"The L Word" Plays Itself

Curator's Note

 Later seasons of Showtime’s The L Word both responded to and theatricalized fan and critical reactions to previous seasons.  Textually acknowledging suggestions and critiques articulated in the LGBT press and on queer fansites through the addition of new characters, themes, and self-reflexive narratives, seasons three through six of The L Word flaunted solipsistic self-awareness and the pretense of being informed by (rather than all-knowingly “tutoring”) fan culture.  The show’s expanding inclusiveness (which, in the case of Max’s storyline backfired in arguably transphobic ways) and topicality in later seasons offered a more hybridized media text that eschewed any air of verisimilitude while paradoxically highlighting its “real” reference points.   These trends spawned instabilities in the show’s narrative as The L Word became as much a celebration and analysis of itself and its cultural role as a coherent fictional serial. 


Reacting, for example, to growing sentiments among viewers of profound disidentification with one of The L Word’s main protagonists—Jenny—the producers accentuated Jenny’s unlikeable character attributes, refashioning the character into a parodic caricature.  Cheekily, the final season of The L Word literalizes a renegade sticker campaign waged by fans to “Kill Jenny” by transforming season six into a faux whodunit to solve her very murder.  By drowning Jenny in the pool where she first observed and became fascinated with lesbian sex, the producers signpost the show’s denouement while over-meeting fans’ semi-sarcastic pleas.  During season six, merchandise (buttons, t-shirts, and stickers) bearing the slogan “I Killed Jenny” circulated to and among fans, offering multiple confessions.  Might fans (rather than the diegetic suspects) be held culpable in this particular charactericide?


The L Word constantly restaged the show’s first season at fan events, online, and in later seasons (even in its final incarnation).  Capitalizing on productive fan practices, which often revisit and re-author popular episodes of television, Showtime sponsored events such as 2007’s “Be Scene” held in Palm Springs, where attendees acted out season one scenarios while judged by a panel of L Word actresses.  Fans’ renditions were then webcast on OurChart.com, a site partly-owned by Showtime Networks (now defunct).  Downloadable, these amateur versions were presented as authorized parodies framed by star hosts who compared the fan performances to their originals.  Similarly, season five recycled earlier L Word scripts through staging the adaptation and film production of Jenny’s autobiographical serial novel Lez Girls.  In Lez Girls’ alternate universe, characters acted more salaciously than their L Word counterparts while mouthing nearly identical lines.


The last season of The L Word is by far the most absurd, flagrantly exposing that the show’s gone off its narrative rails, refusing realism, replacing it instead with musical theater, great sex choreography, cameos, and genre play.   In a video posted on Sho.com, showrunner Ilene Chaiken cops to the fact that the final season of The L Word only loosely relies on its mystery-themed gimmick, never quite resolving the question (“Who Killed Jenny?”) it pretended to be centered on.  The interrogation scenes of the last episode make clear that the show flippantly borrows the whodunit gimmick in order to bid farewell to itself.  While describing her love for Dana, Alice realizes that the questions she’s being asked by the detectives have nothing whatsoever to do with the question “Who Killed Jenny?”  Rather, they have everything to do with reminiscing The L Word past.  


I’ve chosen two scenes from the series finale to revisit here.  The first highlights The L Word’s penchant for recycling its own scripts and representations (even as it says goodbye):  Shane meanders past Bette and Tina’s house in the early morning and teases the couple for being bathed in afterglow  (this exchange echoes a scene from the show’s pilot, available for viewing here: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=inmediarescurator#play/uploads/0/ojh...).  The repetition of this scene from the pilot (with a few updates) underscores the show’s constructedness—a fact the producers further hammer home in the last minutes of the finale.  We expect to find the characters arriving to the police station to discuss Jenny’s death; instead, the characters walk toward the camera, parading flashing smiles while looking alternatively at the television audience and each other.  This last strut upstage is increasingly of a cast to their standing ovation or of models down a catwalk, aware they are being gazed at. When Jenny (or, should I say, Mia Kirshner?), quite alive, joins the group, The L Word rescinds, in a sense, her death while punctuating its own theatricality.  The final shot of a Los Angeles skyline coming into focus seems to suggest what that mysterious “L” has stood for all along.  


Candace, this piece solves so many of The L Word's persistent mysteries! I think it offers the perfect conclusion to this week of posts by diagnosising the collapse of the show's diegetic universe and fan universe as it approached the event horizon of its own "lesbian" singularity.


The only way I can understand the last season is as an extended promo for the defunct spinoff The Farm rather than as an attempt at coherent television narrative. I think the genre play is interesting from this perspective. I have no idea how The Farm pilot actually held together, but it seems the sixth season might be a set of experiments in how to shift the show's world out of soap opera. These experiments fail, as even the proliferation of media objects like the bizarrely styled "Interrogation Tapes" appear soaked in melodrama.


What do you think of the turn to a more self-reflexive modality? Your description of the expropriation of fandom is well-taken, but I still think that season five's sendup of its own codes of construction makes it the series' strongest. At least in its self-congratulatory camp, The L Word became less relentless in its truth claims and more complex in its incorporation of multiple layers of reality and intertextuality.


Speaking of which, did you hear that Ilene's next project is an L Word REALITY SHOW that has already been greenlit by Showtime? This seems somehow like the ideal apotheosis of The L Word's obsession with authenticity. The reality genre retroactively confirms the program's status as a simulacrum that deploys reality effects for its own mercenary ends (not to mention the status of Ilene's screenwriting skills). You do a fabulous job of tracing this path via the fictional series' disintegrating fourth wall, culminating in the actors apparently stepping out of the episode in that uncanny final curtain call.

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