‘The L Word: Generation Q’ Showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan on the Series’ Evolution

     January 1, 2020

From showrunner/executive producer Marja-Lewis Ryan, the Showtime series The L Word: Generation Q, the sequel to the groundbreaking series that debuted in 2004, continues to follow the lives of Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals), Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Heiley) and Shane McCutcheon (Katherine Moennig), as they experience love and heartbreak in Los Angeles. And picking back up with them, 10 years later, means a chance to get to know new characters, including Dani Nùñez (Arienne Mandi), Micah Lee (Leo Sheng), Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), Sophie Suarez (Rosanny Zayas) and Gigi (Sepideh Moafi), all of whom have their own trials and tribulations on their roads of self-discovery.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, creator/writer Marja-Lewis Ryan talked about how this continuation of The L Word evolved with her as the showrunner, what it’s like to go from fan of the series to running it, deciding what to keep and what to reinvent with the show, how she approached making sure that people feel represented, both on screen and behind the scenes, what the original cast wanted for their characters now that 10 years have passed, weaving the new characters into the story, exposing viewers to things they don’t typically get to see on TV, and how there’s still so much more story left to tell.

Collider: How did you end up getting this job, as the showrunner of The L Word: Generation Q? Did you go in and pitch your vision of what the series could be?

MARJA-LEWIS RYAN: Yeah, so Ilene [Chaiken], Jennifer [Beals], Kate [Moennig] and Leisha [Hailey] wanted to bring this show back. Ilene had an overall deal over at Fox, so she wasn’t available, and they were looking for somebody to come in with a new take on what the show could be. I think they went out to a few writers, but Ilene and I had met, the year before, working on a movie. We were both hired to write the adaptation of Lean In, and she and I hit it off. A couple months later, her show, The Handmaid’s Tale came on the air, and I loved it. I saw her name in it, and I sent her an email and I was just like, “I love your show. Congratulations!” She wrote back and said, “Hi, I was just thinking of you. Do you want to come and pitch on The L Word?” And I was like, “What?!” I thought she was going to invite me to come shadow on The Handmaid’s Tale. I was like, “Oh, sure! Yeah, no problem.” I was just looking for a set visit. So, I met with Leisha, Kate and Jennifer, and I got to hear about where they wanted their characters to be and things that they never wanted to do again. And then, I got to go pitch the network, all of these new characters and where I thought these three returning character might be, 10 years later. It wasn’t really that terrifying. I just thought it was a fucking blast. I’m not, I don’t know if I really thought I’d get the job. It didn’t really feel like a job. It felt like a fun assignment. It was surreal as hell. I remember getting the call that I got the job. I was living in Brooklyn with my wife and I just collapsed on the kitchen floor. I was sobbing, partially ‘cause I had to move back to L.A., but also because I was excited that I had the job.

How strange does it feel, to go from having been a fan of the show and watching the show when it was on, to then walking onto the set of the show and having everyone look at you for all of the answers to everything, as the showrunner?

RYAN: It was bananas. I have these moments of feeling like I’m living in a dream. The first time I really felt it was, when we were shooting the pilot, that scene with [Jennifer, Kate and Leisha] in it was the first time they’d shared a frame, in 10 years. I turned to the director, who’s a 39-year-old lesbian that was also a fan of the show, and I was like, “Can you believe this is what we’re up to today?” And she was like, “No, I cannot.” So, there were definitely those moments. With each director, especially the directors who really grew up watching the show, they all had moments of, “Can you fucking believe this is what we’re doing today? It’s just insane!” There are definitely moments of that, but the job is pretty all consuming, so those moments are really just moments. And then, I have to go approve a costume. It’s all in a moment that I can feel those feelings. Other than that, I’m just there to do my job.

Image via Showtime

This show is interesting because you have the original characters who are still a version of what they were before, plus you have all these new characters that you get to play with. Is it fun to get to weave all that together, and to have it feel like the show that you knew, but also have it be this new thing?

RYAN: Yeah, it was a blast. The way that I went about determining what to keep and what to re-invent was about what I loved about the show. That’s how I approached everything. What I loved about the original show were the friendships. Just watching the show when I was 18, it gave me hope that, one day, I would have my own lesbian click, so I tried to keep that part of the show. I wanted to keep the part that makes queer feel, “I love this! They’re just like us,” or “I wanna be just like them.” We’re walking that line of reality and aspiration. And then, the main thing that I wanted to improve on was who was represented and whose stories we were telling. Ilene has said that the original show really was about white lesbians, so the idea of being able to expand who is seeing themselves in this show, is just such a fucking pleasure.

