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10 episodes of The L Word that put its importance before its imperfections

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Created by showrunner Ilene Chaiken, The L Word tells the intimate story of a group of lesbian friends living—and “talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking, writing, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming,” as the fittingly indulgent theme song declares—in Los Angeles. When The L Word premiered on Showtime in 2004, it was the first show ever centered on an ensemble of queer women.

Though referring to it as a gay version of Sex And The City is misleading and reductive, in certain circles, “are you a Shane/Alice/Bette/Tina/Jenny/Dana?” carries as much weight as “are you a Samantha/Carrie/Miranda/Charlotte?” In the wise words of stand-up comedian and A.V. Club columnist Cameron Esposito, “if you are a lady who dates ladies... The L Word is a little bit like the Bible: You don’t have to agree with its teachings, but you have to know about them.” Indeed, more than a decade since it first began, The L Word legacy remains strong, even when it’s so often remembered as a show that was simultaneously radical and problematic.

As with most shows that aim to represent the underrepresented, it didn’t take long before The L Word came under fire for its flaws. The show was praised for its inclusion of mostly lesbian, gay, and queer characters, but it was simultaneously criticized for its main cast of beautiful, thin, mostly white, and mostly femme cis-women. The L Word lives in a very narrow neighborhood of the diverse world of queer women, and because it was the only show explicitly about lesbians, there was a tendency for viewers to expect it to represent all lesbians and a broad spectrum of queer culture.

The show’s handling of race and, in particular, the ways queer people of color’s experiences can differ from white people’s experiences was all over the place. And the show grossly oversimplified trans issues in its later seasons. While those failures certainly matter, the supposition that The L Word could or should speak for the queer community as a whole places disproportionate burden on the show to rise to a level of inclusiveness other series aren’t held to. As with most stories inherently about identities, The L Word often reinforced otherness and stereotypes and isolated itself from stories that diverged from the ones it told.

The L Word was never an attempt to show an “authentic” lesbian experience, because a monolithic gay experience or gay culture does not exist. It explored a vast range of sexual interests, identities, and fantasies, showing that not all lesbians use dildos or strap-ons, but some do, and that’s okay! The series accomplished so many firsts: television’s first deaf lesbian, its first regularly occurring transgender character, and its first interracial lesbian couple. Beyond that, the series explored bisexuality, drag kings, drag queens, gender nonconformity, gay parenting, addiction, rape, and U.S. policies that limit the rights of LGBTQ people—including adoption laws and “don’t ask, don’t tell”—with a level of attention and detail that hasn’t been seen on TV since.

The writers didn’t always undertake those issues with grace. In fact, the characters were often written very inconsistently when it came to their opinions and beliefs, and the melodrama overshadowed some of the show’s intelligence. And at times, The L Word seemed like science fiction or fantasy, getting too ridiculous for its own good and taking place in an alternate reality of lesbian cafe turf wars and very casual revenge arson. In its final, disastrous season, The L Word switched genres entirely, turning into a murder mystery that no one even wanted to solve (and, in fact, was never solved, leaving viewers to conclude that we all killed Jenny Schecter).

But The L Word was radical for mainstream television in the sense that it created a world that not only acknowledged the fluidity of sexuality but allowed its characters to explore that fluidity. Just about every recurring female character on the series eventually kissed a girl and liked it. Some of them continued to identify as straight, some bisexual, some lesbians, and some just didn’t put a name to their identities at all. Even the straight-identifying Kit Porter (Pam Grier) had her fair share of queer storylines.

“I’ve never seen so many women in one place in my entire life,” Mia Kirshner’s Jenny—who at this point is still just a little wide-eyed baby gay learning to take her first gay steps—says when she gazes down upon the gaggle of poolside lesbians at Dinah Shore Weekend in season one’s “Looking Back.” As a viewer, it’s easy to have that feeling watching any episode of The L Word. Men, especially straight cis-men, appear so rarely on the show that it simply looks different than anything else on television. And a vast majority of the episodes were written and directed by women.

