July was a tough month for the LGBTQ community, given the transgender military ban and the looming threat of religious freedom “guidance”. So, you probably missed the little bit of good news that surfaced mid-month. The L Word is coming back! Jennifer Beals (Bette), Kate Moenning (Shane), and Leisha Hailey (Alice) are in talks to executive produce a reboot. The new series would follow a different group of women but many of the original characters would be used to bridge the gap between the first and second runs. This is excellent news, but it begs the question: what has happened to lesbian TV since The L Word went off the air?
The Showtime drama ran for 6 seasons and concluded in 2009. It was a landmark series—the first cable drama dedicated to the lives of lesbian women. After the series finale, our community was filled with hope as we waited anxiously to see what came next. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting.
Lesbian stories are out there but you’ve got to dig to find them. The Netflix anthology series Easy dedicated an episode to a young lesbian couple in the early stages of courtship. Long-running network series like Grey’s Anatomy, The Mindy Project, and Jane the Virgin prominently feature lesbian characters. However, their story arcs are hardly the driving forces of the shows in which they appear. They often play second fiddle to other (read: hetero) stories.
It’s shocking to think that 2004 was a more progressive time for lesbian television than 2017. The L Word was a hell of a trailblazing show, moving beyond stereotypes and diving deep into real issues. NBC News’ Trish Bendix writes, “The L Word ultimately gave lesbian and bisexual woman a frame of reference—something that was ours, something we could share.” She firmly believes that the show changed lesbian television forever. Perhaps this would be true if there was any lesbian television left to judge that by.
After The L Word, there was The Real L Word, a pay-cable reality show centered around the lives of lesbians in Los Angeles. Featuring a full cast of lesbians was a novel concept but the show rarely rose above the staged drama of other reality shows. There was Lip Service and Exes & Ohs, but those were short-lived. We’ve never found a replacement for The L Word. Not a single, lesbian-centric program that carried the torch and continued that level of visibility. Now, The L Word is rising from the dead and lapping everyone else’s progress to replace itself. That’s sad.
We see the same struggle happening with gay programming. Looking barely survived 2 seasons. Logo has all but abandoned scripted shows. Gay men may soon be in the same boat as lesbians, begging for the return of an early 2000s groundbreaking series. (Do I hear a vote for Queer As Folk? This time with some black faces though.)
There’s no doubt that The L Word was historic and still serves as great TV to this day. Can you think of a better way to spend a rainy Sunday than binge watching the early seasons? But almost a decade has passed since the series ended and here we are turning to web series and subplots for some semblance of lesbian representation. It’s great that mainstream programming is increasingly acknowledging the diversity of the world we live in and taking steps to reflect that in its lineups. But we need that AND full series devoted to our stories. The LGBTQ community has plenty to say, and we need the space (the WHOLE space) to say it.
Like everyone else, I’m excited for The L Word’s return. But I’m also ready for lesbian TV to have the breakthrough it deserves.