What 'The L Word' Sequel Must Do to be Relevant Today (Guest Column)

Showtime is developing a new take on the early groundbreaking drama, with Ilene Chaiken joined by original stars Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey, who will connect with a new ensemble.
'The L Word'

In the eight years since The L Word ended its run on Showtime, the question of whether we’ll ever see another big lesbian show has often come up.

During that time, discussion has largely been split into two distinct queries. Do we want another The L Word? Do we need another The L Word? Sure, we might want one, because you’d be hard pressed to find a queer woman who would say, “No, please, show less of us on TV.” But do we really — in light of our increased inclusion in mainstream media and our major strides in civil rights — need one?

Now that the original show seems poised to make its own comeback amid Hollywood’s reboot fever, the question shifts to what we — as lesbian, bisexual and queer women — want from this potential L Word sequel. In short, we have another shot at making this the show we deserve.

For all its foibles and fumbles (and, goodness, there were many — RIP Dana Fairbanks), the series was indisputably groundbreaking and has become a communal touchstone. For many it was the first time we had seen our lives, our loves, our chosen families reflected back to us — even if imperfectly, even if often frustratingly. That matters, because representation always matters. To have looked for so long without seeing yourself and then finally be able to say, “That’s me,” can be an a powerful and transformative moment.

Yet the show was also very of its time when it launched in 2004. This was a time when same-sex marriage was not legal across the country. A time when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ruled our military. A time when Ellen DeGeneres was just restarting her career as a talk show host. A time when only a handful of female celebrities were out — and even some in The L Word cast were still closeted.

So now, looking back, some of it seems almost quaint. It’s a reminder of the progress we’ve made. But, also, how quickly that progress can be challenged. Just a few years ago, the idea of bringing back The L Word or creating another lesbian-centered series might not have felt terribly necessary. We are represented across the spectrum in shows like Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, Freeform's The Fosters, The CW's Supergirl, BBC America's Orphan Black, OWN's Queen Sugar, Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale and Syfy's Wynonna Earp.

But then came the rebirth of the Bury Your Gays Trope and an outbreak of Dead Lesbian Syndrome last year. Shows from The CW's The 100 to AMC's The Walking Dead and even Fox's Empire all killed off significant lesbian or bisexual characters, sparking a fan revolt campaign for better representation that continues today.

That was followed by the even more consequential 2016 presidential election. With the Trump administration threatening past gains and a vice president who thinks it’s OK to refuse to sell pizza to gay people, there’s a renewed urgency in our community. Nothing about being LGBTQ in America feels quaint right now.

This also means this new L Word has an extraordinary opportunity to make a statement beyond the simple “Look, lesbians exist!” of the original series. While it was critical then to be the country’s lesbian training wheels, we’ve long since pedaled past that. Now, suddenly unburdened by the mantle of having to be The First Lesbian Show, the return to this world can be as a bold and political step forward.

But for that to happen, L Word must also unburden itself from its mistakes of the past. And that starts first thing with finding the right showrunner. Original creator Ilene Chaiken will serve as an executive producer, but will be hands off because of her commitment to Empire (both shows are produced by different companies). To be honest, that’s a good thing. Fresh eyes are needed for a fresh start.

So now Showtime has said they are looking for a new executive producer with “ties to the lesbian community.” I’d say having a queer woman at its helm is non-negotiable. It’s an absolute must. They must also hire queer women writers and queer women directors. We need gay women telling stories about gay women.

Second, reflecting a wider diversity of the lesbian, bisexual, non-binary and queer women’s community is just as essential. During its original run, the show was criticized, and rightfully so, for portraying a largely white and largely femme and largely upper-class segment of the gay women. That can’t happen in the sequel if it is meant to feel in any way authentic.

Series stars Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey will reportedly executive produce and appear in the sequel — which will no doubt be applauded because their characters were among the most loved/lusted after. But any new additions should include more women of color, women from various economic strata and women who represent the fuller spectrum of sexuality, identities, body types and gender fluidity. That’s what most queer women see when they look out into their social circles, and that’s what should be reflected on TV.

Third, instead of getting sidetracked by soapy circus sideshows (aka basically anything to do with Jenny Schecter), the new L Word should delve deeply into what it’s like today to be a queer woman talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting — well, you know the rest of the song. When it was good, when it was at its best, L Word unveiled a culture that is unique to gay women yet also somehow universal in its shared humanity. That’s what good TV does, it makes us care about people different from us.

Fourth, but not last, it has to be good. Gone are the days when LGBTQ audiences would watch a show simply because it had an LGBTQ character or an LGBTQ subplot or an LGBTQ kiss just that once for sweeps. The failure of some recent gay-themed series was simple — they were bad. Others were good, but struggled to find an audience in a world with wider acceptance and seemingly less need for the refuge of a televised community. In the era of Peak TV, queer shows need to rise to the occasion. (Also, don’t scrimp on the quality sex scene — please, we were all thinking it.)

While many queer women probably have mixed feelings about the return of L Word (excitement, anxiety, nostalgia, confusion), it represents a singular opportunity to get things right. In this political landscape, being as gay as possible as loud as possible feels like an act of rebellion. And it’s equally important to give queer women a place to see themselves and be reminded in the value of our community and strength of culture.  

For this new L Word to succeed, in short, it must answer the questions we’ve been asking ourselves for the last eight years. Why do we want and need a new L Word? Tell us that and, who knows, you might even make lesbians happy. Just be sure to nix that theme song.

Dorothy Snarker is a contributor to Autostraddle and a former longtime writer for AfterEllen. Find more from her at dorothysurrenders.com or @dorothysnarker.

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