So even at its most absurd story-wise, The L Word was doing something revolutionary just by putting that many women behind and in front of the camera. Orange Is The New Black is the only show to have come even close to matching that level of representation. Orange writer Lauren Morelli recalled shooting a scene during season one when Taylor Schilling had a similar epiphany to Jenny, leaning over to Morelli while watching the monitors to say, “When have you ever seen this many women on screen together?”

Well, The L Word did it for 70 episodes. The series carved out a long-term place for queer women on television, and its departure left a major void that has yet to be filled.

“Let’s Do It” (season one, episode two): The emotional honesty of The L Word’s first season made it more firmly rooted in reality than all subsequent seasons, but the writers also have a lot of fun in season one. When Dana (Erin Daniels) can’t figure out if the sous chef (or “soup chef” if you’re an adorable dummy like Dana) at the country club is into her or into women at all, the friend group turns the question into a game: “the mission to ascertain the disposition and intent of one miss Lara Perkins,” shot with the same stylization as a high-stakes spy adventure complete with high-tech gadgets (flip phones) and a secret weapon (Katherine Moennig’s Shane). Of course, the idea that you can just check off a bunch of boxes to determine whether someone is gay or not is silly and binary-reinforcing, but the writers cover their tracks there by allowing the mission to fail. And earlier in the episode, a succinct conversation between Alice (Leisha Hailey), Shane, and Dana allows Shane to drop the “sexuality is fluid” bomb.

Most importantly, “Let’s Do It” introduces “the chart,” a visual map of who has slept with who. “The chart” begins as Alice’s attempt to show the intricacies of human connection (“We’re all connected through love, through loneliness.”) but eventually becomes a regular framing device for the show as well as the basis for Alice’s public radio show and “our chart,” the lesbian social networking site she creates. The influence of “our chart” extended beyond the screen when Chaiken and Showtime partnered to launch the now defunct blog and fan community OurChart.com. Even at its most absurd, The L Word is about community, so it comes as no surprise that the show so effectively fostered community in the real world.

“Looking Back” (season one, episode 11): Though the setting of Los Angeles was so important to The L Word’s narrative, the show’s relationship with the city became toxic, especially in the fourth season with all its meta storylines about the film industry. For that reason, destination episodes of The L Word always stand out. Getting out of Los Angeles meant leaving behind—or at least temporarily pausing—a lot of the baggage that began to over-complicate the show. “Looking Back” is a perfect destination episode in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily take place in a vacuum: The characters’ actions have major emotional consequences in the following episodes. But because it sets up those pieces without knocking them down yet, “Looking Back” has time for fun. Normally on this show, this would mean a whole lot of fucking, but instead of sex, friendship takes center stage in “Looking Back.” Alice, Dana, Tina (Laurel Holloman), and Jenny take a road trip to Palm Springs for Dinah Shore Weekend, a real-life music festival celebrating queer women that skyrocketed in popularity after this episode, which also employs one of television’s greatest conventions: flashback hair. As the title suggests, “Looking Back” weaves in glimpses of the past. The girls confusingly refer to the flashbacks as their “coming out stories,” when they’re really just the tales of their first lady crushes. The memories unfold like dream sequences: Tina’s retelling of how she first met Bette (Jennifer Beals) is not that far from when Tony first meets Maria in West Side Story as the rest of the room blurs so they can only see each other (Jenny and Marina’s first encounter in the pilot, which Jenny conveniently recaps here, has a similar Tony/Maria vibe). Alice, Dana, and Shane’s stories have just as much spectacle to them, but that’s how we all tend to remember early love stories: with a touch of cinematic romance. The women bond over their nostalgia, which leads to some simple but touching friendship moments, like Tina, Alice, and Shane just chilling in bed with Heinekens and Cheetos.

