Watching "The L Word" After A Decade Shattered My Illusions

In the wake of a reboot announcement, I compare my initial blissful viewing to my more recent critical analysis of the series’ returning characters.

I’d like to preface this post by saying I will not be including any storylines from season six in my analysis. That season was merely a cruel joke that I choose to disregard as a fever dream.

In one of those brief but beautiful “We get Showtime for three weeks because of a cable provider promotion!” stints at my house, my high school hetero eyes were introduced to The L Word. My fingers danced on the remote as I watched about three minutes of what I later came to know as Shane just being Shane. But nightmare scenarios popped into my head that another family member would see the show in the “recently watched” section of the On Demand feature—and I’d die of embarrassment. (In retrospect, nobody would have cared, but I was in high school and everything was dramatic.)

When I was 20, living in Chicago and somehow more financially stable than I am today, I decided to take the plunge into the series. I had cable in the comfort of my own bedroom so my On Demand choices were no longer influenced by shame. What freedom! At this point, I had just gotten out of my first relationship with a woman. It was thrilling in that absolutely-tumultuous-and-might-kill-you sort of way. Similarly, I had gone to a few gay bars where I felt equally as out of place as I felt liberated. My first and most notable bar experience involved two lesbians in their 40s who were on the Chicago roller derby team (I didn’t ask, but they offered that tidbit) who told me my hair was too long for me to be gay, therefore I should leave. Oh, such fun to revisit old memories!

During my first initial watch of the series, I was so hooked, it was as if I had invented binge-watching. Los Angeles seemed like heaven; I wanted to drink tea lattes in the sun and gab about my sexual conquests to my equally poor decision-making friends. (Of course, I could’ve just done that in Chicago had I just made more queer friends.) Basically, my take on the series was rather simple: I like this! Wow, that was a lot of sex! Why did Shane only wear glasses for one season?

I recently decided to rewatch The L Word, a decade after my first viewing concluded, just to soothe a little lingering twinge. Though my initial watch was one filled with feelings of passage riting, innocence, and wondering about Shane’s momentary spell with glasses, my recent watch was certainly one of complexity.

With the announcement of the series reboot just this week, fans were extra pleased to see that three of the core characters would be returning: Shane, Alice, and Bette. Though I truly admire all three actresses that helm these roles, my rewatch has tainted my illusion of these characters who never really seemed to grow.

Let’s start with Alice (played by Leisha Hailey, above). Throughout the first few seasons, she was my favorite character. But as time progressed, her once likable and entertaining traits became her downfall; she seemed incapable of changing them. When she meets Tasha, we assume that this gossip-obsessed pot-stirrer whose livelihood is built on exposing others sexual partners, would eventually mellow out and mature. But even dating the most intelligent, moral, and rational character on the entirety of the show couldn’t keep Alice from outing a closeted athlete or risking the success of Lez Girls by outing Nikki Stevens, just for a job at The Look. And her multiple transphobic remarks towards Max made my skin crawl.

Aside from not understanding Shane’s choice to wear glasses for just the one year, one thing I’ll never fully grasp about Shane (played by Katherine Moennig, above) is simply why she couldn’t change. The charming, sometimes glasses-wearing lothario, had three major relationships throughout the series. All three were with smart, strong-willed women. However Shane somehow can’t seem to kick her “thing”—she’s worried that her “true self” will destroy a relationship eventually, so rather than wait for that, she sabotages relationships when things are seemingly at their best. She leaves Carmen at the altar and breaks up with Paige after they look at an apartment together. But perhaps the saddest break-up to watch was with Molly (not because I liked Molly more because hello Carmen) but because Molly could see right through Shane. After Shane does one of her famous you-go-get-a-drink-at-the-bar-while-I-hit-on-this-person-in-front-of-you moves, Molly doesn’t try to make it work. She doesn’t get angry or upset, but rather, Molly feels bad for Shane because she knows the sad truth about Shane: Shane will always be in the way of Shane’s happiness.

As for Bette (played by Jennifer Beals, above), she had all the makings of a character I’d admire: successful, tough, and great hair. However, my rewatch opened my eyes to something I didn’t fully grasp or have the language for before: Bette was undeniably emotionally abusive to everyone she dated. And it felt familiar.

When I was 20, I had just finally pulled the plug on the on-and-off again emotionally abusive relationship I was in. It’s actually quite fitting that the same summer I watched Tina get back together with Bette on my TV screen in season five (Again, the final season in my opinion), I had gotten back together for the last time with my abusive ex in real life. Like Tina, I too had tried to move on to healthier prospects but inevitably got sucked back into a blackhole of manipulation and bad-for-you sex. There was no wonder I hated Bette. I fucking dated Bette.

As the series progresses, we watch Bette make selfish, calculated, and deeply painful choices that compromise her relationships. However it’s not just merely what she does that makes her abusive, but how she does them. She gaslights her partners, particularly when she’s being unfaithful. She projects. She lacks compassion for her partners and disrespects them. She manipulates to get what she wants and to remain in control. She seems to always have ulterior motives. But despite all of this, ultimately, she never felt the harsh burn of accountability because Tina got back together with her in the end and her friends rarely held in her contempt.

We were meant to believe that Bette and Tina’s storyline was the major love story of the series, both because of the amount of screen time dedicated to the two but also because at the end of the series (ahem, season five finale) the other main characters practically state that verbatim. But were we supposed to believe this “love story” was normal, healthy and something to root for? Or was it supposed to point out that we, as the audience, were all scammed by Bette’s artful charm?

Whether it was intentional or not, my major takeaway from the re-watch was that Alice, Shane, and Bette ultimately remained unchanged.

Growth is an essential part of being human, which is why it was the growth of the side characters that made the show most enjoyable to watch the second time around. In my fantasy reboot, I’d gladly watch an entire series where Tasha, Helena, Max, and Phyllis are the leads.