In the years before the 2016 election, Ilene Chaiken, the Showtime drama’s co-creator, and a few of its lead actors had batted around the idea of reviving “The L Word.” But during that November night, as it became clear that Trump was going to win, what was once an amusing parlor game of “what if?” for Chaiken and star Jennifer Beals turned into a call to action. “We were texting one another,” Chaiken says, “with that kind of desperation that I think so many of our friends and colleagues probably were sharing in one way or another: We’ve got to do something!”
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The morning after the election, they decided what that “something” was: It was time for the show to return. “It’s not like we thought bringing back ‘The L Word’ was going to change the world,” Chaiken says. “But it made us feel like there’s still something in the world that’s meaningful.”
Beals, who, as the results came in, was getting ready to drive the next day to protest construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Standing Rock, says: “There was an urgency. That’s why I feel like the show is more rebel yell than reboot, in a way.”
When “The L Word” premiered on Showtime in 2004, it showed lesbian characters as people simply living their lives — at the time, a radical act. Chaiken’s show not only rejected previous negative portrayals of lesbians in film and on television but presented its characters, who lived in affluent Los Angeles, as glittery and aspirational. “The L Word” was a wild, shimmery soap opera. Its characters had cool jobs, close friendships and tons of sex. Some entered into long-term partnerships (marriage was not yet an option) and had kids. A few of them died.
And the show was always political. Along with NBC’s “Will & Grace,” “Queer as Folk” (also on Showtime) and reality series like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (then on Bravo), MTV’s “The Real World” and CBS’ “Survivor,” “The L Word” was part of a pop culture wave that changed American perceptions of LGBTQ people, leading to the civil rights advancements achieved since.
It was also popular with audiences, gay and straight, and ran on Showtime for six seasons. When “The L Word” ended in 2009, Chaiken — who went on to run “Empire” and is an executive producer of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — assumed a new generation of queer TV would take its place. “We all hoped and expected to see more LGBTQ content and, particularly in our case, more lesbian representation on television in the 10 years that folllowed,’” Chaiken says. “And it was disappointing, to say the least, that there wasn’t more.” (She thinks a meaningful shift is “just starting to happen,” citing The CW’s “lesbian superhero,” Batwoman, as emblematic of that change.)
Chaiken has remained close with Beals (who played the ambitious, Yale-educated Bette, whose strong desire for family was matched only by her inability to stay monogamous), Katherine Moennig (Shane, a hairstylist and Sapphic Casanova) and Leisha Hailey (Alice, a lovable, loyal ball of energy and an early podcaster). It was those three actors who — as they stared into the wasteland of queer content — began lobbying Chaiken to bring the show back. “In part, it was just because they missed it; they missed their characters,” she says. “But they also felt like there’s nothing else; there’s nothing filling this void.” She would put them off, saying, “I don’t want to get turned down. Let’s wait until it feels undeniable.”
Then suddenly it did. Trump’s election sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry, and political content seemed crucial and necessary. In fact, when Chaiken called Gary Levine, Showtime’s head of programming, a few weeks later, he thought she was calling to say, “I told you so,” about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which the network had passed on. “I said, ‘Well, yeah,’” Chaiken remembers. “But no, that’s not why I’m calling you. I’m calling to see what you think about bringing back ‘The L Word.’”
Levine had worked closely with Chaiken on the series during its original run, and feels attached to it. But in this era of revival mania, when no intellectual property is safe, he says he’s “wary” of getting swept up in the trend, and wants to resurrect only shows that have “something new to say, and can still occupy a distinctive place in television.”
“I think ‘L Word’ checks all those boxes,” Levine continues. “Having a quality, fun, lesbian drama — I just think that’s nowhere in the landscape.”
Chaiken says, “Gary called me two days later and said, ‘You know what? Let’s do this.’”
She has a deal with Twentieth Century Fox Television that prevents her from writing on non-studio shows, so with an “L Word” sequel officially in development — and with Beals, Hailey and Moennig signed on to star and executive produce — the search for a new writer began.
Marja-Lewis Ryan was in her first year at New York University at age 18 when she would watch “The L Word” in her dorm with friends. “We rented DVDs from Blockbuster across the street,” she says. “It was, like, the original binge-watch, group-hang situation. The show meant everything to us.”
Ryan, now 34, grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and was studying acting. During a class with David Mamet at the Atlantic Theater Company, she remembers someone asked him why he didn’t write more roles for women. In typical Mamet fashion, he responded, “Why don’t you?” Ryan recalls. “And I was like, ‘Totally! Like, why don’t I?’”
