The show opens and right off the bat, you are thrown off by the early 2000s aesthetic. The clothes, haircuts, background score and the almost sepia tone on each frame matches serials like 90210 or Gossip Girl. Even the stories revolve around the same hypersexual lives of young people on the backdrop of relatable life experiences. But of course, 90210 and Gossip Girl aired on prime-time Indian television; the L word did not.
I remember watching the L word in the early years of college when I didn’t move with the feminist agency I do now. As a younger more impressionable queer woman, the highbrow posh characters of the show sunk their teeth in fast and I was hooked. But something seemed off.
Created by Ilene Chaiken, ‘The L Word’ is a show about a group of conventionally beautiful, cultured, and affluent women in Los Angeles, who identify as Lesbian, Bisexual or exploring their sexuality. It revolves around core characters; long-time couple trying to start a family Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman); a bi-sexual inspired as the comic relief, Alice (Leisha Hailey); bi-curious newcomer Jenny (Mia Kirshner); sex-magnet androgyne, Shane (Katherine Moennig) and celebrity tennis player Dana Fairbanks (Erin Daniels). Apart from Bette who is bi-racial; the rest of the gang was unapologetically white, in skin and life experiences. And as any young teenager would have it be, my idea of the perfect queer woman aesthetic was colonised.
It’s IMDB review maintains that it is the first ‘real’ lesbian show ever made and slots it in the modern classic, drama genre. But while the series accomplished many television’s firsts, like first deaf lesbian, its first regularly occurring transgender character, and its first interracial lesbian couple; its six seasons running from 2004- 2009 couldn’t redeem how problematic the show came to be.
The monolith gay experience that The L word sells remains largely un-relatable for anyone in this side of the world. The first thing you notice is the sheer concentration of lesbian women that move in concentric circles. A feature of the show, ‘The List’ created by Alice (Leisha Hailey), becomes a comic device to connect the women who have been together throughout the series. In India, where queerness is taboo in culture and by law, this remains a reality to yearn for. In a classic TV trope, the friends hang out almost every episode in a queer-friendly coffee shop. I am just happy when I can befriend other queer womxn on Twitter.
One of my favourite episodes would be ‘Let’s do it’ from Season 1, where Dana (Erin Daniels) falls for a sous chef named Lara Perkins whose sexuality is questioned by the group. What ensues is an elaborate mission, where they try to use their elaborate ‘Gaydar’ to decipher Lara’s orientation with hilarious meta stereotypes like the shortness of her nails. Of course, to keep up with the flow of the show, the episode ends with Lara and Dana kissing.
In its time, the show was called the queer response to Sex and the City. It made sense, because its characters somehow maintained high levels of drama barely experiencing any financial stress, society’s constraints or any attack on their direct sexual orientation. In fact, the show has such few cis male characters in its storylines that it simply looks different than anything we’ve seen or experienced; reel or real.
The show’s breakthrough trans character, Max Sweeney, was progress for trans representation on television, but in many ways his storyline remains problematic. While the series tries to address personal and workplace struggles of trans folk, at points one is left unsure whether the other characters’ transphobic jibes were meant to be a critique of society’s transphobia, or complicit in it.
The L word, a problematic fave, is essentially a show about the glamourous lives of privileged queer women and their friends. The show thus, is relatable entertainment for a niche (predominantly white) audience and eye grabbing, dramatic science fiction to the rest of us. The first season climaxes in a knock-down brawl between Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman) over infidelity and leaves you wanting more of the characters’ posh Los Angeles lives. Over the course of the rest of the seasons, the audience responses have remained mixed and heavily influenced by online forums more than tv ratings. By the finale, The L Word switches genres entirely, turning into an odd murder mystery.
Regardless of the bouquets or brickbats the show received during its air time, over the last decade, it has come to be accepted as a cult classic in queer television being one of the only shows of its kind at the time. Early in 2017 it was announced by the network that a sequel season was in the works. Here’s to hoping that the reboot is created more inclusive and intersectional. Either way, I’m not holding my breath for when Indian Television is finally ready to air it. Just like our own lives then, we are going to have to watch the show in secret.