LGBT TV Icon: ‘The L Word’ Creator Ilene Chaiken Reflects on Series, New ‘L Word’ Documentary

Ilene Chaiken (Getty Images)

Believe it or not, there was a time when a gay-centric series that explicitly showed life as a gay or lesbian person was deemed controversial and cable was the only conceivable place where a series like that would exist.

One of the trailblazers out there for LGBT television is “The L Word.” Created by Ilene Chaiken, the series focused on a group of women living in Los Angeles dealing with universal issues such as wanting to be parents, career ups and downs, health concerns and, of course, relationships and sex.

When the series was launched on Showtime in 2004, the cast included Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, Erin Daniels, Mia Kirshner, Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moening and Pam Grier and, throughout a run that lasted until 2009, the show attracted big names like Marlee Matlin, Sarah Shahi, Jessica Capshaw, Elizabeth Berkley, Jamie Chen, Annabella Sciorra and Cybill Shepherd.

Of course, “The L Word” has lived on in the docu-series format with “The Real L Word” (which ran for 3 seasons on Showtime) and the upcoming documentary, “The L Word Misssissippi: Hate The Sin,” which airs in August on Showtime.

To look back at “The L Word,” I chatted with Chaiken about her reflections on selling the series in the first place, if she regrets never revealing the killer of controversial character Jenny (played by Kirshner) and what we can expect to see when the new documentary airs.

I went back and watched the pilot to ‘The L Word,’ which I hadn’t seen in several years.

Ilene Chaiken: Oh my gosh, I haven’t watched it in years. I don’t know how I feel about it.

When you were first pitching the show out there, what was the reception? I don’t know if Showtime was the only place you went to, or if it was all over the place.

IC: Showtime was the only place I went to and the only place I could imagine going to. And it definitely was a different time, just in terms of pitching a show about a community of gay folks. It was a different time.

Would you call it a tough sell or did Showtime kind of see the value in it?

IC: Well, that depends on how you tell the story. Initially, I pitched the idea before “Queer As Folk.” It was an idea that I had had and it was kind of whimsical. I knew it was a long shot but I had written an article for Los Angeles Magazine – this would be 1999 – about the gay baby boom. And then I said, ‘I want to write this. I’m a screenwriter, I want to write this.’ And I pitched it to Showtime right after the movie I did for them, ‘Dirty Pictures.’

And at that time, I pitched it to some executives whom I worked closely, and they said, ‘We think that’s a wonderful idea, but what network will be able to sell it?’ They literally said, ‘We’ll never be able to sell it to the guy in the corner office who wears the suit.’ I believed them, because clearly, it was true, and I let it go. I didn’t know. I’d never written for television before. I’d written movies. I’d done television as an executive, but I just wasn’t thinking in those terms, but I just said, ‘I want to do a series about a group of lesbians, like my friends.’

I kind of wrote it up in a very rough way. I never even pitched it further. I kept casually pushing them. They said, ‘Oh, it’ll never happen.’ I let it go. Then they did ‘Queer As Folk,’…it was always easier when you have a board of people who can see what it is, sell something, especially a challenging concept. ‘Queer As Folk’ goes on the air. It’s quite successful for them, and ‘Dirty Pictures’ won the Golden Globe.

Just before ‘Dirty Picture’ won the Golden Globe, I wrote back to Showtime. I remember that I called an executive, a new executive, who was more senior, who had just started at Showtime, and I did a formal pitch. I pitched my idea, and I pitched it on the premise, ‘You’re doing ‘Queer As Folk.’ The guys have their show. What about one for the girls?’ And I pitched it to them, and I knew that the pitch had gone really well, and that already the attitude had changed quite a lot, just the fact that “Queer As Folk” was successful for them.

And then, a couple of nights later, I went to the Golden Globes with the president of the network, a couple of other executives. And Jerry Offsay, who was then President of the network, walked up to me right after we won the Golden Globe, and whispered in my ear, ‘I think we’re going to do the lesbian show you pitched.’

'The L Word' cast, Season 5 (Showtime)

I feel like if ‘The L Word’ hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we’d be the exact place we are today. Do you feel like there’s a legacy to ‘The L Word?’

