There’s a question that I have come to dread more than any other: “Why are you not watching [insert a prestige cable show that people talk about on twitter]? Oh you HAVE to watch it.” Believe me, I feel like I am not a functioning member of society because I don’t watch True Detective. Someone re-evaluated their friendship with me because I didn’t choose to watch the entirety of House of Cards Season 2 the day it was released. This is a combination of “fear of missing out” and the barrage of choices for television, and now ones that we have at our fingertips at anytime. (A measure of how liked you are is how many friends have shared their HBO Go password with you.)
So, please accept my apology because I am about to convince you that you need to watch another show that you are not watching. Or have not watched, because it was canceled in 2012. I have personally made it my mission to spread the gospel of the tragically overlooked nightime soap The L.A. Complex. I want to make it the next Freaks & Geeks; a work of artistic genius not appreciated in its time, and raise it to cult status. So far, I’ve converted two people. There’s only a finite amount of episodes you need to watch. Still, that’s two more people than the number who watched it when it ran, on the Canadian-based Much Music, and a brief, poorly marketed run of nineteen episodes. The show was barely promoted in the US, and when it was, the promotional images show attractive, scantily-clad young people photoshopped to oblivion in sensual poses. I’d think it was a reboot of the Melrose Place reboot. For you prestige cable series viewers, I don’t blame you for missing it. Here’s more incentive: since it has been canceled that give you a finite amount of episodes (nineteen in all)you need to watch.
I came upon The L.A. Complex merely by chance. I found it on Hulu during a particularly bad feverish haze thanks to a nasty flu. I needed a show that my barely functioning brain could handle, yet something that could keep me distracted from my inevitable demise into fever-induced insanity (what it felt like at the time.) The description given was something to affect of “young people living in an apartment complex hoping to make it in Hollywood”. For the record, I am typically annoyed by shows about people in show business- it feels like the writers and creators are so deep in their own struggles in Hollywood that they can’t write about anything else- but I secretly crave it. I am someone who never grew out of worshipping the business of show; as a child, it was celebrity appearances and award shows, and now as an adult, it’s who got a writing job on what show and who got a development deal. Pilot season is like my Superbowl.
That’s the great thing about The L.A. Complex. It’s not just the Hollywood cliches- with all the social media and exposure, people know about what goes on behind the scenes (i.e., the hiring and firing of Dan Harmon from Community). The behind the scenes drama is as important as the fan worship of a show. The writers of The L.A. Complex seem to capitalize on this and exploits it to its best advantage.
Take the aspiring comedy writer, Nick, (played by Joe Dinicol, a poor man’s James Franco), does the things that actual comedy writers do: bad open-mics, improv classes at UCB, vying for a spot in a writer’s room for a basic cable talk show, and hearing brutal rejection from established comedians (Played delightfully by by Paul F. Tompkins and MaryLynn Rajscub as nastier versions of themselves.) as exaggerated versions of themselves. He’s the right kind of dorky and awkward that shows that the writers have literally been to many alternative comedy shows in L.A., not just assuming what it would be like.
There’s the not-so-subtle parodies of Hollywood- uber-Christian television shows (obviously a reference to Seventh Heaven) whose stars are secretly sexual deviants, horrible casting directors, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where people go only to network, and bumbling managers. It’s a Canadian view on what Hollywood is like, and as in most things, Canadian entertainment is always a slightly more nuanced and sometimes smarter view.
As with an ensemble show, the different characters have their own arcs. There’s the rising star, Connor, who has a part on the show’s version ofGrey’s Anatomy, who is secretly depressed and self-doubting. His fragile sense of self is dragged through the excruciating scenarios in which he finds his acting coach was only being paid to be friendly to him, he agrees to be paid to acting as a fading actresses’ fake boyfriend, and finally, in a plot that had to happen and the show would not be complete about: his self-doubt gets him dragged head first into a Scientology-esque organization. All of these could be handled with over-the-top campiness, but the show plays it real and earnest, which is a risk that pays off. Connor is both the leading ladies’ man and struggling, scared, insecure depressive.Jonathan Patrick Moore plays Connor quite excellently, playing someone who is acting like they are a confident leading man who is actually tormented by anxiety and self-doubt- that’s some actor’s conservatory stuff right there.
There’s also some clever art imitating life: Jewel Staite, Canadian treasure, and Firefly alumnus, plays the bitter Raquel, only known for her short stint on a popular but canceled show (Teenage Wasteland, which is supposedly a Canadian My So-Called Life). She plays the show’s anti-hero, scheming and manipulating her way back to recognition. However, she’s a not a femme fatale, she’s a fully realized character whose snarky remarks and “haters gonna hate” mentality is refreshing and relatable, and we want her to succeed. She rolls her eyes at the young ingenues trying to make it; she’s the audience’s lens. If we can learn to love the male anti-heroes of late, can’t we also root for a female anti-hero?
