The show was created by executive producer Ilene Chaiken (Barb Wire, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). Other executive producers include Steve Golin (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Larry Kennar (Barbershop). Besides Chaiken, writers of the show have included Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, American Psycho), Susan Miller (Anyone But Me, Thirtysomething), Cherien Dabis (Amreeka), and Rose Troche (Go Fish, Six Feet Under).
The pilot episode premiered on January 18, 2004. The original six-year run ended with the series finale's airing on March 8, 2009. Outside the United States, the series is distributed by MGM Worldwide Television. The L Word was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, at Coast Mountain Films Studio, as well as on location in Los Angeles, California. The studio was once owned by and named for Dufferin Gate Productions, the sister company to Temple Street Productions, the Canadian producer of the U.S. version of Queer as Folk.
The main characters throughout the series, and the seasons in which they appeared and left:
The original code-name for the project was Earthlings, a rarely used slang term for lesbians.
Contemporary use of the phrase "the L word" as an alias for lesbian dates to at least the 1981 play My Blue Heaven by Jane Chambers, in which a character stammers out: "You're really...? The L-word? Lord God, I never met one before."
Historical use of "the L word" as code language can also be found in the sentence of a letter written by Daphne du Maurier to Ellen Doubleday: "By God and by Christ, if anyone should call that love by that unattractive word that begins with 'L', I'd tear their guts out."
Season 1 premiered in the United States on January 18, 2004, on Showtime and featured 13 episodes presenting several entwined story lines. Set in West Hollywood, the series first introduces Bette Porter and Tina Kennard, a couple with a seven-year relationship who want to have a child. Tina eventually becomes pregnant through artificial insemination but has a miscarriage during episode 1.09: Luck, next time. Later in the series, Bette develops an affair with Candace Jewell.
The pilot introduced a coming out/love triangle storyline involving Tina and Bette’s neighbor, Tim Haspel, his new-in-town girlfriend, Jenny Schecter, and Marina Ferrer. Marina is part of Tina and Bette’s circle of friends, and owns the neighborhood café, The Planet, which serves as the group's hang-out and focal point for the show. The season also introduces Shane McCutcheon, an androgynous, highly-sexual hairstylist and serial heart-breaker; Alice Pieszecki, a girly, bisexual journalist looking for love in any way she can, and Dana Fairbanks, a professional tennis player who is still in the closet and torn between pursuing her career and finding love. In the first season, Dana falls for a sous chef named Lara Perkins whose sexuality is questioned by the group until Lara has an unexpected meeting with Dana in the locker room. At the end of the season, Tina sees Bette and Candace touching hands and speaking intimately and immediately guesses about their affair. Tina and Bette break up, with Tina living at Alice's and Bette stays in their home.
Season 2 began airing on Showtime on February 20, 2005 and featured thirteen episodes. It starts by unveiling to the viewers a secret Tina is keeping from everyone: she successfully became impregnated after a second insemination. Tina and Bette are still apart. Bette doesn't deny the affair and begs Tina for forgiveness but later alienates herself from the group and continues the affair for a short while until realizing that it's Tina she wants to spend her life with not Candace and so ends their short affair. Tina begins seeing Helena, while Bette’s life is portrayed as a wreck, with alcohol abuse, problems with her job, the death of her father in episode 2.12:L'Chaim, and being fired during the season finale. Tina and Bette reconcile during the final episode. The character of Marina was written out of the show, and the Planet was bought by Kit Porter.
Introduced in the second season are Carmen de la Pica Morales, a confident DJ who becomes part of a love triangle with Shane and Jenny; Helena Peabody, the daughter of a wealthy supporter of the arts who later becomes Tina's love interest; and Mark Wayland, a documentary filmmaker who moves in with Shane and Jenny. Mark makes them part of his latest documentary by setting up hidden cameras in the house to videotape them. During episode 2.09: Late, Later, Latent, Jenny discovers Mark’s tapes and also discovers the truth about Carmen’s true love.
