By Gillian Flynn
Updated February 21, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

The L Word is a meticulously packaged show — beautiful women; nifty fashions; slick, post-Pottery Barn furniture — that makes you say, ”Hey, I want to be a hot, successful lesbian living in Los Angeles with trendy friends and a work life that comes in short, dazzling spurts!” For all of Showtime’s predictable attempts to make the series provocative (an ad campaign featuring naked cast members; raunchy, remember-we’re-lesbians chatter; more nudity than Showgirls), L Word, at its core, is a mainstream sip-and-sup show. Like Sex and the City, The O.C., and even Friends, The L Word unspools like a gorgeous sales pitch for a much cooler life.

Fortunately, L Word has a brain beneath its pretty surface. It’s packed with telling details that make the relationships feel as full of blood and love and foolishness as real people are. The second season begins with perfect couple Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) acrimoniously uncoupled, thanks to Bette’s affair after Tina’s miscarriage. The pair’s pregnancy hopes dominated the first season, and it’s a pivotal subplot this year: Before it all went to hell, Tina, unbeknownst to Bette, received a second insemination and is now secretly expecting. So far the writers have smartly put baby on the back burner and focused on Bette and Tina’s romantic dissonance, which clangs and jangles through every episode. L Word converges specifically on Bette, the control freak who had her house in order and blew it. The writers capture what it feels like to be repentant — from the breathy pleas for forgiveness to those moments of tiny fury, when burning yourself on a teakettle feels like a divine judgment.

L Word‘s sophomore year means new cast members (so far three, all extraneous), which has taken time away from soapier plots, like the engagement of tennis star Dana (Erin Daniels) to dubious Tonya (Meredith McGeachie), who may be seeing dollar signs instead of hearts. On the other hand, the ubiquitous stunt casting has been — dare I say it? — welcome. Camryn Manheim plays a snarly movie exec, and Kelly Lynch reprises her mellow, sexy turn as transgendered Ivan, who’s courting Bette’s straight half sister, Kit (Pam Grier). Sandra Bernhard also pops up, as an abrasive writing professor who verbally smashes Jenny (Mia Kirshner). To that I say, ”Amen!” Jenny’s baby-doll-goes-to-the-city vibe has gotten cloying: Dressed in moppet wear, this supposedly edgy writer cries as she gets her long hair lopped off and sways weepily between male and female lovers. Jilting a girlfriend (the to-be-missed Anne Ramsay), she consoles: ”You do not want to get sucked into my f—ing bulls—.” Neither do I! Now I take bathroom breaks whenever the delicate daffodil twitters into a scene.

Only slightly less frustrating is L Word‘s new trend of littering scenes with whispery spoken-word sounds, like talking-talking-talking and — ugh! — wet-wet-wet-get-wet. These aural gewgaws must go. They’re chintzy accessories for a series that’s otherwise impeccably styled.