built on a Hollywood Film budget with A-grade actors and actresses, the best production and editing ever used on TV and special effects that other series would have died for, 24 forwent or paid to get rid of all of the the baggage that held down other series and had the balls to expect, nay, demand its audience to watch once a week, every week, without fail, or else!
And they did, in their millions and millions.
Drama watchers were no longer treated like second class goldfish, but were rather treated to a new, rich experience that turned the whole perception of depth around and made any film less than a trilogy potential seem shallow.
Post 24 dramas pushed north the boundaries of what audiences were expected to remember and take on board in order to follow a series, leaving the directors time and breathing space to develop gorgeous characterisations, beautifully intricate plots, sumptuous histories and backgrounds, and in the case of 24 a whole new government organisation and structure.
TV series, such as Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break proved to be compelling, intelligent television that made the viewer feel like a discerning customer and not a Joe Six-Pack.
- Then along came the L-Word.
Billed as a slick, intelligent, high budget, well produced, “late night” (nudge nudge wink wink) drama about a bunch (flock, gaggle, murder – I don’t know the correct word) of beautiful, sassy lesbians living in Hollywood, no less… Every red blooded male’s fantasy programming…(!)
Fair enough, I was expecting Hollywood glitz, lots of good looking gals, relatable yet ultimately unrealistic characters (ala DH) and so on, perhaps even the odd shallowly disguised sexual double entendre or even a few tastefully, sheet clad morning after scenes.
I was looking forward to an intelligent series which might even linger for a few moments on social/sexual or political commentary thrown in under the pretext of entertainment.
Instead, this show rather unfulfillingly skims over, skirts around or just plain dodges every serious topic it bludgeons its way into at the beginning of each week’s episode and after eight of them, I’m left wondering… When will the real story start?
Stories and concepts are to be applauded for being written with a mainstream audience, albeit with one with a good degree of discretion and open mindedness, in mind. However, this is where the lauding ends, since the stories themselves are written with neither insight, nor focus and are littered with rather over the top, unnecessary sex scenes that actually do little more than obstruct the flow of each episode at critical fifteen minute intervals and in my opinion actually detract from the whole quality.
Case in Point; where another, earlier timeslot show would be forced to have some touching dialogue or nuanced atmosphere to demonstrate the (mostly temporary) feelings the two (or more) onscreen characters might have for one another, The L Word forgoes the foreplay and gets down and sweaty: rather graphically and entirely unashamedly. Close, maybe but Porn this is not. Still, neither is it subtle, intelligent storytelling.
Sure, there is a veneer of a plot development, but it is really playing second fiddle to the weekly episodes and minor happenings that beset the women.
The protagonists appear thinly drawn and are either completely inscrutable or entirely predictable. Most seem far more promiscuous, eminently more shallow and altogether sadder than any of the LGB (or S) friends I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
Except for the “model couple” the characters range from childish and impudent, elitist and cliquey (like it’s morally OK for minorities to discriminate humourlessly against larger majorities) through to a number of downright selfishly hedonistic members.
Random or failed story arcs and traits of each character are not so much gently and subtly written out of the story as just left lying burned out and gutted on the side of the road!
To be honest, I don’t really know what points the directors are trying to make or even what impressions of the main characters they are trying to give, but they’re not particularly clear, whatever they are.
Still, despite all it’s flaws, I find myself looking forward to sneaking an hour in here or there, because, just like the sitcoms of old, it has a certain charm in its shallow, static, stereotypically drenched and somewhat bigoted storytelling that frees the viewer from any responsibility of having to remember plot threads or maintain a character directory of relationships to help solve a crisis, or indeed any responsibility at all: morally or otherwise. And of course, it has a Hollywood budget, excellent editing and production values and invariably first rate acting (except for the annoying appearance of a certain lecherous British professor who I remember from a dismal B-movie called Warlock).
Somehow though, I can’t shake the feeling that despite successfully pushing forward the visibility of lesbians in popular culture, they are doing so in an ever so slightly confrontational “sit on this and spin” fashion rather than with a cerebral exchange of opinions that would better aid integration. But then, that’s why tabloids outsell broadsheets, isn’t it?
It’s clear case of aiming for the bright and fancy patchwork rather than the rich at tasty melting pot!