The L Word: Generation Q opens with cunnilingus and period sex. It’s a sexy, funny, and realistic scene, but it’s also striking for anyone familiar (or, in my case, overly familiar) with the original series, which ran on Showtime from 2004 to 2009. In the original series—helmed by Ilene Chaiken who now plays just an executive producer role for the sequel for contractual reasons, passing the reins to Marja-Lewis Ryan—there were 111 sex scenes. Exactly none of them featured period sex (or even implied period sex), even though the vast majority of those scenes were between cis queer women. The fact that no one was having period sex was just one of many ways original recipe The L Word deviated from reality.
This particular oversight was likely because, at the time, The L Word was one of the only shows on television to explicitly center lesbians and their desires. There was a sense, at times, that the show was playing it safe in its portrayal of queer sex (AKA occassionally catering to the straights). Generation Q debuts in a much different landscape, albeit one that still has plenty of room for queer stories. And in its pilot, Generation Q has a conversation between the show’s past and its new present, opening up its world and still maintaining some of the playfulness of the original while also standing on its own. This is no longer a show specifically about queer women in their twenties and thirties. It’s an intergenerational show, featuring characters as young as Bette’s rebellious teen daughter Angelica (Jordan Hull), the new messy millennial characters, and Shane (Kate Moennig), Alice (Leisha Hailey), and Bette (Jennifer Beals), who are all in new stages of life. There’s even a reference to menopause—almost as rare as period sex on television—which gifts us Beals’ perfect delivery of “death is coming.”
As with any pilot, there’s plenty of exposition going on here, but a good script and affecting performances make that exposition engaging and layered. For example, Alice saying “can we please not do therapy talk” to her new fiancé Nat (Stephanie Allyne) tells us not just what Nat does but a lot about the dynamic between the two of them. The pilot has to balance a lot of the characters at once, including introducing all of the new queers on the block. That opening sex scene features Dani (Arienne Mandi) and Sophie (Rosanny Zayas), who get engaged by the end of the episode. That engagement, while sweet, isn’t entirely convincing, as the show hasn’t had much time to develop their dynamic, and Dani is more specifically written than Sophie is so far. Leo Shang’s Micah, an adjunct professor living with Dani and Sophie, has a sweet little meet-cute with the hot new neighbor. And Jacqueline Toboni plays Finley, a hyperactive bro-lesbian who seems to embody a tonal bridge between the two series in how goofy she is. Finley and Sophie work together at Alice’s talk show, which is a welcome layer of convenience, because friendships were long a cornerstone of the original series, and I hope Generation Q similarly spends as much time between friends as it does with romantic relationships. Indeed, there’s almost more organic chemistry to Finley relaying the details of her one-night stand to Sophie at work than there is to Dani and Sophie’s engagement scene.
Some of the exposition, on the other hand, requires a scoop of suspension of disbelief, like when Shane steps off a private jet and mumbles something to Bette about selling off international salons. The L Word was always dipped in a shiny layer of fantasy, seen in both the fact that it created a world in which everyone from the baristas to the school deans to the book critics are gay and also in the lavish lives its characters lived despite having jobs that did not equate to lavish lives. The former is definitely still at play in Generation Q: The only straight characters who show up are seemingly Dani’s dad and the man who accuses Bette Porter of sleeping with his wife.
And the latter continues for the characters that bind the two series. Shane, Bette, and Alice live glamorous lives still. Alice has gone from a bisexual freelance journalist to a popular talk show host, and Shane has gone from wielding scissors in a skate-park-slash-salon that was burned down by her ex in an act of arson revenge to...a hair salon mogul? The series brilliantly pivots Bette from art to politics, which feels right for the character but also opens the show up to do some timely storytelling. The mixing of the personal and the professional for Bette seen here is very The Good Wife, rife with drama.
