Lesbian love affairs take new turn

A cable series about the lives and loves of sexy women in a major city — how could it not succeed? Showtime brass clearly thought the same, picking up “The L Word” two weeks after its January debut, the fastest renewal in the cabler’s history.

Although “L Word” might share a logline with a recently retired show on another pay network, that’s where the similarity ends. An aggressive marketing push and publicity campaign engaging in its own compare and contrast (“Same sex. Different city.”) boosted the profile of the lesbian-centric show.

“I thought it was a good show but didn’t know it would touch such a large swath of people in such a way,” says exec producer-creator Ilene Chaiken.

Season one set up the interwoven lives of its eight core characters, including a closeted athlete, a couple trying to conceive and an aspiring writer discovering her own sexuality.

Says Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt: “There seemed to be an immediate and insatiable curiosity about these characters, and not just the lesbian angle.”

“What we see is a perspective of people who accept one another regardless of their sexuality,” concurs cast member Pam Grier.

Untraditional relationships that might have once been exploited for shock value on daytime TV are unflinchingly introduced here. At season’s end, Grier’s seemingly straight character had befriended a drag king, played by Kelly Lynch. Beyond sexuality, “The L Word” has touched upon how race has affected African-American characters played by Grier and Jennifer Beals.

“We’re allowed to give our life experiences, and that helps our search to get to where Ilene wants us to be,” says Grier.

The series also has employed a few structural tricks, such as depicting the internal literary imagination of writer Jenny, and opening each episode with a teaser scene that factors later into the storyline. (Skein’s scribes prefer to call them “random acts of sex.”) Chaiken plans to bring both devices back next season, and have them resonate in larger ways.

“There are virtually no shows on television comprised of an ensemble of women, and this show fills that void,” says Greenblatt, who cites the skein’s busy Web site as a sign of the show’s success. “Furthermore, the fact that this year became the year of gay programming only helped ensure that it could leap from the television landscape and into the Zeitgeist.”

Whether that focus on women — gay women at that — has helped the series cross genders is something that Chaiken has pondered. “We’ve been talking about that from the beginning,” she says. “Conventionally, straight men watch lesbian sex, and there’s that leering element, but we don’t pander to it. But it’s a sexy show and if that turns them on, I don’t object to it.”

Best episode: “It’s like preferring one of my children over the other. I love them all dearly and they’re all different,” explains Chaiken.

Most complex character: “Jenny. Even if she does come to some kind of understanding of who she is as a sexual being, she’s just a tormented character. She’ll probably spend her life making people crazy because they want to grab a hold of her and she eludes their grasp.”

What should happen next season: Some new characters will be introduced. One or two from the first season will become less important, only in the way life ebbs and flows and people come and go.

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