Watching “The L Word” For The First Time: A Gentle Guide

As a website miscarried and eventually successfully birthed from the limber loins of an L Word recap blog on the day of Jenny Schecter’s untimely death, we are uniquely qualified to answer a question we’ve been getting a whole lot lately (probably because of the reboot): “I’m gonna watch The L Word, should I just skip [insert bad part here]?” I’m not saying anybody has to watch The L Word, but I am saying that there’s a lot of hot memes out there that might not be as funny if you don’t. We have, in fact, provided you with a mini “watching The L Word for the first time” guide before, but it’s buried in a different post and therefore people can’t find it! This one is a little more in depth than that one. In anticipation of this year’s reboot, there’s never been a better time to evaluate the merits of this Lesbian Relic.  Perhaps you saw the show a long time ago, and want to undertake a careful re-watch — this guide will work for you, too, my friend.

Problems with The L Word to know before you dig in: almost everybody is white, there is nary a butch to be seen upon the land, it’s wildly transphobic, Shenny never got a chance (don’t @ me), it vacillates between intense biphobia and ignoring bisexuality altogether, there’s some serious pet dog erasure (these are lesbians in Los Angeles!!!) and the writing is inconsistent and often completely bonkers. Also it’s very difficult to sort out how they managed to spend so much time at The Planet.

But like, imagine watching The L Word pre-Discourse, and having only seen a handful of queer female characters prior to this entire show chock-full of them, and it’s this very very cool show with all these hot girls who don’t give a shit about men! And you’re a woman in her early 20s which means you’ve recently experienced college, which was full of men who emotionally tortured women for sport and sexual benefits. And the men you and your friends have dated have been on the whole, low-key monsters! So you’re like, wow!! Maybe life doesn’t have to be like this! I could have my life ruined by a woman instead!!!!!! At least she’ll be emotionally available!!! And then you realize that the reason you feel that way about a life of women is not because all women should feel that way but because YOU’RE GAY.

Anyhow, it (okay, Shane) was a big part of my lesbian awakening and even though it’s kinda terrible, I will love it forever and so can you (maybe?).

If you just wanna get the basic idea without too much agony, these are the best 12 episodes of all time. If you’re truly ready, let’s begin.


How To Watch The L Word For The First Time

The L Word Season One: January 18th, 2004 – April 11th, 2004

The beginning! Were we ever so young and ovulating! I love the feedback-free purity of a first season!

Quick-n-Dirty or Careful Re-Watch: Sorry, no shortcuts, you’ve gotta watch this one from start to finish.

Things to know: Ilene Chaiken based Jenny on her younger self and Bette on her older self. This show was in development for quite some time, was originally called “Earthlings,” and didn’t get the go-ahead until Showtime found a hit with Queer as Folk. Kit Porter was initially the main lesbian (she later became the side straight sister) who had “the chart” tattooed on her back. Scott Bairstow played Tim, but he was fired after being accused of sexual assault against a minor and replaced by Eric Mabius. Bairstow pled guilty and his career pretty much ended right there. Most actresses were just thrilled to find a script that told women’s stories, front and center, regardless of the reason why, and Jennifer Beals was the show’s biggest “get.” At the time, Leisha Hailey was the only out lesbian in the main cast, but Kate Moennig was an open secret, and Laurel Holloman, Mia Kirshner and Karina Lombard loosely identified as bisexual, although Laurel and Karina later identified as straight. (So many former L Word actresses are now out gay ladies!) It was renewed for a Season Two after the first episode’s premiere. Also, the Dinah Shore episode was shot in Vancouver.

The L Word Season Two: February 20th, 2005 – May 15th, 2005

Aside from an excruciating storyline involving Jenny and Shane’s new roommate Mark, Season Two is pretty okay.

Quick-n-Dirty or Careful Re-Watch: 201 (Life, Loss, Leaving) for continuity’s sake and to meet Carmen. 205 (Labyrinth), 206 (Lagrimas de Oro), 210 (Land Ahoy!) and 211 (Loud & Proud) ’cause they’re fun, and 213 for continuity’s sake and to meet Sharmen.

Things To Know: Ilene started dating EZ Girl, who then took over a lot of the show’s score and wrote the theme song we all love to sing along to but also hate. Laurel Holloman was legit pregnant at this point, which got written in. The L Word was a premium cable hit in Season One, and Season Two pulled in some significant starpower as a result, including guest spots from Sandra Bernhard, Camryn Manheim, Gloria Steinem, Ariana Huffington and Melissa Rivers.

