The reboot is being rebooted. From our flat-screens, laptops, and oversized smartphones, freshly concepted versions of old and not-so-old TV shows beckon, promising the comfort of familiar programming with a 21st-century sensibility. Like the originals on which they are based, today’s legion reboots run the gamut from revelatory to WTF. To many liberal viewers and critics, the reboot presents an opportunity in this tarnishing Golden Age of TV: the chance to “get right” what a show “got wrong” the first time around. If we can’t have progressive politics, we can at least have progressive television, right? And if it feels, in the Trump era, that culture is irrevocably backsliding, perhaps TV can not only show us where we went astray but reveal to us a higher road, if only onscreen.
Understandably, in ugly times, many crave positive images. Many believe that reboots should bolster the #resistance by gifting us more accurate, even superior, versions of ourselves. By rewriting televisual history, the reboot can produce a more auspicious future. Around each new reboot, speculation swirls: Will it improve upon its predecessor? Will it show us that “it gets better,” at least on television?
Speculation about how reboots will correct past misfires often involves a rote excoriation of the original, in which the source show’s politics are positioned as relics of a less woke era. What’s often willfully ignored, in this progressivist approach to the unapologetically capitalist medium of TV, is the discomfiting awareness that the offending show was, once upon a time, beloved, and continues, in fact, to be loved. Otherwise, what would be the point in redeeming it?
Of course, any past show was hated in its own time, too. My mother’s nose-crinkling disdain for thirtysomething suggests that the line between love and hate is thin indeed. When the show premiered, in 1987, my parents were upper-middle-class white Philadelphian 30-somethings, struggling to balance adulthood’s new demands. Was thirtysomething simply a bit too spot-on for my mother to enjoy? If she were to watch it now, 30 years later, would she still feign disgust?
How did so many left-leaning lesbians and queers find The L Word “problematic” when it aired, yet become enthusiastic attendees of L Word trivia nights 10 years later? The question is worth asking, especially given the popular belief that TV now has “better” programming with less myopic race and class politics.
Here’s the rub: when we approach television as if it will someday deposit us in a fantasy living room where we can endlessly binge enlightened content guilt-free and in HD, we often stop paying attention to what TV is doing. In our rush to proclaim what a show got right or did wrong, in our zeal to dismiss “problematic” content and pave the way for politically unassailable programming (spoiler alert: it doesn’t exist), we ironically disconnect our TV-watching from history, politics, and desire.
I don’t find this a revealing way to think about the cultural medium of television. I would rather ask how the TV shows we watch make us feel and why. How might these shows affect us in ways that contradict what we think is “right” or “progressive,” in terms of representation? What can we learn from our enjoyment of the shows we watch when no one’s watching us?
Soon after the rumors of a series reboot were confirmed, I attended an L Word trivia night at a bar in West Hollywood. Having recently binged the now vintage program, I had the exploits of ball-busting Bette (Jennifer Beals), timid Tina (Laurel Holloman), outlandish Alice (Leisha Hailey), kick-ass Kit (Pam Grier), sexy Shane (Kate Moennig), doofy Dana (Erin Daniels), and the one and only Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirshner) top of mind. But though I arrived to the event primed to kick some nerdy lesbian ass, my misguided plan was foiled when, at each challenge, an impeccably coiffed queer millennial shot up their hand to secure the point, before my teammates and I could even huddle our gay old heads together. At the end of the night, when a group of glowing 20-somethings emerged victorious, I felt like a fossil without a single memory of my own era.
Unlike yours truly, The L Word is far from petrification. Lauded and panned by TV critics, dissected and dismissed by queer theorists, and scathingly received by many lesbians “even as we watched every episode” (to quote my lesbian BFF), the show was entertaining, even and especially when its plots devolved into ostentatious face-offs between owners of neighboring lesbian bars. Now, nearly a decade after the series finale, The L Word remains a cultural touchstone, thanks to its recirculation by streaming platforms that ensure we’ll never again have to wait to find out who Shane fucks next.
Strange as it may seem to those TV execs stubbornly attached to the fiction that, at the end of the day, only hetero sex sells, a show whose every episode passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors actually made for successful television.
