If you’re at all familiar with the mid-aughts drama “The L Word” — and its fraught history with representation — there is a scene in Showtime’s forthcoming reboot, “The L Word: Generation Q,” that will feel like a test. In a high-end, Los Angeles restaurant, Micah, a third-generation Chinese American, turns to his date, Jose, and says he can’t make it through dinner without telling him something. Jose butts in: “I know you’re trans. I saw you on Grindr.”
But that wasn’t what Micah was getting at; he was simply going to say he had a gift card to the restaurant. The date stumbles on — a bit awkwardly, in the same way it would have if Jose had just accidentally revealed that he knew the name of Micah’s high school from stalking him on Facebook. Looking back on the season, Leo Sheng, the trans actor who plays Micah, says it’s one of his favorite scenes: From the outset, it establishes that while being trans is certainly a part of Micah, it doesn’t define him. As Sheng puts it: “It is never the crux of his identity.”
Such an exchange likely wouldn’t have happened in the first iteration of the show. Despite being radical in its open portrayal of lesbian love and sexuality, “The L Word,” which ran from 2004 to 2009, was narrow, even conservative, in its ideas of gender and sexuality judging by today’s standards. Trans characters, when they did show up, were made into one-dimensional tropes or used merely to stage debates. The world the original show envisioned was dominated by straight-passing, conventionally attractive, cisgender, white lesbian women who passed their days in a Los Angeles cafe gossiping over cappuccinos. Marketed with the tagline, “Same sex, different city,” and compared to “Friends” by critics, it was a show that concerned itself with assimilation more than deviation.
As Grand Valley State University media professor Cáel Keegan puts it, the original series “never felt like it was representing a diversity of political viewpoints about what lesbianism should be.”
After a decade-long hiatus, “The L Word” premieres on Showtime on Dec. 8, and Generation Q is promising to be different. Showrunner and executive producer Marja-Lewis Ryan, along with a diverse room of writers, including trans writer Thomas Page McBee, have shaped a show that positions itself less in conversation with the likes of “Sex and the City” and more in line with socially aware 2010s shows like “Pose,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sense8.” Expanding the show beyond cisgender, white lesbianism and pushing queerness out of a vacuum, “Generation Q” turns up the politics and leans into nuances.
Ryan brings back familiar faces: original cast members Bette (Jennifer Beals), Alice (Leisha Hailey) and Shane (Katherine Moennig), and ushers in a younger generation. Micah is an adjunct professor and trans man who is challenging himself to be more vulnerable; Finley (Jacqueline Toboni) is a disorganized production assistant struggling to reconcile her religious upbringing with her queer identity; Dani (Arienne Mandi) is a PR executive and daughter of an investor whose values misalign with her own; and Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) is her loving partner, an Afro-Latina producer who is unafraid of speaking her mind.
While the spirit and legacy of the original series certainly sets the tone and frames the reboot, the new narratives and cast members don’t exist in its shadow. Generation Q-ers are often the ones pushing the plot forward and setting the tone of the conversations. And, by bringing their own lived experiences to set, the actors comprise a community you could actually imagine existing off-screen.
Most, if not all, of the new actors joined the cast with preexisting relationships to the show. While down a YouTube rabbit hole in the mid-2000s, Sheng stumbled upon a clip of “The L Word” featuring Max, the infamously mishandled trans character who was played by a cisgender woman wearing fake facial hair. Sheng, now 23, was around age 11 at the time. He recalls Max as the first trans character he saw represented on a TV show.
Toboni, who plays Finley, remembers when the only “out” girl in her high school gave her a box set of “The L Word” Season 1 as a birthday gift. She told Toboni, who’s now 27, “Until you figure it out.”
The show has become a rite of passage for many; the experience of “figuring it out” is built into the viewing experience. Friendships, relationships and communities have been built on coming to despise certain characters and crush on others. Even after the plot derailed, the writing deteriorated and the show went off the air in 2009, “The L Word” has maintained a cult following and a distinctive place in LGBTQ media for being that show you hate to love and love to hate.
Part of that hate comes from the limited approach to femininity. Even within its groundbreaking representation of the lesbian community, butch characters were largely absent.
But one thing did stand out to Toboni, who kept coming back to the show, watching and rewatching that box set: “When you have more than one queer story line, you are able to just normalize and it doesn’t become coming out story after coming out story,” she says.
Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation at the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD, hopes characters like Micah and Pierce, Bette’s campaign manager who is played by trans actor Brian Michael Smith, can do the same for trans individuals. When TV shows only tell the story of a trans person’s transition, “it traps transgender characters in this one singular story that seems to make it appear as if that’s the only interesting thing about us,” Adams says. “Imagine if every TV show that you saw a cisgender woman in was about puberty.”
