It’s the first season of The L Word: Generation Q, and Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) is running for mayor of Los Angeles. During a campaign visit with formerly homeless queer and trans youth at the LGBTQ Center, tensions bubble over. The young people want to know why Bette’s campaign has accepted money from a real estate developer who has plans to build a condo complex, replacing an all-ages West Hollywood club that has been a gathering space for LGBTQ youth of color. Even more significantly, they want to know what she is going to do about the continued targeting of homeless queer youth by the Los Angeles Police Department. She’s supposed to be the gay candidate. Will she defend queer young people? Or will she sell out to real estate interests and the city’s elite for the sake of electability?
This plotline, I should say before the Internet impales me for fake news, never appears on The L Word: Generation Q. In the real L Word: Generation Q, Showtime’s reboot of its popular 2004–09 drama, Bette does run for mayor and meet with a group at a local LGBTQ center. But there is no mention of gentrification or the police, let alone criticism. Instead, the young people share their gratitude to see themselves reflected in someone running for office and trade stories with Bette about homophobic family members. It’s a touching scene, if completely void of any conflict.
I do not draw this contrast—between the L Word that could have been and the L Word that is—as a reproach. Rather, I mention it as an illustration of what the show is and is not. The L Word has never been a series whose primary interest is in exploring the political and cultural issues that cut through LGBTQ communities. (For a queer examination of gentrification, you might try that other, smaller scale but arguably more radical series about queer women in Los Angeles, Starz’s Vida.) Instead, as suggested by the original show’s infamous theme song, probably quoted more often than anything else from The L Word in the decade since it ended, “Talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking,” The L Word has always been much closer to a prestige version of a queer soap opera.
When The L Word premiered in 2004, it was the first television show with a lesbian ensemble cast. At that time, representations of queer women on television were mostly limited to side characters without much of a sex life on extremely heterosexual shows, like Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; brazenly offensive caricatures like Ross’s ex-wife Carol on Friends; not actually gay characters who had nonetheless been adopted as queer icons like Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson; and the only lesbian whom straight people seem to be able to consistently call to mind, Ellen DeGeneres. I still remember watching The L Word every Sunday during my freshman year of college, squishing into a friend’s living room with 20 other queers who were hoping to see ourselves reflected for the first time on the screen. Of course, from the very beginning, the show proved itself incapable of that task—leaving some people, myself included, feeling almost more alienated than before.
Still, it managed to persuade some of us to feel emotionally invested in the life events of a small group of thin, well-off, mostly feminine, mostly white lesbians in Los Angeles. There were Bette, the gallery owner partnered with Tina Kennard (Laurel Holloman); Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), a journalist who maintained a chart of the group’s many sexual entanglements; and Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels), a professional tennis player who eventually died of cancer. Kit Porter (Pam Grier), Bette’s half-sister, ran the Planet, a queer women’s coffee shop that, like many other aspects of the series, could be described as either aspirational or maddeningly unrealistic. Shane McCutcheon (Kate Moennig) was the show’s heartthrob, an androgynous hairstylist with the sex appeal of the Beatles and the emotional skills of a hat. Finally, there was Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner), a writer whose coming out anchored much of the first season. I have seen few television characters inspire as much extreme loathing as Jenny seemed to—a testament to the show’s ability, despite its flaws, to inspire strong feelings in its viewers.
The series, which ran for six seasons, mostly centered on this circle of friends. From the beginning, it had problems. It was overwhelmingly white, and the depictions of the characters of color who did filter through the show were laden with stereotypes. It committed some serious sins in its treatment of trans people, most egregiously in the case of Max Sweeney, a trans man whose story line, ending with him pregnant and abandoned by his boyfriend, seemed like a fever dream cooked up by a TERF blogger. Among the many forms of diversity that the show lacked was gender expression. The fact that Shane, who memorably appeared in the pilot in a halter top (?) leather (??) waistcoat (???), was the closest The L Word came to a butch character probably tells you everything you need to know on that front. Lest this be understood as a purely philosophical point of irritation without impact, I should add that the show’s failure to portray female masculinity was one of the primary reasons that I stopped watching after a couple of seasons. Having grown up in a culture that presented queer women as ugly, hairy, masculine undesirables, I decided that watching a show that simply disputed the accuracy of that notion rather than challenge its underlying value system was not healthy for me.
The L Word: Generation Q, which wrapped up its first season last month, picks up some 10 years after the original series. I watched the first episode at the Brooklyn food hall Berg’n, at a premiere party co-hosted by Showtime, Vulture, and popular community organization Queer Soup Night. The corporate sponsorship was evident in the open bar and the copious amounts of heavily branded swag, which you could cop in exchange for hashtagged Instagram posts. And in a way that seemed fitting for a show that has always drawn both enormous critique and an enormous following, the event was packed. When the episode began with an extended scene of two women of color having sex before work, one of them in the middle of her period, the room went nuts. It seemed clear that the show was making a statement by opening with this moment (and throwing this party): This is not your mother’s L Word.
