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 V.13 No.5 | January 29 - February 4, 2004 

On Assignment

... But I Play One on TV!

“The L Word,” Showtime's drama about lesbian life, premiers in Albuquerque to a full house

Katherine Moening from Showtime’s “The L Word”
Katherine Moening from Showtime’s “The L Word”

“One thing that cuts across all our realities, that bridges all our differences, that's love,” Pam Grier shouts at Jennifer Beals in the new television series “The L Word.”

The show is being touted as a cutting-edge lesbian drama from Showtime, the same channel that produced the critically acclaimed “Queer As Folk,” which focused on a group of gay men. To promote “The L Word,” Madstone Theaters held an advance screening of the show's first episode.

The two-hour premier was sexy and complex, following a group of six lesbian women as they deal with love, relationships, starting a family and friendship. They are young, hip and living in Los Angeles, smartly dressed and sexually powerful—a “Sex and the City” for the West Coast gay set.

The free screening, a sort of coming-out party for lesbian television drew about 500 viewers, mostly women. And many in the crowd at Thursday's Madstone screening were positively giddy about the show, giving it a huge round of applause as the credits rolled. Several women we spoke to afterward said they plan to subscribe to cable just so they can watch the show.

We talked with “L Word” actress Katherine Moennig, who plays Shane McCutcheon, a sexually liberated hair stylist and Mary Bourne-Marth, vice president of marketing at Showtime.

Obviously the subject matter is something that hasn't been done before, but there have been similar kinds of shows that portray young single women in big cities. “Sex and the City” is one of them. But “The L Word” really seems to be a different spin on that. Is that what attracted Showtime to this show?

Bourne-Marth: We are always looking for things that are unique and different. If you look at the Showtime tagline—“No Limits”—we are not afraid to go where other networks won't go, so immediately this project stood out. The real homerun about it is that it's not niche programming. It's an absolutely gorgeous cast of women; we hope everyone will embrace it.

Explain the title of the show.

Moennig: That's really a question for Ilene [Chaiken, the show's executive producer], because I didn't create the title. The L word is, I guess, the L word. I mean, it doesn't stand for the obvious. There are a million L words out there, so you can pick one.

When I first saw it, I thought about a spin on a taboo word that is not supposed to be talked about.

Moennig: Yeah, yeah. It's um ... yeah, I guess so, sure.

Can you tell me a little bit about your character?

Moennig: Sure, I play Shan. She's described as the person who sleeps around with everyone. It's easy for her to do that, because she is given the means to do so. Underneath that entire exterior appeal that people like, she's on a quest for something.

What drew you to this role—and the show for that matter?

Moennig: I haven't gotten any scripts in a long time that I really responded to. I got this, and thought, Thank God there is something out there. There is hope for good projects still, because it was really quite barren for a while. I needed to work, and on top of that I read this, and I thought,“Wow, I need to work and I really like the project because there are so many layers and so many interesting characters and the writing was very clear. I like that, and that's what I look for in a job.

How is that different from scripts that you've gotten before? Can you give some specific examples?

Moennig: I usually get scripts as the lead's best friend, who is usually funny or bitchy. And I'm not the typical girl next door, so that probably won't happen. I have no interest in playing those roles; it's not fun for me. They can be money jobs, which you need, because integrity doesn't pay your bills, but it's not fun. So that is why I like this, because there was some oomph to it. Then I met everyone on the set and the cast is like family now. We're such a tight group. It's really a gift, this job is a gift.

Do you think this is a political show, or is it entertainment first?

Moennig: It guess it could be both, it is entertainment because it is television. And it's also—I guess it is a tad political because it is giving a society a voice that has never had a voice before on a consistent basis. So I guess it is political in a sense of saying this does exist, it's not as stereotypical as one would imagine. So, if that's political then that's political. I'm not much of a political person, but if that's considered political, then it is.

You mentioned that there haven't been shows like this before. Is it sort of nerve racking; is it sort of scary being the first cast to do something like this?

