I have a terrible confession to make – I’ve never seen The L Word. Wait, wait, let me explain. I was only fifteen when the show stopped airing, and by the time I was throwing myself into the kind of online communities that might have persuaded me to check out reruns, everyone had moved on to just dunking on The Real L Word anyway. More importantly, though, we had our own sapphic televisual cross to bear over here in the UK: Lip Service.
If you were being polite, you’d call Lip Service the BBC’s answer to The L Word. If you were being accurate, you’d call it the BBC’s knock-off of The L Word. Swapping out glamorous West Hollywood for the slightly less glamorous Glasgow, it followed a group of queer women in their late twenties as they bumbled around cheating on each other with each other. Of course, by the time Lip Service premiered in 2010, The L Word‘s heyday was long over and it had been off the air for a year, making the BBC’s timing questionable at best. However, the question of why it was commissioned in the first place pales into insignificance when you come to asking why the BBC chose to air a show about lesbians turning thirty on its youth-oriented channel, BBC Three. If you wonder why it only lasted for two series, that might have something to do with it.
Of course, there may be a few other reasons. Mainstream (i.e. straight, male) critics hated it, and the reaction from the community was mixed. Its portrayal of the Glasgow queer scene isn’t exactly realistic; everyone’s middle-class as hell, and there’s barely a butch to be seen. Unfortunately, it maintains steadfastly accurate in one aspect where I wouldn’t have minded a detour from reality – the sheer whiteness of a large portion of the Scottish queer community. And let’s have a show of hands: who just fast-forwarded through every episode to get to the sex scenes?
Surprisingly for anyone who was a teen when Lip Service aired, there was actually an entire TV show between those sex scenes. Let’s take a walk down memory lane together, shall we?
Lip Service is set in the strange and distant world of, like, five years ago, where everyone apparently talked about Facebook all the time and hair could look like this:
For a show that lasted for a grand total of 12 episodes, it’s surprisingly hard to pin down. The closest thing it has to a focal character is killed off early in the second series, in a plot twist best described as “awful bullshit.” Characters just kind of wander in and out the show, generally taking plot points with them. More often than not, said plot points involve two characters fucking. Ruta Gedmintas – who played edgy late-twenties bisexual and unfortunate owner of the haircut above, Frankie Alan – probably summed up the show’s philosophy best when she told an interviewer “[W]e’re not trying to do anything that hasn’t been done before. We’re just making a relationship drama.” And drama it certainly was, with love triangles, firings and mysterious family histories aplenty.
Unlike The L Word, Lip Service was never particularly interested in “issues,” unless that issue was your girlfriend cheating on you with her ex. The closest it came to a Very Special Episode was a brief, aborted flirtation with a storyline on homophobic discrimination in the workplace and men frequently being The Worst. No, what Lip Service was interested in showing you was sex, and lots of it – sex involving razors, sex involving funeral homes, sex involving condiments. Honestly, it was a trip. Maybe one of the bad trips that make you feel like your face is falling off, but a trip nonetheless.
Speaking of trips, drugs are second only to sex in Lip Service‘s passions, and everyone on the show is almost constantly off their tits on something. There were grumblings when the show aired that this played into harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ women, but having spent a fair few winters in Scotland, I can assure you it’s probably just so they can keep warm long enough to stay naked for all that sex.
Sometimes, the show’s many, many characters could be charming, particularly when they were flirting with each other. A lot of the time, however, they were kind of terrible: the main cast, their never-ending rotating cast of lovers and exes, the token dudes (especially the token dudes). The problem with a relationship drama like Lip Service is that, unless you want the main conflict of every episode to be whose turn it is to do the washing up, everyone has to be a pretty shitty person.
Honestly, when I sat down to re-watch Lip Service in preparation for writing this, I was intending to do a proper series recap. I took notes! I remembered the show as a soapy lesbian melodrama with some decent sex scenes. But halfway through series one, I realised you could sum up almost everything that happens in the series in one sentence: shitty people making each other feel shitty. Now, I’ll admit, that’s also a sentence that could sum up basically every hit television drama this decade and half the comedies as well. But I’m sick of shows that promise representation of queer lives, only to deliver endless misery and death (I’m looking at you, Orange is the New Black).
