The L Word changed the world. When the series debuted in January 2004, it was the first of its kind to portray lesbian life in an aspirational light. As in, so many women and queer people watching really, really wanted the glamorous, hyperdramatized lives of these somewhat (okay, very) flawed but ambitious, attractive, and proudly out (for the most part) women.
Many of these envy-worthy lesbians are connected by the Chart, a whiteboard (turned website in later seasons) drawing lines between hookups of queer women around the globe, oddly personifying the interconnectedness of, well, real queer women around the world. Find me a woman-loving woman who hasn’t drawn some rendition of this herself. I’ll wait. This, and so many lines, symbols, and events from the show became lesbian canon, thanks to the way The L Word brought queer womanhood — even if it’s explicitly in a hyperprivileged bubble — to the screen.
Yes, The L Word has its shortcomings. Diversity is minimal (and cultural representation oddly inaccurate) and the entire sixth season, well, for the sake of this list, just doesn’t exist. Still, the show was impactful enough to be worthy of countless fan blogs, podcasts, a never-ending stream of references, and a 2019 reboot, The L Word: Generation Q, from Showtime.
For L Word newbies eager to stream the series highlights, or avid fans who just don’t have the time to commit to that whole weird Jenny carnival sequence, we’ve narrowed down the most essential episodes of the groundbreaking queer show.
The L Word is streaming on Showtime.
In my humble opinion, a better pilot has never existed. Prior to the first few minutes of this episode, happy, partnered, home-owning lesbians (Jennifer Beals’s Bette and Laurel Holloway’s Tina) had never been depicted onscreen in this way — as the protagonists. Their problems aren’t about being gay, but rather, about conceiving a baby. Very domestic! Very normcore! We’re guided through the episode through Jenny’s (Mia Kirschner) eyes — the newbie in West Hollywood, an aspiring writer from the Midwest eager to cohabitate with her hunky, athletic boyfriend, Tim. Because this is a lesbian show, we’re pretty sure that won’t last, especially once she curiously/creepily watches through the fence as her neighbor has sex with another woman in the pool. While the two-episode pilot is full of these perhaps unrealistic, over-the-top moments (should I even mention Shane’s tie-up leather vest halter top?), it’s also full of sweet, queer female bonding moments, like when the crew heads to Dana’s tennis club to “deploy a mission to ascertain the disposition and intent of one Miss Lara Perkins.” That is, see if her crush is actually into women. It’s relatable. It’s quippy. It’s two hours of TV that never seem to get old.
Every episode of this first season is essential in its own way, but as we get to know the characters, their quirks and their flaws, the show builds up to bingeable status. At this point, we’ve seen Jenny question her sexuality, Shane (Kate Moennig) sleep with enough women to form a soccer team, and Bette and Tina (TiBette!) kiss and makeup a few too many times. We’re regulars at the Planet, the mythical lesbian coffee shop where all the characters lounge around most mornings, despite L.A.’s notorious traffic and their high-power careers (journalist! tennis star! art center director!). Marina, the Planet’s bombshell Italian owner, emerges as the woman yanking Jenny out of the closet, and the dyke drama is well on its way at this point.
“Listen Up” kicks off with one of the vignettes that the first season uses to connect queer women to each other, something the other seasons dropped once each episode had to pack five or six plots into 60 minutes. This plot, depicting a bicurious horse girl a few decades prior, connects to Dana’s coming out to her conservative country-club-loving parents. It turns out her mother, seemingly a lifelong snob, had a proclivity for equestrian sports and kissing women. Interesting.
The crew — minus Bette and Tina, life partners who apparently have no fun at all — carpool down to Palm Springs for the annual Dinah Shore Weekend, belting the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” (a lesbian anthem) as they drive. This episode captures the jubilation of being at a queer women’s pool party — and the night parties that follow — free from the male gaze. (It will also solidify the Dinah party’s ongoing popularity through 2021 — its 29th event is this September.) At the parties, the ladies meet new love interests, including Tonya, Dana’s manager, and Robin, a woman with endless patience for Jenny’s antics. This episode really nails the fact that if you’re a single lesbian looking for love at a lesbian event, you’ll most likely find it. It’s a romantic fantasy that is perfectly set among the debauchery of the real-life party. Meanwhile, at work, Bette is introduced to Candace, the carpenter that will ruin her marriage and TiBette fans’ lives.
Back for a highly anticipated second season, The L Word debuted its atrociously catchy theme song, “The Way That We Live,” this episode, and lesbian life hasn’t been the same since. This episode picks up where the first season left off — Jenny says good riddance to Tim, now her ex-husband, and Tina and Bette are separated, but, surprise, Tina’s pregnant with the sperm they both picked out! Those pregnancy hormones flare up in perhaps the best way possible with Tina’s iconic table flipping scene at the Planet, which Bette’s sister Kit now owns, and we’re reconnected to our favorite posse of queer ladies with an all-too-familiar conundrum — whose side do you pick in a lesbian breakup among a group of friends? Much of season two can feel tedious, with two fast-forward-appropriate plotlines (Shane and Jenny’s new roommate, Mark, secretly videotaping their exploits, and Jenny’s creepy circus memories).