The character of Micah, a series regular, is a step toward achieving the kind of “matter of fact inclusion” Adams says trans characters still lack on television. The reboot also casts Jamie Clayton and Sophie Giannamore, two trans women, in roles, although it’s not clear if their characters are written as trans.
Ryan, the show’s producer, also encouraged the actors to bring their lived experiences to set. Finley was originally a Christian character, for example, but knowing Toboni grew up Catholic, Ryan made her Catholic. That way, her acting could come from personal experience.
Zayas’s own racial identity became crucial for her character, Sophie, too: “I’m very much playing her as a Dominican woman from New York,” says 29-year-old Zayas. “There’s a lot to the culture, the food, the music, how we talk.”
For Zayas, that represents something different from previous jobs. “I’ve always felt I had to have straight hair to go to work or go to an event,” she says. “I came in, and I was like, I want to be natural. I want to wear my curls.”
This, too, is a departure from the original, in which there were only two consistent characters of color. According to Bettina Love, an education policy scholar who co-wrote a cultural analysis of the first season of “The L Word,” Bette, who is biracial, was measured by how deftly she camouflaged into her circle of white friends; her black half-sister Kit, meanwhile, embodied a stereotype — she was a struggling alcoholic who could not get her life together.
Love says that in order to overcome the original series’s misgivings, the new producers and writers must do the “actual work” of developing complex characters, “where we get the backstory, where we understand the decisions that they are making because of the systems and the structures that they’re trying to live in.”
Rather than glossing over diversity or forcing it into a tired stereotype, the new “L Word” looks at difference from the perspective of those whose lives are impacted by it.
It’s not only the characters; the focus of the show also differs in its second iteration.
Whereas the original series connected characters through sexual encounters (documented meticulously in “The Chart”), the reboot weaves together the cast through their professional lives. Dani is the serious, ambitious public relations director for Bette, who’s running for mayor. Sophie and Finley, meanwhile, are assistants to Alice, a talk-show host.
Repositioning the characters around professional, aspirational pursuits imbues “The L Word: Generation Q” with the topicality that was absent from the relatively apolitical original. Alice’s TV show is a stage for conversations about consent, wage inequality and coming-out stories. Bette’s mayoral campaign becomes a jumping off point to talk about the opioid epidemic and LGBTQ homelessness. Bette’s father — who was treated like a soon-to-be extinct homophobe in the original series — comes up in a conversation with voters as an example of widespread familial intolerance. Even Shane takes up a cause: With queer spaces increasingly limited, she buys a sports bar to return it to its gay bar origins. Despite the fact that we are 10 years into the future, with marriage equality realized and the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy behind us, the reboot somehow makes the stakes for the LGBTQ community feel higher.
Keegan describes the original show as “incredibly bourgeoisie and capitalist,” and cautions that if producers “don’t significantly revise some of the class and race issues, [they] will end up with with people really resisting the product.”
Given the aspirational storylines, it’s unclear whether this approach will feel aligned with lived reality of many queer folks; not everyone is striding through glassy offices in color-coordinated power suits. Swapping a value system based on sex and traditional beauty standards for one that skews toward the equally controversial trappings of corporate feminism risks further marginalizing queer minorities.
But again, lived reality feels most evident in the younger generation: The class tensions testing Sophie and Dani’s relationship; Finley living in a one-bedroom apartment with five roommates; Angie, Bette’s biracial daughter, getting into a fight at her elite private school.
The older generation can still feel out of touch (look no further than the trailer, in which Shane disembarks a private jet). But then, some moments do show the older generation imparting wisdom gleaned from operating in those systems and structures. After Angie’s conflict at school, Bette tells her that the world will treat her differently and that the only way to beat the system is to understand it.
With the myriad storylines and characters, it’s easy to imagine narrative depth and character development being sacrificed by a show trying to be too many things for too many people.
But in the first few episodes, the personalities are strong enough and the dialogue sharp and intentional enough to sustain complexity. Even when the show risks seeming like it is trying too hard to perform “wokeness” — like when Alice opens every talk show with, “Ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between!” — it feels self-aware of its signaling. Alice, who was an erratic, gossip-y radio personality in the original series, has grown into an open-minded, “cool mom” archetype, and it works.
In one scene that feels very meta, network executives scold Alice for taking on heady topics in her talk show and push her to embody the “poppy, fun, palatable” brand they originally envisioned. “We gotta stay true to our Season 1 audience, right?,” one man says. Sophie retorts: “But they might be interested in something more substantial.”
At least, in “The L Word’s” case, they certainly are.