The L Word Season Three: January 8th, 2006 – March 26th, 2006

Season Three has its moments but is pretty bananas and involves deeply unpleasant storylines for basically everybody we care about. Max is introduced in order to give representation to the trans community, and it’s not great!

Quick-n-Dirty or Careful Rewatch: 301 because obvs, 302 (Lost Weekend), 305 (Lifeline) because sex, 311 (Last Dance) because although it’s pretty terrible, it’s also chock-full of relevant and necessary flashbacks to the early days of Dana Fairbanks, which you must see. Then 312 (Left Hand of the Goddess) because it’s the finale and you always have to watch the finale.

Things to Know: Season Three is basically “the long slow march towards the death of Dana Fairbanks,” an eventuality which cast a dark cloud over the entire mediocre season. Ilene now regrets killing Dana, a story inspired by the breast cancer diagnosis (and eventual survival) of one of the show’s fellow co-creators who’d been shoved out by this point. The choice was devastating to the cast, including Erin Daniels. Also, Jennifer Beals was pregnant so they created a whole meditation phase for her so she could get heavily into tunics and adopt multiple blankets as legit apparel.

The L Word Season Four: January 7th, 2007 – March 25th, 2007

Season Four is a total shitshow, tonally uneven, riddled with jarring ret-cons and often downright bizarre. We get like ten new characters, including but not limited to: Black soldier Tasha (Rose Rollins) (who we love), late-in-life lesbian Phyllis (Cybil Shepard) who adds a little levity to the proceedings, deaf artist Jodi Lerner (Marlee Matlin) who dates Bette and loves Origami with Steel and, finally, a sort of clownish Latinx lesbian lothario, Papi, played by Indian actress Janina Gavankar. My L Word WTF videos (Here’s the first one, here’s the second) drew heavily from Season Four.

Quick-n-Dirty or Careful Rewatch: Maybe watch it in the background while you’re doing other things? There are lots of good scenes in it, but only one good episode (406: Luck Be A Lady) and one pretty-good episode (405: Lez Girls). So if you’re watching Season Four while Henry clips his toenails, start out with the premiere, 401 (Legend in the Making) (which is pretty bad but listen you gotta get the basics down), watch 404 (Layup) starting at the 39 minute mark (you only need to see the basketball scene, the rest is terrible), 405 (Lez Girls), 406 (Luck Be A Lady), 408 (Lexington & Concord) for Talice, the parts of 409 (Lacy Lilting Lyrics) where all the girls are in Alice’s bed and 412 (Long Time Coming) because it’s the finale.

Things to know: Ilene Chaiken / Showtime launched OurChart.com in advance of Season Four, a website tie-in that included a “chart” feature that nobody wanted and also it didn’t work. In fact, a significant portion of the website failed to work and/or land, aside from a very large banner that prominently announced its existence whenever you had the bad fortune to visit. OurChart competed intensely with AfterEllen for a while, and tension at Dinah Shore that year was THICK but also OurChart added a lot of L Word tie-ins to Dinah that were very fun for participants! A few L Word actresses were involved in the site’s production but quickly faded from the foreground, replaced by a bunch of women named Beth. Season Four was partially a TV show, and partially a non-stop promotional exercise for OurChart. However, I wrote for OurChart and so did Laneia and it also launched the webseries Girltrash that became a movie. There was some good stuff on there before it shut down in 2008.

There’s also an unverified rumor that Showtime asked TLW to tone down the lesbian sex for Season Four — whether this is true or not, it was a dry run there for a while. This season suffered from intense cast sprawl issues and could barely keep ahold of itself.

The L Word Season Five – January 6th, 2008 – March 23rd, 2008

A true return to mild excellence! After Season One, Season Five is by far the show’s strongest. The cast additions make sense and there is genuine fun to be had throughout — laughter, tears, all the feelings.

Quick-and-Dirty or Careful Rewatch: Watch it all! The finale is the weakest episode of the bunch (another heavy-hitter in The L Word WTF), but you can’t skip the finale.