Moennig: No. Because when we were filming, there was no pressure. We were really in our bubble of our comfort zone, because no one knew who we were. Now the work is done and it will speak for itself and people will respond to it the way they want to. But it is a little nervous, sure, because you want positive feedback and you want people to be involved in it and not just shut it away, as anyone would feel about a job that they really care about. A lot of love got put into it, so we hope that they see that and accept it and appreciate it.

I'm kind of curious about this, obviously not everyone who works on the show is gay or lesbian, so how do you guys make sure that an “authentic” lesbian attitude or lifestyle is represented? Do you have someone who works with actors or the script? How do you make sure it's not someone else's interpretation?

Moennig: That kind of goes back to the L word. I mean, love is love. That's really all there is to it. When we first started, when we shot the pilot, a year or two ago, Showtime brought in a woman who was going to kind of teach us the ways of gay life. [laughs] That's fine and all, but we were like, this is love. It's just love. If you love someone, what else do you need to learn? It's a relationship, it's no different than any other relationship. You just substitute what happened in your life, the love that you've had, into your work. So, no.

That makes sense. One of the things I can imagine people are concerned with is that when you hear there is going to be a cable show about lesbians, people may automatically think it may be sort of exploitive. More teenage-boy-fantasy, like in a lot of movies and a lot of pop culture, it's sort of thrown in for shock value or sex appeal. How do you make sure the show doesn't do that?

Moennig: The love scenes are intense; I'm not going lie. I've seen them. But in a good way; they're not gratuitous. There is a reason behind every single one of them, and there is emotion behind them. And I think those scenes establish even more the relationship that is being shown. So, for that reason I don't see it as gratuitous or exploiting or anything. But, you know there is sex in it. One thing we can all agree on in life is that it's great, so there is sex. People who watch it will make up their minds about it and I just hope there is a response. You can't control what people say, I just did my job.

What do you guys think, on the executive side?

Bourne-Marth: As much as it's about lesbians, it's just about the relationships between women being different. It's not really focused totally on the love interests. It's not just “everybody get naked.” It's not lust. It's more complex.

Moennig: Yeah, one thing people have been saying in the reviews is that they're noticing the friendship between these women. And it's true. I'm glad they see it because this group of women are friends. I mean, they all have different dynamics with each other, but they are a group of friends. There's a lot more going on than just getting laid on the show. I should make that clear. There is a lot more. There is friendship and there is sadness and betrayal and loneliness and everything. It's not just like every five minutes there's a sex scene. And when there is a sex scene, there's a point to it. It's not like you're trying to fill a quota for how much of that is going on in an episode. There's more dynamics involved.

There's sort of a been a new movement to have gay and lesbian shows on television. “Will and Grace” is one that has won a bunch of awards. Do you think that your show is more authentic than the shows that are out there in terms of a gay and lesbian lifestyle?

Moennig: Yes. I think we're given a lot of freedom, because it's cable. “Will and Grace” is a great show, but it's network. You can't get away with a lot on a network and it's a half-hour sitcom. We're different. We're an hour-long drama on cable and we're given the leeway and more room to explore, so maybe we will be a little different because we have that freedom to do that.

One of the things you notice is that all six actresses are beautiful and they're all young. And it sort of goes against a very unfair, pop culture stereotype of lesbians. We talked about the sort of super-sexy Maxim magazine idea of it, but then there's also the complete other spectrum of the very butch, crew-cut, flannel shirt—

Moennig: Totally.

So this looks like it could be a show that's somewhere in the middle, but yet you're all still beautiful. Is it still sort of Hollywood in that respect? All sort of hair-and-makeup, you know what I mean?

Moennig: Well, we're not representing an entire community. We're representing a group of friends and everyone is beautiful because it's TV. It's not a bad thing, but it's entertainment. But that's a lot of pressure to say we're representing an entire community so we all decided that we're representing a group of friends within this community. And yeah, there is a stereotype that all gay women are butch, and wear a flannel shirt with the crew cuts and so forth, and that's not really the case. There are all different types of people, and the whole point of doing this is to break that stereotype as well. Take that idea out of the box and expand it a little. Say that there are all different kinds of people, all different kinds of cultures, all different kinds of communities. It's very easy to put things in a box, but hopefully this will make the box explode, or at least get a little larger.

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