First, there was Desperate Housewives, a show featuring women so over-the-top that they could only exist on a fictional street called Wisteria Lane. To counter that, Bravo introduced its Real Housewives series: The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Real Housewives of Dante’s Inferno. (I made that last one up, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) As it turned out, the “real” housewives were even zanier than the scripted ones. Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s definitely more of an attention whore.
Enter The Real L Word, Showtime’s reality series answer to its scripted series The L Word. The “L” in question stands for “lesbian,” which is basically the entire set-up for both shows. And I’m mostly OK with that. While it would be nice if there were more to The Real L Word than the fact that its subjects are lesbians, I also appreciate the need for more queer people on television. Besides, reality TV was founded on the mundane: It’s not like there was anything special about those kids on The Real World.
I’m saying “real” an awful lot, and each time it’s tinged with irony. I don’t need to tell you that many reality shows are scripted—and that even when they’re not, they’re often edited to the point where they no longer resemble fact. Plenty has been written about the genre; I’m more concerned with the idea of reality television as a “real” alternative to scripted dramas. By which I mean, I think it’s silly.
Because here’s the thing about The Real L Word that makes it an especially troubled attempt at reality: The series takes place in LA. And not just in LA, but in “lesbian LA.” It’s more polished, as Whitney put it, than the “realer” San Francisco. The women we meet are obsessed with their images. They talk about being “pumps” (feminine) or “pants” (masculine). They wear an awful lot of makeup. They make misguided self-defining statements like, “I’m really the straightest gay person you’re ever going to meet.” Thanks for that one, Nikki.
I don’t need that much reality in my reality TV—I watch these shows to be entertained. But if you’re going to present a series as the real-life answer to fiction, you'd better give me something more substantial to work with. Or at the very least, some variety. The truth of lesbian life is that it's comprised of a wide-spectrum of looks, personalities, and behaviors; this, of course, is true for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. Why, then, are almost all of these women partnered? Even pseudo-players Rose and Whitney are experimenting with coupledom. And why do they look just as glossy and made-up as the women on The L Word? I’ve got news for you: Most people don’t go to bed wearing that much lipstick.
Aside from its questionable reality, The Real L Word is almost entertaining. Mikey fast emerged as my favorite with her incredible meltdown during a model casting: “Your booker’s an asshole. Sorry, not my fault.” (There was way more colorful language involved, but I thought I’d keep things PG-13.) Otherwise, I was kind of bored. Sunday night’s premiere was almost a full hour long, which is far too long for a reality series without a real focus. Sure, the upcoming scenes that were teased at the end of the episode seemed to contain a fair share of tears, shouting, and Showtime-encouraged nudity. But how much of these women’s dull, day-to-day lives do we have to endure before we get there?
Original Recipe L Word was little more than a guilty pleasure, but it was fun. More to the point, it never pretended to be anything other than a fictional, scripted drama. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take that over “reality” any day.