But Generation Q also injects some groundedness into this universe. There’s still fantasy to the series, but it isn’t the same level of soapy camp that the original embodies. Bette isn’t just running for mayor so that the show has an excuse to put her in endless power suits. She wants to fix the opioid crisis and homelessness in Los Angeles (the pilot teases that she has a personal investment in the former, but it’s holding that card close to its chest so far). And there seems to be a bit of an awareness of the original characters’ class privilege. Alice is kind of an asshole to Sophie when Sophie fails to deliver a Kamala Harris interview that she thought she could get. At first, the interaction rubbed me the wrong way: This doesn’t seem like the bubbly, self-effacing Alice of the past. But maybe there’s something to be said of the way wealth and fame have warped Alice. Generation Q seems to be engaging at least a little bit with the relative unrelatability of Alice, Bette, and Shane’s glamorous lives. When Shane offhandedly suggests that Finley can have one of the extra rooms in her house, Finley jumps at it. That and an earlier reference to only having enough gas in her car for a one-way trip indicate that Finley isn’t part of the LA glamour Shane exists in.
The biggest downside to the pilot is an occasional awkwardness in reconciling the different tones it strikes. There’s still some of the fun fantasy at play, but there’s also a stark seriousness. The episode drags in the middle when Dani sits down to talk to an employee at her father’s big pharma company whose son has just died of an overdose. It’s a bit of an arduous attempt to sell Dani’s big pivot from the company to Bette’s campaign. But some of the more serious aspects of the pilot are just as captivating as the sex and comedy: The mother-daughter relationship unspooled in Bette and Angie’s interactions is immediately complex and interesting, a specific type of relationship not really seen in the original. And as much as I enjoy fucking-around Shane —whose status as a gay fuckboi is so cemented in lesbian pop culture that people do indeed throw “she’s such a Shane” around still in the year 2019—the brooding Shane seen in this pilot gets at the vulnerability of this character that was always there but only intermittently explored in the original.
I watched the The L Word in secret for years when I was closeted. Now I’ve watched The L Word: Generation Q’s pilot as a very out lesbian, and I’m also writing about it in a very public way. While this isn’t necessarily everyone’s experience with the original (and, presumably, the show is even connecting with folks who didn’t even watch the original), it has been striking how many times I’ve heard people share similar stories on social media and in conversations leading up to the show’s premiere. The new series has made explicit promises to correct some of the original’s mistakes, including its extreme whiteness and its appalling (and often factually incorrect) treatment of trans men. The pilot already demonstrates some movement on that front, but there’s still a distinct lack of butch characters and zero mention of bisexuality, which erases huge swaths of the queer community that the Q in the title supposedly references. The series has a lot of expectations foisted upon it, and it should be held to a higher standard, especially since it enters a television landscape with considerably more queer and trans women-led shows (as in The Bisexual, Vida, Pose, and the new Work In Progress, which airs alongside Generation Q on Showtime).
But Generation Q ultimately pulls off an impressive pilot, one that caters to fans of the original by harnessing some of the same sense of humor but also fixing the flaws that gave a lot of its fans a headache. And it also sets up the new characters, the new world that the show inhabits, where the stories cover different classes, ages, and races. Expanded inclusion isn’t just a way to get diversity cred; it genuinely makes for more interesting storytelling.
- If you haven’t gathered this yet, I have a deep knowledge of the original series. For fun, I’ll try to include any references Generation Q makes to the original in the strays if they don’t get worked into the review itself. Here, we have a meta reference to the fact that the show has been off the air for ten years (Alice jokes that it feels like her own talk show has been on hiatus for a decade), and in the interview with Bette, Alice brings up the time they stole a billboard as a demonstration of love for Jodi.
- On that note, I was wondering how the show would reconcile with the fact that Laurel Holloman is not involved. I kind of thought they were going to kill off Tina, but I suppose two major character deaths in the original is already enough. Still, it’s a little awkward that Tina is part of the show without being part of the show. Bette takes a phone call from her, and Angie threatens to move in with her in a moment of righteous teen anger.
- I know there were exactly 111 sex scenes in the original series, because I helped rank them.
- I get that, yes, female candidates are often treated much differently by the media than male candidates, but the way Bette’s storyline plays out here is almost too forgiving. Sure, it was a consensual relationship, but it’s still Not Great to sleep with your employee, let alone a married one. In any case, the moment does feel Very Bette, who is always making destructive choices in her personal life and has always been drawn to infidelity. I really love how the press conference scene unfolds: It has some of that soapiness of the original.
- I don’t intend for all of these reviews to be a comparison between the new series and the original, but the cultural significance of the original makes it difficult to not strike up a conversation between the two when it makes sense to. To keep things easy (and avoid saying “original” so much), I will use The L Word to refer to the old series and either The L Word: Generation Q or just Generation Q to refer to the new.