The L Word was must-see TV in my household. My husband and I faithfully tuned in for six seasons, occasionally throwing pillows at the screen in disgust, slapping hand-to-head over the lunacy of Jenny, the conniving pscho-beeyotch from hell.
What’s not to like? It was Dolce & Gabbana glam. (The clothes! The clothes!) It had drama à-go-go. (Bette kidnapping her baby mama’s baby.) It wasn’t afraid to take on the issues of the day. (Pregnant trans-men, the tyranny of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, woman-on-woman bedroom politics. …)
But in the end, apparently, the show was afraid to answer the burning question of its sixth and final season: Who Killed Jenny Schecter? Instead, with its abrupt, Soprano-esque ending, it left that question (and many others) maddeningly unresolved. Pissed-off fans fired off on the show’s Web site with a resounding, “WTF????”
It was a cop-out of an ending for a show that has always been earnest and honest, treading a fine line between pathos and camp, frequently giving up the fight and sailing right over the top. (Bisexual Alice’s lesbian boyfriend? Love. It.)
Sure, sometimes it could be pretentious and preachy. Sure, everyone had ridiculously fabulous houses with mortgages way beyond their pay grade. (In L.A., no less.) But it was one of the few shows on television that bothered to explore contemporary women’s lives—especially women beyond the age of the Gossip Girl set—deliciously complicated lives filled with lots of hot sex, challenging work and the rigorous pursuit of intellectual curiosity.
And it had Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier and Ossie Davis and Rose Rollins.
From the start, Showtime’s The L Word handled race and racial identity with more nuance and knowing than anything else you’d find on the big and little screens. (Though we still don’t get why the producers always cast either an Iranian-American or a South Asian in Latina roles.) Perhaps this was because Angela Robinson (director of the 2004 lesbian teen film D.E.B.S.), an out-and-proud black lesbian, frequently wrote and directed episodes over its five-year span. The L Word tackled light-skinned privilege and racial identity, without once evoking played-out stereotypes of the tragic mulatto.
Beals played a fair-skinned biracial woman whose rich black father (Davis) left his black first wife for her white mother. Naturally, this made for all kinds of resentment and rivalry between Bette and Kit (Grier), the daughter of the black ex-wife. Of course, Kit had her own trunk full of issues: She was a former R&B diva whose drinking and drugging sent her careering off the rails. (Because of her past, her uptight buppie son couldn’t stand her.) But even with all the drama, Kit loved her sister. And she wasn’t above calling out Bette for her sometimes de facto “passing.”
In the very first episode, Bette came crying to Kit because her Caucasian lover balked at being impregnated by a black sperm donor. Grier’s character didn’t exactly present a shoulder to cry on. She told the lighter sister that maybe she should go back to being in denial: “Maybe what’s worked best for you all these years,” Kit told Bette, “you getting all these pretty things, put together your pretty life, is you let people see what they want to see. Maybe it’s been easier that way.”
When it debuted in early 2004, The L Word was the first drama to tackle the lives of lesbians. Considering the television precedent, this was a bit of a risk: Back in ’97, Ellen DeGeneres made TV history when she—and her eponymously named sitcom character—came out as a lesbian. Ratings promptly plummeted, and her show ended up being canceled. Not that things are much better today: Last fall, Brooke Smith was fired from Grey’s Anatomy—shortly after her character began a torrid love affair with another woman on the show.
The L Word ended without anything to fill the gap it leaves behind. (The series co-creator Ilene Chaiken is reportedly trying to get an “L Word” spinoff off the ground, supposedly set in a women’s prison, so perhaps we will find out then who killed Jenny Schecter.)
Yes, it’s only cable, but there were moments, watching the The L Word, that I cried, great, hiccoughing tears. Dana’s dying of breast cancer certainly did a number on me. But Ossie Davis’ exit at the end of season two hit harder. As TV fathers go, he was crotchety and close-minded, blatantly favoring the light-skinned Bette over darker-skinned Kit, while at the same time refusing to accept Bette’s lesbianism.
But when he got sick with prostate cancer, refusing any and all treatment, the sisters brought him home. There, they sang to him and read Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” And then, ever so quietly, he slipped away. No formal pronouncements of a father’s undying love. He just checked out, turning his head to look at pictures of his girls.
The camera homed in on his vacant eyes, pulling in tighter and tighter, until it faded to black and the screen was filled with these seven words: “DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF OSSIE DAVIS.” It was to be the final performance of Davis’ very long career.
Now The L Word itself has come and gone. And I, for one, will miss it.
Teresa Wiltz is the senior culture writer for The Root.