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‘The L Word’ Creator Ilene Chaiken on Importance of ‘Thoughtful’ and ‘Sensitive’ Collaboration

Ilene Chaiken
Courtesy of Ilene Chaiken

The theme of this year’s MipTV conference is pushing boundaries, something that keynote speaker and television executive producer Ilene Chaiken has been known for throughout her career, working toward inclusion both before and behind the camera.

Chaiken is the creator of “The L Word,” the groundbreaking drama that followed the lives of lesbian women living in California that ran on Showtime from 2004-’09. But she also executive produced and served as showrunner on the first four seasons of “Empire,” Lee Daniels’ musical family drama about an affluent African-American family in the music business, and served as executive producer on ABC’s “Black Box,” about a neuroscientist living with bipolar disorder, as well as Hulu’s dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” centering on a regime where women have no rights.

“I have themes that mean a great deal to me, that start with ‘The L Word,’ and those themes need to be present for me in every story I tell,” Chaiken says. “I believe it’s just not worth doing unless we’re really making an impact — changing the conversation, moving the culture forward in some way.”

Chaiken recalls that when she was pitching “The L Word” it was rejected by a number of “mid-level executives” who “shared my values, but who worked for men and didn’t think in a million years that they’d ever consider this — so much so that they didn’t even take it to them.” At the time, she admits she didn’t fight that decision because while she “never stopped wanting to write these stories,” she also assumed it “was just not in the realm of possibility.”

But after “Queer as Folk” was a hit (first in the U.K. in 1999 and then at Showtime a year later), things changed. “The time was right in that people were just starting to consider that we could tell gay stories, but also Showtime was looking to make its mark and had a mission to tell stories that weren’t being told elsewhere,” Chaiken says, noting the network came to her and said, “Let’s try your version.”

“I think those changes are inevitable, and I actually really do believe in that [saying] ‘the arc of history bends towards progress,” she adds.

The premium cabler has now ordered a continuation series for “The L Word” with Chaiken attached as executive producer. But the television landscape it re-enters is very different from the one that it left a decade ago.

The advent of streaming services aided in the scripted television business ballooning up to almost 500 originals in 2018. In its “Where We Are on TV” representation report released in the fourth quarter of last year, GLAAD found the number of LGBTQ characters to have reached an “all-time high,” at only 8.8%.

“There is still a clamoring to be seen and to be portrayed. We still have to constantly battle to tell our stories,” Chaiken says, but “we know that there are so many more places and means of disseminating our stories now.” If one platform still seems stuck in the past or is unresponsive to a story, she advises writers and producers to just “go elsewhere.”

“The world has changed, and the world of television has changed along with it. There was a time when I could justify a decision by saying, ‘It’s just creatively the best decision. There’s artifice in filmmaking, and the artifice is all fine if the product is telling my story in the best possible way.’”

But today, she points out, such decisions are viewed through a different lens. “Some of the things may not be mistakes in the moment you made them but may be mistakes in retrospect, and will be interpreted differently in another time,” she says. The key is to not give into fear but instead push forward “more boldly” to ensure you are saying what is “true to you.”

Chaiken also acknowledges that a major way the business has changed is in the conversation around “who gets portrayed and who is allowed to portray.” There was a time, she says, when the company line would often be, “There just aren’t those actors,” and shows would have to cast only cisgender, straight actors in queer roles.

“But those actors are there,” she says. “We have to make them and seek them out and help people to become them. … We still need more access for all of us to tell our stories, and we still have a huge, long road ahead of us to get anywhere near parity [but] I think that what it takes is collaboration that’s just incredibly thoughtful and intuitive and sensitive and progressive.”