The New L Word Is Expanding the Queer Aesthetic Canon

On the stylish reboot, scrappy Millennial characters represent a broader swath of queer life—and help rectify the original show’s missteps.

Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas) and Sarah Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), two of the characters introduced on the new 'L Word' reboot, work together as production assistants. (Hilary B. Gayle / SHOWTIME)

On The L Word, the first-ever scripted series following the lives of lesbian characters, hair has never been just hair. The core cast, mostly feminine-presenting West Hollywood residents, seemed to possess effortlessly luxuriant tresses, their varying colors and styles as much a testament to the women’s affluence as to their characters’ sensibilities. As if by magic, their hair maintained its sheen.

But two exceptions stood out, characters whose affinity for more masculine-leaning aesthetics was constantly highlighted: There was the androgynous heartbreaker Shane McCutcheon (played by Kate Moennig), a working-class hairstylist whose shaggy, sometimes odd, mane became a hallmark of mid-aughts queer women’s style. And then there was the computer technician Max (Daniela Sea), the only transgender character to become a show regular, whose grooming appeared less tailored to any individual personality and more designed just to showcase the process of transitioning—especially the baffling beard he grew seemingly overnight after buying black-market testosterone.

For many trans people, especially those who watched The L Word at the time of its release, Max’s story line—one of the first television portrayals of a trans man—remains one of the show’s biggest failings. (Unlike the more fleshed-out Shane, Max was also more thinly sketched, without the benefit of rich story lines about other parts of his life.) Now, more than a decade later, a reboot, The L Word: Generation Q, is attempting to rectify the discrepancies in the show’s treatment of LGBTQ people across a wide spectrum of gender presentations. In a welcome shift, the new iteration grants its characters—especially those who are trans—plotlines, personalities, and aesthetics that aren’t framed exclusively through the lens of their marginalization.

A lot has changed since 2004, when The L Word first premiered on Showtime. Generation Q enters a television landscape that has already been altered by series with varying depictions of queer people, from scripted dramas (Pose, Orange Is the New Black, Euphoria) to frothy reality shows (RuPaul’s Drag Race, Are You the One?). Though the show creator Ilene Chaiken serves as an executive producer alongside Moennig and fellow returning actors Jennifer Beals and Leisha Hailey, she knew the reboot needed to have a distinct, modern voice. When we spoke in Los Angeles recently, she recalled some of the early conversations about the new series: “There should be a new kind of head writer/showrunner, and she should be some young, incredibly gifted lesbian who is still kind of out there in the world,” she remembered saying then. “I think I said someone who still dates,” she added. “That shows why I shouldn’t be doing the show.”

Generation Q’s 34-year-old showrunner, Marja-Lewis Ryan, who watched the original series as it aired, said it wasn’t difficult “to expand the umbrella, because I come from a different generation,” she said. “I had The L Word. [Chaiken] didn’t have The L Word.” As much as Ryan’s show is indebted to its forebear for the enthusiasm of its fan base and the specific foibles of its returning characters’ personalities, the reboot also benefits from something more intangible: the shared language that The L Word provided to young queer people who came of age during its run (and to those who’ve watched it since). “I got to come out with a television show,” Ryan noted. “And then I also got to look back and think about it critically as a student of television.”

The returning L Word cast members Bette, Shane, and Alice have settled further into their comfortable lives, while the Gen Qers enter a more uncertain climate. (Hilary B. Gayle / Showtime)

The reboot picks up with Shane, as well as the museum director turned mayoral candidate Bette Porter (Beals) and the radio-show host Alice Pieszecki (Hailey), 10 years after the first series ended. Viewers are also introduced to new characters who broaden the ensemble’s range: The golden retriever–like Sarah Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), who is estranged from her Christian family, goes by Finley and draws close to Shane. Quick-thinking and family-oriented, Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas) works alongside Finley as a production assistant on Alice’s talk show. Sophie’s fiancée, Dani Nunez (Arienne Mandi), first plays a foil to Bette, before realizing they have more in common than they’d expected. “We saw that there were no Latinas on the show. It was in Los Angeles. That feels odd,” Ryan noted. “The show does not represent all people … For me, it was just about trying to represent the community that I see and I live in. I live in L.A., and there’s Asians and Latinx people in L.A.”

With the exception of the wealthy, well-coiffed Dani, the Generation Q cast seems far more laid-back than their predecessors. Finley, Sophie, and Dani live with Micah Lee (Leo Sheng), an adjunct professor who takes his love interest out on a first date with a gift card (the revelation of which is refreshingly more climactic than the disclosure of his trans identity). The show has also moved from glossy West Hollywood to the earthier Silver Lake, and its Millennial characters express financial anxiety that was almost never discussed in the first run.

Generation Q’s L.A. has been shaped by the recession, gentrification, and policy failures. One of the reasons Bette is running for mayor, she says, is to address the city’s opioid crisis. For young LGBTQ people, these are far more familiar concerns than some of the original show’s conceits. (Who could forget the time the heiress Helena Peabody racked up a $50,000 poker debt?) References to the bleakness of the current social order don’t take the tone of jarring exclamations, though. Most often, nods to the characters’ struggles or socioeconomic backgrounds are incorporated directly into other story lines. Sophie worries about paying for her wedding, for example. Finley counts on her dates to buy drinks and spends time at the newly rich Shane’s massive house in part to escape her own cramped living quarters.

Micah Lee (Leo Sheng) also lives with Sophie, her fiancée, and Finley. (Hilary B. Gayle / Showtime)

Meanwhile, where the original bunch regularly looked as though they’d just walked out of a high-end salon, Generation Q skews more DIY. As the show’s hair department head Matthew Holman put it to me, Finley’s cut looks “kinda like one of her girlfriends might’ve just done it in the kitchen.” Sophie’s shaved sides and natural curls, meanwhile, feel as influenced by her Silver Lake and Los Feliz environs as by the YouTube tutorials of countless queer internet celebs. (Ryan noted to me that she’s grateful her team can handle the characters’ style: “Hair and fashion are my weaknesses as a creative,” she said with a laugh. “I’m, like, really gay, and I wear work boots and sweatpants pretty much every day.”)

For the show’s costume designer, Deirdra Govan, styling the Gen Qers alongside the more well-known returning characters presented a two-part challenge. “I definitely wanted to stay away from the flannel. I wanted to get away from the L.A. that was and that is very clear,” she said. Additionally, the internet offered up new sources of inspiration. “It’s no longer [the case that] as designers we’re coming in and saying, Hey look at this. No, [the cast is] coming in and in addition to what I’m bringing in, saying, Hey, I saw this on Instagram. Hey, I saw this on social media. I’m really interested in this look. Can we make this happen? and we mind-meld.” That collaborative process has lent the new cast a decidedly Tumblr-esque aesthetic.

Crucially, the pivot away from recognizable stereotypes extends to the show’s trans characters, too. Neither Micah nor Pierce, Bette’s campaign manager (Brian Michael Smith), determines his style through his transition journey, a distinct difference from Max’s aesthetic and story arc, most of which explicitly related to his trans-ness. Pierce’s suits and composure match his employer’s; Micah’s T-shirts parallel his California chill and casual approach to teaching. Unlike their predecessors, the trans men of Generation Q get to be comfortable in their own skin, and are supported by the community surrounding them. As of the season’s third episode, neither character has been regarded with suspicion or disdain. Generation Q is still finding its groove, but with its understated respect for a multitude of queer aesthetic presentations, the reboot is a welcome addition to a still-slim LGBTQ canon. As Ryan said, “We don’t really get that very much—queer representation or women really at all … We don’t get to be our own superhero.”