After 10 years away, The L Word has returned with a shiny new reboot, The L Word: Generation Q (Sky Atlantic). The glossy LA lesbian drama was a cultural touchstone for many queer women, and it broke boundaries with its fun, soapy and often explicit depictions of a certain kind of wealthy Californian elite. But over the course of its original lifetime, to be a fan was to enter into a kind of weary pact with it, and its many flaws. Characters who were B or T on the LGBTQ spectrum were not treated with the greatest sensitivity. It had a tendency towards racial stereotyping. Its plots became so out there as to be borderline arthouse.
Generation Q is respectful to what came before it, while hastily dusting off the baggage its heritage entails. It combines old favourites with the horribly labelled “generation Q”, a younger set of more disparate queer men and women whose lives are intertwined with the old guard. So Bette (Jennifer Beals) is back and she’s running to be mayor of Los Angeles, Alice (Leisha Hailey) is hosting her own TV talk show (“fun, feminist … where you can drink coffee and wine”), and Shane (Katherine Moennig) arrives in the city after an absence of many years in the most preposterously Shane way possible: on a private jet – bringing the air hostess back to her new, empty mansion with her, and not for a cup of tea and a biscuit. It turns out that Shane – a character whose hair choices throughout the original were also borderline arthouse – has sold her successful chain of salons and is returning to the city that made her, carrying some heavy emotional baggage, yet soothed by lots and lots of money.
The younger generation quickly joins in. Dani is an executive in the family pharmaceutical firm who finds a fortune built on opioids to be suddenly ethically dubious, and is drawn to Bette in the search for a greater good. Will two alpha females be better than one? Her girlfriend Sophie produces Alice’s show and promises to get Kamala Harris on as a guest. (The decision to make its reference points ultra-contemporary might need to be refined in future; this is a dizzyingly rapid news climate. The Harris nod was already old in the US and for those of us watching on a delay, it dates the show more than it needs to.) Finley, “a traditional lesbian, when it comes to tools”, and one of the only characters struggling with a low income in an increasingly expensive city, is naturally paired with Shane, and ends up as a de facto and not entirely welcome housemate, while attempting to emulate some of her forebear’s skills in the philandering department.
While the action might have shifted from West Hollywood to Silverlake, in accordance with its new, younger, self-aware identity, it is largely the same old L Word, with its creases ironed out. Micah, who lives with Sophie and Dani, is a trans man who is also a fully-formed character, who develops a crush on his buff handyman neighbour. At a supporters’ rally, Bette is blindsided by the public accusation that she had an affair with a man’s wife. “Shame on you,” the husband jeers, as the magnificent Beals shows off her impressive wounded Bette face. She did sleep with his wife, but she turns it into an opportunity to learn and to let voters know that she’s only human. “I’m you. I’m part of you. And I really feel that. I’m that part of you that wants to do better … I’m that part of you that makes mistakes,” she says, which is certainly an intriguing response to scandal, and it won me over. I wonder if she has ever thought of standing to be leader of the Labour party.
The L Word has always been a little bit naff, but in this new iteration, that naffness feels like a matter of pride. There are no coming-out stories here, no tortured hand-wringing over identity, just characters who are all queer in some way, living big, messy lives. It is often more emotionally sophisticated than its soapy setting initially lets on – Bette has always loved to moralise, while engaging in some very amoral behaviour of her own, and Alice’s ambivalence towards being a step-parent is rarely seen on television – but, at the same time, it has lost none of its fantastical, escapist appeal. In the age of prestige TV, where pretentiousness can be a weak substitute for intelligence, there is a great relief in sitting back and watching something that is unabashedly entertaining, that plays to the crowd exactly as it knows how to. It is all a lot of fun, from the boo-hiss villains to the spot-the-reference nods to the past. “That hiatus was really long, felt like a decade or something, didn’t it?” says Alice, with a wink. It felt long, and I’m happy that The L Word is back, naffness and all.