Love. Lust. Laughter. Longing. Lesbians.
They were all elements (some much more prominent than others) that made up Showtime’s hit series The L Word. Created by Ilene Chaiken, Kathy Greenberg, and Michele Abbott, the show, which ran from 2004 to 2009, focused on L.A. power lesbians Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) and their supertight, occasionally incestuous friend group including Bette’s sister Kit (Pam Grier), Alice (Leisha Hailey), Shane (Katherine Moennig), Dana (Erin Daniels), Carmen (Sarah Shahi), and Max (Daniela Sea). “I just had this urge to write my story, to tell the gay story. It just hadn’t really been done,” explains Chaiken. Her idea was initially turned down by Showtime but received a warmer reception after the network’s male-focused LGBTQ series Queer as Folk took off. Recalls Chaiken, “I said, ‘Well, what about now? You know, you’re doing a show about gay boys — why do the boys always get to go first?'”
The L Word quickly established itself with bold story lines, including television’s first regular transgender character, Max. “It meant a lot to a lot of people, not just gay women,” says Chaiken. “I meet people still who say, ‘The L Word helped me to come out.’ I’m also learning that there’s a whole new generation of women that are discovering the show. My daughters are 21. They have friends who say that The L Word means so much to them. I like to think the legacy of the show is about representation and making us and our stories a part of the culture.” Beals even released a photo book of personal behind-the-scenes photos that fans can purchase at lwordbook.com.
EW reunited Chaiken with several cast members for an emotional, hilarious, exhilarating chat about karaoke parties, sex tapes, and the potential for a reboot.
What made you all want to be on The L Word?
Jennifer Beals (Bette): I wanted to be part of a show that could help bring representation to a young girl in the middle of Kansas who didn’t have a community, and I said to Ilene, “We’re going to help as many people as we can; it’s going to be amazing.” She was like, “Let’s just try to get it on the air—calm down. We’re not going to save the world right now. Let’s just tell some good stories.”
Leisha Hailey (Alice): Well, I needed a job. I found a way to get an audition and ended up testing for Shane, and that’s how I met Kate.
Katherine Moennig (Shane): I read for it in New York and they said, “One other girl is testing for Shane, and they’re also gonna be testing Jennys on the same day.” So I walked into the lobby of Showtime. Leisha had a prop, I saw her flaunt it out her back pocket. It was a comb. And I’m sitting there thinking, I flew all the way from New York, and I’m not gonna get this job because I didn’t bring a f—ing comb.
Hailey: I really thought I had the part because of my prop.
Erin Daniels (Dana): First I read for Bette, then I read for Alice. And then I read for Dana and I didn’t get it.
Daniels: They weren’t sure which way to go, and then Beth Klein, who was the head of casting, called me and was like, “Please come back in.”
Beals: And bring a comb. I’m kidding.
What do you all remember about shooting the pilot?
Ilene Chaiken: I remember the first scene we shot in the Planet and just how immediately improvisational the show was and how brilliant all of these women were. I remember shooting the scene in the Planet when Jenny walks by for the first time and Alice and Dana are arguing about getting waxed, like, Who gets their butt waxed?
Beals: I had Jesus hair.
Moennig: In the pilot, we had to shoot a party scene at Bette and Tina’s. It took days and days to shoot, and it was hot, smelly, and long. Then we get picked up for series and we have to reshoot the entire scene. [Jenny’s] boyfriend got recast.
Mia Kirshner (Jenny): Leisha and I lived together [while filming] the first season. We have so many stories. We had a house fire.
Hailey: My dog saved us. Kate moved in with us.
Kirshner: I had sex in Leisha’s shower.
Hailey: I came home from a run and I was like, “Hey—oh.” Then I turned back around.
Kirshner: Didn’t you say you heard—
Hailey: Your boyfriend ask for a washcloth.
Kirshner: Oh, God. I didn’t remember that.
Daniels: We all went to sing karaoke together once.
Sarah Shahi (Carmen): What did you sing?
Beals: Oh, I had to do “What a Feeling.” They poured water on me with a Perrier bottle. [Beals starred in the iconic 1983 film Flashdance.]
Daniels: Then the three of us got up and sang “Maniac.” We clearly got over our intimidation factor at that point.
The L Word never shied away from nudity or sex. Were you all nervous in the beginning?
Kirshner: These girls said that my breasts were the ninth character.
Beals: Well, the ninth and the 10th.
