“The L Word: Generation Q” features more people of color and trans characters than the original series did, but they are not as satisfyingly twisted as the old guard.
In 2004, “The L Word” premièred, introducing a tight-knit group of Los Angeles lesbians as thin, glamorous, and erratic as the straight New Yorkers of “Sex and the City.” There was Bette, an imperious workaholic, and her long-suffering partner, Tina. There was Jenny, a vicious writer and pot-stirrer who discovered her sexuality after moving in with her boyfriend next door to Bette and Tina. There was Alice, a chirpy journalist, and her best friend, Dana, a repressed tennis player. And there was Shane, an irresistible, monosyllabic lothario, who inspired both ire and emulation. The show’s pilot, directed by Rose Troche—who made the scrappy, influential lesbian film “Go Fish,” on a tiny budget, in 1994—is witty and startling. In one scene, Bette and Tina—following a couples-therapy session that deftly shows the cracks in their relationship—visit an artist friend in his studio to prepare for Tina’s insemination. As the friend walks behind a thin partition to masturbate into a cup, they comment on how much more freely he uses paint in his new work. When his sperm prove inadequate, the couple decide to gather the few men they know for a party and assess whether any of them might be promising donors.
Even when “The L Word” was terrible, it was messy, irresponsible fun. Appearing in a vacuum of lesbian representation, it became, in the course of six seasons, a touchstone and a conversation starter. It remains, to this day, a staple of formulaic chitchat on queer Tinder dates. Since the time it aired, it’s come under criticism for its copious insensitivities: its characters’ carefree privilege, its tendency to tokenize people of color, and, most infamously, its crass, misinformation-laden depiction of Max, a trans man played by a cis woman. Now, years later, a reboot of the show, “The L Word: Generation Q” (the “Q” stands for queer), seeks to absolve the original’s sins.
Not every sin is worth absolving. On the new show, there are more people of color and trans characters—arguably the point of the whole endeavor—but, in the three episodes released for advance review, they are not as satisfyingly twisted as the old guard. The reboot is a glossier and more decent affair. Gesturing at edginess, the first episode opens with a long sex scene between Dani and Sophie (the seemingly stable couple of the new set), which ends with—gasp—a couple of delicately bloodied fingers. Moments later, their friend Micah barges into the room and asks Dani, “When are you gonna propose to her? She’s gonna kill you if you don’t do it soon.” By the end of the episode, Dani stages a weepy proposal. The ring doesn’t fit on Sophie’s finger. “Rings are just a symbol of the patriarchy!” Sophie says. “Yeah,” Dani says, “but I still want you to have one.” One can only hope, based on hinted-at tensions and the necessity for high-stakes conflict, that the engagement will unravel quickly, but a marriage plot is an odd way to begin a show that aims to be more modern than its predecessor. The updated “L Word,” it seems, is less concerned with being radical than it is with being inoffensive.
“Generation Q” is not without its pleasures—the story lines, in keeping with tradition, are nice and preposterous, and there’s a nostalgic comfort in watching long-dormant characters misbehave again. Shane, a hairdresser whose own unruly shag haircut has been restrained if not redeemed, is suffering through a divorce, and comforts herself, as usual, with a series of ambivalent seductions. Bette is tangling with her daughter (the eventual result of her and Tina’s quest to have a child, though they’re now separated) and running for office on a platform of combatting the opioid crisis; she faces a scandal after the news gets out that she slept with a married employee. Alice is now the host of a campy feminist talk show and is struggling to perform the role of stepmother to her girlfriend’s children.
Each of these cornerstone characters is paired off with a younger and somewhat more insipid mentee. Finley, though played by the charismatic Jacqueline Toboni, is gratingly quirky as she lingers at Shane’s mansion after assembling furniture; Dani, who goes rogue from her father’s investment company to work for Bette, has everything in common with her except for her magnetism. Micah, a trans man who carries the awkward weight of the original show’s mishandling of Max, is, unlike his peers, not paired with any of the original characters; he is a neurotic adjunct professor (though it’s not clear, so far, of what subject) with a perpetually apologetic face. When he goes on a date with a muscular and friendly new neighbor, the writers take great pains to undermine the trope of treating his transness as a big reveal. “I don’t think I can make it all the way through dinner without telling you something first,” he tells his date. “I know,” the date says. “You’re trans. I saw you on Grindr.” No, that’s not it, Micah says: “I’ve got a gift card.” The joke doesn’t land. His scenes successfully avoid the common pitfalls of trans characterization, but they also avoid imbuing him with much charm. Rather than being ashamed of his transness specifically, he seems ashamed of everything. It’s as though, in pursuing the rigid goal of correct representation, the writers forgot that the characters’ unhinged vitality propelled the original show.
“The L Word” no longer bears the singular responsibility it once did. The landscape of queer film and television is wider and more varied than it was fifteen years ago; even if no similarly popular show has matched its focus on the lives of queer women, its target audience isn’t quite as desperate as it once was. “Orange Is the New Black,” a show with a rowdy ensemble cast and plenty of sapphic drama, might be its closest spiritual successor, and, fortunately, its commitment to telling a diverse array of stories produced more adventurousness than caution. For those seeking more darkly comic, culturally specific shows with real emotional stakes, there is “Vida,” “The Bisexual,” and the sadly departed “One Mississippi.” Compared to its sharper contemporaries, “Generation Q” is well-meaning pabulum—proof that conscientiousness alone is insufficient as a guiding force.