I started watching Grey’s Anatomy mostly because Mrs. Bailey, my history teacher, was a fan. School legend claimed if you could get her talking about the previous night’s episode you could waste away an entire class period without every talking about Andrew Jackson or robber-barons or whatever was on the syllabus that day. This was 2008. Grey’s Anatomy season five. The one where a cancer-stricken Izzie has sex with a hallucinated Denny. The one where George dies after enlisting in the army. And the one where, most interesting to 16-year-old me, Callie Torres meets her future wife, Arizona Robbins.
I back-binged the entire series that year. As I watched, I would often find myself scanning through episodes searching exclusively for scenes featuring Callie, played by Sara Ramirez, who would come out as bisexual IRL years after her character did on the show. Which was how, one night Googling after watching an episode, I discovered the world of the YouTube supercut.
I did this with so many shows after that. Anytime I heard there were queer women in a show, I went to YouTube. Naomi and Emily on Skins. Willow and [sobs in lesbian] Tara on Buffy. Brittany and Santana on Glee. Emily and her string of girlfriends on Pretty Little Liars. Instead of committing to an entire season, I could just watch a fan-created miniseries of the parts I was most interested in. Interests I had even though I was absolutely, definitely, in no way gay myself. (I’d start to come out of the closet, slowly, half a decade later.)
“I watched dozens of Calzona episodes despite never having watched Grey’s,” my colleague Katie Heaney at the Cut said when I asked her about supercuts. I also polled members of a queer spinoff Facebook group devoted to the podcast Who? Weekly. “I spent a lot of time in late HS/early college trying to convince my friends that some of the fan-made Naomily music videos and supercuts I watched obsessively were, ‘actually really artistic,’” one member, Alina, told me. “One time I watched all the YouTube cuts of the Sophie/Sian storyline from Coronation Street twice in one weekend and that’s when I realized I was actually a lesbian,” another, Erin, said.
Plenty of similar anecdotes about supercuts rolled in. “In high school I would obsessively watch South of Nowhere. At the time I was ‘secretly’ in love with my volleyball coach — oh! the angst! — and the Spencer-Ashley [supercuts] were the age-appropriate lesbian content fix I needed. Since you couldn’t pause live TV or pull up episodes on demand, fan vids were the best way to relive those precious few Spashley make-out scenes.” “I never watched Degrassi, but preteen me watched every single one of Paige and Alex’s scenes together on YouTube.” “Honestly this is mega embarrassing but Avatar the Last Airbender Katara/any female characters supercuts made me gay.” For many of us, these queer Franken-shows were an antidote for a predominantly straight entertainment economy.
Years after it went off the air, I found The L Word on Netflix. Curled up in a twin-XL bed in my college dorm room, I remember watching the pilot and feeling equal parts seen and terrified. Here, finally, was a show where I saw myself represented in more than one character or one couple. And also here was a show where I could not see myself at all. I was 21, living in a cow town in upstate New York, and wholly lacking a crew of queer women for talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, and drinking. But, most importantly, it was the first time I remember watching a television show and not feeling like I could fast-forward through a moment. I didn’t need to speed through to find the gay stuff. The whole show was the gay stuff.
There are a far more LGBTQ+ people on our screens than there were even five years ago when I binged The L Word and markedly more than there were when the show aired, but there really hasn’t been another The L Word. “The shows since The L Word that have included more than a single queer person plus their rotation of partners — like The Fosters, Vida, The Bisexual, Transparent, Faking It, etc. — haven’t established nearly the same significant cultural footprint,” Shannon Keating wrote earlier this week for BuzzFeed. I often joke that, because I’m a lesbian, I’m contractually obligated to watch those shows, a line I found myself using a lot as an adult woman binging The Fosters, a Freeform show largely about, and marketed at, teenagers. But the truth of it is that it’s still so refreshing to watch a show where so much of the plot resonates as a queer person. Or, even if it doesn’t resonate, is still about queer people.
If you want to go watch ten minutes of scenes where The L Word is a show exclusively about Alice and Dana, you can find that on YouTube. But I found it interesting that many of the folks I asked about watching supercuts also noted they had watched The L Word in its entirety. A supercut of The L Word was something you watched as a supplement, rather than in lieu of the show. “I watched the L Word in 72-minute increments on Megavideo,” one person told me. Another said the only out lesbian at their high school would give them one season at a time on a flash drive. There was so little television made for queer people — or at least with queer people as much in mind as the broader straight audience who also wanted to watch a show about a lot of hot, cis women having sex with each other — that skipping any moment of it was out of the question.
Plenty of ink has been devoted to explaining why The L Word was problematic. It, particularly in its treatment of trans people, does not hold up so great 15 years later. (The reboot does its best to course correct for this. It’s hyper woke, to an almost cloying degree. Though it does open with a period-sex scene that nearly makes up for that fact that we had to watch Tim and Jenny have sex twice in the original pilot.) Waxing nostalgic about the importance of The L Word is less about the content of the show itself and more about that the show existed at all. A show where essentially everybody that mattered was queer or questioning. A show where lesbians got to be happy and conniving and loving and loyal and one ended up dead in a pool.
We haven’t really had anything like it since. Sadly, I don’t think The L Word: Generation Q is poised to give it to us again. I’m pretty lukewarm on the reboot thus far, but I know I’ll keep watching it. Partly because, again, I’m contractually obligated to and, also, partly because I want to. Where else am I going to get an hour of television where everyone is gay? One where I won’t have to speed through the hetero plotlines or comb YouTube for supercuts. Though I’ll probably look for a Kate Moennig one anyway for, uh, research.