Season 2 introduces a developing affair between Alice and Dana, which becomes public in episode 2.07: Luminous. It also presents insights into Jenny’s past as an abused child in episode 2.11: Loud and Proud, and reveals episodes of self-harm that reach their climax in the season finale.
The television show set up contest at the website FanLib.com where fans could submit a femme slash fanfic. The winner's story was incorporated into a scene of a third-season episode.
Season 3 first aired on January 8, 2006, with 12 episodes. It begins six months after the birth of Tina and Bette's daughter, Angelica. New characters in this season include Moira Sweeney (a working class butch portrayed by Daniela Sea who is Jenny’s girlfriend for most of the season) and Angus Partridge (portrayed by Dallas Roberts), Angelica’s male nanny who later becomes Kit's lover. Sweeney starts the process of transitioning switching his name to Max. Erin Daniels' character Dana Fairbanks starts in a multi-episode storyline dealing with a breast cancer battle and culminating with her death.
Notable of this season is that each episode begins with a short pre-credits vignette of two individuals meeting romantically or sexually. As the season progresses, lines from Alice's chart (see below) connect one member of each vignette with a new individual in the next.
Helena's character storyline was switched from being Bette's rival into a new member of the circle of friends. Her story arc for the season involves the acquisition of a movie studio in which Tina later works, and which further derives a sexual harassment lawsuit that triggers her mother to cut her off financially in the season finale. Sarah Shahi's character, Carmen, ends her appearance in the show in the finale when Shane leaves her at the altar.
Showtime announced renewal of the series, in a February 2, 2006, press release:
On the heels of a year highlighted by industry recognition and critical acclaim for its award-winning original programming including Weeds, Huff and Sleeper Cell, Showtime has ordered a fourth season of its hit drama series The L Word.
The season premiere of the fourth season, Legend in the Making, first aired on January 7, 2007. The filming of the season's twelve episodes began in Vancouver, on May 29, 2006.
New cast members for the show's fourth season included Academy-Award winner Marlee Matlin, three time Golden Globe winner Cybill Shepherd, Kristanna Loken, Rose Rollins, Jessica Capshaw and Janina Gavankar. Karina Lombard reprised her role as Marina Ferrer for two episodes. Film and television star Annabella Sciorra guest-starred in several episodes as lesbian film director Kate Arden, chosen to direct the film version of Jenny's story Lez Girls.
Showtime picked up a fifth season of The L Word for 12 episodes, touting the show as "a signature franchise among our viewers". Production began in Vancouver the summer of 2007 and ended in Los Angeles early November 2007. The fifth season premiered on January 6, 2008, with episode LGB Tease.
Eva "Papi" Torres (Janina Gavankar), and Dallas Roberts' male token character Angus Patridge were both written out. Clementine Ford, reprised her role as Phyllis Kroll's daughter and began a relationship with Shane McCutcheon. Malaya Drew and Kate French were cast as guest characters for this season. Drew played Adele, a young fan of Jenny's work who gets hired as her personal assistant. French played Niki Stevens, an ambitious young actress and closeted lesbian who won the lead role of Jenny's character, Jesse, in the feature film production of 'Lez Girls'. She also began having a relationship with Jenny, who was directing the film. Elizabeth Keener joined the show as entrepreneur Dawn Denbo, who started a rival lesbian bar with her lover Cindi.
Showtime confirmed a sixth and final season for The L Word. Unlike the show's previous seasons, it only lasted 8 episodes to conclude the show with 71 episodes in total. Studio executives commented on the longevity of the show, with the Showtime president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt saying that The L Word has "surpassed its niche as a gay show". The sixth season premiered on January 18, 2009 and ended its original run on March 8 of the same year. Producers and writers of The L Word took viewers' opinions regarding the final season’s episodes. The main story of the season is related to the death of Jennifer Schecter and the rest of the season is a flashback from that point.
