'The L Word' creator Ilene Chaiken on what fans can expect from the reboot
The original series ran from 2004 to 2009 and is still the only long-running successful TV show dedicated solely to stories about queer women.
Director Ilene Chaiken.Ricky Middlesworth
By Trish Bendix
Much to the delight of lesbian, bisexual and otherwise not-straight women, Showtime confirmed last month that it had ordered a full season of the long-awaited sequel to "The L Word." To this day, the original series, which ran from 2004 to 2009, is the only long-running successful show dedicated solely to stories about queer women.
After the series’ finale a decade ago, creator and showrunner Ilene Chaiken was confident there would be more where that came from — whether it was an “L Word” spinoff (“The Farm,” which never made it to air) or simply proof-of-concept for other networks to create their own stories about lesbian lives, loves, relationships, sex and friendships. But while the last decade has surely seen a surge in LGBTQ representation on television, there has been no second “L Word” — at least not on TV.
"'The L Word' is 'The L Word,' and I felt that it still lived on in my heart, in my life, and it still seemed to live on in the world at large."
There have been singular queer women characters on television shows who might see a recurring lover, and there have been web series dedicated to women-for-women themes, but there hasn't been a “Looking” to lesbians' “Queer As Folk.” That said, it was up to Chaiken and Showtime to revive the sole Sapphic series that portrayed a more-often-than-not high-femme, glamorous, aspirational set of queer women with a few original cast members returning to sweeten the pot.
By the end of 2019, Showtime will debut the reboot of “The L Word,” but it will look and sound different, according to Chaiken — namely because she's quite literally no longer the one running the show. Because Chaiken has an exclusive deal with Fox, she can only have an overseeing role in the reboot, which she seems quite pleased with.
Chaiken hired 33-year-old writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan (“The Four-Faced Liar,” “6 Balloons”) to take over and populate the new version with a more diverse cast while working in conjunction with Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey and Kate Moennig, who will not only reprise their characters (Bette, Alice and Shane, respectively) but also serve as executive producers on the reboot as well.
NBC News spoke with Chaiken about how the reboot came about and what fans can expect from the new "L Word."
I'm sure you've been able to feel all of the excitement about "The L Word" returning. Has the reaction been anticipated? Bigger than you thought?
Well, I've heard rumors that people are excited. [laughs] I've seen some of it, yeah. I'm delighted, and my friends at Showtime have been really thrilled by it, and they've told me how much excitement there is out there.
Can you tell me how this second coming of "The L Word" came together?
I had originally sold "The Handmaid's Tale" to Showtime, and I wrote the first draft of it for Showtime, and then it went on the air on Hulu and was a sensation. I called my friend Gary Levine, my dear friend, shortly after that — shortly after Donald Trump was elected President — and I said, "I'm calling you to say I think we should reboot ‘The L Word,’ what do you think?" I was doing “Empire” at the time. Gary said, "You can't do that — you're exclusive to Fox." And I said, "I know, but I don't think I should do it. I think we should find some fabulous and gifted new young lesbian who still dates, knows what's going on in the world and has something new to say about the experience of being a lesbian and living our lives.” And he said, "Hmm, let me think about it."
I went up to Chicago to produce an episode of "Empire," and I was there, and it was about two days later, and Gary called me while I was in Chicago and said "OK, let's do it." And I was kind of stunned. Fox was very gracious in allowing me to continue as an executive producer on the show. They gave me a carve out after the fact in my deal to let "The L Word" happen and continue to be involved.
Why not bring something like that to Fox, another kind of lesbian show? What makes you want to bring back specifically "The L Word"?
I'm doing that. [laughs] I'm doing that, too, but "The L Word" is "The L Word," and I felt that it still lived on in my heart, in my life, and it still seemed to live on in the world at large. I have daughters who are now 23 years old who were 6 years old when I started doing "The L Word," and they both tell me all of their friends are watching "The L Word" and discovering it and still responding to it in a powerful way, and I also think that the characters are still vibrant. And there's another piece to it, too: I've remained very close to the cast of "The L Word," particularly with Jennifer, Kate and Leisha. And Jennifer, Kate, and Leisha started lobbying me to do this about five years ago, and it really was kind of their idea more than mine.
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A lot of people are so excited about the returning characters but some of them are, well, dead. What is the plan for resuscitating Dana and Jenny and those we said goodbye to?
I'm not going to speak to those specifics, because, firstly, it's Marja's world and her show to do with as she wishes. And I just want to say kind of anything can happen. We're living in the reality of "The L Word" to a large extent. Bette, Shane and Alice, as you know, are coming back — those three actors are my partners as well as executive producers on the show, and so we're picking up their lives 10 years later and any number of other characters can, and I hope will, appear on the show.
I said to Marja, who is very respectful and collaborative, "Feel free to say it was a dream if you want to." But I just wanted her to know that I wasn't precious about any of it, so anything could happen, who knows?
Can you speak to hiring Marja and why she was the right one to take over "The L Word"?
When we decided to do this, Showtime said let's open it up, let's hear pitches and find somebody that is really excited and gets us excited. And there were a number of writers who came in and pitched takes. Marja actually was my suggestion … I had met her recently. She and I had worked on an interesting movie project together. We met in a writers' room for a feature film at TriStar. They had a bunch of writers trying to figure out how to do an adaptation of Sheryl Sandberg's “Lean In,” and Marja and I were two of six writers in that room. We just really hit it off, and I was so impressed by her and impressed by the writing and impressed by her quickness, and we stayed in touch a little bit after that writers' room. And when this came up, she had just called me to say congratulations on “The Handmaid's Tale,” and I called her back and said “Thank you, are you interested in pitching to reboot ‘The L Word’?”
