Occasionally, Showtime just can’t help itself. The premium network is addicted to the outrageous-bordering-on-crass — from Jim Carrey getting down with a Muppet on Kidding to David Duchovny receiving oral sex from a nun in the cold open of Californication. The cable king’s primitive need to shock keeps its best series from reaching their artistic heights, mostly because relentless sex takes screen time away from building other connective tissue in the story.
In the opening moments of The L Word: Generation Q, a nude young woman writhes and squeals in ecstasy as her female partner pleasures her from below. This goes on for seemingly forever (a few minutes), until the scene culminates with one of them discovering they are on their period. Are you shocked yet?
The soft-core porniness of the original The L Word, which debuted 15 years ago, was both its strength and its weakness. In 2004, few if any shows centered lesbians, let alone lesbians who had lots of graphic sex. (Creator Ilene Chaiken based the conceit on her own L.A. social circle.)
The drama was groundbreaking in its exploration of lesbian culture, exploring hot-button topics such as same-sex marriage, gay adoption, gender liminality and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The L Word also pioneered the depiction of female gaze-y sex and sensuality between women on TV, even if its convoluted infidelity plotlines destabilized the show’s structure as a whole. Everything from Transparent to Vida owes a debt of gratitude to this queer innovator.
Despite its less-than-auspicious introduction, The L Word: Generation Q is a spritely and engaging sequel series, having matured its predecessor’s foundational players since the original story ended on the unsolved murder of OG train wreck Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner). Jenny barely comes up at all, actually.
Jennifer Beals’ Bette Porter is still a sanctimonious control freak, now running to be L.A.’s first lesbian mayor while mismanaging her daughter’s mild teen rebellion. Leisha Hailey’s elfin Alice Pieszecki, still getting the zingiest one-liners, is now a talk show host and soon-to-be-stepmom. And Katherine Moennig’s shaggy-haired lothario Shane McCutcheon has returned from Europe, raw from heartache and with lots of cash to burn. As they enter middle age, we see them deal with the onset of menopause and explore their varying maternal instincts.
The “Generation Q” of the title likely refers to the fresh crop of millennials and Gen Z-ers who orbit around these three women. While the original series was based in sexy West Hollywood, much of the action now takes in hipsterish Silver Lake, where Alice’s TV producer Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas) lives with her fiancee Dani Nùñez (Arienne Mandi), a PR exec who ditches her father’s pharmaceutical company to work for Bette’s political campaign. (Isn’t it a funny coincidence how just minutes after Bette chastises Dani for shilling for Big Pharma, the son of one of the firm’s executives dies of an opioid overdose?)
Sophie and Dani live with shy Micah (Leo Sheng), a fresh-faced trans man coming to terms with his sexuality as he deals with body dysmorphia. They also spend lots of time with Alice’s chatterbox production assistant, Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), a rough-and-tumble twenty-something lesbian still reeling from the pain of growing up in a religious Missouri household.
Outside of Alice’s fabulously vivid wardrobe (full of lemony yellows and creamy oranges), Generation Q‘s most potent feature is the complicated dynamic between Sophie and Dani, a young Latinx couple navigating their wedding while also dealing with their class differences. Affluent Dani is still scarred by the early death of her mother and struggles to please her imperious CEO father (Carlos Leal), who vacillates on supporting Dani’s personal and professional choices. Realist Sophie comes from a working-class background, and the contrast between her loving/accepting family and Dani’s colder one makes her question their future together. (“Don’t you wanna marry me and not feel like we gotta keep our spines straight?”)
In any given scene, it’s hard to tell who, of these two strong-willed women, is more fearful of commitment. The chemistry between Zayas and Mandi is propulsive, even as you spot the fissures in their union.
Individually, the most interesting characters are the unencumbered ones — Alice, Shane, Finley, Micah. (Dani and Bette’s tightly-wound moralism quickly becomes tiresome: Hypocritical Bette insists she’s the good guy, even when she relentlessly engages in unethical affairs, such as sleeping with her married employee.) My favorite person here is skater-dude-like Finley, a charming upstart whose inherent sweetness masks a history of familial trauma. Toboni is an actor to watch, as she infuses Finley with genuine puppy dog bonhomie.
Generation Q is invested in the now of LGBTQIA culture, despite its sweaty Gen X grumblings about smartphone ubiquity or its rapidly aging references to the zeitgeist (Grindr, Kamala Harris, Roxane Gay, etc.). Still, it fares better than Showtime’s Tales of the City reboot, which revels in queer San Francisco nostalgia to the point of fantasy. Gen Q‘s new executive producer Marja-Lewis Ryan dispenses with nostalgia here, instead allowing her new characters to organically blend in with the show’s mainstay cast. The writing is tart, though maybe not as tart as Alice’s citrusy blazers.
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moennig, Arienne Mandi, Rosanny Zayas, Jacqueline Toboni, Jordan Hull, Stephanie Allynne, Sepideh Moafi, Leo Sheng, Jamie Clayton, Fortune Feimster, Olivia Thirlby
Executive producers: Marja-Lewis Ryan, Ilene Chaiken, Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig, Leisha Hailey, Kristen Campo
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)