Ilene Chaiken chats about her new Showtime series, The L Word, premiering this month
by Olivia Flores Alvarez
The L Word creator, screenwriter, and producer Ilene Chaiken drew on her own experience as a lesbian and mother for the show’s premise. Chaiken recently spoke to me by phone, discussing the show’s spectacular cast, bright future, and long road to the screen.
Despite the fact that she was once again answering the same questions she’s been answering for the last several months as the Showtime publicity machine geared up for The L Word’s January 18 unveiling, Chaiken was unfailingly patient and attentive, speaking in a slow, deliberate style that seems unlikely for a Hollywood player capable of single-handedly pushing television beyond its comfort zone.
With over 15 years as a writer and several successful film projects to her credit, Chaiken is no show-business novice. She has a solid résumé, which includes screenwriting duties for the 2002 Laura Dern vehicle Damaged Care and the 2000 made-for-cable Dirty Pictures with James Woods. The Pamela Anderson film Barb Wire was taken from a Chaiken story, and in 1988 she was associate producer for Satisfaction with Deborah Harry and Julia Roberts (in her film debut).
But Showtime still passed on The L Word a few years ago when Chaiken first approached them. The success of such shows as Queer as Folk and to a lesser extent Will and Grace helped to convince the network to take another look at the idea, and after a second pitch session, Showtime finally gave Chaiken the green light. “It’s brave [of Showtime to produce the show], yes, but it’s sensible, too. There’s an audience for this,” she says. “I think lots of people will be watching—not just lesbians. This is a show about relationships, about love and friends. Those aren’t just lesbian topics. And after the success of Queer as Folk, it was easier to imagine that this show would find an audience.”
Early in the production, the show was called Earthlings, a title that didn’t seem to have anything to do with lesbians. The name was supposedly a reference to the common practice of asking, “Is she an earthling? Has she been to the planet?” as a way to determine if someone was a lesbian. That explanation made little sense to those who heard it until they were told the planet in question was actually The Planet, a West Los Angeles coffee bar owned by one of the show’s characters and frequented by lesbians.
But the moniker was cumbersome and required too much explanation. After an informal naming contest and several brainstorming sessions, Chaiken and other production personnel came up with The L Word. “I like it,” Chaiken says. “We needed something that everyone could understand, something that described the tone of the show.”
The L Word centers on Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), a stable couple trying to have a baby. Bette clearly loves her partner, but she’s quick to bark orders and is more than a little inconvenienced by the inefficient—and ultimately ineffective—efforts to get Tina pregnant. The quest puts them at odds and sends the couple to therapy where Bette continues her “take charge, not prisoners” tactics.
Their circle of friends includes Dana (Erin Daniels), a closeted tennis pro frustrated by her lack of a love life; Alice (rocker Leisha Hailey), a bisexual journalist who is amused by if not completely happy with her life; and Shane (Katherine Moennig), an edgy, liberated girl-de-jour with a different bedmate every night.
Jenny (Mia Kirshner), a young writer fresh from college, and her fiancé Tim (Eric Mabius), a swim coach, move next door to Bette and Tina. Jenny quickly begins an affair with Marina (Karina Lombard), the owner of the coffee bar that Bette and her friends visit. While simultaneously falling in love and falling apart, Jenny betrays Tim, who is charming but completely clueless.
Rounding out the cast is Kit (Pam Grier), Bette’s half sister, a one-time singer who is constantly on the verge of a comeback. Grier’s character was reportedly reworked from a dread-head thug to a more attractive, if slightly drunk, musician with a high cool factor.
Anne Archer, Rosanna Arquette, Holland Taylor, Lolita Davidovich, Ossie Davis, and Snoop Dogg have all been tapped as guest stars for future episodes.
Chaiken, like viewers, is impressed with the assemblage of actors. “It’s such an honor to work with a cast of that level,” she says. “It’s a great cast, a dream cast really. Jennifer Beals, Pam Grier, everyone on the show is just great.”
The L Word’s two-hour pilot is an extended game of “who would squirt into a jar for you?” as Tina and Bette try to find a suitable sperm donor to father their baby.
Chaiken’s script is smart and quick and does an excellent job of introducing the nine characters without becoming bogged down or complicated. Beals has called the show “Sex and the City where the women sleep with each other.” Actually, it’s more than that. Like Sex, The L Word examines sexual and social mores. Unlike Sex, much of what we see on The L Word—women loving women, living together as married partners and raising their own children in openly lesbian households—is still illegal in a majority of states.
