When The L Word premiered on Showtime in 2004, it was the only television series explicitly about queer women and their love, sex, and professional lives. When it returns to the network this fall — a full decade after it departed — it will once again be the only television series explicitly about queer women and their love, sex, and professional lives, but it’ll be in a field of queer television that has evolved, expanded, and diversified in many ways since the mid aughts.
The L Word was not the first show dedicated to stories about LGBTQ+ people. Queer As Folk predated it by a few years, and queer stories have been told on television since the ‘70s. Shows such as the Oprah Winfrey-produced miniseries The Women Of Brewster Place in 1989 and the 1994 teen drama My So-Called Life were early trailblazers when it came to queer representation on television and especially portrayals of queer people of colour. Ellen DeGeneres made TV history when her character came out on screen in 1997, and Will & Grace centred on gay men in the late ‘90s.
But in its specific focus on lesbians and queer women and their relationships, The L Word was like nothing else on television at the time, and its cultural impact has been huge. During its original run, The L Word cultivated a passionate fanbase of viewers — mostly queer women. Its run coincided with the proliferation of online recapping and television blogging culture, and fansite communities like The L Word Online were born. Actual real-life iterations of “The Chart,” the fictional sprawling map of hookup connections within groups of friends featured prominently in the early seasons of the show, popped up online and remain a touchpoint among many groups of queer friends. It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “she’s such a Shane” — a reference to the show’s resident player played by Kate Moennig — thrown around in lesbian bars in 2019, even if it’s often tongue-in-cheek.
Streaming services then helped the show reach a new, younger audience after its original run. And even though the landscape has changed, there was no clear successor to The L Word after it ended. Plenty of shows have told diverse, compelling, powerful queer stories, but a series with a majority lesbian ensemble hasn’t aired on U.S. television in The L Word’s absence. So it’s going to be its own successor, returning with some of its original characters but also new ones and new writers later this year as The L Word: Generation Q.
Ilene Chaiken, who created the show originally and served as its showrunner over the course of its six seasons, says that original The L Word cast members Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig, and Leisha Hailey had all approached her through the years about bringing it back. “I love the show, the characters, and what they mean to people out in the world,” Chaiken tells Refinery29. “It’s exciting to think of them living on and changing, and to meet them again 10 years later and see who they are.”
I would venture that 'The L Word' opened some doors. I think that they were doors that were ready to open.
Chaiken admits that she’s surprised by the show’s lasting impact. “It’s thrilling and gratifying, but it surprised me that it still feels so relevant and meaningful to so many people — both the audience that watched it originally, and I keep learning that new groups of people are discovering the show.” She says that even her twin daughters, who are now 23 and were only 6 when she started making the show, will tell her about their peers newly discovering the series.
The Generation Q iteration also means chances to address some of the mistakes made in its original run. While groundbreaking, the series wasn’t without its flaws, even when it came to its own LGBTQ+ storytelling. “The thing that I get the most shit for, and it’s well-deserved, is the Max storyline,” Chaiken says. In addition to critiques that the show lacked racial diversity, the writing around the show’s main trans character Max — played by Daniela Sea — received a lot of backlash, particularly regarding how his transition was portrayed, among other issues. The show also got flack for casting a cisgender woman in the role of a trans man, a mistake Chaiken acknowledges.
This time, however, she won’t be at the helm. Chaiken will continue to serve as an executive producer, but because of her overall deal with 20th Century Fox, she can’t serve as showrunner on 2019’s The L Word. But says she’s happy to step back and let someone new — Marja-Lewis Ryan — take the reins. “This story should include a whole new group of characters and expand the world of The L Word, and it should be created by somebody who’s out in that world in the way that maybe I was 20 years ago when I started the show,” she says.
Since The L Word, other out showrunners like Ryan Murphy have created mainstream shows that feature queer main characters, including the major milestone for trans characters on television, Pose, which comes back this month. The L Word was somewhat limited in the audience it could reach because of its home on a premium network, although streaming changed the game there. Network and cable television have both seen an increase in queer characters, documented every year in GLAAD’s annual television report.