It seems like it would be really cool to be able to work on something that you were a fan of, but then also make those changes that people would want to see because they’re changes that you want to see.

RYAN: Yeah, exactly. I know a lot of our peers were scared about it coming back and wondered whether I was gonna break it. But, I am a fan first. I’m not coming to it, as a hater of the show. I’m coming to it like, “These are the things that I watched it for, so I hope that we were all watching for the same reasons.” I felt like I knew who Shane, Bette and Alice were. When I was 18, I knew who Ilene Chaiken was. She was very front and center, in terms of the PR for the show, and that changed my life. The idea that I could write stories about my gay self and my gay friends had not occurred to me, until this show came on the air. So, the dream is that a few more people, who don’t look exactly like me and Ilene, can see themselves, both in front of the camera and behind it. That was a huge thing that I was working on, too, just making sure that whoever is in front of the camera is also represented behind it. We have this Noah’s arc style to the writers’ rooms, where we have two of everybody, so that no one person was responsible for telling the stories of their people, and I think it worked out pretty well. I hope that fans can see that. It’s not me telling their stories. It’s somebody who looks more like them, telling their stories.

Image via Showtime

You hear a lot of talk about how hard it is to diversify a writers’ room, or your line-up of directors, or your department heads because it’s just too hard to find the people to fill those positions. But then, there’s a show like this, where you made that work.

RYAN: In terms of being able to find people, I’ve heard that, too. I think it’s two things. One is drawing a line in the sand and being like, “No, I will not have an all white producing team. I just will not. So, go find me somebody. Everybody’s job is to go find me somebody.” And you do find them. People are like, “But I don’t know anybody.” Just because you don’t know anybody, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. It just means that you don’t know them, so who do you need to call? When I was staffing this room, I emailed Lena Waithe, Tanya Saracho and Abbi Jacobson. I emailed people who I know have been doing this, and who I know have been mentoring people and who have friends that don’t look like me. Just do your job and make those calls. Those people will always email me back, and they will always give me people that I’m looking for, and I do the same for the straight white bros who email me and say, “We’re staffing this room and we need a lesbian. Who do you have?” I have people. Just email me. We all have people. So, it was really a real pleasure to find these people and let them rise. And it isn’t just department heads. Once you make a space like this, you can have a straight white guy who’s your gaffer, and he’ll go out of his way to find women in the electrical department, and find a trans grip. He knew what we were up to. All of us get to play, and feel seen and heard. It was really cool.

You’ve talked about how you were inspired by Ilene Chaiken. What’s it like to do something that she created, and to have her to turn to with questions, if you need to, while also finding your own groove with it?

RYAN: I definitely wanted her opinion and her feedback, on lots of things. There were story elements and things that I wanted to do with her former characters, that I really wanted her to sign off on. It’s very funny ‘cause I don’t think a lot of people will have my experience, where they see somebody doing a job and they’re like, “Oh, I can do that, too,” and then they literally have their job. I don’t think that’s normally how it goes down. That’s certainly not what I was imagining would happen to me. But, she’s always there for me. It’s pretty ego-less to be able to pass the torch to somebody, when it is something that she made, but that’s the dream. In 10 years, some 30-year-old punk will tell me that I did it wrong, and I’ll get to let her go do it, too. That’s what we’re all here for. It’s pretty exciting that she’s as involved as she is, but also isn’t in the writers’ room.

Image via Showtime

What have been the biggest challenges in making this world feel like the world that fans of the original series loved, while also making this feel like a new thing for the new viewers who will never have seen an episode of the original series?

RYAN: The way that I went about it was that this is these three characters, 10 years later. You’re not talking about things that happened 10 years ago, every day. Things come up sometimes and people come up sometimes, but they’re just like us. I don’t talk about the woman that I was dating, 10 years ago. Well, I do ‘cause I actually married her, so that’s a bad example. But mostly, I’m not talking about myself, from 10 years ago. That was a very long time ago. So, for me, what was fun finding the space to talk about who killed Jenny in Episode 2, and just being able to have little moments like that for fans, is such a fucking pleasure. One thing that we talk about in the writers’ room is a trash pass, or a garbage pass, which is to make sure that there’s enough of that soapy feeling, so that, in a group watch scenario, people are screaming at the screen. That’s the dream to me. That’s partially what the show was. It was time for all of us to just yell. We’re here to write this show for us. It’s for us, and by us, which is very exciting. There’s really nothing better than listening to a room full of queers scream. That’s fun.