Honestly, it all makes for pretty depressing viewing. Even Rubies, the lesbian bar that the cast frequents, is kind of depressing (which, let’s be honest, is the main way you can tell Lip Service was created by a Real Life Lesbian). In reality, the only lesbian bar in actual Glasgow shut down years ago and was depressing in its own special way in that it featured a jelly wrestling pit. In order to discuss who’s fucking who, the cast of Lip Service would now have to travel for over an hour to Edinburgh’s sole lesbian bar which, funnily enough, is named after the bar in The L Word. It features no jelly wrestling pits, just a lot of pool tables and women in North Face jackets.
Come to think of it, the story of queer women on TV since the days of Lip Service and The L Word is a lot like that of lesbian bars over the last decade. Just as physical spaces catering specifically to lesbians are disappearing, you don’t really see mainstream(-ish) shows that explicitly revolve around girl-on-girl relationships anymore. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Not all queer women feel at home in the traditional lesbian scene, and barely any of us felt represented in shows like Lip Service. And yet we watched devotedly anyway, because it was more or less all we could get.
A study conducted on BBC programming the year Lip Service first aired found that queer women were featured for one minute out of every 20 hours of programming, and that same year’s GLAAD report records a total of nine queer women among series regular characters on American television. 2016’s GLAAD report, meanwhile, found 42 queer women on streaming services alone. Just as (for better or worse) our community is no longer confined to lesbian bars, queer women on television are no longer confined to shows about queer women – we can see them in all kinds of stories. Of course, they’re probably still going to be cis and white and still get killed off in the end. But thank goodness for the internet, where we can tell our own stories that reflect the real diversity of the LGBTQ community and where nobody dies.
They don’t make shows like Lip Service anymore. When I sat down to rewatch it, I thought that was a sad thing. Now I’m not so sure. Just before its second series began, AfterEllen published an interview with the show’s creator, Harriet Braun. When the interviewer asked her about criticism over the cast being too white and femme, Braun’s response was that “I think the answer isn’t to put the pressure to represent everyone on one show, but to get more lesbian characters on TV in general.” Well, it’s not my job’ is always going to be a bullshit answer when a showrunner is called on a lack of diversity, but maybe she has something approaching a point. We should celebrate the fact that we don’t have to rely on shows like Lip Service for representation anymore; we can see LGBTQ characters everywhere from Cartoon Network to HBO. Sure, it’s not perfect – but it’s a lot better than how it used to be.
Interesting piece–especially for someone who’s never seen this show, but always wondered.
I think there’s a lot to be said about how representation for lesbian and bi women has changed over the past two decades, but I wonder whether The L Word and Lip Service are just too small a sample size to draw conclusions. Or whether the conclusions are that these type of shows, aimed at queer women in relatively mainstream spaces, had to make too many compromises (all those thin white femmes) and walk so careful a line between what the community wanted and what network bosses did that they couldn’t succeed (or couldn’t focus on quality).
Also, a big part of lesbian and bi representation is the ability to bring the community together. When I came out, LGBT film festivals were amazing spaces that brought everyone you knew and all their exes together, and later the L Word was a huge social phenomenon (and frankly I think would be hard to rewatch without those viewing parties and the fun of reacting to even the dumbest plots in groups). I think online fandom provides something similar for a lot of queer ladies today.
It sounds like Lip Service didn’t have this aspect to it–though maybe, given what Heather writes here, being a soapy melodrama and accessible form of lady-loving porn was what we needed at the moment.
All I remember about that show is someone was a photographer (?) and my wife and I still awkwardly thrust in a very inaccurate angle at each other’s groins and yell “look I’m Frankie!”
But I’d be fine with melodrama focusing on f/f relationships again, if only because now I think it would look a lot different, and because it could just be bad fun instead of all we had.
I recently watched the series on Amazon Prime and didn’t care for it much but I really liked Tess. I found her sweet and enduring and I related to her most. She could be frustrating at times but when you’re awkward, insecure and loathe confrontation frustration is your everyday existence. I also liked Sadie though she was pretty shitty but unlike everyone else on the show she stood firm in who she was and didn’t bullshit unless she was running a con. I appreciated her candor and felt for her longing to belong and to be loved. Everyone else was woefully unlikeable and the storylines were so choppy and full of holes it was hard to care what was going on if it didn’t involve the characters I liked.
Tess was literally the only character I cared about by the end of it. All I wanted was her happiness but the show seemed determined to treat her like “The Dumpy friend” who was always destined to suffer. I’ve seen the actress who plays Sadie in a lot of things since then and she seems to always play very similar character types which makes it frustrating to like her.
Ditto on Tess being the most adorable character. I still want Moffitt to cast Fiona Button as the Doctor. She has mad slapstick chops.