At what point is the process now? Is she putting together a writers’ room? When does casting begin?
I know that she's staffing the room. The room will start within a couple of weeks ... I don't think there's an official date for the casting process yet, but it's all going to … happening very quickly. I'm sure you know, because it's a big casting proposition, we're looking for a lot of really very special new characters. It'll be good to take the time to really do an extensive search.
There were criticisms of "The L Word" and other shows from the same time up until now about representation, including trans people playing themselves and racial and ethnic diversity. Is that something you and Marja will be more cognizant of in the reboot?
Absolutely. There's no question. And there were criticisms of "The L Word" as well as of other shows. And what I would say is I accept all of those criticisms. The world has changed; we've learned a great deal, I've learned a great deal. The world has changed. I know things now that I didn't know then, and I'm glad to know them. I recognize the sensitivities. I also think that to some degree the kind of — I'm going to call them the rules, but I think it's the wrong categorization — they're always evolving. Marja is really keenly attuned to the issues of representation and inclusivity ... I think people will be gratified by how inclusive this show is.
There was a very aspirational tone to "The L Word" — the characters were rich and beautiful and living great lives. Is it going to be the same tone and that same quality in Marja's version?
I'm leery of characterizing it other than to say this: It's "The L Word." The tone is probably somewhat different. I recognize it as slightly different, because Marja has a different voice and point of view to me. But it feels like a beautiful continuation of the show and the world, and I'm sure that it will be all of that, and it might also offer something different as well.
Because you've had such a long time now to hear from fans what they might want to see for certain characters, would any of that feedback potentially make it into the show?
In the way that it always is. Marja is as aware as I am what fans of the show want, and I think to some extent, we're always responsive to it and interested in knowing it. We're also interested in telling the stories — telling our stories, and also giving them something they couldn't have imagined, so they could have something else to want from us and something else to get mad about.
Are there any misconceptions of "The L Word" that you've wanted to clear up? Something that you've heard where you're like "That's just not true."
I don't know that I believe in misconceptions, because I think a television show belongs to every person that watches it, and your perceptions are your perceptions ...
I wish people understood that we didn't write Carmen off the show — Sarah Shahi only had a two year deal and had an opportunity to star in her own TV show. But I'm hoping that Carmen will turn up in this new world again.
I know Sarah Shahi said she was going to return.
She did say it, and I think we're all excited about that. Sarah has been such a great booster, supporter of the show always.
Now that Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey and Kate Moennig are executive producers, do they get a say in what happens with their characters?
They're very, very smart and very collaborative. They are playing the roles of actor, executive producer exactly as they should. They make great contributions, they're not telling Marja what story to say, they're largely weighing in on their own characters but also offering thoughts and insight. They're proving to be a real asset and really great producing partners for us.
Since the original "L Word," there have been lesbian and bisexual characters on other TV shows, but often they exist as the sole queer character in a very heterosexual universe. "The L Word" is one of few that actually showed us in relation to each other, whether that was friendship or of a romantic or sexual nature. Is that something you think could lend itself to a show with other stories about our community? Can you see this outside of "The L Word" — in an entirely different city maybe?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the reasons that I was compelled to bring the show back was because when we went off the air in 2009 I remember thinking and saying "Time to pass the mantel." I know that we're going to see a great many shows now that take this to the next level, that feature gay and lesbian characters in lead roles, that tell the stories of our lives in different contexts, and we really haven't seen it much. Of course there have been some great shows, but we really still — we're still largely absent in the representation of our lives. Like you said, we pop up as single characters but there's very little that talks about our lives in a holistic way or as community or as culture, and I think there's a lot more to say. And I want to tell more stories and different kinds of stories that take that on, that take on that proposition.
"The L Word" was so great at hiring queer women directors, and women directors in general — some it may be even their first opportunity to direct an episode of television. Is that something Marja will be doing this time around?
Great, how do you usually go about finding those people?
They're there. It's an interest or a mission, really, more than an interest of mine. It's not as if there's a dearth of talent. There's just gotta be a willingness. I've found, starting at Showtime and also at Fox, a great willingness on the parts of the studios and the networks that I've worked with, to make it possible to lift up talent that has been, that was previously marginalized. We did it on "Empire" as well. Those people are there, and those are the filmmakers that are going to mostly be working on "The L Word," because they're the ones that should tell these stories.
What can you tell me about the world we'll be entering when "The L Word" returns? Any hints?
One of the really fun things for me is to see who's changed and how they've changed and who hasn't changed and how they've changed in ways they don't appear to have changed when you first meet them. The 10 year time difference is really exciting. I'm delighted by what those three characters are doing as well as the new characters that Marja has created and the ways that she's found to intersect all of their lives.
"The L Word" was famous for some of the sexiest sex scenes we've seen on television. Is it inherent to what the show is? Is that something that is necessary?
One of things Marja and I connected over in the very beginning and one of the reasons it was clear that she was so right to do that show is that she and I really like telling stories about sex and making film about sex and portraying it and enjoying it and exploring it. It's really important to me that the person who takes over this show shares my enjoyment of telling sexy stories about sex.