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With about a dozen main characters and as many more recurring guests, and enough fast-changing, overlapping story lines to rival Balzac, "The L Word" plays out as Showtime's answer to HBO's "The Sopranos." Creator Ilene Chaiken's comedy-drama centering on a group of lesbian Los Angeles friends (and to some extent lovers) is the So Cal answer to David Chase's New Jersey wiseguys and goomars. ladies, from rich alpha female Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley) to going-psycho-any-minute waif Jenny Schecter (Mia Kershner) to butch bed-hopping hairdresser Shane Mc Cutcheon (Katherine Moennig) -- well, you don't want to get on their wrong side.The volatile relationship between life partners Bette Porter and Tina Kennard (Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman) is every bit as compelling and dynamic as that of Tony and Carmela. With Season 3, the series embraces more than before its comedy side, with Leisha Hailey's flaky but goodhearted Alice Pieszecki cementing her central place in the show.And would Bette's older straight half sister Kit Porter (Pam Grier), a washed-up R&B singer, really want to put up with any of them on a daily basis?Most episodes begin, pre-credits, with short scenes set years or decades ago, in which younger versions of familiar characters, or those we have yet to meet, have a seminal, as it were, lesbian moment.Would a privileged and cultured Brit like Helena really be friends with a skateboarding, feral punk like Shane?

The segments are a nice teasing touch, adding a bit of suspense as we wonder when we'll catch up with the ideas and characters hinted at.

THE EPISODES (Beware: nothing but spoilers ahead) Disc 1 "Labia Majora" (originally aired Jan. Six months have passed since the events that ended the second season.

(The wonderful Hailey, who's probably more familiar to the public from a Yoplait yogurt TV commercial than this pay-cable series, has not yet been nominated for an Emmy for "The L Word." If the TV academy can't see this actress' brilliance it should just go out of business.) The series is never too far from soap opera, with relationships going off in odd directions at any minute, often without regard to logic.

The nagging feeling from the series' start remains: these disparate women -- who convene virtually every day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and beyond at fictional West Hollywood lesbian restaurant/nightclub The Planet -- have little in common with each other beyond their sexual orientation.

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Cast: Jennifer Beals, Erin Daniels, Pam Grier, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Mia Kershner, Eric Lively, Katherine Moennig, Dallas Roberts, Daniela Sea, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Shelley.

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