Television: Less Than Letter Perfect

Aiming to make lesbians visible in the Queer Eye era, The L Word is lusty but otherwise lackluster

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When Showtime premiered Queer as Folk, its series about horny gay men in Pittsburgh, Pa., the title (taken from the original British series) was not meant to be subtle. (This, kids, was way back in 2000, before Carson Kressley rendered the word queer as humdrum as a Gap sweater.) Now, unveiling a series about horny gay women in Los Angeles, the network is playing it more coy. The L Word (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), says its title sequence, is also about "liberty," "life," "love" and, presumably, llamas and lemonade too. The L Word, this implies, is about more than just lesbianism.

Which is correct. The problem is, those aspects of the show that are not about lesbianism are tedious, and those that are, are predictable. There are museum director Bette (Jennifer Beals) and her partner Tina (Laurel Holloman), trying to conceive a child with donated sperm. There are the straights next door, Tim (Eric Mabius) and Jenny (Mia Kirshner), whose engagement is threatened when she falls for another woman. There's tennis pro Dana (Erin Daniels), terrified that her fans will find out she's gay. Sure, it's commendable even to pursue these obvious stories when lesbians have been less visible on TV than gay men. But commendable keeps your finger off the remote for only so long.

Perhaps Showtime hopes the sex, explicit and frequent, will help. Some advance buzz has even hailed the show's well-coiffed, model-perfect cast for breaking lesbian stereotypes of buzz cuts and Birkenstocks. But anyone who thinks that improbably beautiful women who get it on under flattering light are not lesbian stereotypes has not watched much straight-male porn.

There is more to Word than pretty faces. Daniels, as the closet case gingerly entering the dating scene, has a likable awkwardness, and Pam Grier is convincing, if underused, as Bette's 12-stepping half sister. The show is beautifully shot, and it aspires to big ideas about modern mores and the nuances of sexual power and identity. That makes it the more disappointing when it fails those ambitions. For instance, journalist Alice (Leisha Hailey) is compiling a massive online grid of sexual encounters to show how nearly everyone is connected by a chain of eros. "I think it's a really profound statement," she says, "about the nature of human existence."

Sadly, the show treats this hackneyed six-degrees-of-fornication observation like a major insight. Like Sex and the City, Word clearly wants to be a font of urban-sexual trend spotting, romantic wisdom and magazine-ready catchphrases. (It ham-handedly drops words like hasbian--a former sapphist--as if to scream, "Look! We're cool! We get it!") But it could use more of Sex's sense of irony. Instead it earnestly believes its most trite observations are brilliant revelations; watching it is like spending an hour a week with an overconfident college sophomore. The L Word has lust and libido down, all right, but otherwise it has an L of a long way to go. --By James Poniewozik