Can 'L Word' survive Jenny's death?

In an interview last July on the Vancouver set of Showtime's soapy lesbian drama "The L Word," actress Mia Kirshner was asked where she imagined her character, Jenny Schecter, would wind up when the series ended its six-season run this winter. The show, after all, began with Jenny's entrance into a glittering, enticing West Hollywood lady scene, as she befriended the other inhabitants of "The L Word" world and soon realized she was a lesbian.

"I think she'll continue to be just like a tumbleweed and a car crash and I'm happy for that," Kirshner said at the time about her love-to-hate character, who has both suffered mightily herself (having had recovered memories of childhood trauma, engaged in self-mutilation and stripped under the name "Miss Yeshiva Girl") and caused others to suffer (by creating havoc in nearly every other character's life).

Kirshner continued: "I don't want it to be wrapped up. She'll never be normal and that's just the way it is."

What Kirshner didn't know then is that poor Jenny won't even have a chance to try for normality. As viewers who watched "The L Word's" season premiere last Sunday know, Jenny was found dead -- killed, it seems -- in a pool, "Sunset Boulevard(1950_film)"-style, and then zipped up in a body bag in front of all of the other main characters, who are now, presumably, suspects. After this flash-forward to the aftermath of Jenny's murder in the show's opening minutes, the story then picked up where Season 5 left off, three months earlier.

Ilene Chaiken, "The L Word's" creator and executive producer, said in a recent interview that the eight-episode season gave her an opportunity to take on a single story. "When we got in the writers room," she said, "we started talking about doing this final season as if it were a miniseries."

Chaiken withheld the murder plot from the cast because she "didn't want to be lobbied all year long to change my mind" and, more important, since their fictional counterparts didn't know what awaited them, the actresses shouldn't either. "I wanted them to be in their lives and in their characters," she said.

That the one story -- which is threaded through the ongoing love lives, work upheavals and other life-will-go-on plots in Season 6 -- is who-killed-Jenny? has already caused some grumbling among fans. Dorothy Snarker, the pseudonymous blogger who writes about "The L Word" on both AfterEllen.com, the lesbian media website, and in her own personal blog, said in a telephone interview, "People are bracing themselves for it to not be satisfying."

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Positive portrayals

"The L Word" premiered on Showtime in 2004. It was part of a cultural shift in gay and lesbian media portrayals that acknowledged that gay people had families, relationships and jobs -- real lives, in other words -- after years of either nonexistence or representations where they might be sinister at best, murderous at worst. Though Sharon Stone's turn as a Sapphic ice-pick-wielding killer in "Basic Instinct" may have kicked off the '90s, that period also saw the birth of television shows such as "The Real World" (1992), "Will & Grace" (1998), "Survivor" (2000), "Queer as Folk" (2000) and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (2003), which, among others, brought gay, lesbian and bisexual stories into the mainstream.

Matthew C. Blank, the chairman and chief executive of Showtime, said in an interview: "We had already gotten a good deal of attention for putting 'Queer as Folk' on the air. And 'The L Word' seemed like the natural extension of where Showtime was at that time."

The show has brought a loyal audience to the premium cable channel that, according to Showtime, has grown from an average of 924,000 viewers in Season 1 to 1.4 million in Season 5, its most popular so far. Along the way, "The L Word" has been praised for its glossily packaged, highly sexualized view of lesbian life, as well as its likable cast, which includes Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig, Leisha Hailey, Pam Grier, Laurel Holloman and, of course, Kirshner.

But it has also been criticized by the chattering classes online and television critics alike for, well, not always making sense. The New York Times' Ginia Bellafante referred to its "lunacy-revealing plot points" in her review of this season; in Entertainment Weekly last year, Benjamin Svetkey wrote, "Dramatic resonance and plot continuity apparently aren't a high priority in the writers' room."

Which is why a segment of viewers are particularly nervous about the death-of-Jenny story. Snarker, who has read the many comments made about her "L Word" posts, summarized the reaction thusly: "I don't feel that there's a big 'Please don't kill Jenny' fan uprising right now. It's just 'Please don't make this show end in a crazy way.' "

Those fans may well have allies among the cast. Kirshner was not available to update her comments from July for this article. And Moennig, who plays Shane, the heartbreaker hair stylist and Jenny's closest friend, wrote in an e-mail, "The murder thing is beyond my comprehension." And: "It seemed like something too big to bite off." But: "Then on the other hand, you never know how the public will react. They could love it and the show could be all the better for it."

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The future

Though "The L Word" will soon end, at least one character's journey could continue. Chaiken has written and directed a pilot presentation for Showtime costarring Hailey, whose chirpy, gossipy Alice has often provided the show its funnier side. That it's a women-in-prison show that Showtime recently likened to a female version of "Oz" -- the uber-bleak HBO drama -- has not only caused utter confusion among fans, but worry that, in fact, we already know who killed Jenny. (Spoilers abound ahead.)

Not that the finale will provide an answer. According to Chaiken, the whodunit will end unsolved. "There are ways I could still answer it if the need were to arise," she said. "But I don't actually feel compelled to answer it. The show is about character and relationships, and I used this story to deeply explore those relationships. It's a risk not to solve a mystery, admittedly."

(Showtime's Blank did not appear to know that the mystery stays mysterious. He said: "Hopefully, we will find out. Don't spoil it for me!")

Chaiken seems to have embraced the possibility that her ending will confuse or even anger viewers ("You're absolutely failing if you don't have plenty of people ranting and raving," she said). She is also aware that for the first and only successful television show about lesbians to end with a dead lesbian -- most likely murdered by another lesbian -- is politically charged. ("I'm mindful of it," she said. "But I've always considered my primary responsibility to entertain and tell good stories.")

Perhaps the reason she is so sanguine is that she thinks the show isn't really over. "I don't believe it, I don't see it in that way -- I don't know what I'm talking about when I say this. I hope we'll do an 'L Word' movie -- there's no plan to do an 'L Word' movie. But I would love to do that. I just believe that in some way, the show will live on.

"And that if there are questions that need to be answered, they'll get answered," Chaiken said with finality.

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kate.aurthur@latimes.com

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