In tonight’s season finale of The L.A. Complex, “Burn It Down,” Jonathan Patrick Moore’s Connor is recovering from an injury he is sure will end his career. In fact, that was perhaps his intention in inciting a bar brawl that’s left him with 35 stitches on his face, as he seems almost relieved to be lying in a hospital bed instead of struggling to play a doctor on television amidst intense pressure and mounting depression. And yet when his producer comes to visit him, Connor discovers he has miscalculated: his injury has garnered considerable tabloid attention, intense viewer interest, and plenty of melodramatic potential for the show’s writers to work with. In the world of medical soap operas, it seems that all press is good press.
Within the context of the Canadian series’ U.S. airing, however, Connor’s predicament seemingly runs counter to The L.A. Complex’s experience on The CW. Launching with fairly positive reviews (including one from our own Phil Dyess-Nugent), the show quickly earned the ominous title of the “lowest rated in-season drama premiere in network television history.” And unlike Connor’s injury, there was no positive way of spinning this one: while The CW kept calling it a “New Hit Series” against all evidence, the show’s dead-on-arrival status seemingly kept away anyone who might be willing to give the show a chance. Ratings dropped, conversation fizzled, and no one was shocked when The L.A. Complex didn’t show up on The CW’s 2012-13 schedule.
That’s unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that The L.A. Complex is a great television show that deserves more (positive) attention than it has received. While the show features the kind of relationship drama one would expect from a prime time soap opera, “Burn It Down” emphasizes that any such drama is always within a larger framework of individual aspiration. These characters are in Los Angeles to follow their dreams, and what drama emerges is a consequence rather than a contrivance. While the “Complex” in the show’s title could be seen as the apartments where the show’s characters largely live, the season has been more interested in the psychological meaning of the term, examining the lengths people will go to make it in City of Angels. Those stories, more than the relationships around them, have driven The L.A. Complex to its first season finale, providing a depth of character to what may on the surface appear as typical soap opera fare.
This is captured most directly by Jewel Staite’s Raquel, who ends “Burn It Down” with the soapiest of developments: she’s pregnant. We could read the storyline that got her to this point as her struggle between two potential love interests: aging dentist/producer Gary who she manipulated in order to score financing for a script she’s eyeing as her big return role, and young sex buddy Connor who she can’t seem to stay away from (and who, based on my read of the show’s somewhat skewed temporality, is the likely father). However, we could also read it as her struggle to survive as a formerly young actress in Hollywood, her desperation leading her to manipulate one man, live vicariously through another, and end up with no movie and a baby on the way.
Both storylines are comfortably at home within a soap opera, but the latter emphasizes Raquel’s agency, and creates character motivations beyond the necessity of the show’s plot. Throughout the storyline, the line between Raquel’s true feelings and her manipulations continued to blur, with Jewel Staite doing some tremendous work in portraying the uncertainty of the character’s emotions. Her tearful admission of fault at the AA meeting in last week’s episode could be read as either incredibly manipulative or painfully real, or both, and yet I’m not sure even Raquel knows which is which anymore. The ambiguity is a key part of the character’s appeal, and something that has made both Raquel and Staite’s performance a highlight in the season.
By comparison, the season’s other particularly strong storyline plays with a different kind of character dynamic. Tariq’s relationship with closeted rapped Kaldrick King has had a refreshing level of emotional certainty, allowing the characters to express their feelings early and often, and despite various setbacks there is a real sense that these characters love each other. The problem, of course, is that they’re not allowed to express this in public, creating a clear tension between how Kal acts when other people are around and when they’re alone. If Raquel has no idea what she feels, Kal knows precisely how he feels but also knows what those feelings would mean for his career (and his life) if they became public. Tariq is willing to give up his dream and quit the studio in order to make a point about Kal’s treatment of Abby, but Kal isn’t willing to give up his life for Tariq, choosing instead to beat the living shit out of him to protect his secret and out Tariq at the same time.
It’s a brutal and tragic sequence, but it’s something the narrative has been moving toward since Kal’s introduction in the second episode (especially given his violent outburst on the boardwalk). The storyline in “The Other Side Of The Door” where the two characters went to Big Sur to hide out at a bed and breakfast felt strange at first, primarily because of how obvious it was that the scenes were taking place in Ontario and not California. However, I realized by the end of the storyline that the point wasn’t where they were so much as where they weren’t. They weren’t in Los Angeles, the place where they’re forced to play another role, and away from the smog you suddenly see two people falling in love with one another. It only becomes complicated when they return to Los Angeles, to the world where they’re expected to be one thing or another, and where in “Burn It Down” Kal cries his way through a vicious attack to preserve his reputation and destroy Tariq’s—bolstered by strong performances from Benjamin Charles Watson and Andra Fuller, it was this storyline that resonated most in “Burn It Down” and in the season as a whole.
