Three weeks ago, The L.A. Complex debuted on the CW to the lowest ratings for a broadcast drama, ever. It’s too bad, because this spiky little Canadian show about a group of actors, comics, producers and dancers who live in the same run-down Los Angeles apartment complex is great fun, an improvement both on standard aspiring-starlet stories like Smash, and on theoretically sophisticated takes on modern romance.
Smash’s biggest problem all season has been that the competition between Ivy and Karen hasn’t felt realistically heated. With Ivy’s experience and her resemblance to Marilyn, it seems obvious that she’d be cast in the lead and Karen was the understudy. The show’s had to spend a lot of time giving Karen chances to sing and showing audiences reacting to her like she’s the Best Thing Ever and giving Ivy the silliest drug problem on television since Saved By The Bell to gin up any sort of drama.
The L.A. Complex, on the other hand, has conflicts that are actually rooted in Hollywood double standards. Abby Vargas, a young aspiring actress who’s been living in her car and making a lot of other bad life decisions, ends up competing with Raquel Westbrook, an older actress on the downswing played with a beautiful bitterness by Jewel Staite. When Abby beats out Raquel for a part, it turns out to be not much of a prize at all: her big break turns out to be playing a dead hooker on a crime show where her lines and her pay cut get cut correspondingly. The fights are so big because the stakes are so small, as when Nick Wagner, an aspiring stand-up comic whose material is flopping finally gets applause by viciously insulting a more successful female comic with whom he had an embarrassing one-night stand.
The relationships have the same kind of heft that Smash, which has recycled through tired affairs, starlets sleeping with directors, and the standard idiot pop-culture move of someone proposing after cheating, lacks. Sure, when Abby sleeps with Connor, the most successful actor of the bunch who’s beginning to shoot his new pilot, we’re not surprised when she catches him sleeping with someone else. But L.A. Complex, rather than making the arc solely about her naivete and vulnerability, has focused on Connor’s self-hatred and destructive tendencies. Other than Rescue Me, there’s not another show that’s dared to depict a male character self-harming, a practice typically reserved in pop culture to signify female teenaged angst (Jess’s cutting joke on the season finale of New Girl was an uncomfortably off moment, I thought).
The show’s subverted our expectations in other ways, too. When Alicia, a talented young dancer, clicks with a former child star who covers for her at her job at a strip club so she can make auditions, we expect to see them date. In a subsequent episode, he sets up for what seems like it might be an entirely-too-soon proposal. Instead, he asks her to make a sex tape with him to jump-start both their careers. And once they’re shooting, he’s shy, and awkward, obsessed with lighting and unable to actually get started. It’s Alicia who takes the lead in a moment that’s neither do-me feminism nor slut shaming: this is the best of the bad options, and she’s making the most of it.
And perhaps the best part of L.A. Complex has been that it’s put a gay couple with actual sexual chemistry on television. Brian Stelter wrote at the New York Times yesterday that pop culture appears to have accepted gay couples completely. But the truth is that’s more narrow that it seems: television loves married, settled gay couples, but it doesn’t actually treat gay people like straight people, giving them heated romances, sex scenes, and love interests with whom they have actual sexual chemistry. On Modern Family, established couple Mitch and Cam have essentially no physical sparks whatsoever — the show even had an episode that attempted to explain that the couple isn’t fond of public displays of affection as a way to explain away their lack of heat. I love Happy Endings, which gave schlumphy Max a hot love interest in the form of James Wolk, but the show still stopped far short of their bedroom door. Even Game of Thrones, which gave its gay king and loyal knight and lover hot makeouts wouldn’t go where it’s gone with almost everyone else on the show, and let them have on-screen sex.
But on The L.A. Complex, gay men get treated like everyone else. When Tariq Muhammad, an up-and-coming hip-hop producer gets assigned to work with superstar rapper Kaldrick King, the older man spends a day testing Tariq as they meander through Los Angeles. And at the end of that day, Kaldrick makes a veiled invitation to Tariq. The staredown between them before they kiss and fall into bed is one of the more sexually charged moments to appear on television this season. As commercial as it is, that moment does something that almost no pop culture does: treats gay people as if watching them fall in love and have sex is as interesting and as natural as seeing them as sexless, domesticated marrieds.