I remember being so excited about this show when it was being advertised and so disappointed when it actually aired. I don’t think I even made it the whole way through the first episode.
You know, maybe the trick would be to have a show revolving around a woman/women who happen to be LGBTQ instead of it being about the fact that they are.
What I’m trying to say:
STILL waiting for that gripping, noir cop drama with the openly lesbian lead.
If they actually did this, I would watch it the shit out it. I think just doing all the formula show, but about LGBTQ chars. Let’s have CSI: LGBTQ and Law and Order: Special Queer Unit
@queergirl i nominate this one for comment award please :D
Wait but we have the Good Wife spinoff ! it’s not gonna be a cop drama but it’s gonna be a courtroom noir dramaaaa
what a time to be alive.
I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Fall, but that comes pretty close! She’s bi/pan, not a lesbian, but otherwise you’re pretty much there!
Well, there was The Wire, which was half a cop drama!
Nikki and Nora! Lesbian detectives in New Orleans – you won’t regret it.
Well there used to be this show where Amy Acker played a lesbian that was in a relationship with that bi lady played by Sarah Shahi and it wasn’t about them dating but about them trying to save the world. Of course it ended with Amy’s character dead and her playing a god but it’s Amy Acker so that’s standard I guess.
You should check out Janet King! It’s an Australian legal drama with a lesbian lead. I reckon it does the whole “centring on a lesbian character while neither hiding nor making a huge deal of her sexuality” thing perfectly. But I’m Aussie, so maybe I’m biased…
All I really remember about this show is how loud my inappropriate laugh was when that girl got run over. and tess was cute.
(also I was watching Skins for the first time around then and what’s-his-nut the fuckboy also got run over and I was like “is this NORMAL in Britain?”)
Oh my lord, that hit-by-car scene was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I rewound it a few times. I’m glad I’m not the only one who laughed.
I watched it with a friend who had already seen it. I CACKLED. She was like “That was… not the reaction I was expecting.”
It was my favorite moment from either scene! I laughed and clapped.
Maybe I’m a bad person but, hey, so was the character. And the way that scene was done was hysterical.
favorite moment from either *season*, rather
I watched this show over the summer (it was freely available on YouTube at the time) as a sad, lonely babygay. I got waaaaay into it. Cat&Frankie will always have a special place in my heart.
I also kind of loved it! Was really disappointed when it ended so soon. What about Heather Peace as Sam? Who could forget that, ever? <3
Aw, people hated lip service? I kinda liked it, tho I think just bc Tess was likable and tightly wound and it made me so annoyed how everybody was so hot for Frankie when she behaved so badly.
I kinda loved it. It was so randomly L-wordy but also so not, because accents and cupboards!
*I mean wardrobes
I always loved in Europe how there were no closets, just wardrobes everywhere
Might have something to do with the fact that at least in Dutch, the word for cupboard, wardrobe and closet is al the same. Making your sentences really hard to follow, if you are translating in your head. “Kast, I mean, kast, there were no kasten, only kasten”.
I wish it did, but I don’t know Dutch! :-D
That makes 3 of us. I loved detective Sam, Tess and her brother
I rewatched this recently too!!
Mostly because I recently moved to Glasgow and saw the guy who played Cat’s brother, Ed, at Glasgow airport just before Christmas.
Although I only rewatched two episodes because, wow, I can’t take that much bullshit. Tess was fantastic and I will always fancy the pants off Laura Fraser, but there was so much time concentrated on Frankie and her murky backstory, which i dont remember ever getting properly reveiled.
I never watched the second series first time round either. I think I was too busy tentively coming out to my friends and family that year.
It is always hilarious when the BBC tries to do ‘edgy’ though.
Sexy Lexy for life.
Despite watching this devotedly when it aired, all I can remember of it now is Frankie fingering a random girl in a funeral home and that weird scene with the razor, which I think sums up the show nicely.
Same here; my most significant Lip Service memory was watching that funeral home scene and thinking that even Shane would find that disrespectful.
All valid criticism, but what about HEATHER PEACE? Sam wasn’t a perfect character by any means, but she stole the show.
Thank you! She was quite dreamy in that one.
No word of a lie, my first draft of this article had over 300 words solely devoted to how great Heather Peace is and I had to cut it all for space. It was deeply upsetting.
Feel free to post those 300+ words anywhere on social media, they will get read!
Nooooo…but I forgive you. I can imagine it’s a case of “I can write a critical piece on the show OR a love letter to Heather Peace but probably not both” :)
So basically you have an article about Hot Cop Sam almost ready? I would love to read it
At the top of my list of fictional hot cops!
