When I first learned that Showtime would be rebooting The L Word, I felt extremely excited and extremely nervous. I adore the original show, despite all of its missteps and failings. I have probably watched The L Word, which aired from 2004 to 2009, about a dozen times; the show holds a place dear in my heart, almost like we’re in a long-term friendship that’s equal parts loving and frustrating. Sometimes it’s a healthy friendship and sometimes it’s not, but no matter the circumstances, it’s a relationship that’s helped me develop a sense of self.
I’m not the only viewer who’s developed an extreme relationship with The L Word. After all, the series is also a groundbreaking piece of queer history—one of the first shows to center specifically on lesbians—and helped many queer people learn more about themselves and better understand queerness itself. While straight people debated if they were a Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) or Monica (Courteney Cox) (à la Friends, a show that actually hated queer people), lesbians, bisexuals, and queer women wanted to be as confident and brilliant as Bette (Jennifer Beals), have tight friendships like Alice (Leisha Hailey), and spiral in and out relationships like Shane (Katherine Moenig).
In hindsight, though, viewers also caught the show’s weaknesses—the whiteness and wealth of its cast; its idealizing of relationships that were toxic and, at times, abusive; its bizarre relationship with bisexuality; and its overall failure to understand trans people. Those flaws tempered my excitement about The L Word: Generation Q, though the use of the “Q” itself suggested that the reboot would include a broader representation of sexuality. Thankfully, Generation Q has met those expectations: The new cast is comprised of brown and Black characters, including Dani (Arienne Mandi), Sophie (Rosanny Zayas), and Gigi (Sepideh Moafi), and there are also characters who aren’t wealthy in the increasingly-rich-as-hell-Jenny-and-Shane way. There’s also Pierce (played by Black trans actor Brian Michael Smith) and Micah (Leo Sheng), a trans man who lives with Dani and Sophie. These trans characters are fleshed out and well rounded, a positive departure from the way the original series treated Max (Daniela Sea), a trans man played by a cis woman.
These shifts can be attributed to a number of different elements, including the introduction of Marja-Lewis Ryan, the reboot’s creator, executive producer, and showrunner. From the beginning, she signaled she’d listened to the criticism directed at the original series and decided to incorporate it into her vision. “I’m of this community and not the original, and because of that, my worldview is quite different,” Ryan said during a July 2019 panel at Outfest, a LGBTQ film festival in Los Angeles. “Having storytellers on the other side is really important. We got somebody in almost every department who represents the trans and nonbinary experience.” Her effort shines through, so ahead of the December 8 premiere of The L Word: Generation, I spoke with Ryan about how she changed the demographics of the show’s core cast, navigating heavier topics, like politics and religion, on a show that’s known for its sex scenes, and what it’s like to reboot a show that so many people hold so dear.
Generation Q is much more diverse than its predecessor. It opens on a sex scene between two women of color, which is revolutionary on a show like The L Word.
I thought long and hard about how to open the show. I was a huge fan of the original, and I wanted to honor the [original] show while also inviting more people to see themselves on television. When I pitched this show, the two main things I set out to do was widen the umbrella—widen the lens of who’s included in this world—and chip away at the shame that exists in our community and certainly within me and my own coming out. For me, that opening scene is doing both things on a lot of levels. I’m so grateful I have a platform to actually show a scene like that; it was so exciting for me. This whole series was a love letter to my 16-year-old self, and [a scene like this] would’ve helped cure the anguish that I didn’t even really know I was in and the self-hatred that came with discovering my own identity. It felt revolutionary [while] making it, even though it’s a pretty loving sex scene. The idea that normalization is radical is something we talk a lot about in the writers room.
We took mentorship seriously on this job—and I encourage other showrunners to do the same. We had a woman named Katrelle Kindred come in to be the director’s apprentice for all eight episodes; she ended up directing two episodes of Boomerang for Lena Waithe. Just the idea that there’s another woman of color who’s a Director’s Guild of America member is one of the proudest things I could possibly make from all this show.
In an interview with Vulture, actor Jennifer Beals says The L Word is in her DNA now. Many viewers have that same sense of closeness to the show, myself included. How does it feel to carry on a story that so many people feel so deeply connected to?
