The scene opens on a palatial lobby of the Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Two women, Dani Núñez and Sophie Suarez, gape at the elaborately carved ceiling, 24-karat fixtures and lavish chandeliers. Recently engaged, they are touring potential wedding venues with their families. Dani’s father, a wealthy businessman, had suggested this one. At one point, Sophie’s mom wonders aloud, nervously, if she should have dressed up for the appointment. But no matter: The mood is festive, giddy. As they are led into a sprawling ballroom, Sophie’s abuela looks around skeptically and asks: “Where does the food go? Because we need a few tables to put everything we’re bringing.” The hotel event planner, blond hair pulled back into a pristine twist, informs her that the hotel doesn’t allow outside food, her voice barely concealing her disdain.
Later, at home, Sophie explodes. “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable at my own wedding,” she says tearfully. “I want to laugh, I want to yell, I want to eat the food that my family cooked.” Dani seems to understand, until she opens her mouth. “I’m sure that they’ll make exceptions,” she tells her wife to be. Sophie is livid. “Did you see how they looked at me and my family?” Dani is a light-skinned, moneyed Chilean-Iranian woman; Sophie is Dominican-American and Afro-Latina. Their argument demonstrates that even though both women are Latinx, they have completely different experiences of power, privilege and class.
The scene appeared about halfway through the first season of Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q,” the highly anticipated sequel to the original series, which ran on the same network from 2004 to 2009. Exhuming old cultural totems is risky: Overdo the nostalgia, and it becomes cloying; ignore the show’s legacy, and core fans might rebuke it. Fortunately, this reboot found a happy medium — and many juicy moments, like a fling with a minister, a hot threesome and a charming cameo by the soccer star Megan Rapinoe. But that sober, fully clothed and vulnerable exchange between Sophie and Dani is the one that stayed with me.
When the original “L Word” aired back in 2004, it was a seismic event for many lesbians. At the time, TV shows featuring gay characters — “Queer as Folk,” and the lesser known “Noah’s Arc,” about black gay men in Los Angeles — tended to center on cisgender men and the issues relevant to their communities, whether it was casual sex and H.I.V. status or substance abuse. Sexual interactions between women usually showed up only as side plots, scandals or spectacles, usually for the benefit of men. Remember Kevin Bacon looking on from the bushes as Neve Campbell and Denise Richards made out in the pool in the 1998 erotic thriller “Wild Things”? Or when Britney and Madonna kissed at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards? You barely got to see it — the camera was too busy cutting away to Britney’s ex, Justin Timberlake, for his reaction.
“The L Word” got closer to depicting the real social milieu of women who love women. It helped that lesbians were at the helm — Ilene Chaiken, the show’s creator, along with writers like Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche, who made “Go Fish,” a low-budget, grungy movie about queer women in Chicago in the 1990s — and they satisfyingly captured cultural touchstones of lesbian life at the time. (The cast attends Dinah Shore, a golf tournament that doubles as a cruising ground for women, and there were cameos by the singers Toshi Reagon and Tegan and Sara.) They also got the knottiness of queerness right: the way that exes can become best friends, that former lovers can show up as co-parents. The lines are messy, chaotic and overlapping, and that’s the point.
The show birthed lasting archetypes in the characters of Shane McCutcheon, a shaggy Lothario, and Bette Porter, a high-powered, fiery woman with irresistible sex appeal. For some queer women in the 1990s and aughts, the show was their first glimpse of lesbianism onscreen and the incandescence of living in a world beyond the purview and validation of men. I can still remember the electricity I felt watching the show’s central character, Jenny, fall for a seductive Italian woman named Marina. I looked over at my boyfriend at the time and thought, Welp, there goes that.
The original show received valid criticisms for largely casting straight actors over the show’s six seasons. This not only denied gay actors roles but also denied viewers the opportunity to fully project themselves into the story. Aside from Jennifer Beals, who plays a lesbian with unfettered gusto, there’s a palpable difference between watching women fully lean into their desire and watching them mime it. The show was a close relative of “Melrose Place,” full of wealthy, mostly white women treating money and race like nonissues. Those decisions undermined the show’s triumphant agenda, and it required a mild level of dissociation to imagine yourself alongside them, sipping cappuccinos in the Planet, their local hangout. The show’s most painful error was in its treatment of noncis characters, particularly Max, a trans man who was frequently misgendered and treated with a cold curiosity.
Last year, when Showtime first announced it would be rebooting “The L Word” series, it initially seemed like yet another example of a beloved old piece of intellectual property being upcycled into a shinier version of itself. Most cultural reboots are engineered to deliver an instant dopamine hit — the comfort of familiarity. Rarely is the intention to make reparations or even amends. But “The L Word” had a cultural debt to repay through its resurrection, and it knows it.
The new “L Word” takes place 10 years after the old one left off, i.e. basically now. The characters are entering into new phases of their lives, grappling with aging bodies, divorce and child-rearing. The once-irritating character Alice Pieszecki, played by the sparkly Leisha Hailey, has matured into a level-headed talk-show host and co-parent, managing a household and her girlfriend’s ex-wife. Bette Porter is still a hotheaded mess, having affairs with married women and verbally decimating her enemies. Much as it did 20 years ago, the show models for me hopeful possibilities, like women well in their 40s having adventurous sex. The new cast includes several trans actors who simply appear on the show. Their transness isn’t excessively politicized — it just exists.
Not everything about the 2020 version works. More of the actors identify as queer, but the show still has some representational blind spots (no major nonbinary characters; no darker-skinned black women). Somehow it also has become glossier than its predecessor: Each of the original characters seems to have added a couple of zeros to her net worth. But for the most part, the show is cannily self-aware. It knows representation is hard-earned. The moment with Dani and Sophie suggests that television has gone beyond just putting gay women onscreen to make out and arrived someplace more raw and textured.
By the end of the season, it’s not looking good for Dani and Sophie. Their relationship is starting to buckle under their miscommunications. They disconnect. Loneliness seeps in; each woman seeks comfort from others. That’s real life, and it makes for excellent TV.
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for the magazine and a host of the podcast “Still Processing.” She last wrote about the director Dee Rees.