By Caroline Ryder
Before January 18, 2004 -- when the first episode of The L Word aired -- Ilene Chaiken was a resolutely below-the-line, behind-the-scenes kind of lesbian. Today, thanks to show’s success, she needs little introduction -- and not just among the LGBT audience. Chaiken is an integral component of The L Word’s global brand, a mainstream entertainment commodity that has been sold in dozens of countries around the world, from Uruguay to Lithuania to Iceland. Being thrust into the role of lesbian storyteller in chief has occasionally proved jarring for the cerebral, reserved writer-director.
“I was a blithering mess in the beginning,” says Chaiken, smiling. “It’s terrifying when you’re someone who is not groomed to be in front of an audience, and you don’t really feel well-suited for it.”
For the first year after the show launched, she took beta blockers. “Then I didn’t need to worry anymore. These days, I don’t shake nearly as much when I’m making speeches.”
The sixth and final season of the show is set to begin on Showtime January 18, exactly five years after the series launched. While it’s a bittersweet goodbye for Chaiken, one gets the sense she’s a little relieved.
“I feel that it is exactly the right time to be moving on,” she says slowly and purposefully, grating lemon zest for a mousse dessert as she talks to Advocate.com in her kitchen. “I’ll miss the community of The L Word, but I was personally ready for it to end. Jennifer Beals did joke that someday Bette and Tina would have grandchildren -- but I think all of us agreed that it was best to go while we were still relatively young and sexy.”
We spoke a few days before Christmas -- she’d recently returned to Los Angeles from Vancouver, where she had wrapped the 20-minute pilot of her new, as yet unsold L Word spin-off starring Leisha Hailey. It's rumored to be a prison drama, but Chaiken declined to go in to any detail about it. Even so, one would be safe in assuming that Chaiken has plenty more lesbian-themed entertainment up her sleeve, right?
“Yes, but remember, I never saw The L Word as purely lesbian-themed,” she points out. “I saw it as a show about lesbians for everyone. Personally, I’m interested in telling stories. Telling lesbian-themed stories, yes, but not exclusively. I’m interested in making mainstream entertainment.”
Her determination to appeal to a mass audience has occasionally put Chaiken at odds with women who felt unrepresented among the show’s glamorous cast of characters. But Chaiken makes no bones about her position -- she’s making TV for America, and America likes lipstick.
“I never had any qualms about the way we were representing the culture,” she says.
When The L Word ends in March, there may be no TV show on U.S. mainstream cable or terrestrial television featuring predominantly gay or lesbian characters to replace it. It’s a problem, says Chaiken. Niche cable channels that focus on gay content, like Logo, are “great for what they are,” she says, “but they don’t preclude the need to represent us and our lives and our stories in mainstream entertainment.”
And despite its massive global reach, The L Word has received little formal acknowledgment from Hollywood -- just one prime-time Emmy nomination in six years. “It’s pathetic,” says Chaiken. “We really were ignored by the Emmys.” (The late actor Ossie Davis, who played the father of Jennifer Beals’s Bette Porter and Pam Grier’s Kit Porter, received a posthumous nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in 2004.)
There’s always the possibility season 6 will receive more recognition. With Jenny Schecter (played by Mia Kirshner) revealed to be dead in the opening moments of the first episode, you can be sure that the final season of The L Word will continue take the term lesbian drama to new levels. All in just eight episodes.
”Having eight episodes was a business decision by Showtime,” says Chaiken. “We agreed it was actually kind of a great thing for a final season, because we could make it more contained. So we came up with a concept for wrapping it all round one story idea.”
And once The L Word’s final chapter closes, then what?
The Farm, Chaiken’s Leisha Hailey–L Word spin-off, has been taking up much of her time.
“It’s a very different show to The L Word,” says Chaiken. Actresses Famke Janssen, Melissa Leo (who played Winnie Mann on The L Word), and Laurie Metcalfe (Roseanne) are also rumored to be on board.
And what about an L Word movie?
“I would love to do an L Word movie,” she says. “My cast would love to do an L Word movie. We have no formal plans, but when I have a moment to take a breather, I certainly will think about what the climate is for actually doing one.”
Chaiken is also working on “a couple” separate film projects as a writer and director, and she has plans for a new Internet venture. Ourchart.com, the social network for lesbians that she cofounded, is on ice -- editorially speaking, at least. (Users can still network through the site, but there haven’t been any blog posts on the home page since November). Chaiken’s new venture “may or may not be separate to Ourchart.com,” she says. Whatever the future of OurChart, she promises to find a place online for the OurChart users who were L Word fans -- no doubt music to the ears of those wondering where they’ll be able to pontificate on Tibette (Tina and Bette) and express their continuing fury over Dana’s death.
“If I could do it all again, that’s the one and only thing I’d do differently,” says Chaiken of killing off the L Word’s Dana character, a move that resulted in a minor revolt among the show’s fans. “I think if maybe I had known how people would react to that and how long the anger and despair would last, I might have reconsidered it ... ”