“Labyrinth” (season two, episode five): Especially throughout its first two seasons, The L Word writers seemed to constantly struggle with whether their show should cater to straight viewers at all. From a ratings perspective, there was a sense that they had to, but most episodes found a middle ground. Because Jenny Schecter was new to the queer scene and to queerness in general at the beginning of the series, she asks all the questions so that straight viewers don’t have to. But the writers also used code words and insider references to wink at the queer audience, and while the show sometimes seemed to bend too easily to the wills of heteronormative Hollywood, the writers also found ways to simultaneously confront the norms it sometimes pandered to. The L Word’s explicit sex scenes were often criticized for appealing to the heterosexual male gaze. But in season two, Shane and Jenny get a new roommate to represent that male gaze: Mark Wayland (Eric Lively). An amateur filmmaker, Mark attempts to shoot a docuseries about lesbians, and “Labyrinth” reveals how ignorant he is about queer sex. “What is the primary lesbian sex act?” he asks Jenny, explaining that for straight people, it’s “fucking.” When Jenny presses for clarification, he responds, point blank, that lesbians can’t fuck and that the only “legitimate” sex necessitates a penis. This prompts a very deserved “are you fucking kidding?” from Shane. Though Mark often seems like an exaggerated caricature, most queer women can verify just how prevalent his line of thinking here is, especially when it comes to straight dudes. By painting Mark as gross and invasive, the writers directly attacked the heterosexual male voyeur. The L Word puts to rest several myths about lesbian and queer sex, showing in almost every episode that, contrary to what Mark believes, lesbians fuck in a whole multitude of ways. Its frequent and diverse depiction of queer sex was one of the show’s most radical acts. In fact, while Mark is busy asking a bunch of idiotic questions, Dana and Alice are getting very, very busy with a sex marathon. “Labyrinth” marks the beginning of their romantic relationship, which became one of the show’s most beloved ’ships, especially later on in the season in “Land Ahoy,” when the two role-play, of all things, The Love Boat on a lesbian cruise.

“Lost Weekend” (season three, episode two): Of all the mistakes The L Word makes in its later seasons, the derailment of Max (Daniela Sea) is one of the worst. At first, Max marked a major milestone: He was the show’s first transgender character in the main cast and one of television’s first recurring transgender men. But as Max’s story went on, it became very clear that the writers were not all that committed to exploring the complex process of transitioning, which is heavily policed by laws and regulations in addition to social stigma. “Lost Weekend” takes place before Max begins to transition, during a time when he’s just starting to articulate his feelings about gender identity. Jenny isn’t quite yet the psychopath she becomes later in the series, and her friendship and support of Max is one of the last sweet storylines we get from her, as she later inexplicably becomes a cis-sexist, binary-reinforcing asshole. But all the relationship work between Max and Jenny in “Lost Weekend” is lovely, and the writers seem to care more about the emotional and personal implications of Max’s transition—as well as the violence he experiences simply because he doesn’t fit into constricting, normative definitions of gender—here than they do in later seasons. Jenny’s “we’re not faggots; we’re dykes, you fucking asshole,” only narrowly edges out Alan Cumming’s (yes, Alan Cumming) “celebrate the snatch” as best line of the episode. “Lost Weekend” also accomplishes sincere relationship work between Shane and Carmen (Sarah Shahi), who attend Carmen’s cousin’s quinceañera where they have to pretend to be straight gal pals and Shane wears a frilly white dress (with black boxer briefs underneath, naturally).

“Last Dance” (season three, episode 11): The L Word often prioritized fan service in favor of coherent storytelling (although sometimes that fan service is earned, as is the case in the cold open of season five’s “Look Out, Here They Come!”), but in season three, the writers seemed almost sadistically committed to giving fans what they did not want. First, they took away the beautiful relationship that was Dana/Alice and forced Alice down an obsessive spiral that was very hard to watch and yet not totally from left field (just look at how Alice acts around Gabby Deveaux in “Let’s Do It”—homegirl has some attachment issues). And then Dana died. There was no behind-the-scenes reason for the choice. In fact, Chaiken told Advocate in 2009: “If I could do it all again, that’s the one and only thing I’d do differently.” But for whatever reason, Chaiken decided to let Dana’s breast cancer diagnosis that comes early in season three become her death sentence. Most of “Last Dance” is just sad. Dana’s family, despite eventually accepting Dana’s sexuality, push all of the friends out of the memorial services and hire some homophobic preacher. So the friends steal some of Dana’s ashes so they can spread them at the waterfall near her childhood summer camp like she wanted. But “Last Dance” isn’t a completely devastating and emotionally manipulative episode (even though the alternative intro sequence most certainly is). It’s also funny. And that’s because in Leisha Hailey and Erin Daniels were the best comedic actors on the show, and Daniels returns one last time to shoot some flashbacks to the friend group’s early and best memories of Dana, memories we haven’t seen before, memories that include a time Shane took Dana to a Tegan And Sara concert (obviously) and they both tripped on acid. The memories are simple and light, but Dana’s cancer arc meant most of her scenes in season three were so heavy, and even though Daniels was certainly up to the task for those more painful character moments, it’s refreshing to see a happy, relaxed Dana in her farewell episode. Oh, and Shane proposes to Carmen, which brings us to...

