The last few weeks, every time I’ve watched The L. A. Complex, I’ve been trying to figure out why the story line about Simon, the little boy trying to break into child acting, and his sister, Beth, doesn’t seem able of commanding my full attention. Tonight, I decided that it may be because it makes literal something that’s implicit about most of the other characters. In terms of personal development and maturity, they’re all over the map, but they’re all in a business that encourages them to behave like children. In tonight’s episode, Simon, who doesn’t know any kids his own age, bonds at an audition with another aspiring child actor, Tyson, who’s there with his mother. Both kids have another audition later that day, and when Beth asks if there are any thrift stores nearby, Tyson’s mother, sizing up Beth and Simon’s financial situation, tells her not to waste time and money on clothes to help Simon look “right” for the part he’s reading for; if the casting people like his face and his delivery, she says, that’s all that matters.
Naturally, Beth shows up at the audition and sees that Tyson has changed into a suit. There follows an ugly scene in which Beth and Tyson’s mother start out by swapping catty remarks before things degenerate to the point that Beth is literally threatening the woman with violence if she doesn’t let Simon borrow Tyson’s jacket. Then the casting director calls Simon’s name, and Simon interrupts and shames the grown-ups by informing them that his new friend Tyson has generously offered to lend him the jacket. Truly only a child could keep a clear head (and a straight moral compass) in this environment. That’s the message. It’s a little too clear-cut and wholesome in its irony. When the adults are center-stage, the show makes the same point, but without pretending that all these people should be able to smoothly navigate these shark-infested waters, if only they hadn’t suffered the fall from grace that is puberty.
The best thing about tonight’s episode is the way it remembers to keep bringing the focus back to Jewel Staite’s Raquel, the battle-weary industry veteran who, the poor thing, has beheld the cake of shame that has 30 whole candles on it. Raquel’s professional and personal situations both drive home how hard it is for even a smart cookie to keep her bearings. Having accepted a part in a crappy low-budget monster movie, Raquel tries to convince herself that it may be a valuable networking experience: The director has been to Sundance three times. But when the director films her offhand, indifferent performance and she explains that she thought they were rehearsing and asks for another take, all he says is, “The Cactibear franchise isn’t big on rehearsals.” When she makes the mistake of appealing to him as a fellow artist, he shuts her down fast: “You know you’re only here because Tiffany and Debbie Gibson said no, right?” The director, like Raquel, is just doing hack work for money so he can move on to the project he really wants to do. But where she sees him as a peer and potential collaborator, he just sees her as one of the losers he can’t wait to be shed of when he returns to his real people in indie-land.
Humiliated and hurt, Raquel goes back to the room she and Connor share at the apartment complex and huddles in bed, looking as badly in need of a cuddle as a depressed cast member of My Little Pony. Enter Connor, who’s on his way out to a big movie premiere with the sexy star he’s contracted to appear in public with, for the intended bettering of both their careers—an agreement that Raquel, the hardheaded pragmatist, encouraged him to sign off on. Now, she begs him to take her along. Connor, the spoiled brat, gets frustrated and says probably the worst possible thing he could say in this situation: He reminds Raquel that he’s doing what she told him to do, because she said she could handle it. Deprived of what she needs, Raquel’s streak of self-respect rears its head, and out of her mouth pour all the things she should have thought when Connor suggested they get together in the first place: “Did you want to be with me at all, or did you just need a warm body at night because you’re afraid of the dark? If you were any less secure, you’d be in pieces.” The dawning realization that she has hooked up with a man too weak to deserve her and then instructed him on how best to hurt her does nothing to make her feel better, but it does lead to a very funny wandering-around-the-pool-party-getting-more-and-more-drunk scene. And then she gets a hold of a phone…
Raquel belongs in this milieu, even if she hasn’t mastered it as well as she thinks she has, and can sometimes barely function in it. You could say the same for Kaldrick, who tonight locates his father, a large, weary man who looks as if he might have been tossed out of Tracy Jordan’s entourage for distributing empowerment literature to lap dancers. And Abby, who finally lands in the middle of the three-way with the Christian-TV sibs that has been written in the stars since the season premiere, is getting into the swing of things. And then there’s Nick, who once seemed to be about to find his chops as a comic, and who instead has a hissy fit about being undercut by his professional rival Sabrina and brings the writers’ room to a standstill by whining about how hard it is to think up funny shit when your girlfriend has dumped you and visions of homelessness are dancing through your head in your big lonely bed.
I thought the producer was going to fire him right then and there, but instead, he jumps at the chance to call off work for the day and cheer Nick up, meaning a bar crawl that ends with a visit to a brothel, so the producer (“Sometimes, Nick, showing naked pictures of your ex to other dudes really helps ease the pain.”) can get laid—on Nick’s dime. “Would it be possible,” Nick asks the madam, “to spread this over a few cards?” Maybe Nick’s identity and place in the L.A. food chain finally are coming into focus: He might be one of those people with no savvy and less talent who, somehow, manages to remain afloat in the business, year after year, come hell or high water. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show expressly about someone like that, though if there weren’t plenty of people like that, The CW wouldn’t be able to put on two hours of original programming every night.