Before airing the show, Creator Ilene Chaiken denied reports of socialite Paris Hilton guest starring on an interview on gaydarnation.com. Ilene Chaiken said in an interview with the New York Post Magazine that she had offered DJ Samantha Ronson a guest spot in Season 6 but Ronson declined as she was busy. In July 2008, it was confirmed that Elizabeth Berkley would star as Kelly Wentworth (née Freemont) in a multi-episode arc of the final season. Mei Melançon also made guest appearances for the last season as Jamie Chen, a counselor from the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Youth Center who befriends Alice and Tasha and becomes their third-wheel crush.
Shortly after airing the final episode, Showtime began releasing short videos in which characters revealed secrets that weren't revealed during the course of the show. Each video showed the interrogation of one character with a new video being released each Monday after the final episode via the Showtime website. At some point in time Showtime's website ceased carrying the videos, but they can be found on YouTube. All episodes feature Lucy Lawless as Sgt. Marybeth Duffy and Sean Tyson as Det. Sean Holden who are investigating the death of Jenny Schecter.
Following the seven interrogation tapes (featuring Bette, Tina, Alice, Max, Helena, Niki & Shane), the same URL offered an interview with series creator Ilene Chaiken in two weekly installments. Chaiken discussed several aspects of the show's history and plotlines, but would only consent to reiterating that Alice went to jail for Jenny's murder while not necessarily being guilty of the crime. Ilene Chaiken and the cast have commented on different theories about Jenny's death.
Series creator Ilene Chaiken wrote and produced a 20-minute presentation for a possible spin-off centering on another lesbian group in a women's prison where Leisha Hailey's character Alice Pieszecki is detained. The Farm started shooting in December 2008, while the sixth and final season of The L Word premiered in January 2009. Famke Janssen, Melissa Leo and Laurie Metcalf were part of the cast.
Showtime's CEO Matthew Blank announced plans for the new show at the Television Critics Association press tour in July 2008. It was announced in April that Showtime declined to pick up The Farm as a series, which may leave the open-ended element of the series finale as permanently unresolved.
Chaiken has expressed interest in producing a film based on the series in an interview aired through The L Word's website, although according to her declarations, it probably would not emphasize any of the unresolved plot lines of the show and would simply continue the story of the characters' friendships. No official proposals or green-lighting related to an L Word film have been publicized.
Chaiken continued The L Word franchise with the Showtime series The Real L Word, debuting June 20, 2010. The reality series followed the lives of six lesbians in Los Angeles. In an interview for the new series, Chaiken revealed Alice did not kill Jenny in the original series.
As of March 2008, The L Word has released five compilation CDs with the show's soundtrack. The music composer of the show is EZgirl. The music supervisor is Natasha Duprey.
All three of Leisha Hailey's bands have been referenced in the series. A song by The Murmurs, Hailey's first band, was used in a first-season episode and included on that season's soundtrack. During the second season, the character Shane is sometimes seen wearing a T-shirt for Gush, Hailey's second band. Songs of Hailey's most recent band, Uh Huh Her, were featured during the show's fifth and sixth seasons; the character Tasha Williams is seen wearing an Uh Huh Her T-shirt during the sixth season.
"The Chart" is a graph of the affairs that occur among Alice's friends and acquaintances; it is an undirected labeled graph in which nodes are labeled with people's names and the lines represent affairs or hookups. Originally, The L Word was to be based around a lesbian Kit Porter, and "The Chart" was tattooed on her back. When Kit Porter was changed into a straight character, The Chart was given to Alice instead.
The Chart is a recurrent element in the show's storylines, especially those related to its creator within the series. During Season 3, it also serves as a marginal storyline that advances through each episode and concludes in the season finale – as well as a way to track the characters and get to know how they interact within the lesbian community.
