When the original “L Word” aired back in 2004, it was a seismic event for many lesbians. At the time, TV shows featuring gay characters — “Queer as Folk,” and the lesser known “Noah’s Arc,” about black gay men in Los Angeles — tended to center on cisgender men and the issues relevant to their communities, whether it was casual sex and H.I.V. status or substance abuse. Sexual interactions between women usually showed up only as side plots, scandals or spectacles, usually for the benefit of men. Remember Kevin Bacon looking on from the bushes as Neve Campbell and Denise Richards made out in the pool in the 1998 erotic thriller “Wild Things”? Or when Britney and Madonna kissed at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards? You barely got to see it — the camera was too busy cutting away to Britney’s ex, Justin Timberlake, for his reaction.
“The L Word” got closer to depicting the real social milieu of women who love women. It helped that lesbians were at the helm — Ilene Chaiken, the show’s creator, along with writers like Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche, who made “Go Fish,” a low-budget, grungy movie about queer women in Chicago in the 1990s — and they satisfyingly captured cultural touchstones of lesbian life at the time. (The cast attends Dinah Shore, a golf tournament that doubles as a cruising ground for women, and there were cameos by the singers Toshi Reagon and Tegan and Sara.) They also got the knottiness of queerness right: the way that exes can become best friends, that former lovers can show up as co-parents. The lines are messy, chaotic and overlapping, and that’s the point.
The show birthed lasting archetypes in the characters of Shane McCutcheon, a shaggy Lothario, and Bette Porter, a high-powered, fiery woman with irresistible sex appeal. For some queer women in the 1990s and aughts, the show was their first glimpse of lesbianism onscreen and the incandescence of living in a world beyond the purview and validation of men. I can still remember the electricity I felt watching the show’s central character, Jenny, fall for a seductive Italian woman named Marina. I looked over at my boyfriend at the time and thought, Welp, there goes that.
The original show received valid criticisms for largely casting straight actors over the show’s six seasons. This not only denied gay actors roles but also denied viewers the opportunity to fully project themselves into the story. Aside from Jennifer Beals, who plays a lesbian with unfettered gusto, there’s a palpable difference between watching women fully lean into their desire and watching them mime it. The show was a close relative of “Melrose Place,” full of wealthy, mostly white women treating money and race like nonissues. Those decisions undermined the show’s triumphant agenda, and it required a mild level of dissociation to imagine yourself alongside them, sipping cappuccinos in the Planet, their local hangout. The show’s most painful error was in its treatment of noncis characters, particularly Max, a trans man who was frequently misgendered and treated with a cold curiosity.
Last year, when Showtime first announced it would be rebooting “The L Word” series, it initially seemed like yet another example of a beloved old piece of intellectual property being upcycled into a shinier version of itself. Most cultural reboots are engineered to deliver an instant dopamine hit — the comfort of familiarity. Rarely is the intention to make reparations or even amends. But “The L Word” had a cultural debt to repay through its resurrection, and it knows it.