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

Naomi Kaltman/Showtime
(From left) Season four’s Mia Kirshner, Katherine Moennig, Marlee Matlin, Janina Gavankar, Cybill Shepherd, Rachel Shelley, Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, Leisha Hailey, Pam Grier and Daniela Sea.

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.