fourth season of The L Word is out now on DVD in the UK, so Joanne
Oatts caught up with the show's writer Ilene Chaiken to talk about the
glamorous US lesbian drama.
So what have you
been up to today?
I’ve been writing since about 5.30am and it’s now about 8.15am.
You’re an early
riser for the writing, then?
I’m an early riser; I write early in the morning. Having children
What are you
actually working on at the moment?
I’m trying to deliver today the first draft of the first episode
for our sixth season of The L Word.
How very exciting!
Let’s go back a bit and talk about when you first started working on The
L Word and when you first pitched it to the US networks – what was the
general response? Do you remember?
Firstly, I only ever pitched it to Showtime. I never went around
trying to sell this show. I had been working with Showtime and I had an idea
that I wanted to do a television series about lesbians in Los Angeles - a
prime time ensemble drama. I knew that I wasn’t going to sell it to
mainstream broadcast networks and, in fact, back when I pitched it – and I
never get this date quite right, but I have a feeling it was 2000 – I knew I
wasn’t going to sell it to Showtime, either. But I felt like I was seeding
the ground by taking the idea to Showtime.
When I first pitched it to
the network, I got soundly rejected and it took another year and an entirely
different sort of atmosphere in our culture and in our media to actually get
them to take a chance with this show.
It’s fantastic; I
certainly know the response over here from the lesbian and bisexual
community has been, “Thank god, someone’s actually put something on that’s
fantastically watchable”. Not only that, but there’s attractive, gorgeous
glamorous women on it and it’s really broken the mould.
It was absolutely time for it to happen; it was inevitable and I’m
just lucky to have been the one who got to do it, but it definitely is true
that a difference a year makes is considerable. When I brought it back to
Showtime a second time, I knew that it was time and I very rarely have this
feeling walking into the room trying to sell something. I knew they were
going to do it.
Have you ever had
any battles with the network over the content of it at all?
It doesn’t make for a very interesting story, but they’re remarkably,
remarkably supportive. They’ve never baulked at anything I wanted to do or
tried to redirect my stories. They’ve never said, “this is too
controversial, this is too exclusionary”. The only thing they’ve ever
suggested is that think about telling certain stories that they think might
be more interesting or more provocative.
"When I first
pitched it to the network, I got soundly rejected and it took another year
and an entirely different sort of atmosphere in our culture and in our media
to actually get them to take a chance with this show."
Are any of the
characters in the show hugely biographical or based on anyone?
No, they are all based on everyone and inspired by many moments and
observations of people, but all of them are fictional characters.
I think what’s great
about this show is that everyone can really identify with a particular
character; there’s quite a nice rainbow of different character types and
personalities. My particular favourite is Alice, but I know friends who are
really into Jenny or Bette or whoever and it’s just so nice that there are
so many different types of women, albeit that they are all gorgeous, I have
It’s not a problem, is it?
at all! Now,
season four has just been released in the UK on DVD, and at the end of
season three we had to lose the lovely Dana – was that a really hard thing
It was a really hard thing to decide to do, it was hard to write
and the aftermath was harder than I imagined. I knew people would be upset
by it, but I didn’t know the extent to which I would be pilloried for it!
In season four,
there’s Cybil Shepherd, who’s a fantastic actress and it’s really exciting
that she’s come on board - how did she get the part? Did you write it for
I didn’t write it for her, but when we conceived the character, she
was one of the two or three first people we talked about and we were beside
ourselves when she said she would do it.
She’s such a vibrant
actress; she really got into the role of playing a lesbian.
She so commits to it and really believes in the story - she’s just
a blast to work with.
She’s very funny, as
well. She’s one of the humorous elements of the show where there are so many
different characters really playing off each other. She’s such a great comic
actress and adds to the humour. And I believe in season four we’ve got Tina
entering into a relationship with a man, is that right?
Should we be worried
about her fleeing from the lesbian flock?
Well, of course we should be worried about it, but it’s funny to
talk about it now because I’m two years ahead. But we decided that it was a
really important story to tell. One of the things that we tried to do in the
course of deciding which stories to tell is touch on lesbian experience,
things that are universally familiar to so many lesbians and that maybe the
larger straight culture isn’t familiar with. And, of course, one of those
big stories is when our friends or our ex-lovers go back to men. And Tina
seemed like someone who would – Tina had been with men up until the moment
she met Bette; she had never been with another woman other than Bette – and
when her world gets complicated, it’s kind of a natural thing to want to run
back to that safety and security.
It’s a really
interesting storyline and it’s wonderful to see that explored. Another
character I want to touch on is Jenny. I was at the L4 fan event in Heathrow
earlier this year and she was the one character that caused more contention
than anyone else – she’s loved and hated in equal measure! Does her story
get more dramatic in seasons four and five?
I would say that it does; I would say that Jenny comes into full
flower in season five, but in season four, we are really building towards
it, and she’s possibly the most complicated or maybe the most complex of our
L Word characters.
"One of the things
that we tried to do in the course of deciding which stories to tell is touch
on lesbian experience, things that are universally familiar to so many
lesbians and that maybe the larger straight culture isn’t familiar with."
Moving forward to
season six – because that’s obviously what you’re working on at the moment –
a lot of us who have seen all the seasons either from DVDs or through
downloads from the States and there’s a lot of talk about the return of some
of the characters we’d lost in earlier seasons, like Papi and Carmen. Can
you confirm or deny any of that?
No! I can confirm that there is a fertile possibility for any of
those things to happen, but I can’t confirm which of them will happen and,
although I’m not sure that we’re going to succeed in this, in season six
we’re trying more than we have in seasons past to just keep a lid on the
stories we’re telling until we unveil them on Showtime. That doesn’t mean
that we’re not being more interactive with our audience than we ever were –
we really listen a lot and take in a lot from what the fans and what our
online users tell us they need and want to see, but when it comes to
actually making these shows and putting them out there, we want to maintain
an element of surprise and suspense.
Can you tell me
about Paris Hilton, then?
She came to our party.
So there’s no truth
to the rumour that she’s going to be having a little cameo role?
No, there’s not.
There’s also been
talk of an L Word movie going forward after season six – is that
something you’ve been approached to do?
Nothing’s guaranteed, but I certainly would love to do an L
Word movie and so would my colleagues in the cast.
It would be so
popular over here. To see something like Sex and the City go from
TV to film so successfully, I certainly think that The L Word would
have a similar journey.
We think so, too.
Do you think if
you’d had freedom to produce more series that you’d want to write more of
the characters’ stories?
I don’t think that these stories are over by any means – we’re not
tired of them, we’re not tired of the characters, we haven’t run out of
stories, but I do think that it was a good decision to make for now.
Over the episodes of
the next series, are we going to see pretty much most characters wrapped up
in some way?
Not wrapped up, no. I think that there will be a satisfying
conclusion – it’ll feel like we’ve gotten somewhere, like we’ve landed
somewhere – but by no means are we wrapping up. Life doesn’t wrap up, so
we’ll leave these lives with the sense that life goes on.