Cover Story

Drama Queers  by Karen X. Tulchinsky
Drama Queers

Ever since Ellen was cancelled, we have been starving for a TV show featuring a loud, proud, leaping lesbian. While Ellen Morgan the character didn’t survive, Ellen Degeneres has.

“Less evil and more glamour for daytime,” is what she promised of her new television talk show. Dressed in tailored suits, open collar and white runners, Degeneres exudes lesbian on her talk show. But it doesn’t deal with queer issues.

Today hungry LGBT viewers in TV land have a show that features not one but nearly a dozen leaping lesbians. More glamour for nighttime is definitely what The L-Word is serving up. Until The L-Word came along, only the occasional lesbian character drifted into televisionland: Amanda Donohoe as CJ Lamb on LA Law in ’91, Sandra Bernhard as Nancy on Rosanne in ’92, CSI’s Jorja Fox as Dr. Maggie Doyle on ER in 1996, and of course, Ellen Morgan on Ellen.

Many American shows are shot in Vancouver, where production crews are skilled and American producers can stretch their production dollars. It’s an arrangement that provides great opportunities for Canadian crews and actors.

I was on The L-Word set for a few days during production as a background performer—one of the few authentic lesbians in front of the camera for that episode. Though the central characters in The LWord are queer, most of the actors are heterosexual. Exceptions include Laurel Holloman, who plays Tina Kennard and identifies as bisexual. Leisha Hailey (All Over Me), an out lesbian actor, plays the bisexual journalist Alice Pieszecki. Hailey is also an accomplished musician and a member of the LA-based band Gush. Canadian Mia Kirshner (who plays Jenny Schecter) has hinted she is bisexual, according to thelwordonline.com website, which carries oodles of interviews and serves as a fan base for the show. Rumours abound that Katherine Moennig (who plays Shane McCutcheon) is gay, though she refuses to discuss her orientation.

Produced for the American network ShowTime and seen in Canada on Movie Central, The L Word follows a group of LA lesbians, with many of the storylines and elements being particular to lesbian life. The characters are engaging, the scripts are tightly written, the show is slickly produced and it is entertaining and sexy.

Themes in season one see characters trying to conceive, cheat on lovers, advance careers, fall in lust with co-workers, and come out— professionally and personally. One of the central characters, is played by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance). Bette Porter is an ambitious museum director who lives with her partner Tina Kennard, played by Laurel Hollman (Boogie Nights).

The first season followed the couple as they sought out potential sperm donors. Alice, meanwhile, keeps a chart that connects all lesbians for two degrees of separation. She records who is sleeping with whom, living with whom, or otherwise connected. Creator and producer Ilene Chaiken knew when she started that a dramatic series all about dykes was a risky proposition.

In fact, The L Word was in development for four years before it debuted on Showtime last year. Chaiken is a veteran in television and was once employed by Aaron Spelling Productions (The Love Boat, Melrose Place). She knew first-hand that Hollywood was not an easy place for a lesbian to maneuver.

“My partner and I have been together for 20 years, and we always went everywhere together,” Chaiken said in a radio interview. “I never came out as a lesbian, but it just came to be understood.” Being a lesbian affected her career, mostly in obtuse ways.

“There were moments,” she admitted, “when I felt like I was on the outside.”

The only truly homophobic incident she recalls is the time she butted heads with a TV executive who later phoned and threatened to out her. The joke was on him, though—she was already out. Rose Troche, who directed the groundbreaking lesbian flick Go Fish in 1992, is a series producer and writer who directs many episodes of The L Word. Guinevere Turner, the star and co-writer of Go Fish, is also on the writing team.

Despite its queer creators, The L Word has been criticized by the gay press for not representing “real lesbians.” Certainly, there is some validity to this complaint. There is a distinct lack of butches, for example, on the show. The central characters in season one tended to be femmes with long hair and eyeliner, in love and in lust with each other—a dynamic that does not reflect the reality of most lesbian communities. Their cars are sleeker and their apartments are larger than they would be in real life. Most of the central characters are gorgeous and thin, have expensive haircuts and wear designer clothes. But hey, this is television.

If people wanted to watch real life they wouldn’t be turning on their set. Happily, the cast also includes normal-sized Pam Greer (Jackie Brown), who plays Kit, a singer and Bette’s troubled sister, as well as former Winnipegger Meredith McGeachie, an averagesized actor, who plays Tonya, a cat-hating publicist. In season two, some changes come about, no doubt due to fans’ protests.

“We’re very proud of the work we did this year,” says Toronto-born actor Mia Kirshner, who plays a central role as Jenny. Her character is described as a gifted young writer who moves to LA to be close to her boyfriend, but subsequently falls in love with Marina Ferrar, the café-owner in season one played by Karina Lombard (Legends of the Fall).

“With the strange moral climate that’s going on right now, the show is the most daring thing out there,” according to Kirshner, who got her start in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica. Kirshner’s lengthy list of film credits includes Love and Human Remains, The Grass Harp, Mad City, The Crow: City of Angels, Saturn, Spencer, Dark Summer, Anna Karenina and Murder in the First.

Like many Canadian actors, she has relocated to LA. “I try to work on projects with Canadian content,” she says, “but for actors in Canada it’s hard to make a living.” While Kirshner built a career playing gay and bisexual characters, it was the first time playing a queer character for fellow Canuck Lauren Lee Smith, who divides her time between Vancouver and LA and performs the recurring role of Lara Perkins, the adorable soup chef.

As for the sex scenes with tennis pro Dana Fairbanks, played by Erin Daniels (One Hour Photo), Smith says, “I just treated it like it was any relationship. What difference is there, really? You fall in love with someone; there are those early butterflies in the stomach. I don’t see it as any different than male-female relationships. It’s about love.”

Vancouver-based film director Lynn Stopkewich (Kissed, Suspicious River), who has directed The L Word episodes, concurs. “Just because I’m straight doesn’t mean I haven’t had any gay experiences,” she says. “Sex is an emotional experience. It’s about feeling emotional connectedness and conveying that to the actors for a performance to feel authentic.”

On the mostly female set, Stopkewich says she could feel “a different atmosphere from the usually militaristic film sets. There were women in very visible positions of authority. It really set the actors at ease.” Directing The L Word was Stopkewich’s “first kick at the American can,” and for her it was a positive experience.