As the L Word reboot (tentatively) approaches, inquiring lesbian minds want to know: What made the original series so iconic to so many? Part of The L Word’s appeal was and remains its progressivism. However imperfectly, the series took on the neglected and necessary task of representing lesbian lives. But The L Word was also a prime-time soap opera fueled by girl-on-girl intrigue. Intertwining issues-based storylines about breast cancer and workplace homophobia with torrid tales of lesbian mud wrestling and strip poker schemes, the show often seemed conflicted about whether it was socially progressive realism, regressively pleasurable melodrama, or progressive lesbian melodrama. The tension between these dissonant impulses shaped the show for five seasons. It was neither forward-thinking nor woefully behind the times; its “lesbian drama” was both entirely believable and utterly absurd.
Predictably, in the speculation around the show’s revival, we’re reminded that, for all it managed to pull off, The L Word failed at representing the full depth and breadth of lesbian culture to a mass audience largely unfamiliar with its riches. An article in Vanity Fair suggests that the original program was insufficiently authentic, and that its reboot must “atone” for those sins by “show[ing] the LGBTQ community as it truly is: strong, hopeful, and, above all, just like everyone else.” Another critic argues that the show simply shouldn’t be brought back at all, unless it can “fix” its handling of bisexuality and class issues, to say nothing of its transphobia, butchphobia, and inadequate attempts to address the realities of race vis-à-vis gender and sexuality.
The charges are not unfounded. The L Word was neither entirely positive nor perfectly inclusive. The show’s central characters are a bourgeois couple with a killer contemporary art collection, housed in an airy home under constant renovation, who begin the series anguished about getting pregnant and end it disappointed that their plan to adopt a second child has fallen through. Between the poles of this ongoing reproductive drama unfold the requisite scandals and infidelities of an expanding cast of characters—the incurable player, the alcoholic sibling, the narcissistic writer, the irresponsible heiress, the honor-bound soldier. Quipped Ilene Chaiken, the show’s lesbian showrunner, in 2005: “I am political in my life. But I am making serialized melodrama. I’m not a cultural missionary.”
But making a melodrama about mostly lesbian characters dealing with real-life lesbian issues is not apolitical. Chaiken’s willingness to wallow in lesbian drama—to show lesbian and queer characters talking, laughing, loving, breathing, and regularly saying things like, “I am not some fucking loose cannon that fucks everything that walks” (Bette)—is also what made the show so good, even for viewers who don’t share those characters’ wealth or privilege. Writing about The L Word in 2004, queer studies scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick praised the show for furnishing queer story lines ranging from the banal to the preposterous, which fostered an “absurdly luxurious” exploration of a “lesbian ecology.”1
Sedgwick’s hope for The L Word was that it would be permitted to keep expanding, and, just like Alice’s ever more crowded whiteboard “chart” documenting who’s slept with whom, it did.
Season 1 laid the groundwork for future lesbian drama by shattering the facade of Bette and Tina’s domestic bliss and transitioning Midwest transplant Jenny (a proxy for the uninitiated but bicurious viewer) out of a heteronormative relationship with a meatheaded cis male swim coach into the series of flings that inaugurates her lesbianism.
Season 2 slid into metacommentary, incorporating, then swiftly discarding, an exaggerated surveillance plot wherein Shane and Jenny’s adjacent bedrooms were rigged with hidden cameras by their new cis male roommate, aspiring filmmaker Mark (Eric Lively). Unbeknownst to the two best friends, who have become embroiled in an unacknowledged love triangle with Carmen de la Pica Morales, a hot Latina DJ from East Los Angeles (played by Iranian American actress Sarah Shahi), their private affairs are being edited into a kind of Real L Word, fodder for pornographic consumption by straight men—until Jenny finds the footage. Begging her forgiveness, the puppy-faced Mark claims that his nonconsensual penetration into their lesbian ecosystem has “made [him] a better man,” to which Jenny replies, “Oh, fuck off … It’s not a fucking woman’s job to be consumed and invaded and spat out so that some fucking man can evolve.”
Penned by screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter, this scene directly speaks to the burden of representation with which The L Word was and still is often saddled. By that standard, the show not only should have given us queers more believable versions of ourselves, but it should have opened a more realistic window into queer life for those unfamiliar with it, and, in the process, helped both television and the culture to evolve. Jenny’s understandable fury in the face of Mark’s violent use of her lesbian drama to facilitate his progress echoes Chaiken’s insistence that it was not her job to present a socially progressive queer reality: “I’m not a cultural missionary.” I’ve got a show to run, and I’m going to run it like a show.
