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Ilene Chaiken on The Real L Word

This Sunday, Showtime debuts a reality-television counterpart to The L Word — its off-the-air show about the interconnected lives of a glamorous posse
of West Hollywood lesbians — called, easily enough, The Real L Word. Ilene Chaiken (whom we profiled when The L Word debuted) created both shows, and though reality shows have originated from scripted series before (think Laguna Beach from The OC; Real Housewives from Desperate Housewives), this marks an unprecedented kind of mini-franchise. The Real L Word introduces two aspiring ladykillers; a type-A couple power-struggling as they plan their fancy wedding; a pair of workaholic fashion-industry women trying to slot time for their relationship; and a smokin’-hot film producer whose new girlfriend comes with three small children. Chaiken and I sat down together at the Bowery Hotel bar two weeks ago to talk about reality TV, the casting process, and whether we’ll get to see real lesbian sex.

This is your first foray into reality television, but it’s certainly not your first exposure to the rich terrain of lesbodrama. When you were working on The L Word, there was plenty of that.

Are you referring to behind-the-scenes?

Of course.

Well, when I was doing The L Word, I got an inkling that truth was every bit as fabulous and unbelievable and outrageous as fiction, and that added fuel to my fire when it came time to do this show.

Had you considered reality TV before?

No. This was about The L Word, not about reality TV. But when we finished filming The L Word, after a little time had gone by, I said to myself, The brand still has value, and there’s still an incredible longing for these stories to be told. I was thinking, Showtime doesn’t do reality shows. But I thought, Let’s just call it The L Word, and Showtime can be my partner, a supplier instead of a network, and I’ll produce the show and make some money for us, and extend the life of something I really cherish. [President] Bob Greenblatt said, “It’s a really good idea. Let’s do the first premium-cable reality show with The L Word.”

Is Showtime going to tout this as a premium-cable-show offering? Meaning: real lesbians having real lesbian sex?

There was never a conversation between me and any of the women we cast, nor between me and Showtime, about whether there was going to be nudity, whether somebody was going to have sex on-camera. I think there was possibly an implicit understanding among all of us that this was a show for Showtime. That doesn’t mean you have to have sex, or you have to get naked, but it means we are going to be really frank about who we are and how we live.

Did you try to find real-life counterparts to your fictional characters?

Never explicitly. I discussed it with Showtime and my partners: “Should we be looking for a Shane [Kate Moennig] or a Bette [Jennifer Beals]?” We ultimately decided no for many reasons, mostly because we wanted to make an authentic show that expanded the premise of The L Word. That said, we’re not monolithic. We have very diverse lives, and even the swath of the lesbian society that The L Word tries to represent is a wide swath.

Did the women who auditioned express any apprehensions about revealing so much of themselves on-camera?

Absolutely. I didn’t want to cast people who just wanted to exploit themselves on television, who don’t care, who have nothing to lose. I wanted women who had a lot to lose because they had a lot going on. So of course they had qualms, and we had very detailed and intimate conversations on what they were doing, why they were doing it, and they needed to know what my intentions were. I had to reassure them that I didn’t want to make them look like fools. I’m not about to put on a show about lesbians that pushes us forward as trashy, ridiculous, vulgar people that behave badly all the time.

Will The Real L Word appeal to a straight audience as The L Word did?

I hope we’re speaking to a lot of people, and not just lesbians. And I certainly hope that we speak to some of those people who were my most cherished L Word fans. We are talking about women who determine the course of their own lives and go after the things that they believe in and aspire to.

In a recent New York Times article, you suggested the possibility of doing a Real L Word in Brooklyn.

I don’t know whether we’ll have the opportunity to franchise the show. I hope we do. I was talking about it hypothetically, but I think that it is the obvious next step.

Ilene Chaiken on The Real L Word