Melodrama and Performance in The Real L Word

You may remember my admission to a guilty pleasure a while back. Well, today's the day to indulge my newest fascination with trash television: The Real L Word.

To escape some temporary melodrama of my own (involving a suspicious mole on my ear), I started watching Showtime's very melodramatic reality series about a group of lesbian women in Los Angeles. As the title betrays, the show is the 'real-life' version of the fictional precursor The L Word. The girls are both more butch and more glam, if that's possible, than in the fiction, and the drama feels concocted and underwhelming like another namesake, MTV's notoriously bad The Real World. 

Reality drama. For some reason those two words sound oxymoronic when placed next to one another. This got me thinking about how The Real L Word creates its melodrama, because it pulls its stories from people's everyday lives. Just because the show is about lesbians doesn't necessarily mean their lives are inherently more interesting or dramatic, and of course there are those who will argue that a show like this normalizes and banalizes the queer community by focusing on a particularly femme  subset.  But in general, doesn't real life tend not to have nicely composed story arcs and narrative progression? Judging by that deduction, I'd say that reality television must capitalize on and then mold the events of these people's lives into a narrative.

Film theorist Jane Feuer writes that the key to melodrama in television, which we see most heavily in soap operas, is excess: "The concept of melodrama [is that of] creating an excess, whether that excess be defined as a split between the level of narrative and that of mise-en-scene or as a form of 'hysteria.'" In other words, melodramas exaggerate emotions, enhance climaxes, and are generally a bit excessive. 

So how does The Real L Word create melodrama out of a steady yet narratively weak stream of events?

First of all, I think the show's producers did a very good job casting people who know how to perform for the camera. Romi may indeed be a very emotional person, but she also knows how to play it up. Whitney, the most enigmatic and fascinating to watch, always has a rotation of girls in and out of her bed and head, but I wonder how much of the draw is well-oiled star behavior. These girls know how to ham it up for reality tv.

Secondly, the editing of the show is actually quite crafty for a seemingly trashy reality show (props to Showtime), because it pulls topics into episodes while still maintaining a serialized pull across episodes and seasons. For example, the first season starts each episode with a Q&A of the characters on certain 'lesbian' topics: coming out, femme vs. butch, Dinah Shore, etc. These topics then dictate the loose narrative structure of what we see for that hour, while still incorporating the larger story lines about relationships that form the center of the drama. We wait for the topic to pop up, i.e., who will be coming out on this episode? as a sort of MacGuffin that gives way to bigger themes like trust, betrayal, loyalty, cheating, and so on.  This overarching structure gives the editors the ability to play up the emotional climaxes so needed in a melodrama.

Lastly, music is everywhere. Mostly contemporary, sometimes queer, artists provide the soundtrack, which is tweaked and matched to every little emotion in there. Again, performance and editing go hand in hand when it comes to the music, so that even if we didn't feel own own, direct emotion coming mirroring a scene, the music underscores this emotion and makes us feel it.

I'm not necessarily recommending that you watch this show, but perhaps you can appreciate the way it is crafted to a particular end...

Flesh and Blood

Boston, or Melancholia