Would you say that, in the last ten years, Bette, Alice and Shane have actually gotten their lives together as much as they seem to have, or is it just that they think they have?

RYAN: Their socio-economic status has changed, and that’s about it. We all suffer from the same problems we always have. I remember meeting with Leisha, very early on, and she was like, “I want Alice to be successful. I want to see Alice successful.” And I was like, “Totally.” I wanna see all of them as successful because that’s part of the dream. There are so many shows and so many times where we are the victims of our own stories, and that’s not what this show ever was. This has always been the sunniest version of the queer experience. No matter what went wrong in their lives, they always had other. Now, they have each other in really nice houses, and I don’t make any apologies for that. I think it’s super fun to watch.

Image via Showtime

I love how the original cast each has some connection to a member of your new cast, with Bette and Dani, Shane and Finley, and Alice and Sophie, and that it feels like they’re interacting with a version of themselves, at that age. Was that something that was intentional? Did you want to use those relationships to show the similarities and differences between the characters?

RYAN: Yeah, I was definitely interested in putting people in front of them like that. When I think about who my worst nightmare is, it’s basically me. I am my own worst nightmare. If you put two of me in a room, I don’t think we’d both make it out. I do feel that way about most people. When we see ourselves in other people, that’s the thing we hate most. So, that’s very intentional. It’s also fun to watch how they come apart, and how they are very distinct and different people, and I think we do accomplish that, over time. I really just wanted to put conflict in front of people. I love Shane and Finley. I could watch that sitcom. It’s very joyful.

I also really love how we get to see things on this show that you don’t normally see on TV, even if it’s just seeing a woman with hairy armpits. Did you also think about those visuals?

RYAN: Absolutely! There are a couple of things that I’m up The whole show is really a love letter to my 16-year-old self. With the opening scene, some people think it’s very gratuitous, and I do not feel that way about that scene. For me, that scene is about chipping away at shame and about providing an example of what your partner should do when you get your period. If I had known that at 16, I would have avoided many years of hardship. We have a lot of shame and body issues and body shaming, inside our community, but also with women, in general. I think straight women can relate to that, too. And the idea that Dani reacts the way she does, as a guideline for what all partners should do, is such a joy to put on television for me, and I just wish I had known that. And I never asked Jacqueline Toboni to grow her armpit hair. That’s just what she looks like. I can’t take a ton of credit for that, but I did cast her, partially because she means a lot to our community. She is a new kind of queer actor. I’ve worked with her for years. This is our third project together. We did a play together, last year. I just love her. She’s very special. On screen and off, she’s a very important person, in our community. I always tell her that armpit hair is doing a lot for us, as a group. She’s great. She’s really special. So, of course, I thought about that. And I thought about Jose and Micah, too. What they look like matters. The fact that a lot of Twitter was like, “Those boys are cute,” was the point. It’s just that simple. That was our whole statement. That gentle change, that he’s not some outcast character in the show and that they’re just really cute boys is very much by design. I’m excited that people have responded to it, the way that I had hoped they would.

Image via Showtime

This season is only eight episodes. Do you feel like there’s still a lot of story to tell with these characters? Have you thought about what a second season and beyond would look like?

RYAN: Oh, my god, there’s so much more. Our cast is fucking huge. It’s gigantic. I love Gigi. I wanna go home with her, and see where she lives and what her family is like. I wanna know what she’s up to. I love her, and we don’t get to see enough of her. We don’t get to see enough of any of them, really. I hope that we get another season and that I can dive more into where they are in their lives and what their lives are like. I also think that we’re missing some people. Not just as a diversity representation that’s checking boxes, but I am dying to see a hot Butch woman on this show. I cannot wait. That’s a whole reason to have a second season.

How much have you thought about who these characters are and where they could go? Do you know what all of these characters would be doing, if you get more seasons?

RYAN: No, I definitely don’t think like that. The way that I write, and the way that I approach story, is all character first. I step into their shoes and walk around in them for awhile. That’s how story is born, for me. I also think that a lot of the younger characters are me, at various stages of my life, so with some of them, I have a better idea of their trajectory because it’s closer to mine. Once you see Episode 8, there are some real questions that are asked that people are gonna want the answers to, in the next season. So, I hope that I get another season, and that I’m around to tell those stories.

The L Word: Generation Q airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.