Things to Know: Most of this season was “ripped from the headlines” — including Alice’s spot on “The Talk,” inspired by Rosie O’Donnell’s tenure on “The View.” The SheBar/Planet drama was plucked from the True West Hollywood Story of GirlBar, which was run by a lesbian couple (introduced in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article as “Robin Gans and her lover Sandy Sachs”) who had a reputation for dyke drama but also ran/run a wildly successful lesbian nightlife empire (GirlBar still hosts a Friday night party at The Abbey). In addition to their L.A. nightlife accomplishments, the Girlbar duo co-founded the Dinah Shore Weekend with Club Skirts owner Mariah Hanson, but in 2006, after 15 years of working together, they split up, and GirlBar and Club Skirts remain rivals for Dinah Shore turf. (Robin and Sandy eventually broke up too.) The Nikki Stevens character was reportedly inspired by Lindsay Lohan.

The L Word Season Six – January 18th, 2009 – March 8th, 2009

I have seen every episode of this show at least three times, often 10-15 times each. I have seen each episode of Season Six just the number of times it took me to recap it, and never looked back.

Quick-n-Dirty or Careful Rewatch: Honestly you could skip this season entirely. The reboot just might.  If you must — the first ten minutes of episode 603, and also episode 607, which involved a dance-off and was very fun. Whatever you do, do not watch episode 608.

Things to Know: Jenny’s character is completely re-written in Season Six, and the entire season was focused on who murdered Jenny, which was the opening scene of the first episode. Ilene Chaiken does not know who killed Jenny. This breaks a really CRUCIAL rule of crafting good suspense fiction. The writer doesn’t need to reveal the killer to the audience, but if the writer doesn’t know who the killer is, they should probably just kill the show, ’cause it’s gonna suck — and it did! Jennifer Beals apparently often finished the day’s shoot by crying in her trailer. There were so many stories they could’ve told in their final season and they told a lot of empty and deeply unsatisfying stories instead. The whole season was a set-up for a possible spin-off called “The Farm,” which unsurprisingly was not picked up.


In conclusion, this is not necessarily the way that we live and love, but it’s still pretty okay.


Are you following us on Facebook?

Riese is the 36-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2568 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. This is truly amazing.

    “I could have my life ruined by a woman instead!!!!!!” is too real.

    Also I learned so many tidbits I didn’t know because I watched The L Word as such a baby gay!

    Thank you for this Very Important work.

    • I’m amused that I knew this even though I’ve never seen The L Word or even heard the theme song. I will be singing “My Favorite Things” in my head now as I go back to work so THANKS FOR THAT.

    • I started watching the L Word during season 2 in 2005 when I had just realized I was queer, and I watched it when I got home from school, before my parents came home from work (we magically got Showtime on Demand and Logo with our cable for a while, and I used it to watch all the gay shit I could). I legit described this theme song to my then girlfriend as “My favorite things” but about lesbians who like alliteration.

  2. Watching The L Word is such an important rite of passage. It’s awful, it’s amazing, Tasha walked into my life and out with my heart and I was forever changed from that moment.

    We’re a long ways away from when I used to watch the episodes on cable On Demand during college break and then delete it from the “recently watched”, so no one would know I was gay!!!

  3. Watching “The L Word” helped me go from “I think maybe I might be bi or something” to “OMG I am so queer!”

    Problematic? A thousand times yes. Groundbreaking in terms of representation? Also yes.

    For all of its many, many flaws, I will never not love this show because of how it made the life that I’m living now seem possible.

  4. remember how I discovered the series- my straight friend told me about it (apparently it was huge hit among the guys in our college residence cause they watched it like a football game together) So I searched on the youtube and first video which came up was named “Tibette in the elevator”. While watching I was wondering why they don’t finally show at least something from Tibete nature but just two girls having sex. Yeah, I was confused…

  5. Can I also add to the list of complaints. Have a Latinx women play a Latinx woman and you know have the woman from India and the woman from Iran(well she’s half Persian, but still) play lesbians from their actual country. You know how great that would be to see two MENA region lbtq women on tv? Very! Second, have it filmed in LA, and not Vancouver to make it feel more authentic. Also, for a show based in L.A., you rarely saw them at the beach/by the ocean, or stuck on freeway traffic on a hot winter’s day. Both of which I’ve done frequently alone and with other lbtq people.

    • yeah the thing with the actresses was absurd! like that in response to people being like, why aren’t there more poc in this group of friends, they cast two actresses who were not latina to play latinx characters. also the actress who played catherine rothberg is chinese-french-canadian but her character was white.

      it’s WAY cheaper and easier to shoot in Vancouver, although they did shoot some scenes in LA. i think that’s an inevitability. but i agree about them not spending enough time at the beach!!! i feel like they were stuck in traffic a lot though? before i started spending a lot of time here, tasha complaining about the 405 was how i first became aware that the 405 existed.