In The L Word: Generation Q, Bette, Alice, and Shane are back, with some developments in their lives: Alice has her own talk show, complete with a very yonic logo; Shane has become inexplicably rich through hairstyling; and Bette is divorced and running for mayor. The returning cast members are joined by a group of younger friends who are significantly more diverse in both race and gender than the older set: fiancées Dani Nuñez (Arienne Mandi) and Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas); their roommate, a queer trans guy named Micah Lee (Leo Sheng); and their screwball friend Sarah Finley (Jacqueline Toboni).
It’s clear, watching the reboot, that creator Ilene Chaiken and showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan are making a concerted effort to rectify some of the missteps of the original series. The show hired at least one trans writer, the author Thomas Page McBee, and gave meaningful story lines to two new transmasculine characters, Micah and Pierce Williams, both of whom are played by trans actors. (There are also two trans women acting on the show, including Jamie Clayton, whose performance is possibly the strongest on Generation Q. But in a decision that has earned mixed reactions, their characters are written as cisgender.) And while my initial reaction to the first episode of Generation Q was that the show is just as gender-normative as ever, a friend pointed out on Twitter that perhaps “that annoying blonde character reads as, like, gen y butch,” and I had to concede that, indeed, Finley, the emotionally unavailable production assistant on Alice’s show, brings some long-overdue gender nonconformity to the show.
Finley is a good example of what the old L Word did so well and what the show continues to succeed at. As with the original series, I watched the first season of Generation Q in a crowded living room full of queer people who, no matter how much they complained about the writing, also frequently shouted at the screen about the choices being made there. That dynamic is probably reflective of The L Word’s biggest strength: Whatever its problems it has, the show has a way of sinking its highly unrealistic claws into us so that, if nothing else, we have opinions.
In Finley’s case, those opinions started out somewhere near contempt. Goofy and immature, she is introduced to us through a series of ridiculous shenanigans, each one less charming than the last: sneaking out from a one-night-stand and riding away on the woman’s bike, inviting herself to be Shane’s new roommate, and most incredibly, spending an evening hitting on strangers at a bar with the one-two punch of the pickup line “You want to have a drink with me?” followed by “You, uh, have a tab open?” In the first half of the season, it seemed that every conversation I had about the show included horror at the sheer obnoxiousness of Finley.
“No one is that annoying,” one friend said. “It’s unrealistic! It’s embarrassing. They shouldn’t make their only butch character the butt of every joke.”
But the writers’ room achieves something impressive with her character: Over the course of the season, an admittedly underdeveloped story line brings out some of Finley’s more lovable qualities—primarily her ability to show up for her friends—as well as a sympathetic look at where some of her messiness might be coming from. By the time the season finale rolls around and Finley is standing on the porch of a queer minister, trying desperately to find something to hold on to, our hearts can’t help going out to her.
We are relatively early in the era of finally seeing queer people on television, but many smart critics have already made the point that we do not need one show to be everything to all of us. That kind of representation is impossible; in fact, attempts to chase it lead to shitty television, and queer people deserve better than that. What we need is more queer television—a wide variety of shows that explore the textures of our many different communities in nuanced, thoughtful ways. Just as there is a place for a thriller like Killing Eve and a period drama like Pose, there is a place for a queer soap opera like The L Word. But queer soaps have standards, too, and the question is whether The L Word: Generation Q does its genre well.
When the buzz around a reboot of The L Word began a couple of years ago, much of the conversation reflected on how dated the original now felt. Some of that can undoubtedly be attributed to the significant leaps in acceptance and visibility that (some) LGBTQ people have experienced over the past decade. But I suspect that the more influential factor in the show’s retro feel is that the original L Word was a series that was only willing to include the dimensions of queer culture that were already safe to show on mainstream television. That concession to marketability meant that, just like a new car that loses half of its value the minute it’s driven off the lot, the show was practically dated by the time it aired. Because queer activists, advocates, and artists are constantly fighting to expand the bounds of queer visibility, if television shows like The L Word only ever depict the battles that have already been won, they’ll always be behind.
The same quality has carried over, to some extent, to Generation Q. I’m thrilled that The L Word has finally introduced characters who don’t shave their armpits, but it doesn’t seem a coincidence that they waited until even Miley Cyrus hung up her razor. A plot point early in the season explores the exciting presidential candidacy of Senator Kamala Harris—right after, in real life, she announced her exit from the race. One might argue that a television show is never going to take any serious political risks; it’s the product of a multibillion-dollar media corporation, after all. But as some of my more optimistic friends have pointed out, The L Word is also a queer show run by queer people with a queer writers’ room. It’s capable of pulling at our heartstrings, even if some of us allow them to be pulled begrudgingly. Maybe it will also turn out to be capable of growth.