the l word

The L Word Still Feels Like Coming Home

Photo: Hilary B Gayle/SHOWTIME

When The L Word: Generation Q premieres this month, 15 years after the original series first aired on Showtime in 2004, it will once again be the only show on TV centered on queer women, run by and starring many (if not exclusively) queer women. When the original L Word ended in 2009, show creator Ilene Chaiken says she assumed a number of likeminded shows would rush in to take its place. For the most part, they haven’t.

TV reboots are intensely personal by design, meant to retarget the audience they once captured while (ideally) drawing in new audiences, too. But for marginalized audiences, who can count the number of shows for them on one hand, reboots aren’t only personal, but loaded. The L Word meant so much to me, and was so integral to my queer journey, that I wonder if I’m incapable of objectivity toward it. As soon as I sat down to watch the early episodes of Generation Q with my wife, as soon as I saw Bette and Alice and Shane — my old friends — walk back onto my screen, it was hopeless. Nearly every critical faculty I possess flew out of my brain, because this is my show, back from the dead, and I’m just so thrilled to see it.

Nonetheless, I am well aware The L Word had a number of significant failings: It was cruel to its single trans character, Max; it made its lone bisexual main character (Alice) write off her own identity; it was exclusively thin, mostly white, and super-femme. It killed Dana, and then it killed Jenny. Like most queer women I know, I have been very nervous for the reboot, wondering how it would reckon with some of its messier legacies.

Having seen the first three episodes, it is probably too early to say whether Generation Q can right all its predecessor’s wrongs, but in many ways, it feels like a brand-new show, as well as the show it always should have been: The cast is much more racially diverse (and the Latinx people are played by actual Latinx people); there are two prominent trans men characters (and they’re played by actual trans people); there is an immediately apparent recognition of sexual fluidity, and no one (so far) has died for totally inscrutable reasons.

Three episodes in, Generation Q is also imperfect: The characters are perhaps even wealthier on the whole than before; there is little to no masc representation (calling Finley “butch” feels a bit like a stretch); there is just one small part given to a trans woman; the writers (I’d argue) have watched a bit too much of The Bold Type. (See especially Dani, a dead ringer for Jane — a young woman far too confident in her position given the available evidence of her pretty average aptitude.)

But as soon as the opening credits ran (without the vocal stylings of Betty, RIP), I started smiling, and kept smiling right through all three episodes. I barely moved, except to clasp my wife’s arm in delighted shock at a cameo appearance I won’t ruin for you (but oh my God). I think the new episodes are genuinely good, and much better than I feared they would be. I also think that watching the show clouds my vision with a gay, heart-eyed dreaminess, just like its ancestor did so many years ago.

I first saw The L Word when in 2008, when I was 21 years old. Having very little spending money and fewer friends, I spent a good deal of time illegally downloading TV shows onto my Dell laptop in the apartment I stayed in while studying abroad in Madrid. My host mom hated that I was always there, and so did I, but I was depressed and lonely and didn’t see a way around it. So I watched The L Word alone, and wondered whether I was gay. Ultimately, I decided I wasn’t, just as I’d previously decided I wasn’t gay just because I had it bad for Tegan Quin, just as I’d go on to decide I wasn’t gay just because I couldn’t seem to make myself have sex with men, just as I’d go on to decide I wasn’t gay because a therapist told me I wasn’t.

I finally did decide I was gay when I was 28, and only in retrospect did I see how much I had struggled. Throughout most of my 20s I believed I was straight because believing you’re straight in a heteronormative culture is easy and encouraged and rewarded. Everything is for you. Every show, every movie, every song, every ad, every church, every school, every form. For a very long time it made sense to me that if I was ever attracted to any man (even if only men famous for being good-looking), I was straight enough not to be bisexual, or gay. Having been aware since girlhood that my sexuality existed primarily in relation to men’s desire, this was surprisingly easy to do.

It is not that I see myself in The L Word, though, as a white, thin, cis lesbian, I’d be among those to have an easier time doing so than many. Still, the show never reflected my life. I never hooked up with any bridesmaid, let alone two and the bride and their mom (the Shane special). I married my first-ever girlfriend in my early 30s. If Tina is boring, I am basically dead.

But what the show gave me, and what it gives me still, is a vital sense of normalcy. The L Word is a world in which women love women by default. It’s a show that speaks to things I talk about unthinkingly with my queer friends — things it never occurs to me to bring up with my straight ones, because I know they wouldn’t get it. After coming out, one thing I noticed amidst the love and support I was lucky to receive was benevolent ignorance. Straight loved ones who think no differently of me now sometimes interpret their acceptance to mean that things really aren’t different. But they are. I have been harassed and called a dyke on the street in New York just trying to walk somewhere with my wife.

So much has changed in 15 years. So much hasn’t, too. I didn’t think I wanted this reboot. Now that it’s here, I worry it will end. For as long as it’s around, I will watch it, and cherish it, and make fun of it with my queer friends. It’s still not enough, but I’m so grateful it’s back.

The L Word Still Feels Like Coming Home