  6. I watched a couple episode in the first season or when a character is introduced to get a feel for them and did a bit of wiki reading, didn’t get attached to the characters at all.

    Then going by episode summary bounced around to the episode where the worst or most dramatic things happen while eating popcorn. Or by sex scene.

    But still I was aggravated by the death of Dana Fairbanks. Her mom’s flashback of “we have feelings but that doesn’t mean we act on them” did manage to gut punch me a bit.

    Oh and that episode where the queer ladies are at a house party held by Tina and her man with their(her?) straight friends where they play a trivia game but the gay references are too “obscure” for the straight people and vice versa while the bisexual person in the room is getting the queer bits better was hilariously relatable to me.
    And the straight folks I think I remember them being like “I heard you were bisexual I just didn’t actually realise it until now” that was like extra relatable.

  7. Even though there are a lot of terrible things about The L Word, it’s still so important to me to just be able to watch a show where almost all of the characters are gay/bi women and they exist within this big lesbian community. (The only other one, really, is Lip Service, which is fun and frankly probably less problematic, but just doesn’t achieve quite the amount of wish fulfilment that The L Word does for me). I know some people are happy with wider wlw representation – eg. we have more gay/bi characters in majority straight casts now, but for me even though those characters may be relatable, their position amongst a group of straight people just isn’t.

    Season 2 is actually my favourite! Mostly because I’m here for all that angsty Sharmen. S3 I found to be the second weakest after the truly awful S6.

    Also WHY do they insist on femming Shane up for the promotional shots???

  8. I watched every second of this horrible show because…lesbians. Lesbians as central characters on tv were unheard of. Lesbians in movies were rare, and I think we know those movies were horrible. So, for all the many problems this show had, it had representation. That was a first. Granted, it wasn’t an accurate representation, but there were women making out and having sex on tv.

  9. I too will never not love The L Word. In April 2004, I was preparing for my A-Levels and so was at home by myself most of the day. My mother would leave and I would run up to the shared family computer, open Kazaa, and start the painfully slow download of this promised land that I had heard about on lesbian message boards. I had already created minidiscs of The Indigo Girls, KD Lang, and Melissa Etheridge, which I had cunningly mislabeled to throw people off the scent. (I was heavily invested in minidiscs.) But this was something else entirely – a whole fancily produced tv show??!!? If I was very lucky, the download would finish with enough time for me to watch it before my mother returned home. All too often, it would not and I’d have to cancel it and hold out for another day. One time it did, but my mother made a surprise early return home just as I settled in, and I had to delete it and try again but COULDN’T FIND IT FOR AGES!! It was devastating.

    Now I wonder why I didn’t just hide it in a random file but at the time I was into the very careful practice of consuming all the lesbian (as I thought if it at the time) media I could and then scrubbing all evidence of this happening. If only thumb drives were more than 64MB in those days.

    I still remember thinking that scene during the tv showdown with Hallelujah playing was the rawest, most beautiful, and most heart-wrenching thing I had ever seen. Actually screw it – it still is.

  10. I watched the L Word for the 7 years ago at 20,in my second year at the university.
    First time watch the TV show about Lesbians.It’s impossible to watch this type show in Chinese.
    This show changed me too much.It’s amazing.

  11. Ugh I will never not love The L Word. Season 1 came out the same year I did (ha), in my last year of high school. I had my first girlfriend and was openly lesbian at school, and watching a show of adult women being gay, successful, and having lots of sex made the future seem so hopeful and bright – like, yes, these are things I can be too when I grow up.

    Sidenote: My coming-out process was long and complicated despite its solid start, so when I came out for a second time years later to my almost all straight friends, my well-meaning super straight friend rented season 1 of The L Word for me, got a bottle of wine, and wanted to watch it together. I am sure she thought she was being supportive, and I very much appreciated the gesture, but let me tell you it is quite awkward to watch lesbian tv sex with a straight woman as a newly out person. I think we maybe lasted one episode.

  12. I’ve been listening to “The L-Word Made Me Gay” podcast which are hilarious. It reminds me of how the show ha a lot of good scenes and moments but rarely holds it together for a full episode.
    This makes its appeal hard to describe, like a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Good and bad, sweet, delicious, gross and mysterious.

  13. Thanks so much for this! The L Word was a pivotal part of my coming of age.

    However, would you be up for taking the word “miscarried” out of the intro? Miscarriage is a pretty intense topic, and I find it jarring to have a miscarriage analogy lead off such a breezy article.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.