The L.A. Complex: “The Contract”
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The L.A. Complex: “The Contract”

The entertainment industry is dominated by transient spaces, whether it’s the revolving cast of a long-running television show, the nascent writers’ room of a late night talk show, the tenuousness of a celebrity relationship, or simply the day-to-day struggle to “make it in L.A.” that the Luxe—with its weekly/monthly rates—personifies. The L.A. Complex is slightly less transient as a television show, following characters closely and consistently as they navigate these struggles, but Alicia and Tariq were both—temporarily—shuffled out of the central focus of the series last week to leave room for new storylines.

I raise this point in part because I think it’s an interesting thematic and structural point related to the show’s success. However, I also raise this point because despite the fact that we’re officially adding—by popular demand—The L.A. Complex to the regular rotation, you’re still dealing with a transient. Phil, who covered the series premiere and last week’s season premiere, will be covering the show full time, but I’m stepping in to cover “The Contract,” the sophomore installment in the show’s second season. While we apologize for the lack of consistency, consider it our homage to how quickly things can change in Hollywood.

“The Contract,” meanwhile, largely focuses on the eponymous document, to the point where the value of a thematic throughline was somewhat undone by its remarkable—and mildly contrived—consistency across the board. Abby is forced to sign a morality clause in her contract for a guest spot on Saving Grace; Nick and Sabrina discover they don’t have contracts and only one can get a job on The Paul F. Tompkins Show; Connor is approached to enter into a contractual relationship by an aging star—Jennifer Bell—who wants to boost her image; Beth and Simon are confronted by a pricey contract—as in they have to pay to sign it, basically—to get the latter started in Los Angeles as a child actor. Even the characters who don’t sign actual contracts are confronted by the idea of them, like Kaldrick having trouble working through his issues in therapy despite doctor-patient confidentiality.

To be clear, I like the theme that runs through the episode, but I do think there comes a point where blanket themes run the risk of making an episode seem contrived. Taken individually, each storyline frames the question of commitment to each character, and asks them to consider what they’re willing to sign away at what cost. For some, like Abby and Nick, there’s not much to lose: They both need jobs, and these are their best opportunities yet, so why would they ever think otherwise? For Connor, meanwhile, he’s just decided to try to settle down for Racquel when he’s approached to serve as arm candy for a collagen-lipped movie star, and Beth fights against the shark tank of L.A. because she doesn’t want Simon to lose his innocence too soon. Because the characters are all at different stages of their journeys, it allows us to see how one person’s stern resolve not to let Los Angeles change them—Beth—is contrasted with someone—Racquel—who puts on a wig and plays a different person entirely in an attempt to be perceived differently by casting directors.

This raises a different question, which is what kind of space facilitates a good L.A. experience. Beth expects help from a director who, it turns out, only wanted to sleep with her, which leads her to become jaded about L.A. until she discovers the people at the Luxe have the potential to serve as a support system. Nick and Abby, meanwhile, find themselves in volatile environments where supposed stability—Danishes! Prayer!—is masking an insidious and toxic environment where someone could be there one day and gone the next, even if you’ve been on the show for six years. It becomes a microcosm of the larger path of a character like Racquel, something the show has been able to use to its advantage to shorthand its way through general experiences of those working in Hollywood.

This may sound like a lot of positive commentary about the episode, and it is, but I do think the thematic work took a toll. The problem is that while these storylines are all interesting on their own, and I appreciate the thematic links between them, the episode spends enough time making the link that it leaves Kaldrick King without much time left over. His suicide arc was a powerful end to last week’s episode, but it felt rushed here. The fact that he’d so quickly moved from recovery into group therapy—especially given his history of publicly violent tendencies and now an actual suicide attempt—robs the storyline of some of its pathos and development. Whereas the other storylines often feel like short-form riffs on Hollywood culture, like the religious moralism of Saving Grace or the point in one’s career when it becomes acceptable to appear in Syfy Made-for-TV movies, Kal’s storyline feels deeply personal and doesn’t resonate as it could have given how it got drowned out by the wave of thematic connections. Kal’s admission to the silent listener that he’s “a faggot,” was powerful, but the silent listener felt too choreographed as the storyline got shoved into clearly labeled boxes the further the episode progressed.

One of the things I wish the storyline had more time to explore was his relationship with the man who is rushing to get him out of psychiatric care in order to plug his new single. This season has been considering the support structures each character has around them, and I think it’s led us to an interesting place. Nick and Abby are supposed to have each other, but Abby’s too busy dealing with the showcestual twins situation that she can’t talk with him about his own struggles at work. Connor, meanwhile, chooses not to keep a secret from Racquel, while Racquel continues to hide her pregnancy from him, and Sabrina chooses to help Nick out of either pity or a savior complex but calls off the truce once it becomes clear they’re competing for the same position. Beth and Simon, meanwhile, are the one pairing in the show that are there for each other no matter what, the bond of family stronger than the simple bonds of friendship (but occasionally more emotionally volatile, as seen in Beth’s interaction with her father’s voice messaging service).

I’d like to have seen that extend to Kal’s entourage, but it seemed like we were missing a few steps compared to the detail we’re getting elsewhere. It doesn’t help that Kal’s off in his own world, disconnected from any of the characters at the Luxe, but that perhaps mean he needs more time in a single episode to properly render his storylines. Many shows have done time in psychiatric wards, but “The Contract” never got a chance to set up any kind of structure, something that could have punched up the satire.

It’s hard to criticize The L.A. Complex for having too many plots when it dropped two entire characters—and one entire subplot—in these early episodes, but I do think that a more gradual transition might have worked more effectively. “The Contract” rushes things a bit to get to its thematic cross-section, and some storyline suffer as a result, but there’s a strong core here that picks up on earlier thematic work to keep the series on track for a strong second season.

Stray observations:

  • I suppose Saving Grace, in terms of recent comparisons, is basically a parody of 7th Heaven? Are there any other religious TV options to choose from?
  • While the previews suggested Abby getting in between Brandon and Laura, I appreciated that her knowledge is the problem more than her sexuality. It’s also helpful that Brandon and Laura are legitimately in love, as opposed to just hooking up on the sly, something that allows Alan Thicke’s character to continue to play the antagonist.
  • It was a pretty huge stretch to push either Nick or Sabrina into a writer’s room, let alone both, but I love having Paul F. Tompkins recurring, and Sabrina is probably my favorite character on the show.
  • Case in point: “I say the funny things. You say the stupid things. What’s to remember?”
  • In terms of safe spaces, the seminar Racquel attends seems to me like a particularly horrible activity, especially for an older actress—sure, she was rude, but that’s a difficult position to put someone in under any circumstance, even if people are trying to be helpful.
  • Brandon on costuming perils: “My nipples get crazy hard.”
  • Phil will be back next week, although I’m guessing I’ll see y’all in the comments—even without being the one to cover it, I’m very pleased we’re able to help bring attention to the show and give you a place to discuss it.
Filed Under: TV, The L.A. Complex

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