Television

Generation Q Fills In The L Word’s Blind Spots While Saluting Its Legacy

Still aspirational; now with armpit hair.

Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moennig, and Jennifer Beals taking shots in a scene from the show.
Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moennig, and Jennifer Beals in The L Word: Generation Q. Showtime

By the two-minute mark of the first episode of The L Word: Generation Q, the reboot of the pioneering queer Showtime series has already shown two things the original never did: menstrual blood and a main character with armpit hair.

If you’re unacquainted with the 15 years’ worth of discourse The L Word has accumulated since its premiere in 2004, this may not seem particularly groundbreaking. But those of us who have a close and personal relationship with the original Ilene Chaiken series know that it was rightly faulted for portraying lesbian sex as a predominantly femme-on-femme, palatable-to-men endeavor. To me, Generation Q’s opening-scene period sex and the healthy tufts under actor Jacqueline Toboni’s arms read as a statement from new showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan: Don’t expect more of the same.

Ryan had the unenviable task—or, maybe, the dream assignment—of revamping a series that was fiercely loved, and just as fiercely criticized, by a community desperate for representation. For all its flaws, and despite the fact that there have been many more lesbian characters on TV since it went off the air in 2009, The L Word is still an important cultural touchstone among queer women, because it’s still the only lesbian ensemble drama to ever run on television. I’ve met newly out lesbians in other countries, including countries that censor media or criminalize homosexuality, who’ve rooted out old DVD box sets to absorb the stories that enthralled and affirmed their queer forebears. To build on The L Word, Ryan had to bear not only the baggage of the original series and its protective fans, but also the rising expectations of an audience that’s slightly less starved for queer narratives than it was in the aughts.

That audience will find much to love in Generation Q, a glossy, bighearted show that’s less soapy than the original series but delivers enough secrets, sex, and secret sex to keep the stakes high. Three of The L Word’s leads are back: Shane (Kate Moennig), a raffish, sexually magnetic salon owner and newly minted millionaire; Bette (Jennifer Beals), an indomitable art-world big shot now running for mayor of Los Angeles; and high-energy, ever-meddling Alice (Leisha Hailey), who’s graduated from a podcasting gig to her own daytime talk show. The returning actors, who, along with Chaiken, are executive producers on the reboot, easily resume their rapport, and the show rewards viewers of the original L Word with plotlines that play on old character flaws. The questions the new series explores—will Shane’s self-destructive impulses thwart her career goals? Will Bette be undone by her propensity to sleep with people who work for her?—are the same as the old ones, with the added personal and professional complications of the lives the women have lived since we saw them last.

But unlike reboots that rely on the lingering appeal of familiar personalities to draw viewers into the story (ahem, Will & Grace), Generation Q gives equal time to a new batch of characters, a younger, more diverse foursome figuring out what they want from life. Toboni will undoubtedly become a lesbian household name for her charming turn as Finley, a clumsy, hard-drinking production assistant who tries to make a mentor out of Shane. Dani (Arienne Mandi) is a public relations dynamo struggling to chart her own path in the shadow of her wealthy father; her partner, Sophie (the excellent Rosanny Zayas), tries to help Alice politicize her frothy television show. The couple lives with Micah (Leo Sheng), a gay trans man navigating the L.A. dating scene. Sheng is one of three trans actors on Generation Q in recurring roles that don’t tokenize or tragedize their identities—a decisive departure from The L Word’s terrible treatment of trans character Max Sweeney in its latter seasons. One of the others, Jamie Clayton, best known for playing Nomi Marks on Sense8, is delightful as a bar manager who pokes fun at Shane’s reputation. “Girls must love that wall you’ve built,” she teases, a long overdue dig at the brooding hairdresser’s enduring sex symbol status among L Word fans.

Chaiken was always clear about her desire to make The L Word aspirational, with a crew of wealthy and glamorous friends who established a lesbian aesthetic far removed from the dowdy cat-lady punchlines that still popped up in mainstream media at the time. Generation Q continues in that tradition, installing characters in impossibly stylish interiors (has there ever been a mayoral campaign office with floor-to-ceiling windows and designer furniture?) and enviable wardrobes (the array of double-breasted suits alone is worth the price of a Showtime subscription). The disproportionately queer world the show inhabits, wherein Bette and Alice have staffs full of LGBTQ people and Shane finds multiple potential sex partners at a straight sports bar, is its own kind of fantasy. The pleasure of settling into such a world felt like such a rare treat I didn’t mind the occasional overwritten scene or tired menopause joke. An early episode includes a gratuitous cameo from a lesbian superstar that drags on far too long and adds nothing to the story; nevertheless, your critic nearly choked on her own saliva in a violent gasp of delight when the celebrity appeared. Turns out if you’re a fan, fan service serves you!

With seven main characters, Generation Q packs in a lot of plot. The first three episodes tackle substance abuse, infidelity, crises of faith, estranged family members, a marriage proposal, co-parenting snafus, career changes, divorce, and multiple complicated intersections of race and class. It doesn’t quite feel crowded, but the new characters could use some room to breathe; it’s hard to feel invested in their epiphanies and turning points when we don’t really know who they are. And because there’s no central hangout (RIP The Planet) and the two groups of peers mostly overlap in the workplace, Generation Q lacks the intimacy of The L Word, which owed much of its magic to intraclique chemistry and conflict. The new series feels like a collection of individual stories about generally likable people; the old one looked at an interdependent community with some iconic love-to-hate-’em characters in the mix. I didn’t realize how much The L Word’s drama relied on its villains until they were gone.

If Generation Q suffers for its proximity to The L Word, and if the new characters feel thinly drawn in comparison to the olds, it might be an unavoidable consequence of a reboot that takes the worthy risk of expanding its portrait of LGBTQ life with fresh perspectives and talent. But it would be a massive missed opportunity if Generation Q continues to isolate the two cohorts from one another, sidestepping the intergenerational rifts it seems primed to confront. I was initially relieved to find that the title’s discomfiting play on letters—which implies that lesbian identity has less of a place in this younger circle of queers—was left unexplored in the three episodes I saw. It would be so easy for a cable show to get it wrong. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wished the two sides of the generational divide would grapple with some substantive differences of opinion and experience. One of the best scenes in Tales of the City, the 2019 Netflix reboot of Armistead Maupin’s queer novels and TV shows, depicts a tense dinner party that allows a young black gay man and a group of older white gays to have it out about “privilege” in a frank discussion few actual queers get to have, confined as they often are to their own generational bubbles.

Generation Q would be a ready vehicle for this kind of complicated catharsis, given that the world the characters occupy has changed in some profound ways. Trans and nonbinary identities are far better understood by the average lesbian—and, for that matter, the average straight person—than they were in the mid-aughts. In the original series, Alice had to hide her relationship with a woman serving in the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Shane had to travel to Canada to get married. In the new version, Alice finds her sexuality so accepted as to be commodified (an executive at her television station says he bought her podcast for its “fun, palatable lesbian brand”), and the only barrier to Dani and Sophie’s impending nuptials is a disagreement about venues. The L Word rendered an L.A. with a thriving lesbian restaurant and club scene; Generation Q finds a city where they’ve all closed, crowded out by straight establishments that have grown more welcoming of queer people. Generations L and Q have a lot to teach each other—about queer politics, about identity, about their communal history. I hope this series lets them.