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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Word' has it Jenny set to take her lumps

The face of TV narcissism belongs to the comically self-loving characters -- the idle Bluth siblings on ''Arrested Development," for instance, and Paris Hilton, with her lip-glossed entitlement. It belongs to the cartoons of self-absorption on ''Will & Grace," or ''Hope & Faith," or that great-granddaddy of ego-binging, ''Seinfeld." And it belongs to the campy reality-TV players caked in hot-tub-proof blush, who vainly brag to the cameras that they'll surely take the ring -- and the cover of Us magazine.

One of the accomplishments of Showtime's ''The L Word," which returns Sunday at 10 p.m., has been its painstaking anatomy of a less familiar kind of TV narcissist -- the dreary, confused, introverted narcissist. Named Jenny Schecter, and played with irritating realness by Mia Kirshner, she looks quite different from the smart-alecky likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Elaine Benes or Trista Rehn of ''The Bachelorette." Downcast, secretive, almost Goth in her black moodiness, she is the epitome of an unhappy egotist. So consumed with the ups and downs of her own depression and self-loathing, she just doesn't have the energy to look outward. Her misery is her mirror, and she's forever gazing into it.

''The L Word" is generally discussed in terms of its lesbian themes, as it dramatizes the restless love lives of a group of lesbians in LA. But the show has developed a few uncommon characters who are compelling beyond their sexual orientation, including Jenny. Much of last season's juiciest material involved Jenny's destructive narcissism, as she teetered on the fence between longtime boyfriend Tim and her lesbian attractions. A fiction writer, she submerged herself in her internal drama without once considering its effects on others. She left Tim an angry mess as she snuck nookie with the exotic Marina, and by season's end, she'd left a few other lovers of both sexes reeling in her wake. Not raging like Livia Soprano, and not slick like J.R. Ewing, she nonetheless chewed up people and spit them out.

This season, the ''L Word" writers are going to knock our glum narcissist around a bit. In the first few episodes, she'll meet the pin that will burst her bubble of self-absorption in the person of a fiction professor played by Sandra Bernhard. ''I'm not here to read the autobiography of Miss Jenny Schecter," Bernhard spits at her, disgusted with her little-girl affectations and her literary search for self-definition.

For viewers who spent last season writhing in annoyance at Jenny, it's a tasty comeuppance. The writers will also pair Jenny with Shane as roommates, a tug of opposites that could at last pry Jenny out of herself. Played with androgynous cool by Katherine Moennig, Shane is terrified of self-reflection.

And Jenny won't have Marina or Tim to toy with this year, as cast members Karina Lombard and Eric Mabius have moved on. Her harem of suckers will diminish.

The cast of ''The L Word" will increase, however, as a few new characters take up residence among the group of café buddies. While Bette and Tina (Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman, respectively) face the dissolution of their relationship, Tina will fall into the hands of one new manipulator and then another. And Kit (Pam Grier), who fits into the story line more naturally this season, will fall into the hands of still another new manipulator.

Meanwhile, likable regulars Dana and Alice (Erin Daniels and Leisha Hailey, respectively) will continue to consider a love affair.

Last season, ''The L Word" was choppy, as the narrative at the end of one episode didn't quite match up with the next -- kind of like Boston intersections. But the writers are more confident and directed this season, and their story lines promise to build gradually to a soap-operatic climax. And there will be crowd-pleasing moments, for sure, if only they manage to drag Jenny kicking and screaming out of her own private Idaho.

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