Hollywood Flashback: 'L Word' Was a Groundbreaking Take on Gay Women's Lives

The L Word  Group shot - Publicity - H 2019
Naomi Kaltman/Showtime

From 2004 to 2009, the series about a group of sexually adventurous, lesbian and bisexual women — which spawned a sequel that debuted Dec. 8 on Showtime — served a community that creator Ilene Chaiken felt "had not been well represented in popular entertainment."

In 2004, The L Word was an idea that arrived at the right place and time. While shows with gay themes were coming into the mainstream (NBC's Will & Grace had debuted in 1998), there was a paucity of lesbian-themed programming.

One 2006 study showed that when gender was specified during a reference to homosexuality on television shows, 82 percent of the time it was about gay men.

The L Word did its part to even things out. The drama series revolved around the lives of a fictional group of sexually adventurous, lesbian and bisexual women living in West Hollywood.

"I wanted to tell stories that reflected my life experience as part of a community that had not been well represented in popular entertainment," says primary creator Ilene Chaiken. "Television can give the gift of representing lives in a way that's truthful but also aspirational and perhaps a bit more glamorous and fabulous than reality."

Showtime had passed on the concept in 2000, but then the network had a hit with Queer as Folk and decided to give L Word a go. The show was originally to be called Earthlings, but that sounded too sci-fi. During a brainstorming session, The Field Guide to Gay Girls was the replacement frontrunner until writer Guinevere Turner mentioned she'd recently been at a k.d. lang concert when the singer said, "I'm a leh; I'm a leh …" And Chaiken said, "She couldn't say the 'L' word." Thus was a title born.

The Hollywood Reporter called the series "steamy, provocative and filled with smart dialogue and richly drawn characters, none of whom is entirely predictable." THR thought the show had a leg up on success because it was "also filled with enough passionate scenes of lovemaking to attract male viewers who might not otherwise be inclined to sample drama from a female perspective." (The 2008 women-only Turkish oil wrestling episode would be an exemplar of this.)

The L Word ran for six seasons, from January 2004 through March 2009. A sequel series with the title The L Word: Generation Q premiered Dec. 8 on Showtime.

This story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.