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'The L Word' Returns

The L Word, Showtime's celebration of the Los Angeles power lesbian elite, returns Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. for a fourth season, this time with a couple of high-profile cast additions (Marlee Matlin and Cybil Shepherd).

As in seasons 1-3, the first several episodes of the new season are a mix of high camp, high melodrama, high fashion and highly absurd plotlines.

As the season opens, the specter of tennis star Dana's (Erin Daniels) death has faded, and the series' tone is on the lighter side. Along with Shepherd and Matlin, the new additions to the cast include Janina Gavankar as Papi, the lesbian with the most play on Alice's (Leisha Hailey) online chart (which tracks sapphic sex lives), and Rose Rollins as Tasha, a friend of Papi's just back from a tour of duty in Iraq (and, it seems, Alice's new love interest).

Shepherd's plotline is the most ridiculous. She plays Phyllis, Bette's (Jennifer Beals) new boss at the fictional California Univeristy. Phyllis is a powerful woman in her 50s, married with two kids, who suddenly, in episode 2, comes out to Bette, saying that she thinks, after all of these years, she's really a lesbian. This is par for the course on the series, where nearly every woman the main characters encounter seems to be or suddenly become a lesbian (as Mia Kirshner's character, Jenny, did the first season). It simply rings false, and Shepherd isn't convincing enough to make it work.

Matlin is better as an artist whom Bette becomes involved with.

Another unbelievable plotline involves the financial downfall of Helena (Rachel Shelley), whose wealthy and powerful mother has cut her off. Helena is a character who was introduced in the second season as a powerful woman in her own right, icy and vicious and a serious ball-buster. To see her now comically attempting to work as a secretary and a caterer is ridiculous–her character is no longer recognizable. 

The troubled Shane (Katherine Moennig), who left girlfriend Carmen (Sarah Shahi, no longer on the show) at the altar on season 3's cliffhanger episode, continues to be a compelling character. It's interesting to watch her  become more responsible as she has to become a stand-in parent for her abandoned half brother, Shay (Aidan Jarrar, a not-too-cutesy child actor).

So far, this season as a whole does not seem to be as strong as the first three, and they have still not done away with the ridiculous theme song by Betty ("Girls in tight dresses who drag with mustaches"–oy!), but it still has enough breezy entertainment value to be a guilty pleasure.

By Rebecca Stropoli