Showtime’s lesbian serial drama The L Word returns this week for its sixth and final season. Set in L.A., the series follows a group of women through their hook-ups and break-ups, generally providing a rough sketch of what being a lesbian is like if you’re wealthy and live in Los Angeles. The show hasn’t garnered much mainstream press attention, but it has become a staple for queer female viewers.
Nearly every lesbian I know hates The L Word. We complain that the plot twists are out of control. We complain about the publicity photos showing the cast members stark naked. We complain that we have absolutely nothing in common with the lives of these rich, tanned, ultra-femme figures who also just happen to be gay (with the token bisexual included for good measure). We complain that Jenny is insane and irritating, and that if we have to hear one more word of her awful new-age writing we are going to stop watching. But we don’t.
What is it about The L Word that is so compelling? Maybe it has something to do with the dearth of other lesbian characters on television. There have been valiant attempts in the five years since The L Word premiered to introduce some queer characters to our TV screens, which would be more encouraging if these characters weren’t so prone to freak accidents and sudden changes of heart that see them packed up and shipped off the air without warning.
An early example was Kerry Weaver’s first girlfriend in E.R.‘s seventh season (four years before The L Word appeared on the scene), who left suddenly because of Weaver’s inability to stomach a simple lesbian in-joke, and her second girlfriend looked promising until, after most of a season spent as a fuzzy off-screen presence, she was killed in a fire.
Or take Grey’s Anatomy, for example, where network heads reportedly became so alarmed by the relationship developing between two female surgeons that they pulled the plug on the romance overnight, writing one of the women out of the show with only a perfunctory — and fairly implausible — explanation.
And yet, we grasp at these tenuous and short-lived lesbian storylines, and keep watching shows like The L Word that aim to depict our relationships and social lives, even when they do it spectacularly badly. Because, no matter what else we think about television, it is important to see ourselves reflected on it.
In a society in which popular culture has expanded to the point where the “popular” is redundant, if you don’t see yourself or your group represented in the media, it starts to feel like you don’t exist. And for people who grew up watching Sex & The City and Friends, The L Word is an irresistible guilty pleasure.
The quickly aborted Grey’s Anatomy storyline brings us neatly to the start of the current L Word season, which premiered on Monday. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but you can expect painfully dramatic twists, lengthy scenes of remorse and reconciliation for last season’s misdeeds, and (drum roll) a completely random and gratuitous death.
I can’t wait for next week’s episode.
Cate Simpson is a freelance journalist and the web editor for Shameless magazine. She lives in Toronto.