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

Just a little more than a month and a half after its first season finale, The L.A. Complex is back with its second season premiere. (The Canadian-produced series first aired in its native land more than three months before it first turned up here, on The CW, but the second season is airing concurrently on The CW and on Canada’s MuchMusic.) Given the media attention given to the ratings pulled down by the first episode back in April, which made history for the wrong reason, it’s nice of The CW to keep airing the show at all, even if it does need the padding for its late-summer schedule. And though The L.A. Complex would be a good show anyplace, there’s a special charm about seeing it on The CW, where—with its cast of ridiculously good-looking young people trying to work out their relationship and career problems—it has about the same relationship to its surroundings as, say, Robert Altman’s Nashville if it were shown on CMT. 

The show isn’t Nashville, but it has its own distinctive take on the "making it in Hollywood" genre, a take that feels fresh in part because it utilizes an outsider’s perspective. After decades of American shows that tried to conceal the fact that they were shot in Canada, there’s a special charm to a show that’s set and partly filmed in Los Angeles but is populated with characters who make no bones about being from someplace else. In tonight’s episode, even Tariq (Benjamin Charles Watson), the young black man who’s been trying to crash the hip-hop music scene, says that he wants to go home to Montreal.

Tariq is upset because of the implosion of his fiery romance with the smoldering rapper King (Andra Fuller)—a relationship that is so on the down-low that, when King’s associates caught the two of them in a tender moment, he felt obliged to beat the smaller, younger Tariq to a bloody pulp. King’s producer, who knows the truth about the beating, arranges a sit-down with his house lawyer so that Tariq can negotiate terms. (“This is starting to sound like blackmail,” says King, still doing his best not to seem as if his heart is breaking. “I’m your producer,” comes the answer, “so I can make it sound any way you want it to sound.”) Anyone who’s every witnessed their love story coming to a bad end and not understood why it didn’t seem to be killing the other person involved will feel a sharp twinge when the lawyer sets a paper in front of Tariq and promises, “For all intents and purposes, after you sign, your time with Mr. King never happened.”

Things are sunnier, for now, between Nick, the gawky stand-up comic, and Abby, the aspiring actress. They even land jobs. Paul F. Tompkins’ hilariously unflattering cameo as himself was a high point of the first season, and he’s back, unhappy about his producer’s insistence on giving Nick a hearing for a slot writing for his new talk show. (“No,” he says, when told that he asked that Nick be called in, “I meant the other guy—the funny guy!”) The other familiar new face on the set belongs to Alan Thicke, who does a priceless bit as the creator-star of a Christian series that Abby auditions for. (In a clip, we see him explaining it all for a lost soul who protests, “So what! I downloaded a couple of movies off the Internet. Who’s it hurt?” “Your soul,” answers Thicke.) Though she ends up with the part, the audition does not go so well: Abby refers to Philippians 4:13 as “Filipinos 4:13,” and Thicke gently upbraids her for coming in to read for the part of a missionary while “dressed like a prostitute.” Viewers of a suspicious nature may just suspect that the star of Growing Pains is enjoying himself a little at the expense of his born-again former colleague Kirk Cameron.

Fierce as the competition is for the title, the strangest relationship on the show right now may be the one between Jewel Staite’s “aging” actress Raquel and Connor, the self-loathing, self-destructive pretty-boy TV star who was last seen idly burning down his big new house. It’s natural that they’d be fuck buddies, and it makes sense that, in the bewildered emotional state that unearned success inspires in Connor, he’d try to cling to her like a rock in a storm, begging her to marry him, or at least be his official girlfriend. It may not be Staite’s fault that she seems too level-headed to seem even partially susceptible to this; her previous dysfunctional romance, with a wealthy, older, recovering drunk she met in Alcoholics Anonymous while pretending to have a drinking problem of her own for purposes of networking, gave Staite more to chew on. The L. A. Complex is almost consistently lively and fresh, but it isn’t perfect. A couple of plot twists in tonight’s episode that seem meant to be surprising are telegraphed well in advance. There’s also a funny scene with Raquel and Connor goofing on a Scientology recruiter they meet on the street, until Raquel realizes that, in his jangled state, Connor might actually be easy pickings. She pulls him away, and the two of them walk a couple of feet before Connor is transfixed by an enormous billboard of himself, advertising his TV show. Presumably, it’s been in the recruiter’s line of sight all day, but there’s no indication that she recognizes him in the flesh.

Despite its La-La Land setting and surface glamor, The L. A. Complex is one of the few shows on TV with a real feeling for losers’ anxieties, that special, one-of-a-kind feeling that comes from assuring the landlord that the rent will be in his hand by the end of the week when you have no source of income and not a penny in the bank. But it’s not a downer. (One character from the first season, Alicia—a dancer who torpedoed her career by agreeing to do a sex tape with a washed-up child actor, and who seemed to be on the verge of going into porn—is given an honest job on the road and shipped out at the start of tonight’s episode, maybe because the only alternative was to follow her down to a level of degradation that would make for depressing viewing.) The hope is that, now that there are new episodes that haven’t already aired outside the U. S., the second season may be able to get its ratings up. If that doesn’t happen, well, more than 40 years ago, the rock critic Robert Christgau coined the term “semi-popular music” for pop that was conceived commercially and critically successful but that couldn’t find an audience in the marketplace, and there may be such a thing as semi-popular TV: stuff that isn’t exactly Nam June Paik, but that comments and rings fresh changes on its genre in a way that doesn’t seem to do much for its mass commercial appeal. The L. A, Complex might be the first primetime soap to fall into that category since Mike White’s Pasadena.

Stray observations:

  • This episode also introduces a couple of new characters: a little boy and his older sister, homeless and living in a car, who stumble across the filming of a yogurt commercial and end up getting a job and making a connection with the director. Thus far, this plotline is most notable for the scene of the director firing the kid hired to star in the commercial upon discovering, when he balks at tasting the product, that he’s lactose intolerant. “It’s an intolerance, not a allergy!” protests the stage mom. 
Filed Under: TV, The L.A. Complex

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