10 years after the problematic and beloved original, ‘The L Word: Generation Q’ still can't articulate cohesive queer stories. Matilda Douglas-Henry tell us why.
I have a different relationship to The L Word’s original series than most of my queer friends who devoured it covertly during adolescence. I didn’t rent the boxsets from my local video store or library in clandestine disguise. Bar the contentious sixth and final series (which hadn’t yet been released), I was gifted seasons one to five for Christmas 2008, when I was 15. My mothers never watched it with me—too soapy for their taste—but they supported my passion for it. Sometimes they would hover in the living room as a sex scene played and bemoan the lack of realism under their breaths.
By virtue of my parents—and, of course, that I myself had been in romantic queer relationships from a tween age—I didn’t watch The L Word to gain formative access to an LGBTQ+ world. I watched it to avoid my freshly-forming identity that I refused to understand. My own queerness was beset by sticky denial and shame, so instead of seeking out kinship, I looked for difference. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I felt this discomfort, considering my lifelong place in such an accepting world. I’ve cobbled together the rationale that perhaps shame is embedded within a broad swath of queer experience, no matter how much support you were raised with. To me, the saturated streets of Los Angeles seemed as uncomplicated as most of the characters’ sexualities. Even the messier coming out narratives experienced by Jenny (revelatory queer affair while engaged to a long-term boyfriend) and Dana (playing straight to avoid tainting her status as a professional tennis player) were plagued by such melodramatic factors that, in watching them, I felt blissfully detached from my benign yet undeniable angst.
So much has changed in the 10 years since The L Word’s final episode, and its new incarnation, The L Word: Generation Q, premiered on December 8th. I am now extremely “out” and “proud”, and I have been part of queer communities that look nothing like the cis power-suited aesthetes that I observed as they sat around a table at The Planet, reveling in their high drama. I no longer consume queer culture to feel further removed from that part of myself. I expect to find characters that resonate with a part of myself, characters that feel earned and diverse and real. Shows like Orange is the New Black, Pose, and Euphoria created a landscape of more realistically rendered queer bodies and identities, and less broadly, the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror and the character of Villanelle in Killing Eve puncture typically heteronormative stories with a complex queer temperament. The world, of course, has shifted its expectations with me: in 2019, it is hardly revolutionary to watch the uncomfortably beautiful Bette Porter guiltily pad through her West Hollywood bungalow after having an affair with a carpenter. The Generation Q reboot seems, in large part, to be a gesture of atonement, an attempt to undo the sense of otherness that the original series may have elicited.
It’s an important revision to make. Whenever I choose to revisit the original L Word, I am split. It’s delicious to return to a world that I know so well, and I’ve always disagreed with the contention that the performances are weak; Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Kate Moennig—AKA Bette, Alice, and Shane, the three original cast members who return for Generation Q—have impeccable comedic and dramatic temperaments, and they share a vibrant chemistry that’s undeniably compelling to watch. I love the evocative nostalgia of the mid-2000s: the live Sleater-Kinney performance with a pre-Portlandia Carrie Brownstein, the ubiquitous Matrix sunglasses and flip phones. But I now see an ugly elitist mentality that runs through The L Word that I can’t ignore, and I resent my younger self for not being more aware of it.
When Max, the only main trans character, played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea, is introduced as Jenny’s new partner at the beginning of the third season, a TERF energy is harnessed amongst the group that is revered rather than critiqued by the tone of the writing. It is horrifying in its irreverence, and underpinned by a classism that highlights the elitist mentality of even the most down-to-earth and androgynous characters. In one scene, Bette’s older sister Kit—who identifies as straight, but has her fair share of queer dalliances—implores Max not to go ahead with top surgery. “I want to feel whole,” he explains. “I want the outside of me to match the inside of me.” “You’ll be giving up the most precious thing in the world,” Kit says. “Being a woman.” An opportunity to have Max voice his feelings on his transition is coopted by a cis lens, and Kit’s behavior isn’t critiqued or vilified; instead, the exchange is intended to reflect her character’s status as one of the group’s older, more maternal members, there to offer guidance and support. At the end of the season, Max decides not to get top surgery after all, which is his own choice; but when considered with the conversation with Kit, there is an uncomfortable implication that the L Word universe actually sides with her. And any fan needs only to think of a lobster and they will surely shudder, recalling one of the most uncomfortable dinner party scenes in television history.
After the first five episodes of The L Word: Generation Q, I am still struggling to understand its genesis apart from wanting to remedy earlier mistakes. It certainly retains the original series’ penchant for high-quality trash but—at least so far—lacks the idiosyncratic charm that made the original so enticing, in spite of its ingrained flaws. The new cast, while clearly embodying the diverse “Q” in its title (there is a trans character played by an actual trans person, and, unlike the original cast, most aren’t white) , have the collective charisma of a moist towelette. One character, Finley—who seems to be a vanilla, goofier Shane—reads as a cringey mix between Greta Gerwig and Tommy from Rugrats. It’s not cute. Finley’s character arc, thankfully, seems to be the most developed and complicated as the episodes progress—she becomes more self-aware and less self-deprecating and develops feelings for a queer priest who is definitely my favorite new cast member. Angie, Bette’s daughter, is a complex teenage character who is trying to understand her own queer desires. But even still, there is a hollowness to each instant of ostensible connection in Generation Q, emphasized by the eerily glossy production value, the endless LA cityscape shots, and a regrettable shout-out to Amazon’s Alexa.
Anyone looking for a nostalgic dose of Bette, Shane, and Alice will even be disappointed. They appear fleetingly to facilitate each episode’s driving plot and feel too disconnected from who we remember them as: Bette is now running for Mayor of Los Angeles, and Alice is juggling parenthood. They are like phantoms from 10 years ago, their characters wealthier and more disillusioned than ever. Shane and Alice were the characters that kept The L Word at least mildly grounded in any sense of reality; Shane, a hairdresser, shared one bedroom with a gaggle of roommates, and Alice (although living in an apartment she surely couldn’t afford) was a freelance journalist, shuttling between jobs and weird immersion experiments like vaginal rejuvenation. In Generation Q they are now out of touch millionaires: Alice is a famous talk-show host, and Shane, incomprehensibly, has opened profitable salons all over the world. She returns to a new, empty LA mansion; as a housewarming gift, Bette and Alice buy her a Hästens, the most expensive bed in the world. I wonder if we’re meant to triumph in the fact that queer characters can be outrageously successful, but this material richness obfuscates an intangible and very real wealth that pervades queer communities.
It’s hard not to see The L Word: Generation Q as a variant symptom of the Ocean’s 8 problem, which feels all the more pertinent for queer narratives. Why must our old, disillusioned stories be recycled with a dose of trendy millennial pep to make them feel relevant again? It’s a knee-jerk reaction that suggests we have nothing more to contribute, even though we have vibrant and unique things to say now more than ever. The original L Word had so many problems, but at least it was exactly that: original.