Howard Stern has built a lucrative career in part on the premise that men are infatuated with lesbians, but it’s doubtful his listeners will flock to “The L Word” — an old-fashioned soap with a “Sex and the City” sensibility, where the gals who assemble and gossip happen to sleep with each other. Slow-going in developing its web of interconnected plots, this latest demonstration of cable’s series-for-every-interest-group strategy is watchable enough, but probably not likely to be the sort of buzzworthy addiction-in-waiting Showtime would like and certainly could use.
Granted, the pay channel doesn’t operate under the most demanding ratings standards, so the bar isn’t set terribly high. Still, to approach the relative success of its obvious companion, “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word” will need to cross over to a broad audience of female viewers — straight as well as gay — who can identify with this fairly well-drawn cast of characters. That’s clearly the audience Showtime is after, cleverly promoting the series — set in an L.A. simulated within the cheaper environs of Vancouver — as “Same sex. Different city.”
The Alice stepping into this womanly wonderland is Jenny (Mia Kirshner, recently seen as a lesbian assassin in “24”), who moves to L.A. to shack up with her boyfriend Tim (Eric Mabius).
The dreamily upwardly mobile lesbian couple next door, played by Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman, bring Jenny into contact with their wide swath of single girlfriends, who include a closeted tennis player, a trendy magazine writer and a promiscuous love-’em-and-leave-’em type.
Jenny falls hard for the owner of the local cafe where everyone hangs out, Marina, played by Karina Lombard, an actress who oozes so much sex appeal the attraction isn’t hard to fathom. Some might remember her beachfront seduction of Tom Cruise in “The Firm,” and she fulfills a similar role here — the irresistible fantasy who lures Jenny into an act of infidelity. Presented with that kind of temptation, what’s even an ostensibly straight girl to do?
As for the Stern faithful, it’s my duty to report the sex scenes are occasionally explicit but not particularly steamy — a lot of kissing and fondling, but hardly on the order of what they can rent or download. (OK, guys, now hurry back to your computers and imaginary girlfriends.)
No, “The L Word” works or fails as a primetime serial calibrated to those with a taste for the genre, “Melrose Place” with a little extra nudity. It’s certainly not bad on that level — exec producer Ilene Chaiken, a one-time exec at Aaron Spelling’s company, obviously studied the playbook. Yet it’s neither distinguished nor exotic enough to break much new ground, which would seem almost a prerequisite to justify such a pay TV endeavor.
“Queer as Folk,” for example, made noise by provocatively depicting a highly sexualized segment of the gay community, a group normally neutered for primetime consumption. Fairly or not, it’s hard to avoid the me-too feel of this calculated variation on that theme.
Those who persevere with the show beyond the first few episodes will be rewarded as the central storyline picks up steam. Jenny’s magnetic pull toward Marina becomes more difficult to control, leading to a series of risky encounters that inevitably start exacting a toll on her relationship with Tim.
Less interesting are most of the other plot threads, including Beals’ corporate infighting at the art gallery where she works and an underused Pam Grier as her half-sister. There is some fine guest casting, however, with Anne Archer as one character’s aging actress mom, Holland Taylor as a filthy-rich art patron and Ossie Davis as Beals’ disapproving father.
Inasmuch as the program amounts to a holdover from previous management, there’s relatively little at stake, with Showtime essentially throwing the show against the wall on the outside chance it will stick. Given the talented cast and pay cable’s amorphous measuring stick, it just might.
Still, odds are “The L Word” will have difficulty achieving the kind of critical mass and cultural impact that would translate into “The R Word,” as in “renewal” or “ratings.”