I watched the first season of “The L Word” alone in my darkened dorm room during my freshman year of college.
Whenever my roommate left, I’d strap on headphones, fire up my 12-inch laptop and insert one of the poor-quality, pirated “L Word” DVDs that I’d purchased on eBay after adamantly refusing to pick up discs at the local Blockbuster for fear I might run into someone I knew.
Illuminated by the glow of my laptop, I clandestinely followed the adventures of power lesbian Bette; friendly, bisexual journalist Alice; promiscuous, relationship-phobic Shane; and their friends — feeling a little less alone, and a little more empowered with every episode.
That show maintained a significant presence in my life over its original six-season run, and it’s a big reason I’m now comfortable writing this.
On Sunday night, my wife, our group of friends and I will gather expectantly around the TV for an event that, for thousands of queer women who loved the original series, is akin in magnitude to the Super Bowl.
After a 10-year hiatus, “The L Word” is back, with a blend of old and new characters and a modified name — “The L Word: Generation Q” (Dec. 8, 10 p.m., Showtime). Many of us will once again host or attend weekly “L Word” watch parties to celebrate the new show and to pay homage to the original series, which helped so many queer women, myself included, embrace their sexuality.
Over its six-season run from 2004-09, “The L Word” took its fair share of criticism for — among other things — the lack of diversity among its cast and its inaccurate portrayal of bisexual and transgender characters. But it was also celebrated by many within the LGBTQ population for the seminal role it occupied in the cultural canon of LGBTQ media.
“The L Word” was the first TV series that depicted what it was like to navigate life as happily, well-adjusted lesbians in an often unforgiving, heteronormative world.
The show ran long before marriage equality, when LGBTQ folks were still not allowed to serve openly in the military, and when campaigns were ongoing in many states to try and define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Sure, Ellen DeGeneres had come out, and “Queer as Folk,” which chronicled the lives of five gay men, was nearing the end of its run. But from the perspective of a closeted teenage girl questioning her sexuality, the most noteworthy television characters of the time were Willow and her ill-fated girlfriend, Tara, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and Xena and Gabrielle from “Xena: Warrior Princess,” who shared an intense subtext that’s still being debated today.
Looking back, I spent years denying my sexuality in part because, when I looked around and examined the world, I never saw any out lesbians I could identify with, women who were just going about their business living successful, happy lives.
To my scared, questioning 18-year-old self, being a lesbian felt like something to be ashamed of — a harder life, an existence shrouded in shadows that would involve constant dissembling.
Then, on that one fall day in my dimly lit dorm room, I turned on Episode 1 of “The L Word” and felt as if an entirely new universe had opened itself to me.
Right from the opening scene — committed couple Bette and Tina asleep in bed, arms draped casually over one another, the picture of marital bliss (for the moment, at least!) — I saw bits of myself in these characters, and the show gave me encouragement and solace over the next five years as I grappled with my own sexuality.
Bette’s self-assuredness and ambition inspired me, while perennially unavailable Shane became my hero after this line: “Sexuality is fluid, whether you’re gay or straight or bisexual, you just go with the flow.” Spunky, quick-witted journalist Alice seemed so “normal” that she helped me believe I was “normal” even though I happened to love women.
Bette, Shane and Alice return in the “Generation Q” reboot, which picks up 10 years after the original series finale. Just as in its original run, this iteration of “The L Word” wants to push boundaries and explore the stories of minority populations who might not always see themselves represented in mass media.
So much of television unfolds from the viewpoints of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and there’ll be plenty of that thanks to the fresh new faces in “Generation Q.” In a direct answer to criticism the original series received, the new cast has been assembled with gender and racial diversity in mind. Transgender actor Leo Sheng was cast as transgender adjunct professor Micah Lee. The multiethnic Arienne Mandi plays the role of public relations executive Dani Nùñez, while Rosanny Zayas plays TV producer Sophie Suarez, and Jacqueline Toboni’s character, Sarah Finley, is a production assistant who’s trying to reconcile her sexuality and her religion.
But, refreshingly, executive producer Leisha Hailey (who also reprises her role as Alice) recently told The Advocate that she also wants to use the reboot to tell the stories of queer women in their 40s and 50s.
“This is season one of, hopefully, what’s going to be a long run for us,” Hailey says in The Advocate interview, referring to herself, Jennifer Beals (Bette) and Katherine Moennig (Shane), the three original cast members who returned for the reboot. “These new seeds that have been planted, where our characters are starting from 10 years later, it’s just the beginning of that journey. This is just the nugget — the nucleus of what’s going to come.”
Showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan was 19 when the original pilot aired. We’re part of the same generation of queer women who came of age right as attitudes toward same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights were shifting.
But for every married LGBTQ couple around, there are hundreds of closeted LGBTQ youth everywhere. Gay men and women can now serve openly in the U.S. military, but transgender people are barred from service. Visibility still matters, and normalization is still important to help people become comfortable with their identities.
Ryan credits the original show with having “changed my life.” Now, with “Generation Q,” she’s building a fictional world to inspire the next generation of LGBTQ people to stand up for themselves in the real one.
That is the power of television.
“The L Word: Generation Q” debuts 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 on Showtime.