LOS ANGELES -- Before "Queer as Folk," before "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Ilene Chaiken envisioned a drama about lesbian friends and lovers.
Chaiken's "The L Word" is finally coming to television. But why, after all the attention to homosexual men, did it take so long for women to come out of the TV closet?
"That is a big question," she said. "All I can say is it always takes the girls longer to get there. ... The boys come out, they have a party, and then we get ours."
Over the years, there have been a few same-sex female kisses on television, a lesbian relationship on "Friends," and of course the lead character on "Ellen" acknowledged her homosexuality before "Will & Grace" arrived.
Still, "The L Word" is breaking new ground as a drama focused on the lives of lesbians.
It begins a 13-episode run 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, also home to "Queer as Folk," which returns for its fourth season April 18.
The similarity between the two series begins and ends with sexual orientation and equally attractive casts. "Queer as Folk" made its name as a campy, bawdy romp with political affectations mixed in. "The L Word," although unabashedly sexy, is a finely wrought drama tinged with humor.
Jennifer Beals ("Runaway Jury," "Flashdance") is featured as Bette, the ambitious director of a modest museum, who's committed to Tina (Laurel Holloman). Tina has surrendered her Hollywood job to start a family despite signs of a rocky relationship.
Others in the ensemble cast are Mia Kirshner as a Midwesterner who comes to Los Angeles to live with her boyfriend, a hunky swim coach played by Eric Mabius, and finds a new, unsettling world.
Karina Lombard plays the alluring Marina, owner of a cafe hangout for the circle that includes Dana (Erin Daniels), a tennis pro playing it straight in public; Shane (Katherine Moennig), channeling Mick Jagger with her raggedly sexy look; and Alice (Leisha Hailey), a bisexual magazine writer with a knack for top 10 lists.
Pam Grier ("Jackie Brown") plays Kit, Bette's half-sister and a musician who's fighting alcoholism. Ossie Davis plays their conservative father in a triangle that makes an ethnic family a key part of "The L Word."
Viewers looking for the stereotypical lesbian will be disappointed: There's not an unfashionably dressed, bulky or macho woman in "The L Word" bunch.
"I don't mean to disparage anyone," writer-executive producer Chaiken said. "But I think there's one image of lesbians that's been put out to the world at large, and it's nice to be able to get a chance to take it on."
The characters are based on Chaiken's friends "and the life I see around me in L.A."
If the concept of hot women looking for love and happiness in the big city brings to mind a certain cable hit, "Sex and the City," Showtime is glad to encourage that thinking. Its promotions for "The L Word" include the line, "Same Sex, Different City."
Beals, who shines as the driven and vulnerable Bette, welcomes the comparison to HBO's soon-to-conclude comedy about four close female friends looking for (straight) love in New York.
"When trying to describe the show early on I said, 'Imagine if some of the women in 'Sex and the City' had slept with each other, how much more interesting that would be,"' Beals recounted.
She was the first one cast and set the tone for her co-stars with her commitment to the role, Chaiken said.
Showtime had warned of likely resistance from actresses reluctant to play a lesbian character, a wariness that had slowed the casting process for the homosexual roles in "Queer As Folk."
Chaiken was confident the channel had it wrong when it came to "The L Word" - and she was right.
"First of all, the climate's changed a little bit. But more importantly, women are different, they're courageous. Also, actresses are hungry for substantive roles and characters."
Chaiken, who calls sexuality "so intriguing (and) fundamental to who we are," said that as a lesbian she's been starved for images of women embracing their own sexuality and each other.
She recognizes that one reason some viewers, including men, may tune in is to take a peek at pretty women together in the bedroom. She is sanguine about the possibility.
"It doesn't bother me. I certainly don't rail against it or strive to do anything that will keep those men away. If men come for that reason, I welcome them. I hope they stay for other reasons," she said. "I hope they become engaged by the stories and the characters and feel that we're telling stories in a way that's fresh enough and new enough to make them want to keep watching."
Audiences have become more receptive to gay characters, Chaiken said, but acknowledged the highly charged national debate about homosexuality and, especially, same-sex marriage. She believes "The L Word" may end up being a part of "the evolution of cultural attitudes."
"I hope that as the show becomes a part of the zeitgeist it plays a small role in shifting attitudes in the inevitable direction. There's going to be a time when we look back on this moment, when gay people can't get married, and say, 'I can't believe that was ever the case."'
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