For weeks now, nearly every queer person I know has been tuning in to Showtime every Sunday night to watch The L Word: Generation Q. Sometimes, they’ll go out to packed bars for viewing parties, or they’ll host informal get-togethers from the comfort of their own homes. Those who aren’t watching along still loosely know about it, and come ready to explain why they’re not following along to what is basically Game of Thrones, but for gay people.
When the original The L Word launched in 2004, there was nothing like Ilene Chaiken’s interlocked romantic drama on TV. Here was a show that was unapologetically gay, featuring an ensemble cast of almost entirely queer characters living their day-to-day lives in LA — or as the theme song would put it, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking. The show was so influential that, to this day, gay bars still regularly host L Word trivia nights, or have episodes playing in the background. It’s such a part of everyday queer cultural consciousness that I ended up watching the show for the first time last year just so that I could stop feeling left out.
The L Word, which followed a group of Los Angeles lesbians living the most dramatic lives possible, was by no means perfect. Talking about it in 2020 means acknowledging all sorts of shortcomings, from harmful depictions of trans characters to a shocking lack of people of color, given the setting. And for every nuanced depiction of queer issues, like the difficulties of dealing with bigoted family members, there are also completely absurd moments, like the one time a character sleeps with a vampire. The show was kind of trash sometimes, but it was and remains our trash.
Fast-forward 15 years later, and the follow-up, L Word: Generation Q, enters a landscape populated by Orange is the New Black, Vida, and One Day at a Time. Even children’s cartoons, like Steven Universe, depict queer characters in shockingly complex ways. Ruby Rose is Batwoman now. Are You The One had an entirely queer last season.
It would have been easy for Generation Q to feel like a relic of a different time, or worse, completely unneeded. But as it nears the first season finale, the show’s visibility and gloss makes a fierce case for why its voice is still vital. A series can have a queer character or two, but few of these media properties carry the weight of the L Word brand, at least for queer people. Its mere existence is an event, and Showtime is treating it that way, too.
“We just have a lot of money and we have a lot of resources,” Generation Q executive producer and showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan tells Polygon. There was always something luxurious about the L Word’s depiction of LA, but this time around, returning characters who have had a chance to develop careers and lives are walking out of things like private jets. Ryan likes to call this “muscle,” but the ambition stretches beyond making sure all the money ends up on the screen. Generation Q seems eager to say something beyond merely introducing straight people to queer culture. From the onset, Generation Q tackles things like the opioid crisis, alcoholism, faith, and race. The new cast of LA queers figuring life out on-screen are younger and multicultural, with Latinx and Asian characters of all stripes. Spanish and Farsi is spoken on-screen like it’s nothing. It would be remarkable, if it weren’t written by people who experience this kind of everyday life in LA
“I assembled a room full of queer people,” Ryan says. “There’s one straight person [in] our writer’s room,” Ryan continued, jokingly referring to the writer as a diversity hire. “A lot of us, as professional writers, are used to being called into rooms as the sole lesbian or as the only trans person or the only queer person.”
The genuine queer perspective allows Generation Q to be about more than just standard queer issues. This is a huge departure from the original L Word, which starred Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner), a straight white woman who stumbles upon a world that is totally alien to her.
“She’s literally peeking between the fence posts to see these queer people,” Ryan laughs, recalling some of the earliest scenes in the original show. Seduced by what she sees, Schecter’s gay descent holds the audience’s hand through basic queer concepts. These concessions felt omnipresent throughout the first show, most notably when it came to the sex scenes. Rather than depicting something intimate or hot to queer people, the sex scenes felt like they were there to titillate straight people. The show needed to do this to get made at all, Ryan muses.
“I don’t think it’s because of straight audiences,’ Ryan says. “I think it’s because of straight buyers or like, or like heterosexually minded buyers.”
Generation Q, meanwhile, seems unafraid to make straight people at least slightly uncomfortable. The opening scene has Dani Nunez (Arienne Mandi) and Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas), two of the new cast members, screwing through a period, happily showing their bloody fingers to the camera. Where there was once a constant shadow of shame regarding the L Word’s particulars, Generation Q looks people straight in the eye and owns the series’ many shortcomings, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall to do so. Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), one of the older returning characters, has a storyline all about trying to have a meaningful TV talk show for queer people while somehow also satiating the men in suits, who believe “incremental change” is the best anyone can hope for. Alice openly wonders how she can keep her audience from the first season of her show despite the barriers she faces and concessions that she has to make.
Ryan says that she tried to “create a writers room that had people that were directly affected by the sins of the original,” which may explain how the show now confidently wrestles with, say, the complexities of dating and hooking up while trans. More than that, the show feels surprisingly modern, as characters wrestle with the shittiness of the gig economy, holding progressive values in a capitalist hellscape and the dread of swiping endlessly on dating apps. And after losing a generation to the AIDS crisis, it’s also affirming to see the returning cast going about their lives. Even if many of these characters haven’t figured it out yet, the mere act of getting older in front of a queer audience who can learn from the mistakes and insights of their elders feels radical in a media landscape still obsessed with coming out stories.
The show isn’t written to be universal, but the specificity of the drama cuts deep. At one point, for example, engaged lovebirds Dani and Sophie have a quarrel because booking a high-end hotel for their wedding would mean making some gregarious family members feel unwelcome. The question of class, and where a POC family fits into a world of affluence, felt familiar to me as a Latinx woman with upward mobility. But the moment that really got me was when the couple made up and bachata happily played in the background. It’s a small detail that most people wouldn’t notice, but one that felt true to all the easygoing backyard parties my family has thrown over the years.
Despite the clear-eyed aspirations underpinning the show, Generation Q faces its own bevy of criticisms that I’ve heard in conversations with friends and acquaintances, and have been mentioned in passing by critics appraising the show. There aren’t a wide range of body types depicted on-screen. The cast is largely composed of beautiful femmes. Much of the drama still revolves around infidelity. The list goes on.
Expectations are high, partially out of love, but also because it’s The L Word. The show carries the weight of the entire queer community on its shoulders. Anything that the drama depicts risks becoming an emblem for the queer populace as a whole, which makes talking about the show borderline exhausting. There’s this ongoing fear that any flawed characters or “problematic” storyline outcomes will come to define the public image of the thing in question.
“The representation on the show is authentic to the city of Los Angeles, which was basically my original pitch,” Ryan says. “Like there’s no way that I can represent all human people. I think if I set out to do that I would just fail miserably,” she adds.
“I love that people don’t like [the show.] And I love that people love it,” Ryan says.
Ryan seems to be taking criticisms in stride, telling Polygon that the show has done better than what came before it, and will try to do even better going forward. Showtime has already renewed Generation Q for a second season.
“We are part of [a] swell of queer content and I’m really happy to be like a worker among workers. I know it sounds sort of funny, but like I don’t really mind if [the show] doesn’t stand out. There’s still not enough of us that are as funded so I’m happy to make like a glossy, fancy show that reminds all of us to have big dreams and hold onto them.”