IC: I’m always uncomfortable talking in those terms. I leave talk of legacy to other people. It was thrilling to do it and exciting to do it. We knew that we were doing something that hadn’t been done and I didn’t realize at the time how much it would mean to people. But I certainly came to know that over the course of time, as I heard from, and the cast of ‘The L Word’ heard from, thousands upon thousands of women.

In terms of legacy…I shouldn’t have said I wouldn’t comment and now I’m going to comment.

I think that all of the gay characters on television and all of the shows that really feature gay characters in a significant way, I believe that every one of those creators would have told that story anyway. We have so many stories and there are so many people out there who want to tell their stories. I certainly don’t take credit for it and I know we would have gotten here nonetheless. I’m still really proud that ‘The L Word’ took its place in that canon of television shows that really feature gay characters in a significant way.

Is there one character in ‘The L Word’ that maybe you’ve never quite let go of?

IC: I definitely haven’t moved on. There’s not one character. I think all the characters hold a special place for me, and in one way or another, if I were to go on telling the story now, and there is certainly talk about it from fans of ‘The L Word,’ even the cast. I think I can imagine where some of those characters might be right now, better than others. There are some characters whose stories I definitely would like to go on telling. I won’t say which ones, though, just because I really need to think about it carefully. But you know, there certainly are characters who still, from ‘The L Word,’ who still have a dynamic life to me, and just as we’re talking about how much things have changed, in the course of a handful of years there are a whole lot of new stories to tell that connect to those characters and that world that I think would be exciting to tell.

So, fans shouldn’t give up hope that there could be a reunion someday?

IC: I think fans should never give up.

Jennifer Beales as Bette Porter in 'The L Word' (Showtime)

If there’s one thing I still hear about with the show is that people still talk about Jenny well after the show’s gone. It’s so funny that people still have opinions about her.

IC: People still have opinions about her and certainly the question that I’m most often asked, just randomly as I walk down the street, if I have an interview about something else, is who killed Jenny? You know, at least once a week, I get a Tweet.

I won’t ask you that, but I will ask you, do you have any regrets about having never answered that question?

IC: No. I have other issues, regrets, I hate calling them regrets. But other things that I would like to address that swirl around in my brain more than who killed Jenny. I feel like there were other things about the show that were much more important than that and I know that after a beloved show goes off, people talk most about how it ended. And there are very few shows that ended in a satisfactory way for the fan base. Some do, but it’s not the thing I think about most. I think about the stories we told and the characters who really were dynamic and lived lives and made mistakes in ways that are meaningful. So, I think a lot about Jenny but I don’t think a lot about who killed her.

'The Real L Word' cast (Showtime)

Let me ask you about ‘L Word: Mississippi.’ What was your biggest surprise going into this project once you got down there and started shooting?

IC: I don’t know if I’m surprised, but certainly the biggest revelation to me. I knew that we were setting out to tell a story about what it is to be a lesbian in a place in America that isn’t as welcoming as Los Angeles or New York. That was our premise in doing this, that we know that as we’re gaining our civil rights that there are still a great many people who face hardship for being gay and for coming out as gay. There are still many places where people, gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual, can’t live openly [and] where it’s not comfortable and easy for them to live openly.And I thought that it was compelling and important to talk about that, tell that story.

One of the things that I’ve always tried to do in telling our lesbian story is to be very, very specific about culture, about lifestyle and Mississippi turned out to be very specific. There’s some universal truths and the universality is relationship, it’s love but the specificity is Mississippi and the south, and this very specific piece of the south. And the real revelation was religion. It was that there was not a single person whose story we featured in our documentary for whom religion wasn’t a key issue, the challenge of defining issue. We wound up calling the documentary ‘The L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin,’ which is love the sinner, hate the sin. It’s because that really was the dominant theme of all of these women’s lives. And very internalized, too, not just coming at them from the outside. There are a lot of religious people who don’t like us and who believe that we’re sinners but in many, many cases, an internalized grappling with belief and faith and how to reconcile knowing that the things that you hold so dear, the faith that you hold dear, casts you as a sinner. I think it’s a really exciting story and a good documentary. I’m really thrilled that we got to make it and that Showtime went in there with us.

“The L Word” continues to air every weeknight (along with “Queer As Folk”) this month on Showtime. “L Word: Mississippi: Hate The Sin” airs August 8th at 9pm on Showtime.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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