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‘The L Word’ Pilot Turns 20 — Amid the Worst LGBTQ Backslide in Television History

On January 18, 2004, Showtime made history with “The L Word”: a spaghetti-strapped melodrama about twiggy lesbians living (“…talking, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying…”) against a golden-filtered backdrop of mid-aughts Los Angeles.

The stroke of entertainment genius from creator/executive producer Ilene Chaiken premiered that Sunday night in two parts, introducing a revolutionary cast of LGBTQ characters who would change the face and ritual of lesbian pop culture forever. From the moment Jenny (Mia Kirshner) laid eyes on Marina (Karina Lombard)…even before Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) tried to steal that dude’s sperm…or Shane (Katherine Moennig) showed up wearing that leather vest….countless TV-loving shes, theys, and gays saw themselves reflected in a fizzy fictional universe that was finally, mercifully grounded in a semi-authentic lesbian reality.

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Fast forward to 2019; the reboot happened. Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q” served as both a revamp of the initial concept with new characters and as a continuation of the main series, bringing back numerous fan favorites including stars Beals, Moennig, and Leisha Hailey as Alice. It was met with mixed reviews but was popular enough to spark communal viewings in bars à la “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (Shout out to Echo Park’s Dana’s Night at The Semi-Tropic; may she rest in peace.)

Then last year, after three seasons, the reboot’s cancellation happened — ending on one of the worst cliffhangers conceivable (multiple romances were left hanging in the balance!) and leaving fans generally less satisfied than they would have been if the show stopped after the first series finale. Not long after that, “Generation Q” was abruptly removed from streaming in April 2023. It would eventually appear on VOD platforms running consumers roughly $60 to watch in its entirety, while the main show remained on Showtime and Paramount+. Their different rights structures resulted in different fates.

To borrow a comparison from the great Alice Pieszecki, it was then that this history-making lesbian TV show adored by armies of homosexuals began to feel like the Black Hole of Calcutta. That’s not because Chaiken’s reboot was bad — but because its poor management proved to be an especially painful instance of disrespect for gay audiences facing letdowns across networks and streamers.

Running for six seasons until it concluded in early 2009, “The L Word” as we first knew it was an overdue bone thrown to lesbians in a femme-for-femme Hollywood famine. For all its faults, and there are many, the original had a lot to recommend it as both one of the first critical instances of queer representation on the small screen and as a foundational building block for lesbian pop culture. Those pilot episodes canonized legendary concepts for both the series’ fanbase and the real lesbian community: chief among them being The Chart, an elaborate diagram of sexual activity that hits closer to home than most sapphics care to admit. Not to mention, it established a weekly viewing schedule that gave an underrepresented group an opportunity for connection and comfort in a TV landscape that has almost always served gay men first. Based on the anecdotal evidence from this reporter’s former hairdresser, it even started a handful of WLW marriages; it has certainly named plenty of cats.

Showtime’s lesbian triumph could have gone down in history as an essential and sacred text of yesteryear. But with Chaiken back at the helm, “Generation Q” took on the difficult task of marrying “The L Word” legacy and its imperfect origins with the more progressive climate of today. Showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan, Chaiken, and their team largely succeeded. Crafted in a time when cable television clumsily and regularly explored the subject of race, the pilot episodes from 2004 hinge on an interracial couple debating whether or not to conceive a Black baby. The plot culminates in a cringe-worthy exchange between Tina and a fertility nurse that’s almost too uncomfortable to watch. In 2019, “Generation Q” instead opened its pilot with two women of color gleefully handling the aftermath of period sex — before launching into a political subplot about the importance of local governance and the sprawling, insidious impacts of Big Pharma.

Ryan and Chaiken, keenly attuned to the evolving audience their show(s) serve, used the series’ return as an opportunity to meticulously rectify what “The L Word” got wrong and tackle more of what matters to LGBTQ people now. Most notably, Daniel Sea, who played trans character Max and bore the brunt of the main show’s woeful misunderstanding of gender identity, returned to “Generation Q” in a “reparative gesture” that championed trans and nonbinary viewers while better educating older fans about the challenges those groups face. Plus, it actually featured butch characters… period. The reboot wasn’t perfect (justice for Jacqueline Toboni’s Finley!), but it was well-intentioned, a boon for the original’s reputation, and about as impactful as an IP double-dip* can be at this point in the streaming wars. (*OK, quadruple dip if you count “The Real L Word” reality show and the 2014 documentary film “L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin,” which everyone should.)

It’s a joy of on-demand entertainment that, if I wanted to cue up the exact moment from the 2004 pilot when Tina tells her straight male therapist about “the lesbian urge to merge,” I could do it right the hell now. But for newer and younger queer audiences, “Generation Q” provided a significantly more-accessible entry point that Showtime’s parent company Paramount Global has since blocked off — or at the very least, has made both costlier and more confusing to find.

The reboot was just one casualty of many series and films that were removed from platforms as part of an opportunistic mass content write-off leading into the integration of Showtime into Paramount+. And yes, the network and Chaiken are reportedly still working on an “L Word” spinoff set in New York City. But coming on the heels of “Our Flag Meets Death” walking the plank at Max…and “A League of Their Own” striking out at Prime...and “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” getting full-on kneecapped at Paramount+…and roughly a dozen more LGBTQ series thrown out in recent memory, the 20th anniversary of “The L Word” feels like little more than a melancholy reminder of just how miserable fighting for queer TV has become. “The Wilds,” “First Kill,” “Warrior Nun,” all canceled. (At least we’ve got “Yellowjackets”… for now.)

Since the dawn of streaming, gay and lesbian audiences have seen more shows about them getting developed and produced than ever before. And yet, LGBTQ series — particularly good LGBTQ series — are still far from common. In the face of industry headwinds (see the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes) and various global crises (see the COVID-19 pandemic and economy), they’re getting tossed aside faster than you can say, “God, Dana.” It’s a backslide that could make even the messiest lesbian blush, and reason enough to wonder whether our love for the “The L Word” will ever feel whole again.

UPDATE [6:52 pm ET]: A previous version of this article incorrectly credited Ilene Chaiken as the showrunner to “Generation Q.” It did involve Chaiken, but was helmed by Marja-Lewis Ryan.

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