That is not to say, however, that The L Word never tried, however ham-fistedly, to move beyond the narrow comfort zone of its predominantly white, cis, and femme central ensemble. At the beginning of Season 3, for example, Jenny brings home Moira, a Midwestern butch whose masculine identification alone is enough to stymie the show’s core friend group—including Shane! Moira’s imminent transition to Max elicits both ambivalence and hostility, illuminating the painful vicissitudes of lesbian transphobia.
The episode “Lobsters,” from Season 3, which details Moira’s initial encounter with the gang upon arriving in Los Angeles, enacts a particularly searing critique of The L Word’s central characters, exposing their gender essentialism and class privilege from a queer outsider’s perspective. At a pretentious restaurant whose menu includes a liquid nitrogen palate cleanser, Jenny’s friends eye Moira’s muscle shirt and manly comportment with disdain from the sophisticated confines of their lacy, bodice-hugging tops and flared slacks. When Moira balks at the price of a 14-dollar salad, Alice shoots her a judgmental glance, as if she’s a loser for acknowledging the existence of money.
The Show’s willingness to wallow in lesbian drama is also what made it so good, even for viewers who don’t share the characters’ wealth or privilege.
Flitting from the self-satisfied face of one LA lesbian to another, the camera’s gaze absorbs the group’s vapid banter and petty insults (who’s got an agent, who’s going on a food and wine tour through France), occasionally returning to Moira to emphasize her alienation. She makes some friendly overtures, but her haughty tablemates won’t bite. Her salad arrives artfully deconstructed and thus inedible. When the conversation turns to the exquisiteness of the lobster, Moira intones: “I know something interesting about lobsters.” The crowd falls silent. “You don’t have to put a lid on the pot when you cook female lobsters … because once they realize they’re in a pot of boiling water, they all start grabbing each other and … holding each other down. They’re like, ‘If I’m gonna die, everyone’s gonna die.’ None of them wants to let any of the other ones get out of the pot. It’s a real shame, isn’t it?”
At the close of Moira’s analogy, Carmen cracks a joke. The cis women return to their food and meaningless discourse with nary a hair out of place. If they realize that they’re the lobsters, they don’t seem to care. It’s a stunning reversal, given that these selfsame women are the show’s most sympathetic characters.
Other cultural and political tensions crop up mid–Season 4, when alluring longhaired butch military officer Tasha (Rose Rollins) quietly bursts onto the scene and into Alice’s bed. The realities of the couple’s interracial, interclass relationship challenge their growing bond. While Tasha is black and mostly hangs out with working-class people of color, Alice is white and mostly hangs out with rich white people. While Tasha is a proud American patriot, Alice fancies herself a cop-hating lefty. To make matters more complicated, the persistence of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” forces Tasha to keep her homosexuality on the DL at work and in public. The pair’s short-lived stint in couples therapy foregrounds the tunnel vision of Alice’s white progressivism.
Interracial relationships, as well as gender nonconformity and closeting, had already been thematized in the show’s first two seasons, during which the biracial and proudly black-identified Bette navigated Tina’s racism toward their black sperm donor, tennis player Dana painfully came out to her conservative parents, and Shane’s boy-passing past as a sex worker on the gay male circuit came back to haunt her. Also in The L Word’s early seasons, Kit, Bette’s half-sister through their father, both contended with her dad’s racialized favoritism toward her lighter-skinned mixed-race sibling and dated across race and gender lines.
The show didn’t stop trying to confront pressing queer issues in its final seasons, despite Chaiken’s claim that it had never tried that hard to do so in the first place. But as the end approached, The L Word veered even more sharply toward melodrama. Any reboot aspiring to make the series more progressive would have to contend with the undeniable fact that more melodrama always made the show more enjoyable. In Season 5, Shane embarks on a sex cleanse after causing mass consternation by fucking not one but two bridesmaids and their mother at a wedding. Sweating out her libido at the gym, she declares, “I have declared a moratorium on sex … thereby eliminating the main cause of insanity in my life.”
Alice and Tina roll their eyes, but Shane’s celibacy lasts an astounding two and a half episodes, before she’s lured into couch sex by “Lover Cindi” (Alicia Leigh Willis), the girlfriend of possessive SheBar owner Dawn Denbo (Elizabeth Keener), who then wages war on Kit’s business and the group’s hangout, The Planet. This is the bagginess for which Sedgwick hoped: the absurd luxury of a queer TV show—sometimes serving melodrama, sometimes serving realism, and always serving peak lesbian drama—that gets renewed enough times to jump the shark.