When The L.A. Complex premiered in April, it made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Canadian transplant’s first episode attracted only 646,000 viewers and a paltry 0.3 rating, making it the lowest-rated broadcast drama debut of all time. In the weeks to come, things barely improved: the series, now in its second season, has never come close to breaking 1 million viewers, and its July 25th episode drew just 390,000 pairs of eyes. That’s worse than Quarterlife, guys. Quarterlife!
But the few hundred thousand people watching The L.A. Complex each week know something that you don’t: The show is good. Like, look-forward-to-it-all-week, watch-it-as-soon-as-it’s-up-on-Hulu good. And not just in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Although this soap occasionally gets mired in goofy plots, it’s more often a tart, refreshingly unvarnished look at the ins and outs of trying to make it in Los Angeles. On paper, Complex’s storylines and characters sound like cliches – but sharp writing and great performances by cast members like Jewel Staite and Andra Fuller keep things feeling fresh. Best of all, it’s one of the few shows that manages to be consistently surprising – no small feat, especially considering its well-worn premise.
Still not convinced? Here are six more specific reasons to give The L.A. Complex a chance:
1. It strikes a mean balance between levity and heft
Melodrama is any soap opera’s bread and butter. Accordingly, Complex’s characters are constantly forced to deal with any manner of crises – mean mentors, unplanned pregnancies, a leaked sex tape, barfing all over the piano during an audition. But the show maintains a light enough touch that it never feels too bogged down by Issues, unlike its Canadian cousin Degrassi. (Complex stars Cassie Steele, an original cast member of the ’00s Degrassi reboot, and several of its episodes have been directed by Stefan “Snake” Brogren.) Even as they’re suffering, members of the Complex crew generally maintain a sense of humor – a good thing, since one of the worst sins in television (or Los Angeles) is taking yourself too seriously.
2. Did I mention Jewel Staite and Andra Fuller?
There aren’t a lot of weak links in the Complex cast – but these two deserve special notice. Staite, onetime star of a quickly canceled cult TV series (Firefly), plays Raquel Westbrook, the onetime star of a quickly canceled cult TV series (the fictional Teenage Wasteland). Raquel is a tough hustler who isn’t averse to, say, joining AA just for the networking opportunities, but Staite’s portrayal keeps her sympathetic rather than just pathetic. Fuller has an even meatier role as Kaldrick King, a volatile rapper who’s struggling to keep his homosexuality secret. The King is alternately outgoing and moody, boisterously boasting one minute and attempting suicide the next – and Fuller navigates each of his divergent states with ease. Not bad for a guy whose biggest previous credits include “Intelligent Bad Dude” on The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
3. The show knows when to cut its losses
Serialized programs depend on storylines that stretch from episode to episode – which can sometimes mean clinging to plots that have long outstayed their welcome. (See Gossip Girl’s Blair/Chuck/Louis debacle, or any other plot on Gossip Girl.) But after 10 episodes, The L.A. Complex hasn’t fallen into this trap. Season 2’s first installment quickly and cleanly jettisoned two characters whose arcs seem to have come to a natural conclusion – at least for now – giving the show space to introduce new faces and explore different narrative possibilities. So even if some Complex stories are more compelling than others, overall it feels like there’s very little wasted time in any given episode.
4. Its Hollywood satires are straight-up hilarious
The L.A. Complex’s writers have a love/hate relationship with La La Land. That works to their advantage, since the fake projects they create for their characters – a Grey’s Anatomy-inspired medical soap, a terrible Syfy-esque monster of the week thriller, a wholesome Christian drama that’s clearly a riff on 7th Heaven – are both expert parodies and just realistic enough that they could plausibly exist. Take, for example, this exchange from the last show I just mentioned, which is called Saying Grace:
Wayward Teenager: “So what, I downloaded a couple of movies off the Internet. Who’s it hurt?”
Fake Reverend Camden: “Your soul.”
5. It gets great guest stars
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins clearly has a blast whenever he shows up to play a caustic, wickedly funny version of himself. (And why wouldn’t he – in the Complex universe, the guy has his own late night talk show.) Growing Pains alum Alan Thicke is similarly great as Donald Gallagher, the self-righteous creator/star of Saying Grace.
6. The music rocks
Scenes in and around the titular complex are often scored by diegetic songs performed by one of two Canadian indie bands: Whale Tooth in Season 1 and The Rural Alberta Advantage in Season 2. The device might sound cheesy, but Complex makes it work – probably because the tunes played are never too on-the-nose.
If ratings stay at rock-bottom levels, it’s unlikely that The L.A. Complex will live to see season 3. So give this uncommonly sharp series a chance – episodes air Tuesdays on The CW at 9pm, and can also be found on Hulu and CWTV.com. Viva la Complex!