I am one of you. I’m not an outsider coming in to resurrect a series. I am your peer through and through. So I approached the show as a piece of fanfiction, as I imagine any of us would. I got to imagine where these [characters] might be in 10 years. Who else needs to be there to stand in their way or support [them]? That’s just basic conflict. The new generation characters were borne out of a desire to have real conflict inside these stories. I got to go deeper and deeper and deeper into who those characters might be. [Sarah] Finley was one of the clearest characters straight out the gate for me, partially because I know Jacqueline Toboni, [the actor who portrays her]. I’ve worked with her on a feature and in a play, so anytime I thought about that character, I thought about her. Her voice crystallized that character in such a powerful way for us and for the writers in the room. [Toboni’s] also doing a lot for the queer community. That armpit hair alone is worth the price of admission. I’m so grateful for who she is on her own and who she brings to the screen.
In your opinion, who is the desired audience for Generation Q? Does that audience differ from the audience for the original show?
My dream is that everyone can watch the show. In the writers room, we talk about writing a show that’s for us by us. That means all queer people should be able to watch this show to feel its authenticity and see themselves onscreen. Then there’s a middle-American straight housewife, who I call Wendy. I want Wendy and all her friends to watch the show because there aren’t many ensemble [shows with] mostly female casts. I want them to hang out with these people too; that would make for a lot of progress. The original did that too; a lot of straight women really loved the show.
We see a lot more kids who aren’t just dotting the background in Generation Q. Angie (Jordan Hull) is a full person. She deals with racism and she vapes. I’m curious about the decision to more strongly integrate teenagers into Generation Q.
One of the assistants in my writers room is what I call queer fawn. She has two moms and she also identifies as queer, which I thought was a really interesting character. The Fosters is a whole television show about [queer parenting], but [having queer parents onscreen] is really exciting to me. It was also happenstance. I inherited [Angie] like I inherited Bette.
The L Word had a lot of sex. In Generation Q, sex is just a thread in the larger narrative. Why the switch?
It’s funny because some people say “the show has as much sex as ever.” I don’t think that’s true. There’s less sex on this show than there was in the original, partially because the market is oversaturated and I didn’t find a need to break new ground through sex scenes in the same way the original did. We’re living in a slightly different world in terms of actors and their comfort level and their ability to say no to things, which is a really empowered place for them. That also limits what we can and can’t show.
There’s more politics in Generation Q: Bette is running for mayor, and we see her arguing to protect marginalized groups, fighting the opioid crisis, and comforting young queer people abandoned by their parents. What can we expect from Bette this season?
It’s still The L Word. When we were writing drafts, we’d say, let’s make sure we’re not accidentally making Scandal. We want to make the L Word version of political storylines involve queer sex somehow. I never imagined this storyline would be as relevant as it is right now after Katie Hill. I wrote the first two episodes in 2017, so we were not inspired by current events. But we’re living in a time [where there are] queer people are in office. [These storylines are] exploring what could happen if we’re given that platform and how fair or unfair it is that we’re held to a different standard.
“The idea that normalization is radical is something that we talk a lot about the writers room.”
In some ways, it feels like Generation Q is making up for the way the original show portrayed addiction. I was always so frustrated that Kit was one of the only Black people on the show, and her storyline revolved around struggle, pain, and destructive blowups. You also directed “6 Balloons, which is about the opioid crisis. Why was it important for Generation Q to prioritize this issue?
It’s threefold. Addiction is deeply personal to me [because it] runs in my family. Addiction is something I write about a lot because it’s something I live. Having lived in Los Angeles for 14 years, 6 Balloons and Generation Q are fundamentally L.A. These characters don’t exist outside of this city. These projects are about this city just as much as they’re about the characters who live here. To not talk about it would be to deny where we are. There are multiple addiction storylines in the show because it’s also reflective of our culture. The queer community is disproportionately affected by addiction.
In a February 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, you said, “I’m not that interested in talking about the politics of being queer.” But Generation Q definitely embraces tough topics, including religion. How does your team decide how to handle “heavier” topics?
The original couldn’t have done what we’re doing because they were still doing [introductory] things like explaining bisexuality. We have the fortune of being dropped into a queer space; there’s no explanation required. There’s no [need for us to explain to viewers] what trans identity is, what Grindr is, or how gay men might meet each other. I don’t spend any time explaining anything, and that’s a huge relief for a storyteller because I don’t need to talk to you through each moment in the way that the original had to or felt that it had to.
All of these stories come from my life or the lives of the writers. We had a 20-week writers room, and 10 weeks of those weeks [involved] telling stories about our lives and our friends’ lives, trying to get to the core of what really matters inside our community. From there, you get a range of stories. You get the funny versions of the intersection of faith and queer identity as well as the serious version of being dismissed by your birth family. The ability to combine both of those stories into a single character is the best part of my job.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.