For a certain generation of lesbians, queer women, and queers with vulvas who don’t identify as women, “The L Word” was — to put it mildly — the most personally significant piece of pop culture of the last 20 years. Speaking solely for myself (I fall into the latter camp), discovering the comic melodrama about a group of attractive lesbians living in Los Angeles in the mid-aughts was a revelation. I can still remember driving back from my local video store, cradling the DVDs in my lap like a precious gem, my semi-clueless father innocently inquiring: “So, what is the L word?,” emphasizing the last word in the title much in the way he still says “Burger King.” Graciously filling in my loaded silence, just as he would the following year when he lobbed me the Bill Clinton answer about my marijuana use, he asked — “Is it…love?”
“Yeah…it’s love,” I answered with teenage curtness. And — unlike my “That’s right, I don’t inhale” line — I wasn’t lying.
For so many of us, it was love. The first two seasons of the original “The L Word,” which premiered in 2004 on Showtime, are objectively good television. Jenny’s (Mia Kirshner) coming-out story provided a gripping narrative backbone to the first season. The fallout from her affair, plus more screen time for secondary characters who had quickly become favorites, filled out the second.
Viewers were hooked from then on, and they stuck with showrunner Ilene Chaiken through a litany of questionable storytelling choices designed to test the mettle of their loyalty: The death of fan favorite Dana after she had just begun a long-simmering romance with Alice; Max’s messy and stereotype-ridden gender transition; and the infamous murder mystery mayhem of Season 6.
It makes sense then, after all that, that audiences are excited for the forthcoming reboot of the beloved property, now titled “The L Word: Generation Q.” Helmed by new showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan, this iteration brings the return of Bette (Jennifer Beals), Shane (Katherine Moennig), and Alice (Leisha Hailey), three beloved original characters, along with a slew of new, younger characters, meant to reflect the changing demographics and mores of the next generation of queer women (and people with vulvas who don’t identify as such).
Judging by the three episodes provided to critics, fans would be wise to manage their expectations. The reboot’s funniest and most energetic scenes arrive via the original characters, who slip comfortably into their kinetic rapport like an old pair of slippers. Bette is running for mayor, Alice has a daytime talk show, and Shane is getting divorced. When either of those three are onscreen, the idea of a reboot, of revisiting these irresistible characters at this stage in their lives, doesn’t seem half bad — though merely as a piece of fluffy entertainment. When all three are together, the chemistry is like a chef’s kiss of nostalgia TV for lesbians.
Unfortunately, “Generation Q,” or shall we say “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” struggles to make a similar impression. The youngins don’t have the same easy connection, either with each other or with the audience, a glaring misstep that is compounded by their having to share the screen with the old class. Living together in Silver Lake are Dani (Arienne Mandi) and Sophie (Rosanny Zayas), a soon-to-be-engaged couple navigating class differences; Micah (Leo Sheng), a gay trans man with eyes on the neighbor; and Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), an amiable writer’s PA. (Finley is the only character with any personality to speak of, though she seems almost intentionally written as a slightly androgynous Alice with a touch of Shane posturing.)
The show’s strongest moments come from Bette’s mayoral campaign, which allows the series to get as political as Chaiken always wanted it to be. (Dana’s death was her stubborn attempt to confront life’s hard truths — this from a show people watched for the dyke drama and hot sex). Though it can feel like a grab bag of hot-button topics, Bette the politician takes on issues such as the opioid crisis, public education, and LGBTQ+ homelessness. (She even handles her own sex scandal with grace and humility.) Bette’s relationship with her daughter Angie (Jordan Hull) continues the familial bond she had with sister Kit in the original, though it in no way makes up for the absence of Pam Grier (nothing could). It’s fun to see control freak Bette on her heels a bit, as she contends with Angie’s teen angst and small acts of rebellion.
Speaking of kids, the funniest addition to “Generation Q” isn’t from the new generation at all; it’s Stephanie Allynne (“One Mississippi”), who plays Alice’s girlfriend Nat. Really, it’s the comic gold that comes from Alice dealing awkwardly with step-children while also handling Nat’s unpredictable ex-wife (Sepideh Moafi). Hailey was always the comic relief, and she’s found a worthy counterpart in Allynne, a comedic actress who is married to Tig Notaro. (Moafi is also a great addition).
It’s in these moments that the reboot makes the most sense, begging the question of whether “The L Word” needed a new class at all. In its heyday, “The L Word” was a show by lesbians, about lesbians, and for lesbians, and for six seasons it found an eager audience that stretched well beyond the limits of the community (yes, some of them straight men). If any demographic is poised to embrace a show about women in their 40s and 50s, it’s lesbians and their extended networks. By trying to make itself young, hip, and “politically correct,” “The L Word: Generation Q” has highlighted the original series’ flaws (too white, too cis, too femme) as well as its strengths (we loved the characters anyway).
But, as shown by the proliferation of viewing parties lined up this Sunday to screen the premiere, clearly queer audiences are not being served by the current TV landscape if they are so desperate to revisit “The L Word.” The real question becomes — why is this the best we can hope for?
“The L Word: Generation Q” premiered Sunday, December 8 on Showtime.
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