January 16, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

From its title to its dialogue, Showtime’s The L Word is often terribly coy, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a stylishly involving, amusing soap opera. The opening credits try to suggest that the L word is everything but what it really is — ”lesbian” — by flashing other L words at us: ”love,” ”longing,” ”laughter,” ”lies,” ”labyrinth” (you sense the writers starting to get desperate here), ”limber” (they’re staring at the ceiling, tapping pencils against their teeth, scouring dictionaries), ”libido” (ooh — good one!), ”limpid”…”limpid”?

”The L Word” starts out cribbing from gay-friendly projects ranging from ”Sex and the City” (lesbian chums headed up by ”Flashdance”’s Jennifer Beals meet over meals to dish) to Armistead Maupin’s ”Tales of the City” (a sweet, smiley straight girl, Jenny, played by Mia Kirshner, arrives in a big city — in this case, another L, Los Angeles — meets numerous gay neighbors, and almost immediately gets caught up in a same-sex affair). The central couple is museum director Bette (Beals) and film exec Tina (”Angel”’s Laurel Holloman), who are committed to the point of trying to have a child via sperm donor. Their neighbors are Tim (Eric Mabius), a swimming coach, and his recent-college-grad girlfriend, Jenny, who arrives in L.A. literally wide-eyed at the casual sexual freedom she witnesses.

Kirshner, most vividly the would-be presidential assassin last season in ”24,” is good at keeping Jenny’s startled, intrigued innocence. All the more so when she goes to a nearby coffee shop frequented by local lesbians and falls for the owner, the alluring Euro beauty Marina (Karina Lombard). I know, it sounds contrived, but executive producer Ilene Chaiken understands something significant: what it’s like to move to Los Angeles, the land of reinventing yourself, of discovering new possibilities, new realities, new fantasies. ”I’m not used to the way this feels,” says Jenny, those wide eyes filling with tears, and her unbridled emotions brimming over as well.

”The L Word” has a few problems, such as cutesy chatter (”Lesbians think friendship is another word for foreplay”), generalities trying to pass as randy wisdom (”Any time you get a group of gay girls together, you are guaranteed that someone has slept with someone else who slept with someone else”), and humor of the ain’t-L.A.-trendy-and-wacky variety, as when the bi journalist Alice (Leisha Hailey) goes ”to get my vagina rejuvenated” for a magazine assignment.

At the same time, there are moments of straight-from-the-heart directness. After a few sapphic smooches, Jenny, who still has strong feelings for Tim, says to Marina with touching helplessness, ”I can’t be around you anymore. It’s confusing to me, and it makes me feel insane.” Who among us hasn’t felt that at one time or another? Of course, this being cable TV and Showtime, home of the pornomentary series ”Family Business,” there’s a certain amount of what a lot of network sitcoms currently use as a punchline phrase: ”hot girl-on-girl action!” Yet ”L” isn’t as shrilly lecherous as Showtime’s other gay-themed drama, the trying-too-hard-to-stay-hard ”Queer as Folk.”

Unless you count her screenplay work on the Pam Anderson action film ”Barb Wire” as a vehicle for encoded lesbian empowerment, Chaiken is doing something new in offering as wide a variety of gay women as her assiduously upscale setting will allow. Still, I could take a lot less of the lez most of the other characters seem mesmerized by — Shane (Katherine Moennig), the love-’em-and-leave-’em tough hairstylist (her own ‘do is a frowsy mop). She strikes me as little more than a Runaways-era Joan Jett, speaking in gruff clichés: ”I don’t do relationships.” But the fact that I’m caught up in these women’s various obsessions is proof that ”The L Word” is effective as a soap opera and, occasionally, a drama. Beals as Bette is terrific in particular, especially in the fifth episode, when she has to deal with a grave Ossie Davis as her visiting father. She’s crushed when this dignified man she adores does not approve of the possibility of a grandchild issuing from a union for which he can barely muster tolerance.

By the way, be sure to catch the dumbest end-credit disclaimer I’ve ever seen: ”The character of Alice Pieszecki is not intended to portray or represent any particular individual at LA Weekly.” Alrighty, then — I guess we know Alice wasn’t modeled on someone who works at a certain Los Angeles alternative newspaper. Good work, Showtime lawyers!

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