''The L Word'''s ladies check in before season 2 -- The cast and producer Ilene Chaiken discuss how the steamy same-sex show came to be and what will happen this season

The sunny, hedonistic charms of L.A. are nowhere to be found on the cavernous Vancouver soundstage where The L Word is shot. And the talk is equally gloomy, as one of the stars of Showtime’s provocative lesbian drama — 41-year-old Jennifer Beals — recounts the trials and tribulations of her character, museum director Bette Porter. Let’s recap: At the end of last season, Bette was in a tailspin. Her partner, Tina, miscarried; she kicked off a dangerous affair with a female construction worker at the gallery; and she was arrested after an exhausting censorship battle with right-wing protesters.

But that’s pretty much cupcakes compared to the new season (debuting Feb. 20), which Beals describes as ”one s— sandwich after another. I swear to God, I read an episode and I started crying hysterically in my trailer, and I ran outside and yelled, ‘Something good happened to Bette, everyone! Ring the bells on high!”’

All-female dramas — especially ones about lesbians who buy birthing tanks, smoke weed, and chart their sexual history on a large board — have about as much appeal to TV execs as rap music has to Bill O’Reilly. So it’s nothing short of miraculous that Beals is sitting here talking about The L Word at all — and if it weren’t for Showtime, chances are you wouldn’t be reading about it, either. Creator Ilene Chaiken got her start toiling for Aaron Spelling and Quincy Jones in the ’80s until she took back her life, made a Golden Globe-winning TV movie (Dirty Pictures), and — for fun, she swears! — penned the 1996 Pamela Anderson bomb Barb Wire. The L Word was born after she wrote an article about gay families for Los Angeles magazine in July 2000. That summer, Chaiken, 47, pitched a sapphic show to Showtime (then called Earthlings — a title that now makes her cringe) about six friends living in West Hollywood. It passed, instead launching the equally ballsy and sexually explicit Queer as Folk later that year. When that became one of Showtime’s top series, the network called her back.

What debuted in January 2004 was a seductive, artful mix of socially progressive stories that were at once shocking and universal. Though concerning gay women, the series was more about female friendship, a point Showtime smartly played up with a Sex and the City-style ad campaign. The unapologetically raw sex scenes — and the physically flawless cast — didn’t hurt either. ”There may have been some expectations that the show would be more limited, but from the very beginning I held a firm conviction that it was not ‘the lesbian show,”’ says the diminutive but steely Chaiken, who has two daughters with her ex-partner, Miggi Hood. In fact, most of the actresses — Leisha Hailey is the cast’s only out lesbian — speak of anything but gay women when they mention their fans. ”So many men come up and talk to me about power struggles with their boyfriends,” says Laurel Holloman, 33, who plays the now pregnant Tina (producers wrote in Holloman’s real-life pregnancy). ”The most surprising audience to me was the heterosexual female socialite group!” announces Beals. ”It makes sense. [We talk] about women who bond with other women, who are powerful, who gain power from their status as a group.” Adds Hailey, 33: ”Straight girls come up to me and whisper that they like the show, like it’s a secret.”

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