In summer 2006, after she graduated, Ryan moved to Los Angeles “with a very clear mission to tell lesbian stories.” The next year, she wrote a play called “The Four-Faced Liar,” which she adapted into a well-reviewed independent film (in which she also co-stars) that was released in 2010. She was hired in 2016 to work on a movie with several other writers, one of whom was Chaiken. “I was, like, so stoked that she was in that room,” Ryan says. “And we hit it off.”
She felt reverential toward Chaiken. “I mean, she totally changed my life,” Ryan says. “She was it. I had such a clear target to run to.” When Ryan emailed Chaiken to congratulate her after “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiered in spring 2017, Chaiken asked whether she wanted to pitch on the “L Word” revival.
Ryan began a series of meetings with Chaiken, then with the trio of actors (which was “trippy as hell, as you could well imagine,” Ryan says), and finally with Showtime. Beals wanted Bette to run for office; Hailey thought Alice would have a talk show. As for Shane, “what she was doing in her 20s is, like, not that cute at 40,” Ryan says. For her pitch, Ryan also moved the “L Word” setting from West Hollywood to the Eastside and conceived new characters who would challenge the OGs.
Ryan’s vision was to represent Los Angeles — especially its queer community — in all its diversity. She has four words that serve as her touchstones: “The whole show to me is joyful, it’s queer, it’s aspirational and it’s confident.”
In August 2017, Ryan got the job and began writing the pilot. In January 2019, the show was picked up straight to series for an eight-episode season: Showtime had an opening in its schedule late in the year and wanted to shoot for a December premiere behind popular dramas “Ray Donovan” and “Shameless.” “As the creative process continued, we got more and more excited by the script, by the casting and by the alchemy of what this thing was becoming,” Levine says. “And we just said, ‘To hell with it. Let’s make this.’” (The shorter season is due partly to scheduling and partly to Ryan’s wife being pregnant with their first child, who was born in April. If there is a future season, it will have more episodes, Levine says.)
The original “L Word” had filmed in Vancouver. “The L Word: Generation Q,” as it was now called, shot in Los Angeles. Among its series regulars are the Latinx actors Arienne Mandi and Rosanny Zayas (they play a couple) and Leo Sheng, an Asian American transgender man (he plays their roommate, Micah). The sequel has multiple transgender actors, including a few who play cisgender characters, and who will not be identified within the show as trans. Ryan was committed to casting transgender actors in order to be inclusive, but also to remedy a past wrong. On the original “L Word,” a cisgender woman (Daniela Sea) played a transgender man — it’s one of the series’ infamous missteps. “We just didn’t know,” says Chaiken. “But in retrospect, we know that it’s not acceptable, and the new show will correct that a billion times over.”
It’s not the only correction. The final season of “The L Word” revolved entirely around a murder-mystery plot that was loudly reviled. According to Ryan, Chaiken told her she could “imagine it was all a dream.” (Ryan finds an elegant solution to the who-killed-Jenny disaster, and it’s revealed early in the season.)
There’s a tonal difference as well, born of the fact that in 2019, LGBTQ people are no longer outliers: “The L Word: Generation Q” doesn’t have to be as insistent as its predecessor did. “I went back and watched the original when I got the job, and they’re often talking about gay things. But, like, gay people don’t really talk about gay things!” Ryan says. “I don’t wake up and say, ‘Oh, how am I gonna lesbian myself out of this one?’ I just am. I just have a wife. That’s my given.”
As Beals puts it, the younger cast members belong to a “generation that refuses to let other people identify them. And they’re the ones leading that charge — in changing language, in changing how we view ourselves and how we view others.”
With Bette running for mayor of Los Angeles, Beals might be mistaken for Kamala Harris (or is it the other way around?). Fans will certainly welcome the sight, along with Alice with her talk show, and Shane — well, still being Shane, at least at first. On the question of other original cast members who may appear, Ryan will offer no specifics, saying only, “We’ve got a couple great ones this season.”
For Ryan, she just wants young LGBTQ people to see themselves on television — like she once did — with “The L Word.” If they don’t, she says, “it fucks with their psyche, and fucks with their sense of self-worth.”
There’s been so much progress since 2004, but there are still many battles to fight, especially, as Chaiken and Beals feared, in Trump’s America. Ryan is on that mission. “The show is super silly, super glossy, super glam — absolutely ridiculous in all those ways,” she says. “But we know we are trying to save lives.”