“Left Hand Of The Goddess” (season three, episode 12): It’s hard to believe “Left Hand Of The Goddess” immediately follows “Last Dance,” because ask most fans of The L Word, and they’re likely to cite both as some of the series’ most depressing hours. But while “Last Dance” spends more time remembering Dana than advancing plots, “Left Hand Of The Goddess” has about seven disparate stories that shift into high-gear in preparation for season four. The episode jumps forward six weeks from Dana’s funeral to the weekend of Shane and Carmen’s wedding, planned and funded almost entirely by Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley), season two’s addition to the friend group. “Left Hand Of The Goddess” is a great episode for Helena, who became one of the show’s best surprises, especially in season three when she developed a close friendship with Alice. Helena is a spoiled rich girl but one with a genuine, kind heart. She always wants everyone to be happy, but that unfortunately means using her family’s money recklessly and sacrificing her own feelings, and that’s all on full display in “Left Hand Of The Goddess.” The episode also reunites Shane with her estranged father and spends a little too much time reinforcing that they are the same person—or, rather, that Shane thinks they’re the same person. Her father’s own infidelities convince her she can never truly commit to Carmen, and in the most Shane move in Shane’s life, she doesn’t show up for the wedding at all. It was another strange left turn for season three, as Carmen was one of the best things to happen to Shane and some of their storylines together touched on ideas of cultural difference and the different experiences of queer women of color but only began to scratch the surface. But Shahi nails her performance here, making it an even bigger tearjerker than “Last Dance.”

“Layup” (season four, episode four): A lot of season four of The L Word was a mess, with the show getting lost in the meta clusterfuck of Lez Girls, the film adaptation of Jenny’s New Yorker short story that was just a veiled retelling of her own life and, therefore, the first couple seasons of the show. But there’s a stretch in there—beginning with “Layup” and ending with “Lacy Lilting Lyrics”—where new romantic relationships form and friendships grow, allowing The L Word to find its emotional footing a bit in the post-Dana era. “Layup” introduces new Shane love interest Paige (Kristanna Loken, the Terminatrix herself), who was great until she wasn’t, a fate all too common for the girlfriends of The L Word, as well as new Bette love interest Jodi Lerner, played by Marlee Matlin. Jodi was television’s first deaf lesbian, and The L Word writers never let either her queerness or her deafness completely define her. She was a character on equal footing with the rest of the friend group, a famous artist, a stubborn, smart woman who doesn’t have time for a lot of Bette’s bullshit and who rocks the hell out of a jumpsuit.

But the main reason this episode makes the cut doesn’t come until its final act, when the friend group goes up against Papi’s team in a pickup basketball game. The writers never really figured out how to write Papi (Janina Gavankar), who often resembles a confused mixture of ethnic stereotypes, but she’s great in “Layup,” offering a meta critique of The L Word’s representation and privilege problems by making fun of Alice and company’s Rodeo Drive roots, which Alice of course reclaims by naming their team the Bourgie Asses. The basketball game is hilarious and probably could have been the entire episode, even though it also comes with its fair share of eye-roll moments, like Bette’s aggression and Jenny just fundamentally not understanding how basketball works. But hey, it’s fun watching Papi’s crew run over their bourgie asses.

