“There’s been a lot written about the ‘sins of the past,’" says Marja-Lewis Ryan.
As the showrunner of Showtime’s highly anticipated The L Word revival, The L Word: Generation Q, Ryan, 34, has shouldered a beast of a legacy. The original L Word, a soapy delight stocked with self-sabotaging lesbians and brimming with steamy sex scenes, ran for six seasons from 2004 to 2009; in that time, it broke ground with its portrayals of lesbians, bisexual women, and queer women, securing creator Ilene Chaiken and the series’ cast a permanent spot in the LGBTQ+ canon.
But no show can please everyone, and Chaiken’s L Word wasn't an exception. For all of the visibility it offered queer women, it also angered many viewers—particularly trans men and gender nonconforming people, who took issue with how the series handled Max, its sole transgender character. Played by cisgender actress Daniela Sea (a decision many would consider the show’s first big strike), Max at times seemed like a caricature of trans masculinity. He ultimately ended up pregnant and was ostracized from his friend group while transitioning.
But Max also blazed a trail for nuanced, acclaimed portrayals of transness to come. He was the first trans man series regular in the history of primetime television, a fact that is often eclipsed by the mishandling of his character.
Marja-Lewis Ryan, showrunner of The L Word: Generation Q.
Fast-forward to 2019. Trans men are all over television, and Ryan, whom Chaiken personally selected to develop a pitch for The L Word: Generation Q, was tasked with developing a more complex, authentic portrayal of trans people in queer women’s social circles. While she is bubbly and effusive while describing the undertaking, Ryan knew she'd been given a major responsibility and says she was grateful that she and her team got to "right those wrongs."
"I got to write a new kind of queer narrative that was more inclusive and that honestly just more closely reflected my own experience as a queer person in a very queer world," she says.
Her first move? Staffing her show with care. “I paid a lot of attention to who I was hiring,” Ryan says. “I find that when you're not writing your own experience, it's really helpful to have people who are. Across the board in all departments, I was very much on the lookout for trans and nonbinary talent that could be in our writing department, as well as be the stars of the show.”
That talent included Thomas Page McBee, a trans author and journalist who has written at length about his experience navigating the nuances of masculinity. (The original L Word had no trans men in the writer's room, which may not come as a surprise given Max’s messy storyline.) Ryan also wrote two trans men into Generation Q’s cohort: Micah, a sensitive and kind-natured sociology professor, and Pierce, the sharp mind spearheading Bette Porter’s (Jennifer Beals) mayoral race. Both are trans men of color played by trans men of color: Leo Sheng, who plays Micah, is Chinese American, and Brian Michael Smith, who plays Pierce, is black.
“There are lots of television shows that have one trans character or one nonbinary character,” Ryan says. She shares a conversation she regularly has with her friend Tracy Oliver, a black screenwriter whose credits include Girls Trip and BET+'s First Wives Club: “She’s straight, and she’ll [ask me], ‘How do I write gay people?!’ And I'm like, ‘How do I write black people?!’ I'm like, ‘I don't know. How do we tell stories that aren't our own?’ And one conclusion that we sort of came to is that it's always a mistake to have one [character]. Tokenism, the weight of telling stories that represent your entire community, is very, very challenging.”
Leo Sheng as Micah in The L Word: Generation Q.
Sheng, 23, says he has yet to work on a set like Gen Q, where most of the cast and crew are women, gender nonconforming, or trans. And while Sheng never got to interact with McBee face-to-face, the two did speak on the phone. "I'm trans," he tells me. "I'm also Asian. So there were things that we kind of brought together to help form Micah's interactions and his storyline."
What drew Sheng to Micah was the character's complexity. Unlike Max from the original L Word, Micah is already out as a trans man when viewers meet him. This was purposeful, Ryan says. From the very beginning, she was opposed to writing any coming-out storylines. She remembers telling network execs, "I don't care how real they are. I don't care how much you beg me. I'm just not telling them anymore."