I’ve never watched Lip Service because I never got on with The L Word, but given that I’m British and everyone seems to love a character with my name, I might have to give it a go!
The closest thing it has to a focal character is killed off early in the second series, in a plot twist best described as “awful bullshit.”
Oh man, Lip Service was the worst. The most wooden acting ever by the Shane-alike character. And that weird scene in the funeral parlour!
And yet we were pathetically grateful for even those crumbs of representation.
I vaguely recall watching this show, but all I can remember apart from the blond Shane is another character that my hazy memory insists on picturing as Rayanne from My So-Called Life. Everyone apart from her was surly and unpleasant, and completing the series felt like a chore.
Planet in Edinburgh has been around for way longer than The L Word has so it definitely wasn’t named after that.
I actually really liked it, despite its issues there were lots of good things about it, I liked/hated the characters and if the funding hadn’t been pulled partway there’d have been much room for storyline etc
I really enjoyed lip service. I’m surprised so many people didn’t like it.
BBC three must have run repeats on a Sunday because I sort of remember it being the thing I watched by accident when I was feeling a little rough in the morning/afternoon. I ended up watching the entire show despite the fact that it was awful. I am fairly certain that it was because I had a crush on Ruta Gedmintas and I will never understand how it took me so long to work out just how gay I actually was/am.
Aw, I kinda loved Lip Service. I mean, Heather Peace was unbelievably sexy in every scene she was in and I loved bumbling Tess and neurotic Cat. This is obviously a pretty low standard, but the characters felt a lot more relatable and real to me than any of the L Word characters. I always appreciate how British TV casts actors who look like real people as opposed to the rule on American TV that everyone has to look like a god-damn supermodel and Lip Service seemed to do that too.
As an LA native, yes it’s unfair but… we actually look like that in real life too 😂
Christ I think I’d excised all memory of Lip Service from my brain!
This show was terrible. Terrible acting, terrible “plot”, terrible characters, that terrible time a lesbian had sex with a man…
The thing that stuck out most to me about the representation of queer women wasn’t even that they were all white and cis and pretty femme, but that they were so ‘straight’. Maybe I’m asking too much, but from where I’m sitting queer culture isn’t just the same as hetero culture but in a different bar.
As alluded to in the article, there was no representation on tv back in the day. So I would watch any old show that even hinted of a lesbian character. It’s like I’m Pavlov’s dog and if I hear the word lesbian in regards to tv or movies I drool and tune in regardless of quality. “That sounds awful.”
“Oh there’s a lesbian, ok what time does it come on?”
I enjoyed Lip Service, though it had a lot of issues. Personally, I would love another show primarily about lesbians and bi/pan women – it could be done so much better than TLW/LS with more diversity and less soapiness. Just something fun would be really nice to watch when I’m in that mood and want to watch something light and even wish-fulfilment-y that actually represents me and isn’t a heterosexual romcom.
I’m someone who really enjoyed Lip Service a lot! It was the show that got me hardcore into tumblr back in the day. Personally I always liked it better than L Word. It feel more real and grounded. I connected with the characters better. And also, I will ALWAYS be grateful for it introducing me to Heather Peace and to Sam, the hottest of hot cops! I loved Tess so much to and it eats me up inside to this day how things ended.
Tess, Sam and Sadie made that show for me.
And I thought Frankie was hot. So there’s that
If I can think back and remember the real reason the show took a dive between season 1 and 2 was because there was a long period of time when the show was in limbo and not sure if a season 2 was coming so the “leads” Laura Fraser and Ruta Gedmintas came to the states (Laura already had a few US projects under her belt) and were cast in new shows that conflicted with the Lip Service schedule once it was finally picked up and started filming.
2020… Just finished watching for the first time on Hulu. I really liked how playful and honest the writer of this article is about the extreme lack of diversity on the show. It genuinely made me laugh b/c it stood out like a sore thumb to me too. The show didn’t need to run for more than 2 seasons. Idk about Glasgow but in the US it’s strange to see an LGBTQ+ show with absolutely no relatable characters. With that said I liked the cop character and wish there were more butch representation but I also understand it’s not what straight white males wanted to see in the 2000’s—or now for that matter—so why would it have been written into the show???? The show’s writer can’t be blamed for having such a pinched and narrow world view but it definitely shows as a weak spot in the writing. Other than that, if you’re looking for gays (even completely unrealistic ones) this show has a few.