It is abundantly clear that the writers of The L.A. Complex have watched and appreciated the amazing documentary The Hollywood Complex, both from naming their show to including a plot about the world of stage moms and child actors. In the second season, Beth, a homeless teen leaves her small town in Canada with her younger brother after they make a handful of cash after he appears as an extra. Cue the heartless casting directors, money-hungry child talent agents, and acting gigs in which he plays a captive, sexual abuse victim. Beth morphs into protective mother role, keeping her cool in the cesspool of child acting biz. She starts to struggle with finding her own identity and deciding what she wants out of Hollywood life, but cancellation prevented that story from playing out.
By far, the most intriguing plot is that of the megafamous gangsta rapper Kaldrick King, coddled by his cadre of managers/producers, and his relationship with young male record label intern Tariq. At first, Tariq is humiliated as an intern, made to endure insults and demeaning requests from the producers. He is made Kaldrick’s personal driver, and after learning about the real Kaldrick, not his persona, starts a romantic and sexual relationship with him. At its basis, a gay relationship between two black men, much less someone in the rap world, is something we rarely see, but it’s more developed than just for being edgy for edgy’s sake. King fights to hide the relationship from his closest friends and the public, not to mentioned his own internal shame of who he is. King’s experience as a rapper does not rely on stereotypes that a lazier-written show may lean on; he struggles with relationships with his father, his childhood friends, rival rappers who threaten to expose him with real emotions and accessibly interactions. King is no angel in this scenario, doing some really shitty things, especially to Tariq, to hide his identity from the public; he’s not a martyr or victim of homophobia. In fact, his character grapples with several identities, that being a black man, a gay man, a rich man, a public figure in a way that focuses in the character and doesn’t make him a lesson to be learned or martyr for the cause.
Again, we have a “ripped from the headlines” story, as this was aired not long after Frank Ocean revealed his relationship with a man. The final scene of the nineteenth and last episode, Kaldrick, hoping to make amends with all he has hurt, pens a blog post stating “I am a gay man.”, hits send, and credits roll. Never has a series finale left me with such unresolved emotions. There was a chance for Kaldrick, and the fantastic Andra Fuller, the actor who plays him, to really provide one of the most interesting characters on television. (The actor is, no exaggeration also one of the best-looking and talented actors on television, why has he not found success yet?)
This show has its flaws, of course. Abby Vargas, who we meet first, is meant to the protagonist of the show. She flees her small town and her unsupportive boyfriend with dreams of being an actress, and spends most of the series either fucking up every opportunity she does get, or being the desire of the straight males on the show. Abby is the least developed on the show, characterized only as the sexually-adventurous“hot girl” without much else of a personality. There’s also the criminal under-use of the character Alicia, a wanna-be dancer who is so tired of rejection that she agrees to make a sex-tape with a has-been child star, which leads her into acting in adult films.
A typical drama may show her in a spiral of debauchery and shame as she is a victim of the pornography industry, but the company she works is a supportive, sex-positive, pro-feminist one (I may be stretching it with the feminism, but it was one that gave her agency and good treatment). I would have loved to see an adult film star depicted as one with agency and control of her sexuality, but Alicia abruptly left the show when she got a call to dance on the Usher tour (those Canadians, always about three years behind on pop culture), It may be because she was written off the show, but it was disappointing to see her go.
The L.A. Complex is a show in which the sum is greater than all its individual parts. The actors are excellently cast, and it’s surprising to see that nearly all of them have not gone on to bigger things. As you would expect from a show about Hollywood hopefuls, all of the cast are attractive, but not in a way you would see in other serial dramas- no one is breaking the beauty molds here, but they just don’t have the same boring look of most Hollywood starlets and hunks. They all portray an earnestness to the show that compliments its sometimes cynical sense of humor, rather than contradicts it.
Still, it is a fantasy, an “escapist” experience where despite their suffering, all the characters look great doing it and always have someone to care about them. There are certainly some moments that exhibit a large sense of suspension of reality. For instance, there’s a band that performs in the apartment complex each night while various residents grill burgers and frolic in the pool. It’s never explained why they perform, who they are, and why all these people have all this time to party. I don’t care to get the answers, I just wish I were a part of this world. For a fateful 19 episodes in 2012, I was. It’s not too late for you either. The complete series is on dvd and streaming on Netflix.