This is not the subtlest of thematic points given the show’s title, but the focus on Los Angeles as a location is an effective way to ground a soap opera like this one. While “Los Angeles Did It” may seem like an overly simple explanation for each character’s problems, it provides a structure through which we can interpret the characters’ personal struggles. In last week’s “Home,” Alicia discovered that porn doesn’t need to be a terrifying experience when there’s a kind-hearted mentor, a helpful friend to perform a lesbian scene with, and a camaraderie she hasn’t experienced in her endless cavalcade of failed dance auditions. However, she learns in “Burn It Down” that a night of partying means missing a call time for an actual dance audition, which leads her to prostitute herself to a director just in time to learn that she really did book that Usher tour she thought she didn’t get that sent her down this whole path to begin with. When we met Alicia, she was stripping to make ends meet and in order to support her dream; however, over the course of six episodes, she became a different level of cautionary tale, all based on the intense pressure that years of failure creates inside a person.
Of course, returning to Connor briefly, success can have the same impact. When you realize you were only hired for your looks, and that many in the production aren’t taking you seriously, you turn to other ways of keeping sane, which in this case includes self harm, getting high, and rampaging through the production. While not as self-destructive, Nick suffers something similar when he books a slot in the Just for Laughs festival at the expense of Sabrina after inadvertently stealing her material, realizing that with success comes the feeling that you’ve lost something of yourself (whether your dignity, your honor, or your sanity). Nick’s betrayal of Sabrina might not be on the level of Connor ending up in a hospital bed with a whole bunch of stitches, but the characters are each learning lessons about what it takes out of you to make it in Los Angeles.
Yes, The L.A. Complex ends its first season relying on the soap operatic, with Nick and Abby making out on the roof of the Luxe with the skyline in the background, but the undercurrent of that sequence is something more interesting. Abby had to break down completely—losing it in front of a set of casting directors and grabbing a standby ticket to Toronto—before she could find the success she had traveled south to search out. Nick, meanwhile, had to—almost accidentally—sell out a friend to get a break, the same kind of move that Raquel’s screenwriters nearly pull on her before she makes one last play on Gary to convince him to stay involved in the film. “Burn It Down” features all of the characters finding some measure of success: Connor still has a job, Abby finally has one, Nick has his big break, Tariq is producing a real track he helped create, Alicia booked the Usher tour, and Raquel keeps her starring role. And yet some of these victories are hollow given what was or wasn’t done to achieve them, while other victories quickly disappear with a savage beating or the tearing up of a cheque.
What allows The L.A. Complex to work so well is that these consequences are diverse and complex, dark while maintaining a sense of humor. Although Nick and Abby’s side of the storyline has always been a bit cheerier than the rest of the show, Martin Gero and the other writers were willing to take Connor and Raquel to particularly dark places, while the tenuous balance between romance and violence in Tariq and Kal’s relationship made for a rare investigation into Black homosexuality and its relationship with both culture more generally and hip hop culture specifically. The different speeds can occasionally create a bit of whiplash, the romanticism of Abby and Nick’s kiss seemingly clashing with Connor literally burning his empty nest to the ground, but that’s sort of the point: While tied together through a thematic link to the city in which they live, these characters with different backgrounds and goals are headed down different paths that the show seems committed to following with a degree of confidence capable of glossing over any smaller concerns. Those concerns exist: Alicia’s storyline was perhaps too accelerated, running through stripping to sex tape to porn with barely a breath in between, but that felt more like a consequence of a six-episode order than a narrative failure, and its ties to the season’s themes kept it from going off the rails. In the end, all ratings failures aside, The L.A. Complex was defined by bold storytelling with a purpose, the kind of storytelling that deserves better than an ignominious entry into the television record books.
Episode Grade: A-
Season Grade: A-
- While it rarely becomes a major part of the show, the writers have made good use of the characters’ relationships with one another to debrief as they go off on their own paths. Nick and Alicia’s phone call where he tries to get some sense of how she’s doing is a small moment in “Burn It Down,” but it resonates.
- While L.A. locations were prominent in the first few episodes, the show really doubled down on Toronto-based studio shooting in later episodes, an interesting frontloaded strategy to establish a sense of place without breaking their budget. And outside of the fake Big Sur, which established no authenticity whatsoever, I’d say the show faked L.A. pretty well. Did any of you watching who didn’t know of its production context feel like it was shooting north of the border?
- “We’re both afraid of you”—Raquel’s relationship with her would-be comeback writers has had some great comic moments, offsetting her darker seduction of Gary nicely.
- The show can get a bit on-the-nose with its “Making it in L.A.” theme in “Burn It Down,” particularly in the director’s speech to Alicia about the futility of being both desperate and proud. However, Alicia’s suitably schizophrenic response (slapping him and then returning to have sex with him) does provide a suitably depressing glimpse of what the city can do to a person.
- After a strong cameo in the premiere, Paul F. Tompkins was equally wonderful here—“You are still Nick Wagner?” I’m not convinced he would actually know whom Nick was, but it’s a fun performance nonetheless.
- The credulity of the Luxe having its own house band (Whale Tooth) is maybe a bit off, but I’ve enjoyed their soundtracking of the show.
- So, in case you haven’t heard, the show was already renewed for a second season in Canada before the U.S. airings began, and rumors have the show premiering on The CW as well in July, slotting into a summer season in which its dismal ratings would be relatively less dismal. We’ll see if those rumors pan out, but the show would do well with a bit of momentum.