“Luck Be A Lady” (season four, episode six): Despite its problems, season four was one of The L Word’s most inclusive seasons. In addition to Jodi, the season also brought in Tasha (Rose Rollins), a black lesbian in the U.S. military and love interest for Alice, and Bette’s boss Phyllis (Cybill Shepherd), an older lesbian stuck in a loveless marriage. Jodi, Phyllis, and Tasha all have fun storylines in “Luck Be A Lady,” which opens with a split-screen phone tag montage that can only be described as so 2007. The episode was written and directed by Angela Robinson, the director of D.E.B.S., a queer parody of Charlie’s Angels. Robinson’s comic-book-like style comes through in “Luck Be A Lady,” which uses that opening phone sequence to steamroll through the emotions and narratives central to the episode in an engaging and fun way, full of too many brilliant quotes to list (but Bette’s “Some lesbians, you know what? You have to break up with them more than once,” as well as, “I can’t go, because I’ll be dead, because I will have killed myself,” make Bette the most quote-worthy here). And it’s not just a fast little montage: Nearly 13 minutes of the episode take place entirely over the phone, but it never once feels stationary. This episode is also important for Bette-and-Jodi-having-sex-in-and-around-Jodi’s-art reasons.

“Lacy Lilting Lyrics” (season four, episode nine): The L Word always had drama, but season four was dripping in drama and breakups and self-deprecating choices for its main characters. In “Lucky Be A Lady,” Alice turns down a simple trip to the coffee shop just because there’s too much drama going on. “Lacy Lilting Lyrics” doesn’t necessarily press pause on all of the drama, but it does, much like “Looking Back,” re-center on friendship. Tasha and Alice—who have been having some of the best sex on the show—take a break from their marathon to invite Helena and Papi into their bed for a very chill hang session, which is temporarily crashed by Phyllis’ husband demanding answers for why his wife of so many years has “suddenly” decided she’s a lesbian. The late-in-life coming out story isn’t one often seen on television, but The L Word returned to it many times and showed Phyllis undergoing experiences much different from the rest of the main cast. And Cybill Shepherd is Cybill Shepherd.

But “Lacy Lilting Lyrics” isn’t all fun and wine in bed. Shane’s heart is broken, not by a girl, but by her father, who returns to take back the son he haphazardly left in her care. The writers struggled to diversify Shane’s storylines early on in the show, and she was often limited by her reputation as a “player.” In the first season especially, Shane seemed to only exist as the group’s lothario, which was exciting simply because television didn’t have any lesbian lotharios strutting around. But Shane’s relationship arcs and her emotionally detached act could sometimes get tired. Thankfully, the writers started to give the character some more emotionally complex relationships, beginning with Rosanna Arquette’s Cherie Jaffe. But Shane’s best storylines and moments were always between her and the other members of the friend group, because her saving grace was always that she’s a great friend. And season four proved she’s also a good sister, as she takes in her abandoned brother Shay. Shay was one of the best things that ever happened to Shane, especially since the relationship between the two allowed Moennig to demonstrate just how talented of a dramatic actor she is—undoubtedly the best dramatic actor in the main cast, which was sometimes easy to forget when the character wasn’t given much to do.

“Lifecycle” (season five, episode 10): We mostly don’t talk about season five of The L Word. We really don’t talk about season six, unless it’s to say Lucy Lawless was in it, because that’s obviously important. But “Lifecycle” stands out from the rest of season five and is one of the best episodes The L Word ever produced. The relationship dynamics remain honest—even though the characters aren’t being totally honest with one another—and the emotional beats are coherent and unembellished. The episode also manages to remember the psychological impact of Dana’s death, which started to get lost as present-day drama grew bigger and bigger. The storytelling is more cogent than any other point of season five and six, and “Lifecycle” would have made for a solid series finale, especially when compared to just how unsatisfying and muddled “Last Word” ended up being. Not even Lucy Lawless could save that mess. “Lifecycle” is how The L Word should be remembered.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Pilot” (season one, episode one), “Limb From Limb” (season one, episode 13), “Land Ahoy” (season two, episode 10), “Lifeline” (season three, episode five), “Lez Girls” (season four, episode five), “Lexington & Concord” (season four, episode eight), “Long Time Coming” (season four, episode 12), “Look Out, Here They Come!” (season five, episode two), “Liquid Heat” (season five, episode nine), “Last Couple Standing” (season six, episode seven).

Availability: The show is available in full on DVD as well as for streaming on Netflix.