'L Word' to have long-lasting life

Showtime series altered landscape for lesbians on TV

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Showtime's "The L Word" is coming to a close after next season, but its impact could live on long after the series finale.

The lesbian-themed drama, which debuted in January 2004, has been groundbreaking. Never before had a show with an all-lesbian ensemble that spoke directly to lesbian issues aired on television.

The series has cultivated an extremely devoted following, with many fans meeting every Sunday night for viewing parties at viewers' homes or at packed establishments like the Falcon in West Hollywood. It also has spawned its own social networking site (OurChart.com), garnered huge popularity in the virtual world Second Life and generated dedicated fan Web sites, blogs and podcasts.

But what's more, "L Word," recently renewed for its sixth and final season, has transcended its niche categorization to become a mainstream show about women that is watched by women and men, both gay and straight, nationwide.

And that's something that Showtime executives couldn't have predicted, president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt said.

"I think, at the end of the day, it's just a really good nighttime soap," he said. "It was gratifying that it didn't really matter what the characters' sexual orientation was, just that people thought it was a fun show to watch."

During its five seasons, the series has brought to light several issues of relevance to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community as well as character portrayals not often featured in mainstream television. Such topics have included gay civil rights, closeted celebrities, transgender operations, bisexual relationships and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In addressing these issues, "L Word" is part of a trend in scripted television that really kicked off with Showtime's gay-themed "Queer as Folk" and has continued with HBO's "Six Feet Under" and now ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," said Damon Romine, entertainment media director at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

" 'Queer as Folk' changed how television told stories about relationships," he said. " 'The L Word' built on that and in its own way become a groundbreaking series that set new standards for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender visibility."

That's part of what appeals to Maria Vaznaugh, an avid viewer from the start who had actually never watched Showtime before the series' debut.

"Growing up, I was lucky to maybe see one gay character on TV, and you never saw them kiss," said Vaznaugh, who lives in Los Angeles and works in commercial TV production. "Here you see the relationships fully evolved and you kind of see a reflection of yourself in television, which is very rare."

"L Word" has become a common thread that the lesbian community identifies with, Vaznaugh said. In fact, she and her friends use the characters' names as shorthand to describe individuals and said that even the fashions on the show have started to influence those in the lesbian community.



Vaznaugh also noted the show's wide appeal, pointing to one of her straight male friends whom she turned on to the racy show.

"He now knows enough to know what's going on in the show and not just be watching it for the boobs," she said.

Series regular Jennifer Beals -- a straight actress who said she has had her own eyes opened to various LGBT issues through her role on the series -- noted that she frequently hears stories about how the show has changed viewers' lives.

For example, a lesbian couple together for 30-plus years who was visiting the "L Word" set, told Beals that they had been in the closet until "L Word" gave them the courage to come out to their friends and family.

"Our show points out that the ways in which everyone is similar are more numerous than the ways we are different," Beals said. "This realization can lead to other realizations, and soon people (find) that they can have empathy for characters which 20 years ago they might have had only scorn for."

Greenblatt believes it's too early to predict exactly what kind of lasting impact "L Word" has had on television and society, though he thinks it has helped to break some barriers.

"I think you'll see a lot of premium cable shows and other cable shows that aren't afraid of showing same-sex relationships," he said. "I think shows like 'Queer as Folk' and 'The L Word' had a lot to do with removing the stigma of that. Still, the idea of an entire series populated by lesbians is really groundbreaking, and I don't know if we'll ever see it again in this kind of construction."

According to GLAAD, LGBT characters still are underrepresented on TV. But while the number of LGBT characters on broadcast TV fell for a third consecutive season, the number of such characters on cable reached an all-time high.

For series creator/executive producer Ilene Chaiken, who still seems incredulous at the following the show has spawned, part of the success would be to see more LGBT characters who are series regulars after "L Word" takes its final bow.

" 'The L Word' has shown that gay characters can be successful on television, that people will come to hear and see these stories," she said. "Hopefully, it will affect the business of television and the choices made about what shows get produced going forward. I just want television to show that we're out there and make sure that own particular stories get the same attention and dignity as the stories of characters who aren't gay."
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