The Concept of The Chart was further exploited in Season Four. Within the series, The Chart evolves into an internet social network hosting profiles and provides the introduction for the character of Papi in Episode 4.01:Legend in the Making. At the same time, a real-world parallel project OurChart.com was launched. The website, which allowed registered members to create their own profiles and also hosted several blogs on the show, was fully operational until the launch of the Sixth Season, after which Ilene Chaiken announced through an online statement that OurChart.com had merged with Showtime's website.
The show's first season was "broadcast to critical acclaim and instant popularity"; as an article from The New York Times pointed out:
Before "The L Word," lesbian characters barely existed in television. Interested viewers had to search and second-guess, playing parlor games to suss out a character's sexuality. Cagney and Lacey? Jo on "Facts of Life"? Xena and Gabrielle? Showtime's decision in January 2004 to air The L Word
, which follows the lives of a group of fashionable Los Angeles lesbians, was akin to ending a drought with a monsoon. Women who had rarely seen themselves on the small screen were suddenly able to watch lesbian characters not only living complex, exciting lives, but also making love in restaurant bathrooms and in swimming pools. There was no tentative audience courtship. Instead there was sex, raw and unbridled in that my-goodness way that only cable allows.
Co-creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken had some issues with the reaction:
I do want to move people on some deep level. But I won't take on the mantle of social responsibility. That's not compatible with entertainment. I rail against the idea that pop television is a political medium. I am political in my life. But I am making serialized melodrama. I'm not a cultural missionary.
While the show is seen as fulfilling lesbians' "obvious and modest representational need" or even the "ferocious desire not only to be seen in some literal sense... but to be seen with all the blood and angst and magic that you possess", the show has been criticized for various scenes which serve to "reify heteronormativity". The show has also been praised for its nuanced consideration (in the first season) of how and in what ways lesbians should stand up to the religious right, with the "Provocations" art show storyline being "a fictionalized version of what happened when Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center booked a controversial exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs in 1990".
Unlike its network predecessor Queer as Folk, praised critically for its ground-breaking material that was both well-written and well-acted, there have been complaints from critics regarding The L Word's watered-down, unrealistically glamorous characters and melodrama. Some reviewers (and fans) are put off by the theme song (introduced in the second season) and the "graceless, clunky dialogue".
Several shows have referenced The L Word, including South of Nowhere's first season episode "Girls Guide to Dating"; According to Jim; the medical drama House; the first season finale of Weeds, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (July 24, 2006); Chappelle's Show: The "Lost Episodes"; The Sopranos episode Live Free or Die; the US version of The Office; Gilmore Girls fourth season episode Scene in a Mall; G4's Attack of the Show skit Lesbionic Women; The Big Gay Sketch Show; The Simpsons episode You Kent Always Say What You Want; and Family Guy episode Brian Sings and Swings. Also, movies such as Puccini for Beginners, I Can't Think Straight, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World have made mention of The L Word as to reference lesbians.
By the time the sixth and final season began, The New York Times was calling the show a "Sapphic Playboy fantasia" that has "shown little interest in variegating portrayals of gay experience. Instead it has seemed to work almost single-mindedly to counter the notion of "lesbian bed death" and repeatedly remind the viewer of the "limits and tortures of monogamy" while "never align[ing] itself with the traditionalist ambitions [for same-sex marriage] of a large faction of the gay rights movement".
In 2006, Laurel Holloman won a Satellite Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama for her portrayal of Tina Kennard; the International Press Academy also nominated the show for a Satellite Award for Best Television Series – Drama. In the second season, Ossie Davis received a posthumous Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a drama series in recognition of his portrayal of the father of Bette and Kit Porter. The show received multiple nominations for GLAAD Media Awards and both Pam Grier and Jennifer Beals were repeatedly nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
In 2008 The L Word's companion website was honored at the 59th Annual Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Advanced Media Technology for Best Use of Commercial Advertising on Personal Computers.