As all fans of The L-Word know, lesbian drama is not (just) a genre, it’s life. And web series Different for Girls does not disappoint: it offers complete emotional involvement from the first moments, with an in-your-face vomiting scene as Cam clocks that it might be more than a hangover upsetting her stomach, and potentially upsetting her renewed relationship with Fran. Jacquie Lawrence’s script, from her own novel, nests multiple other lesbian couples and thruples within Cam and Fran’s will they/won’t they relationship.
Flare runs 16-26 March 2017.
Fran’s twin brother Tom co-manages a bar with Cam, although the hard work seems to be done by bartender Dasha. Cam is best friends with Gemma, who is engaged to gay soap actor Kirby to please her upper-class parents, but actually dating DIVA staff writer Jude, whose ex Nicola is now married-with-kids to Brooke, whose co-parents Ivan and Claude are the gay couple who ground this labile lesbian La Ronde.
Five episodes, of 12 minutes each, pack in a satisfying number of secret twists. These often coincide with an equally satisfying number and variety of sexual interactions that (even more satisfyingly) develop the characters and their narratives. Sex is framed without spectacularisation, although plenty of attention is paid to the characters’ physical attractions – with Guinevere Turner (playing Jude), at 49, still the most fatale of queer femmes.
The sex scenes work because they are integrated into the storytelling, which focuses on the characters’ domestic lives: sex is one of the things that happens in houses (although also not in houses), and in some sense defines domestic space and life. To highlight this domesticity, transitions between stories are punctuated by gliding shots of house exteriors (including tellingly sinister tracks along Gemma’s white picket fence) that pack in subtle class information while also placing us firmly in the territory of melodrama. When the characters finally make it out in episode 3, Chiswick’s stretch of the River Thames offers a refreshing backdrop, both highly specific to affluent West London, and going beyond Chelsea clichés.
There’s an undoubted schadenfreude intended in these glimpses into the lives of a new class of affluent, predominantly white lesbian and gay couples who might present perfect faces but fall to pieces, like the rest of us, when confronting infidelity and other relationship complexities. There’s a particularly funny scene in which Nic loses it with Jude at the DIVA offices – look out for filmmaker Lisa Gornick’s cameo as a DIVA staffer who can’t believe her ears.
The Jude/Gemma/Kirby relationship points specifically to the price of keeping up appearances, not just in terms of the stresses on Jude and Gemma’s relationship, but the serious implications of Kirby wanting to spend time with Jude and Nic’s teenage son Max. Fran’s cocaine and alcohol consumption, and her threats of physical violence towards Cam are treated with similar seriousness.
Victoria Broom, as Fran, and Tuyen Do, as Cam, carry the most dramatic storylines, and deliver performances to suit. Broom has an intensity that reflects her prior involvement with low-budget British horror films, while Do gives a bittersweet realism to Cam’s situation, bringing depth and shade with her representation of grief.
The strength of their performances, along with the show’s seamlessly blended tones – from ironic social observation to emotional power – and its elegant look speak to the canny, capable direction by Campbell X, whose film Stud Life (2012) offered a similarly ensemble view of the complications of life and loves in working-class queer East London. For all the heightened drama, there is also a welcome (and even reflexive) self-deprecation to the storytelling, especially from down-to-earth Ivan and Claude who are that rarest of televisual things: a happy, committed gay couple. Unlike The L-Word, the show is aware of its drama.
There’s a storied genealogy of American lesbian dramas that uncover the secrets, lies and compromises behind the closed doors of the home, from Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge and Anne Heche’s TV movie If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) to Lisa Cholodenko’s indie hit The Kids Are All Right (2010), whose narrative of a dyke couple trapped in a heteronormative dyad is echoed by Nic and Brooke’s failing relationship.
Different for Girls is also marked by British difference, from Cam’s Geordie mam to Brooke’s burgeoning school-gates-plus friendship with Jess, based on planning the church Christmas fair. Lawrence, the show’s creator, noted in the Guardian in March 2015 that lesbians were an endangered species in British television, with no lesbian-focused series succeeding Lip Service, and sudden lesbian death syndrome afflicting the BBC’s series Last Tango in Halifax and Call the Midwife.
Lawrence adapted Different for Girls to redress both absences, as well as to show a more intergenerational range of characters than Lip Service. It shows a lack of vision that no British TV production company was willing to get on board, despite their, ahem, lip service on diversity – and despite the success of Lawrence’s novel, and of US imports such as Orange Is the New Black.
Instead the show – which was partly crowdfunded – will stream online via Lesbian Box Office. While streaming shows have hugely increased the range and possibility of LGBTQIA representation, following in the footsteps of what premium cable channels had achieved in the early 2000s, there is still a need to see these stories put in front of the widest possible audiences.
Different for Girls’ special presentation at Flare is an important showcase for the series, and for the profile of streaming shows, which are also the focus of The Queer Frontier, a Flare panel event on Saturday 25 March. But it’s hard not to feel that it continues to be different for girls, in terms of access to production and distribution. This first series is a showcase of addictive storytelling and compelling performances, ending on a series of cliffhangers: will Cam and Fran get back together? Will Gemma throw Kirby in the river? Will Brooke clock Nic’s ‘work commitments’? And will a canny TV producer recognise the quality on offer and snap up season two – cast and crew intact – so it can reach a bigger audience?