The opening credits to Showtime's "The L Word" display a variety of words starting with "l", including lesbian, Los Angeles, love, laughter and lust.
I'd like to add a simpler one: Lot. As in, " 'The L Word' has a lot of characters, a lot of angst, and a lot of sex." As the first regular series to focus on lesbian characters, the show also has a lot riding on it. It isn't perfect, but there's promise here.
It doesn't take "The L Word" long at all to get to the sex. In the pilot's first scene, Tina (Laurel Holloman) discovers she's ovulating, and longtime partner Bette (Jennifer Beals) passionately tackles her, saying "Let's make a baby." (Through frozen sperm, that is.)
Not all of the show's characters are as comfortable with their sexuality as these would-be parents. Dana (Erin Daniels) is a closeted professional tennis player; bisexual Alice (Leisha Hailey) seeks out a former lover who treats her badly; while Jenny (Mia Kirshner) is engaged to Tim (Eric Mabius) but attracted to Marina (Karina Lombard). If you're already starting to mix up the characters, wait until you watch the show. It doesn't help that some characters don't seem to get named right away -- I was mentally calling Shane (Katherine Moennig) "that Joan Jett lookalike" until the pilot was almost over.
In the show's Los Angeles, everyone seems to know and have slept with everyone else. The characters gather at Marina's restaurant. The Planet, which is kind of the show's version of Central Perk. All are model-gorgeous and very feminine, which has garnered criticism from those who feel that butch lesbians should be represented. Perhaps those characters will come later.
"The L Word" is filmed in Vancouver, which I never once believed was Los Angeles. Unlike in "Sex and the City," where the New York location permeates the show, this setting felt generic, lacking in sun and traffic and Hollywood bungalows. Save for the occasional carefully placed palm tree, the show could be set in New England, or the Upper Midwest. It's a shame that Los Angeles won't be one of the "L" words playing much of a part in the show.
"The L Word" seems to want to focus on two plots -- Bette and Tina's quest for a child and Jenny's inner struggle. Yet to me there were among the least interesting storylines. The baby hunger plot has been done to death elsewhere, and while Jenny's situation sounds interesting, Kirshner plays her as a subdued, introspective writer, making it tough to get inside her head.
That's not the case with the multifaceted Alice, played by Hailey, the only openly gay actress in the cast. Some of the sharpest, snarkiest dialogue comes from her, as when she chirps "Most girls are straight. Until they're not." Her job as a writer for LA magazine is used to humorous effect too --she's always mentioning a Best Of story or a resource list in an inappropriate situation. I'm hoping she comes to the forefront more often.
Also promising is Pam Grier as Bette's half-sister, Kit, a straight character who's a little older, a little more life-battered than the glamorous younger set. She and Beals interact nicely, and are believable as sisters. Grier's skills will serve the show well, and it's nice to have a character from a different world and generation interact with the others.
The show isn't free of cliches. Of course, someone tells the "What do lesbians bring on a second date?" joke. (Answer A: A moving van, Answer B: A turkey baster.) There's an attempted threesome. Heterosexual men get aroused at the thought of lesbians having sex. Much time is devoted to Alice's chart of who's had sex with who, a kind of Six Degrees of Separation that's never acknowledged as such.
There's an awful lot of sex in the pilot, both heterosexual and homosexual. It's not a show for the prudish. And at times, there's a sense that the scriptwriter is trying too hard to create Seinfeld-esque memorable lines, as with a scene about "nipple confidence."
"The L Word" feels solid, the actors are believable, and there's a sense of Trying To Do Something Major here. But early plots are not surprising -- of course, museum director Bette tries to get her employer to sign up a provocative exhibit; of course, she later "meets cute" with the one person who can possibly help her get that done. I kept thinking it would be more original if she perhaps showed a conservative streak in her work -- it's so predictable that the lone lesbian on the staff would be the only person prodding the museum to break out of its staid traditions.
I don't want predictable in a Showtime series, I want innovative. I applaud Showtime for taking steps to compete with HBO and all its original series, but if Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw are one thing, they're not predictable. Just having a series centering on lesbian characters is a step, but it's not enough to carry the show.
I'm not giving up on "The L Word." I'm hoping that after the first few episodes, the writers will help the characters find their true, and original, selves. As a huge fan of Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For," I couldn't help but imagine what her characters -- mopy Mo, Ginger, Sparrow and the rest -- would be like brought to television. Perhaps with time, the L Word women will become more real and well-rounded, like real lesbians, and women, everywhere.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC's Television Editor.