When The L Word first hit the airwaves in 2004, there was nothing else like it on TV. It was a show that didn’t just prominently feature queer women — it put them front and center, earning itself a devoted fanbase who were seeing themselves writ large on the small screen for the first time ever.
Well, something like themselves, at least. The characters on the Showtime series inhabited a soap-operatic bubble of West Hollywood full of big romances and bigger betrayals. They were almost entirely white, affluent, and oriented on the femme end of the lesbian spectrum. And the show could be ham-fisted and sometimes downright offensive in its portrayal of transgender and bisexual characters. Still, for countless queer and lesbian women coming of age in the aughts and beyond, Ilene Chaiken’s groundbreaking drama was a major touchstone.
In the 10 years since the series’ finale episode, a great deal has changed for the LGBTQ world, from increased mainstream visibility to deeper conversations within the community itself. Enter The L Word: Generation Q, a reboot that picks up where the first series left off, and makes a valiant effort to atone for some of the original’s shortfalls. Helmed by new showrunner Marja Lewis-Ryan (though Chaiken is still involved as an executive producer), Generation Q catches up with three of the main players from the original series while also introducing a handful of new twentysomething characters.
The members of the old gang are now middle-aged and established in life, but as romantically fraught as ever. Bette (Jennifer Beals) is running to be the first lesbian mayor of Los Angeles while raising her teenage daughter Angie (Jordan Hull) and dealing with an infidelity scandal that threatens to topple her campaign; Alice (Leisha Haley) is now the host of an Ellen-esque talk show and struggling to connect with her girlfriend Natalie’s (Stephanie Allynne) ex-wife Gigi (Sepideh Moafi of The Deuce) and their two kids; and Shane (Katherine Moennig), the original series’ resident heartbreaker, has returned to L.A. after a long time away while in the throes of a wrenching divorce.
Then there’s the proverbial Generation Q, which, true to the new series’ stated purpose, represents a vastly more diverse array of human beings. Among the millennial set are Dominican-American Sophie (Rosanny Zayas), who works behind the scenes on Alice’s talk show; her Chilean-Iranian girlfriend, Dani (Arienne Mandi), who does PR for her father’s pharmaceutical company; and their roommate Micah (Leo Sheng), a Chinese-American trans man who’s navigating the dating app scene. (Lizzo’s “Better in Color,” fittingly, plays over the pilot’s opening titles.) Finley (Jaqueline Toboni), a production assistant on Alice, appears to be the lone white person in the group.
As in the first series, the characters populate an insular micro-L.A. where everyone is connected via an elaborate web of coworkers, roommates, lovers, and hookups. Shane becomes Finley’s ad hoc landlord and reluctant mentor, and Dani quickly gets involved in Bette’s mayoral campaign. When the larger world does encroach, it’s often in a threatening way: male television execs who want to make Alice’s show more easily digestible for a mainstream (read: straight) audience; Dani’s father (Carlos Leal), who views his daughter’s same-sex relationship as merely a phase; the angry husband of Bette’s paramour, who publicly confronts the candidate at a press conference.
Generation Q packs a whole lot — probably too much — into its first three episodes, touching on a laundry list of issues ranging from the interpersonal (divorce, parenting, online dating) to big-picture talking points (religion, teen homelessness, the opioid epidemic). And particularly in the overstuffed pilot, the show can take on the artificial sheen of an after-school special, dutifully name-checking every capital-I Issue it can, and virtue-signaling to an exhaustive degree. (In one particularly awkward moment, the line “Rings are just a symbol of the patriarchy!” gets blurted out in the middle of a marriage proposal.) Part of what made the original series fun was its unabashed soapiness; and, at least in its early episodes, Generation Q gets bogged down in its efforts to make sure it’s saying all the right things.
But if that all sounds like way too much, consider that Lewis-Ryan’s series carries a whole lot of weight on its shoulders. Because, even though a lot more TV shows now feature queer female characters than was the case a decade ago, series in which their experiences, or indeed the community itself, are centered are still rare. Still, in the age of shows like Vida, Pose, and Orange Is the New Black, to name a few, Generation Q is less alone in the television landscape than its predecessor was.
And there’s plenty it gets right. Generation Q features a lot of aspects of the queer female experience that The L Word shied away from. For one, physical realities like armpit hair and period blood make their way into sex scenes in a way they never did in the original series. What’s more, people of color and transgender characters (played by actual trans people) are notably centered in a way that feels organic to contemporary L.A. And even though some of the dialogue is stilted, there’s usually enough chemistry, both platonic and romantic, to make up for the script’s shortfalls. (In a particularly sweet scene in which Micah is dealing with the fallout of dating drama, Sophie tells him, “It’s OK to be hurt, and it’s OK to fuck somebody.”)
Perhaps the show’s most interesting and relevant thread concerns a onetime gay bar that has since become a sports bar, to L.A. expat Shane’s dismay. She points out the total lack of lesbian bars in the city, which is true to life; L.A. currently has zero lesbian bars, an alarming fact brought to attention by a pop-up cocktail spot a few months ago. A side effect of society becoming increasingly accepting of LGBTQ people is that dedicated queer spaces are vanishing, particularly those for women — an issue explored in Alexis Clements’s recent documentary, All We’ve Got.
The story of reclaiming the lesbian bar is a potent metaphor for the world The L Word finds itself in today. The struggles in Generation Q are different than the struggles in the original. No one is in the closet, same-sex couples can legally get married in the United States (they had to travel to Canada in the old series), and the characters are all well-versed in the language of the LGBTQ spectrum. But in an age of greater integration and acceptance, there’s still a lot to be said for carving out an exclusive space on television for queer women and trans people. Generation Q might not necessarily be breaking new ground, but it is staking a claim.