While Micah's transness is a point of discussion, it surfaces mainly as it relates to the complications in his budding romance with José (Freddy Miyares), a cisgender gay man. "There's so much room for vulnerability in Micah not being good at it, but also learning to accept it," Sheng says. "I think that's a really great way to also talk about masculinity. Those storylines of trans men becoming hyper-masculine and kind of adopting toxic masculinity don't always have to happen."
Brian Michael Smith as Pierce.
Sheng adds that playing a queer trans man was very appealing. Trans people on TV and in films have often been hyper-sexualized (think the OG L Word's Max or Ian Harvie's Dale in Transparent) or de-sexualized (Hilary Swank's Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry). For him, getting to play Micah—a trans man who's navigating the highs and lows of his first serious adult relationship—was a delight.
Sheng particularly enjoyed one of Micah and José's first scenes together in the pool outside their apartments. José gently tries to ask about Micah's transition, and when Micah declines to talk about his past, José isn't deterred, reassuring his date that he respects his boundaries and is very much attracted to him. (Small spoiler, but the pair wind up hooking up in said pool, and Micah's direct communication about what he wants is almost as hot as the sex scene itself.) Says Sheng, "Their scenes are showing that trans folks can feel or be sexy, be seen as sexy, and also have a really great connection with people."
Smith's Pierce plays a smaller role, and given his position as Bette's campaign lead, he and Micah never interact directly. Like Micah, though, Pierce's storyline isn't about coming out or being trans; instead, he continuously butts heads with Dani (Arienne Mandi), who in Episode 2 abandons a high-paying corporate gig under her father's company to do PR for Bette's campaign. That tension comes to a head in Pierce's dramatic monologue in Episode 6, which Ryan cites as a standout moment that has nothing to do with Pierce's transness: "I love when Pierce called out Dani for having a crush on Bette—when he's like, 'This is more than this for you.' And then he puts on his sunglasses and says he has to change the world himself. All of that feels very heroic to me in a soapy, fun way. I love that stuff."
Sheng and Smith are joined by Jamie Clayton (Sense8) and Sophie Giannamore (Transparent), two trans actresses who play cis queer women. Ryan has received criticism for that choice, but it's one she stands by, noting that Clayton in particular was attracted to the role of Tess—a jaded, no-bullshit bartender and recovering alcoholic—because the character wasn't written as trans. "We saw trans actors for every role. We saw everybody, and [Jamie] was really drawn to that. She was like, 'I am a woman. I could play a lesbian.'"
What was most important, says Ryan, was listening to her cast and crew and honoring their wishes. Clayton's perspective on playing a cis role as a trans actress is just one perspective; other trans women may disagree, which Ryan also understands. It's one of the things that's "so hard about television," Ryan explains. Try as she may, there's no way Ryan, her writers, and her cast could possibly represent every point of view in the queer community—but she says they're trying to strike as many chords as they can.
Ryan and her team seem to be doing something right: Showtime recently announced that a second season of The L Word: Generation Q is in the works, with 10 new hourlong episodes for her and her writers to map out. The opportunity is not one she takes for granted. "I'm trying so desperately to have this beautiful rainbow," Ryan says. "I have yet to hit all the representation I want to hit. We have nonbinary supporting cast members, but we don't have a main character who identifies that way, and that feels really important, which is why I'm really grateful for a second season."
The sheer volume of representation she gets to include is one of her favorite parts of working on Gen Q, Ryan says. After all, this is The L Word. It's assumed everyone is queer, so Ryan and her team can get on with it and tackle everything else—parenting, addiction, cheating, racism, and classism—like any other modern TV series.
As for her fundamental goal for Gen Q? "I think it's finding that balance of really sincere human experiences, and then also making people scream at the screen," Ryan says. "Those are the two things I'm aiming for."
The Season 1 finale of The L Word: Generation Q airs January 26 at 10pm ET.