Nothing has ever made me want to go on a cruise more than this iconic episode that takes place on an Olivia Cruise (for women!). Invited to speak on a panel, Dana, now fully dating Alice, brings her boo along — plus Shane, Jenny, and Carmen — on the glam lesbian-packed ship. An airport mishap involving sex toys and TSA, plus some hilarious nautical role play, are some of Dana’s best moments in the series. Back home in L.A., Bette struggles with her father (Ossie Davis) not recognizing Tina’s to-be-born baby as his own grandchild. He’s obstinate, and difficult to watch, honestly, but captures a familiar homophobic perspective of the era that still exists today. If you shudder every time you hear Ms. Kennard, know you’re not alone.
In the perfect lesbian world of The L Word, Pride weekend follows the Olivia Cruise! This back-to-back symphony of perfect episodes brings us to Dana’s first Pride as an out-and-proud athlete, Jenny’s first Pride in general, and Alice and Shane’s Christmas. Again, it’s just fun to see L..A Pride onscreen! Add in a semi-secret sex dungeon, a surprise coming out, and the complicated emotions of Bette’s tediously homophobic father on his deathbed, and you get a perfect episode. If only it were one in a series of annual Pride episodes from The L Word.
The first episode of each season are some of the best in The L Word, interweaving the plotlines, friendships, and feuds. Season three opens with Alice falling apart, playing Tegan & Sara on her radio show while bemoaning how she lost the love of her life, Dana, to her ex, Lara. We get classic scenes, like the crew at the Planet discussing what words they use for “down there” and we get a peek at Jenny’s life back in Skokie, Illinois, where she meets Moira (Daniela Sea) and flees to L.A. on Shabbat.
Alice starts dating a vampire, and Dana learns she has breast cancer. Both things sound insane, yet they’re equally believable and (unfortunately) entertaining. And while Alice is suspended from the ceiling in a vampire lair, Bette finds Tina’s online sex chats with Daddyof2, promptly considering Buddhism as the solution to all her troubles. Yes, midseason three is when The L Word starts grasping for interesting plotlines beyond cute, rich lesbians falling in love and breaking up, but there’s also some problematic content with Jenny’s new love interest, Moira, who comes out as Max, a trans man, a concept neither the characters nor the writers quite know what to do with.
Following Dana’s death from breast cancer, the group is reeling. Alice steals some of Dana’s ashes, while Bette is in the process of stealing her own daughter. Dana’s family refuses to acknowledge her sexuality at her memorial, so her friends decide to honor her in a more appropriate way. Meanwhile, Max gets a job as a man, the same role he interviewed for before transitioning, opening up a plotline about corporate sexism and transness in the workplace. It’s an emotional episode, and a really well done one.
Also known as the Basketball Episode, this one brings the original gang to the courts, thanks to Papi (Janina Gavankar). The athleticism is laughable, and has become non-sports canon for femme lesbians who may find themselves roped into women’s sports from time to time, as the culture goes. We also meet Jodi Lerner (Marlee Matlin) in this episode and start seeing Jenny’s descent to becoming a truly despicable human being.
Pink’s “Dear, Mr. President” is a prominent part of the soundtrack in this episode, which sets the stage for the parallels of the characters’ drama to the truly terrible ways LGBTQ people were treated during (and before!) the Bush era. Alice’s love interest, Tasha (Rose Rollins), has to remain closeted as she’s deployed to Iraq, not ideal for an out-and-proud pacifist like Alice (but Tasha is hot). In a last ditch effort to win Jodi’s heart before she leaves L.A., Bette gets Alice and Shane to help her steal a metal billboard that says “17 Reasons Why.”
Jenny’s hit autobiographical novel is being adapted into a major movie called Lez Girls in record time, and she throws a party to introduce her friends to their fictional onscreen counterparts. It’s hilariously creepy, and includes some more classic L Word group moments, like Alice and Shane’s special brownies leading to a full-on dance party throughout the house. That is, until Dawn Denbo (Elizabeth Keener) pulls the plug to punish Shane for sleeping with My Lover Cindi (Alicia Leigh Willis).
She Bar, run by Dawn and Cindy, is now at war with the Planet, thanks to Shane’s libido. Unfortunately, this fun new club is the perfect spot for Lesbian Turkish Oil wrestling. The debauchery is fun to see onscreen. It’s not all fun though — Tasha’s sexuality may cost her her job in the military, a predicament that arises after Alice gets a role on a new talk show as the fun, queer woman unwilling to hide her sexuality for the masses.
This string of midseason-five episodes is definitely the series’ strongest. In “Lay Down the Law,” we see Tasha win her court case, a joyful “honorable discharge” from the military that acknowledges her work without taking away her benefits. It’s homophobic, but the best they can hope for. Also in bigotry, Nikki Stevents (Kate French), the closted star of Lez Girls, is forced to attend a premiere with a dude, for appearances, despite her protests. Jenny advocates for her, in the whiniest way possible, while Jodi and Bette prepare for a hyperawkward dinner party.
The She Bar versus Planet feud has run its course, meaning the two groups set up a Mafia-style negotiation in a boardroom. It’s soapy, it’s fun, it’s the perfect predecessor to the blackout that leaves Bette and Tina stranded in an elevator, with only one thing to do while they wait … which is apparently what everyone does in a heat wave without power.
Consistent with The L Word’s strength when the characters leave L.A., this is one of the best ever episodes, focused on the group dynamic and remembering Dana, as they cycle through the Pacific Northwest for a breast-cancer-awareness bike ride. Jenny luxuriates in her glamping tent turned ad hoc sex-tape studio and the ladies all gather around a campfire for a scary story and an even spookier reveal by serial cheater Bette. Everything could have tightly wrapped up here, with a few cliffhangers and happy endings, but no, we have to see the unraveling come season six.
16 Essential Episodes of The L Word