Showtime’s groundbreaking series The L Word is loved and loathed (sometimes in equal measure) by queer women and other LGBT viewers. A mere mention of the show—or identification of oneself with one of the characters—can induce instant camaraderie or immediate eyerolls in pretty much every gay bar I’ve visited.
The show went off the air in 2009 after a clunky and widely-hated sixth season (even the show’s creator didn’t think highly of it), but just a few months ago it reemerged with a highly-anticipated spinoff known as The L Word: Generation Q. The task before the new showrunner and its younger ensemble was challenging: They had to reckon with the original’s extreme whiteness and rampant transphobia while also doing right by the fans who’ve watched (and rewatched and rewatched) the original series. The degree to which the show succeeded in this endeavor varies depending on who you ask.
Personally, I thought the reboot made both major improvements (it’s truly thrilling to see trans women on the show) as well as some inexcusable missteps (one of the only two trans men on the show seemed to have little in his character arc outside of his trans identity). However, my complaints aren’t just about issues of representation. I also found the reboot too glossy, too chic, and rather boring when compared with its foremother. The original L Word thrilled audiences not just because of its numerous, graphic depictions of lesbian sex but also because of its grit, edginess, and fearlessness when it came to exploring the intricacies of the queer community, incorporating storylines on drug addiction, artistic freedom, infidelity, gambling, and death. Generation Q, meanwhile, almost seems better suited for the Disney-owned Freeform.
If you want a taste of the show’s erotic indie-movie-style moxie, look no further than Season 1, Episode 11: “Liberally.” (Yes, every episode of the original series begins with an “L word.”) This episode epitomizes everything that the original series does so well: balancing real-world drama with soapy twists, developing tender adult friendships, and finding a way to shoehorn in a celebrity cameo. (In the case of “Liberally,” we see Snoop Dogg make a truly ridiculous appearance as a music-video producer and slightly fictionalized version of himself known as “Slim Daddy.”)
The episode opens with numerous relationships already on the edge: Bette and Tina, the show’s monogamous long-term relationship, are in mourning over the loss of Tina’s pregnancy; newly out Jenny is still living in a shed in her ex-boyfriend’s backyard while the woman she left him for, Marina, faces relationship strife with her long-distance girlfriend and business partner, Francesca; and, of course, the sultry, androgynous heartbreaker, Shane, is using her husky voice and undeniable sex appeal to fall deeper into a torrid affair with a married woman named Cherie Jaffe, who is also eager to bankroll a salon for Shane’s budding hairstyling business. Perilously mixing business and pleasure is a common—and devastating—theme throughout the whole series.
Beyond the romantic friction, delicious drama unfolds in other aspects of the characters’ lives. Bette, as director of the fictional California Art Center, is facing extreme right-wing backlash to the aptly-named anti-Bush exhibition she’s put up in her museum, Provocations. Condemned for featuring pieces that show Jesus sodomizing Mary and President George W. Bush in an S.S. uniform, Bette later participates in a television debate with Faye Buckley, a bible-thumping “family-values” conservative, for a heart-wrenching and satisfying conclusion. Shane looks after Cherie Jaffe’s college-dropout daughter, who then develops a crush on her. Alice, the show’s resident bisexual, copes with a pregnancy scare. Marina and Francesca fight again over business debt, with a confrontation that ends with one woman pouring fine wine all over another’s clothes.
And it wouldn’t be an episode of The L Word without a few titillating lesbian hookup scenes. The episode opens with a pornography shoot (the relevance of which is revealed later as a dramatic twist). Shane straddles Cherie on a salon chair. Francesca and Marina kiss and make up with a passionate bedroom makeout. Even Dana and Jenny (more on them later) try out their sexual chemistry.
“Liberally” tackles all of the above and somehow manages to also beautifully present the beating heart of the show: the charming, lived-in friendships between its central characters. In a sweet scene where Shane shampoos and cuts Dana’s hair, Alice observes and mulls over the possibility of seeing her potential pregnancy through so Bette and Tina can adopt the child. Shane even envisions a future where the kid could have a huge queer family with five or six moms from their tight-knit friend group. And while The L Word loves to have its characters sleep together, “Liberally” also features a scene where friendship between two queer women emerges as the better option. Dana and Jenny, both feeling forlorn about their recent breakups, happen upon each other in what’s described as “the oldest lesbian bar in Los Angeles.” They’re both alone and uncomfortable about how they fit into the scene. The two new friends soon make their way to Jenny’s for an impromptu rendezvous. When things quickly turn awkward and Jenny halts the hookup before things become too “grim,” there’s no dramatic departure, only the comforting, mutual decision that they’re better suited as regular buddies than as fuck buddies. Amid all of the over-the-top plot points and bow-chicka-wow sex scenes, here is one that feels refreshingly down to earth.
For all the show’s juiciness, what brings me back above all are these realistic, caring friendships. And while you can explore similar portraits of female friendship in shows like Broad City and Gilmore Girls, you simply won’t be able to find another program that also includes the vocal stylings of the legendary Pam Grier and alludes to the historical nuances of lesbian bars. (Yes, all of that is in this same episode.)