Shahi: I will say this, in all seriousness: Doing love scenes with guys and girls, I much prefer doing them with girls because I feel like, as women, we naturally protected each other.
Beals: Do you guys remember that Rose [Troche, a co-executive producer on the show] made us a video?
Kirshner: Of lesbians having sex.
Beals: We had to watch a sex video because we had to do all these sex scenes. So we could watch the video and see what worked and didn’t work and analyze why it didn’t work. It didn’t work if people weren’t fully committed to it.
Shahi: I could have used that viewing. My first day I got introduced to Kate, and it’s like: “Kate, this is Sarah. Sarah, this is Kate. And so in this scene, Kate is going to be going down on you.” And it’s just like, Whoa!
The series became a hit quickly and has become an incredibly important show to the LGBTQ community. What were fan responses like?
Chaiken: It was so much fun and so thrilling when the show was on the air. To go to pretty much any city in the country and every Sunday night there was an L Word party in some bar. There was just a lot of love and excitement and celebration. Representation is so important, and we had never been represented. Of course, there were also a lot of people screaming about how “That’s not me! You didn’t get me! Where am I? Where is this story? Where is that story?” The burden of representation for every single lesbian experience got projected onto us.
Beals: I have to say, I received the most beautiful letters I’ve ever received on any show. Extraordinary letters where people would say, “This show gave me the courage to come out, and it’s been a great experience, and my family is accepting me and I’ve been accepted at work.”
Daniels: There were younger people that would have their parents watch so their parents could understand [them]. It’s one thing to be recognized for being on TV, right? But it’s another thing to be recognized for being on television for portraying something that means so much to so many people.
Daniela Sea (Max): It also changes policy. I mean, we see a huge revolution of what’s going on with queer rights and gay marriage, and all that stuff has happened since [The L Word aired], and I’m sure part of it’s normalized. I had a kid come up to me just two months ago from a very small town in Brazil, and somehow he got ahold of a copy of The L Word and he saw the character Max and he realized the whole context for his life. And now he’s in the States, living a trans life. He’s an actor, he’s pursuing theater, all this stuff.
One of the most wrenching story lines was in season 3 when Erin’s character, Dana, developed breast cancer and died. When did you learn this would happen?
Daniels: We would all meet with Ilene before each season started and she would take us to lunch. So she took me to lunch, and we were talking and she was like, “So your character gets breast cancer. And then she dies.” And I’m like, “What?!”
Beals: We were all devastated.
Moennig: That was dreadful.
Hailey: It was horrible. We cried a lot. Just knowing that day was coming was horrible.
Chaiken: I’ve often said in retrospect that it’s the one thing that I regret. I mean, it was a good story. I believe in the story. I think we told it with great sensitivity and verisimilitude, but the audience never forgave me for it. It’s just the one thing that I maybe would change if I could go back and change anything.
In the final-season premiere, we find out that Jenny will be dead by the end of the season. Mia, did you know this was going to happen?
Kirshner: I had no idea until the table read. I had such complicated feelings about Jenny. I was really surprised, I just started to cry. I was really, deeply upset, because she had become a part of me, even though she drove me crazy, that character, and she was so wrong most of the time and so rude.
Beals: So entertaining, though! I loooove Jenny.
Moennig: She’s America’s sweetheart! [Everyone laughs.]
Kirshner: But I was very, very upset because I had seven years of that character with these people who had become like my family.
Moennig: I just want to pretend that [season] 6 didn’t happen, and just cap it at five. The show wasn’t about that, so let’s cap that and end it at five, because the show wasn’t about a death. That wasn’t what this whole show was about.
Chaiken: I’m not sure that it was the best choice. I loved the stories we told, but to do a murder mystery maybe was off-topic for us. But it was a metaphor. Jenny brought us into this world. Jenny is going to take us out of this world. It never so much mattered to me, and I realized it matters to the fans. When you tell a story, you owe it to the fans, but to me, it was just a way to talk about this journey that we’ve all been on together and where we are now.
So many shows are being rebooted. Could The L Word return?
Chaiken: There’s certainly a chance. We talk about it all the time. When we went off the air in 2009, I think a lot of people thought, Okay, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life. There’s really nothing. It feels like maybe it should come back.
Moennig: And wouldn’t it be interesting to see where we all wound up?
Beals: Bette has a walker, obviously.
Moennig: Shane’s on Metamucil.
Hailey: Our country is so polarized right now and the political landscape is such a mess. We need shows that are about community and acceptance.
Kirshner: And the power of friendships.