Showtime’s riding high on Ilene Chaiken. Her frosh series, “The L Word,” premieres this month and is being marketed as the dramatic successor to HBO’s soon-to-depart femme-powered comedy skein “Sex in the City.”
“Same sex. Different City” blare the billboards, each featuring a black-and-white shot of the sultry ensemble. “The L Word” boasts being equally, if not more risque, in its depiction of sexuality.
The show is providing some much-needed currency for the network, debuting at the height of the gay Hollywood explosion led by the Fab Five and the comeback of Ellen DeGeneres. “The L Word” ladies were even included in a recent lavish Vanity Fair spread alongside the stars of “Queer as Folk,” “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Chaiken recalls that when former entertainment prexy Jerry Offsay gave the show a go-ahead, he predicted she’d be unable to cast stars. But when the pilot was shot in summer of 2002, Chaiken came armed with a seasoned team of thesps including Mia Kirshner, Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier.
Serious issues including adoption for gay parents are on board, but Chaiken promises the series isn’t unrelenting drama. Treating each episode like an independent film, Chaiken described one show which sends the gaggle of girls on a “Mission: Impossible” jaunt to a club to figure out the orientation of a particular female.
“This stuff, these issues, they’re all in the zeitgeist. I think the gay Hollywood thing is a little bit of coincidence and a little bit cultural momentum, but I also think it was inevitable,” she said. “The entertainment business is always looking for new stories to tell, and it just naturally follows that we would finally start telling ours. We’re not going to run out any time soon.”
The idea to do a lesbian drama occurred to her after she wrote a story on the gay and lesbian baby boom four years ago for Los Angeles Magazine. She and her partner, adoptive parents of two 8-year-olds, found they knew plenty of gay women who were getting pregnant, adopting, or thinking about starting families.
“The idea just seemed really to be in the air,” Chaiken said. “And after I wrote the article, I realized I was very much writing about my life and community and that there were more stories, not just about families, but about a world that a lot of people didn’t know about in its specific details. I figured the best way to tell these stories was to do an ensemble television show.”
Chaiken, a writer of Showtime original movies including James Woods-led “Dirty Pictures,” decided to pitch it. The show: an hour about the lives and loves of both gay and straight women living in Los Angeles.
A year later, entertainment prexy Jerry Offsay gave it the greenlight.
“We were at the Golden Globes, and before I actually won for ‘Dirty Pictures,’ Jerry came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I think we’re going to do that lesbian show of yours.’ “