Out showrunner I. Marlene King says that telling queer stories is at the forefront of her mission, adding that the key is treating all characters the same. On her most popular series Pretty Little Liars, which ran from 2010 to 2017 and has spawned the spinoff Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, everyone is deeply flawed, including protagonist Emily Fields, who comes out as a lesbian during the course of the series. “Emily was not defined by her sexuality, and we gave her the opportunity to make all the same mistakes as everyone else did,” she says.
“It makes me very happy to be able to put characters on the screen that young queer women and young girls can relate to,” she says.
But Pretty Little Liars was also imperfect in its LGBTQ+ representation, making a trans woman — Charlotte DiLaurentis, played by Vanessa Ray — a villain and then killing her off, which played into harmful tropes. “I think that storyline was hurtful to some people, and I definitely regret that,” King says.
One of the issues with The L Word being one of the only series of its kind last decade was that there was immense pressure to speak to a wide breadth of issues within a community that simply can’t be fully represented in the scope of a single show. The L Word is set in queer Los Angeles, and yet there are facets even within that specific setting that it didn’t quite touch on. The recent Starz show Vida, which returns this month, is also set in the City of Angels and features several queer women at the forefront of its story, although it’s also hyper-focused on Latinx communities and the gentrification of East Los Angeles.
Authentically capturing many different stories under the umbrella of the LGBTQ community is at the top of Lauren Morelli’s mind. Morelli previously wrote for Orange Is The New Black, another series to feature a lot of queer women in its ensemble, and is now at the helm of the Netflix revival of Tales Of The City. It’s a nine-novel series written by Armistead Maupin starting in the 1970s that was developed into two miniseries in 1993 and 1998. The original world created by Maupin delved into queer and trans lives in San Francisco, and the upcoming Netflix adaptation tells a new set of queer stories in the same city, updated for 2019.
To tell those new experiences, Morelli hired an all-queer writer’s room. “There are a lot of very diverse queer narratives being told on the show, and so it made sense to me to be sure that there was a diverse array of queer voices,” she says. “I am only one of those voices, and I understand my own queer identity in a way that I assume is very distinct and separate from the way anyone else understands their own — based on class and race and gender identity and all of these things.” She says that the writers pulled from their own lives, and the goal was to expand upon previous iterations.
“The old Tales is in conversation with the new Tales, and there’s really interesting tension that exists between those two things,” she says. One of those strains surrounds the fact that the original Tales cast a cis woman — Olympia Dukakis — to play the trans character Anna Madrigal. Dukakis will reprise her role in the Netflix series, and Morelli explains that part of the response of the new series is to cast Jen Richards, a trans woman, as Anna Madrigal in flashbacks on the series.
Morelli touches on the importance of representation in regards to her own personal experience. She came out, she explains, later in life, at 31. “I think about the representation or lack thereof that I grew up with,” she says “I wonder about whether I would have come out sooner or have been able to identify my sexuality at a younger age if I had seen an example on television or in a book or in a movie.” She recalls that one of the first lesbians she saw on television was Susan, Ross Geller’s ex-wife on Friends. “My introduction to being a lesbian was a thing that a straight white male got made fun of for,” she says. “So often, still, queer identities are used as the punchlines in stories about straight people.”
That is where the importance of queer people telling queer storylines comes into play. It was a priority for Morelli, and it also was a priority for Gloria Calderón Kellett in the 2017 Netflix remake of Norman Lear’s One Day At A Time. The series, which Kellett developed with Mike Royce, expands upon the original scope of the family comedy by centring on the Alvarezes, a Cuban-American family living in Echo Park. The teen daughter, Elena, comes out as a lesbian over the course of the first season. It wasn’t initially the plan, though. Kellet conceived of Elena as her own 15-year-old self, but when Royce suggested that they make the character gay, she was thrilled by the idea. It was then that Kellet, who identifies as a cis and straight woman, decided to hire queer writers. She says they were able to provide all the nuanced layers that make up Elena, who is a striking example of a young, gay woman on television.
Queer television is certainly far from niche now, even though there’s still a long way to go. Chaiken herself notes she’s surprised that progress hasn’t been more significant, but takes a measure of pride in what the original L Word managed to do over a decade ago. “I would venture that The L Word opened some doors,” she says. “I think that they were doors that were ready to open.”