Not many shows would come panting out the gate with explicit, bloody period sex, but “The L Word: Generation Q” isn’t trying to be most shows. A sequel companion to Ilene Chaiken’s groundbreaking lesbian drama “The L Word,” which premiered 15 years ago on Showtime, Marja-Lewis Ryan’s new iteration aims to both honor the original series and push its boundaries beyond where it could, or dared, ever go. Sometimes, that means actually investing more time, energy, and consideration in non-white and trans characters. Other times, it means explicit, bloody period sex. All the time, “Generation Q” (which presumably stands for “queer”) is eager for approval from the LGBTQ+ audience that will watch and judge it circa 2019.
In the decade since “The L Word” first went off the air, LGBTQ+ representation has undergone a massive shift. Everything from prestige dramas to network sitcoms feature teens coming to terms with their sexuality; bisexuality is no longer a slutty death sentence; one of the most decorated reality TV shows of the decade is “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Most crucially, queer creators like Steven Canals (“Pose”), Rebecca Sugar (“Steven Universe”) and Tanya Saracho (“Vida”) are getting to tell wildly varying stories of queer community from their own informed perspectives, making the overall landscape far more nuanced and true to life. There’s still much to improve upon and decades of terrible depictions to undo, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not nearly as unusual to have a show speak to queer culture as it was when Chaiken first got “The L Word” on the air in 2004. There’s also the unavoidable fact that, while revolutionary, “The L Word” had some very real blindspots that many overlooked in the absence of many better options. Now, thankfully, there are far more shows featuring prominent queer characters to choose from — which significantly raises the level of difficulty for a newer iteration of “The L Word.”
In order to bridge this gap, “Generation Q” trades in the original series’ propulsive soapiness for a more straightforward sincerity while setting up its stories. It follows not just a single group of lesbian friends, but two generations of queer people talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, f–ing, crying, drinking, riding, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming in Los Angeles. (And yes, it was actually shot in Los Angeles rather than Vancouver, a fact that “Generation Q” flaunts with sun-dappled shots of Silver Lake that betray a far higher budget than the first series likely ever had.) Original cast members and current executive producers Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig and Leisha Hailey hold down the Generation X fort by reprising their roles, picking up with their iconic characters 10 years after we last saw them. Practical Bette (Beals) is now running for mayor of LA; former playboy Shane (Moennig) is filthy rich but pining for her soon-to-be ex-wife; bubbly Alice (Hailey) is juggling stepmom duties with those of running her popular daytime talk show. All three are still struggling to break their old behavioral patterns, but hey, at least they’re much wealthier and more successful this time around.
As a bonus, each character also gets her own younger facsimile in the show’s promising new characters. There’s Dani (Arienne Mandi), a determined executive climbing the ranks at her father’s shady company until she finds herself pulled into Bette’s more progressive orbit. Her longtime girlfriend Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) produces Alice’s show, matching her boss’ idealism and effervescence every step of the way. Also working on Alice’s show is Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), a casually charismatic PA who ends up crashing at Shane’s house through a series of fortunate events. Meanwhile, Dani and Sophie’s friend and roommate Micah (Leo Sheng) doesn’t get an original castmate all his own to emulate, but that’s probably because his character is a trans man whom the show tries hard not to fail, in a stark contrast to the original “L Word”‘s infamously disastrous portrayal of a trans man in 2006. (Trans women, however, remain as frustratingly marginal on “Generation Q” as they were on “The L Word,” despite the valiant attempts by Jamie Clayton to make a bigger impression with her minor character.)
Over the three episodes that I’ve seen, “Generation Q” is careful to balance fan service with the original characters against the new possibilities of its younger, hungrier batch of characters — but in terms of compelling stories, “Generation Q” often wins out. While a handy way for her to wax poetic about her life and struggles as a biracial lesbian, Bette’s campaign almost immediately gets muddled in controversy and platitudes about her not being “the perfect messenger, but [having] the perfect message.” In fact, Bette’s often contentious relationship with teenage daughter Angelica (Jordan Hull) feels more in line with Bette’s personality as we knew it in “The L Word” than her benevolent candidacy for mayor. Alice’s new relationship, despite Stephanie Allynne playing her partner with real vulnerability and warmth, just doesn’t seem to suit her at all. Shane especially seems adrift, which is in part by design thanks to her impending divorce, but it’s not exactly compelling to watch her mope around her giant new house without much else to do. And though she finds an intriguing new prospect by the end of the third episode, even that soon collapses into a storyline that was tired for 2006 Shane, let alone 2019 Shane.
While it’s gratifying to watch the original characters navigate this advanced new stage of life, and all the differences (and similarities) that lesbian life in 2019 has to offer, the new cast has a way of stealing the spotlight. Sheng imbues Micah with an optimistic vulnerability that’s so close to the surface it’s sometimes heartbreaking, especially as he tentatively wades into a romance with a handsome new neighbor (Freddy Miyares). Mandi and Zayas’ characters initially come as a package deal, but each actor distinguishes herself individually as each of their characters reevaluate what they want from their lives, and each other. Toboni, for her part, runs away with almost every scene she’s in, making Finley at turns slyly funny and deeply insecure in a way that quickly proves impossible to ignore.
Whenever a new reboot or revival or sequel hits the airwaves, inevitably the question of “was this necessary?” isn’t far behind. As far as “The L Word” is concerned, well, no, an earnest new update probably wasn’t. But if it was going to happen, it could be a whole lot worse than this considered take, with its slate of fresh characters and clearer eye towards the future of queer life than its status quo.
“The L Word: Generation Q” premieres Dec. 8 at 10 pm on Showtime.