The fact that women who are doing in real life what Beals and her costars do on screen and are the targets of hate crimes and hate-based legislation makes The L Word groundbreaking, not just hip.
“I put a lot of my own experiences into the show, but I wouldn’t say this is my story,” Chaiken says. “[My partner Miggi Hood] and I have twin daughters, and Bette and Tina are trying to have a baby, but what happens to them isn’t exactly what happened to us. One day I looked around and saw that our situation wasn’t unique, that there were lots of lesbian women who were going through the same thing, trying to build a life and raise children. That gave me the idea of a show, but I wanted one with characters that were more real, more like the women I knew than some Hollywood version of us.”
While the pilot is outstanding and there is every expectation that the rest of the series will only improve, there are a couple of moments that go clunk. When Tina and Bette meet a hot young artist and decide he would be the perfect sperm donor, the pair entices him to their bed with the promise of a three-way. The plan backfires when the intended donor figures out their game and storms out in a huff, accusing the couple of trying to steal his sperm.
And some scenes are unintentionally humorous. At an OB-GYN office, Tina is inseminated with some donor sperm. As the doctor leaves the room, she tells Bette that arousal for Tina will increase the chances of pregnancy, strongly hinting that the couple should have sex. With Tina’s feet still up in stirrups, Bette dutifully pokes her head under the white hospital drape and begins to orally arouse Tina. The moment is awkward and embarrassing, reducing what should be an intimate moment to a bad joke, with Bette’s head popping in and out of the makeshift tent to complain that the doctor wouldn’t have suggested such a thing to a straight couple.
And given the cast’s roster of incredibly feminine, slim, and beautiful women, few viewers will see themselves on screen. One pilot viewer said, “Forget butch, no one is even chunky.” The cast, while extremely talented and engaging, fails to reflect the variety of colors, styles, and sizes of real lesbians. The two characters portrayed by Grier and Beals are the only nonwhites. None of the women approach real androgyny, much less masculinity. Even Shane, who Dana regularly accuses of dressing like a man, is polished and punk-model perfect.
Will the “everyone is white and beautiful” setup play with The L Word viewers? Chances are yes. The lack of minority or plus-size characters didn’t seem to affect Friends or Sex and the City, two shows that, like The L Word, feature young, hip ensemble casts.
Even if viewers don’t see themselves on screen, they will surely hear themselves in Chaiken’s quick, smart dialogue. The clearly defined characters have personalities that will mirror real-life women. From bossy and beautiful to happy-on-the-sidelines to “can’t keep my pants on” and young enough not to care, these are women that most lesbians either are or know.
One-liners like “lesbians think friendship is another word for foreplay” litter the script. Dana and Alice, for example, spend much of their time together analyzing why other lesbians seem to have such an easy time finding and seducing beautiful women. Their friend Shane, with her unending line of one-niters, is a favorite target. First, they attribute Shane’s success to her “bush confidence” and then to her “nipple confidence.” The pair agrees that the secret is Shane’s attitude. But Dana contends she has plenty of attitude, albeit cranky and ill humored, but attitude nonetheless.
The two also play “six degrees of sexual separation” as they chart out the tangled web of ex-lovers and their subsequent partners. Their banter is fun, relaxed, and makes for some of the most genuine moments of the pilot.
Unfortunately, the show reinforces at least one stereotype—lesbians recruit. When coffee bar owner Marina meets Jenny, she chases her despite the fact that Jenny’s fiancé Tim is standing nearby. Later, when the two begin an affair, Marina is completely unmoved by Tim’s fiancé status while Jenny is so overcome with guilt that she runs home and gives her unsuspecting boyfriend a surprise blow job.
Complicated, messy, funny, difficult, and crammed full of zinging one-liners that people mutter mostly to entertain themselves, The L Word is just like real life—just with better lighting.
Olivia Flores Alvarez writes regularly about the arts for the magazine.
MORE L: On January 18, the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime will host a premiere party for The L Word at Meteor. The evening will kick off at 6 p.m., followed by the 8 p.m. broadcast. HRC will give away L Word merchandise throughout the event, which is open to the public at no charge.