There are women who want to be noticed, and women who prefer do the noticing. That’s something I couldn’t help but observe while interviewing Michele Abbott and Kathy Greenberg in the bar at the Chateau Marmont recently.
Abbott and Greenberg, who along with Ilene Chaiken created The L Word, are in many ways atypical of the image that setting likely evokes in your mind. They live, work and play in Hollywood, but unlike some of their peers, being noticed isn’t high on their list of priorities.
But you already know that if you’ve been aware of their silence over the six-season run of their show.
I met Abbott, a hilarious and talented producer, and Greenberg, a cautious yet equally funny and extremely successful screenwriter (who played a large role in bringing us Ratatouille), two years ago.
It took me that long to convince them to talk to me on the record about their significant contributions to the hit show; how they came to collaborate with Chaiken, who developed the stories around the characters they gave birth to in ways that were sometimes favorable and other times undesirable; the insider, lesbian-only party that helped to seal the deal with Showtime; and the retrospective and finale.
Friends for twenty years, Abbott and Greenberg spoke with genuine appreciation for one another and what they helped to create, and were surprisingly candid about the show they’ve been so reluctant to discuss until now.
WARNING. THIS IS AN EXTREMELY TL;DR ARTICLE. BUT IT'S SO WORTH IT IF YOU'RE AN L WORD F
AfterEllen.com: Let’s begin with the most obvious question: After you created The L Word and helped to produce the pilot and the second episode, your involvement with the show ended. Why?
Kathy Greenberg: I was then a film executive, the VP of the American Office at Working Title Films. Michele was a producer of TV commercials. She had worked on Superbowl and Nike spots with directors such as Ridley Scott [G.I. Jane, Thelma & Louise] and Bryan Singer [X-MEN, Valkyrie]. But, at the time, it was thought that we didn’t have the specific TV experience necessary to continue.
Michelle Abbott: Ilene [Chaiken] had the experience; she had written Dirty Pictures for Showtime.
AE: But there are stories of waitresses selling scripts and going on to be involved in their shows. You both know more about TV than the average waitress …
KG: Ultimately, the decision wasn’t ours.
MA: It was made by Showtime and the show runner, who was Ilene. So, we can’t really answer that.
AE: Media attention isn’t a priority for you but, given the value of "buzz" in L.A., why didn’t we have this conversation sooner?
MA: Our names are on the show. To go any further would have been some sort of self-promotion, and that wasn’t our agenda.
KG: It wasn’t about us. It was about a movement and raising consciousness. We felt like we were just bringing something that was in the collective consciousness to light. It was enough to see our show — the first of its kind — become a reality.
AE: Before I dig deeper into the collective consciousness, tell me how and when you first came up with your ideas for the show.
MA: It was in 2000. We weren’t in as classy a joint as this! (Laughter) In the old days Kathy and I used to have to go to Trader Vic’s for happy hours.
KG: We were rehashing, talking about how insane our lives and our friends’ lives were, and the incest of it all …
MA: Our subculture was really specific in the ways we interacted and carried on, and we thought, ‘No one would believe this.’
KG: We eventually started bemoaning the fact that there isn’t a show about us to watch … but every lesbian has had this thought.
MA: Right. No one can claim ownership for the idea of a lesbian ensemble show. It’s not brain surgery. Any lesbian that’s ever watched TV felt the void. It was the most obvious accident waiting to happen; it was just a matter of who and when. And after a couple of big, flaming, tropical, hoo-ha drinks out of buckets we decided we were just the ones to tell that story!
KG: So we started jotting things down on napkins, and the characters were born, based on our friends or composites of our friends.
AE: What characters were born that night?
KG: There was Jenny. She was to provide access into the lesbian subculture, an innocent point of view-narrative way into the story.
MA: She was a relatable character. We all know the feeling of walking into a gay bar for the first time, leaving one world for another and the entire cultural shift it implies.
AE: Sure. Who was she based on?
KG: Me, because I had the experience of coming to L.A. from Wisconsin … and it was overwhelming. The first time I went to Girl Bar and saw 300 beautiful women, I couldn’t believe it.
MA: Jenny was described in the pitch as “Fresh Meat Farm Girl.” (Laughter) How she ended up being a Nazi stripper and a cutter is anyone’s guess.
AE: Who else?
KG: Shane. She didn’t have a name, but she was called “The Cad.”
AE: Classic. There’s a Shane in every group.
MA: Bette and Tina. They were the power struggle couple.
KG: Through them we wanted to explore the heterosexual paradigm in a lesbian couple. … Originally, they were both named Bettina, because we noticed that a lot of women who get together have the same names. So we were making fun of that because, you know, what couple would include two Bettinas?
AE: That’s so random.
MA: You could tell we were at the bottom of the tiki punch bowl at that point!
KG: So we thought, how would they distinguish themselves? And we said, well, one would be called Bette and the other would be called Tina.
AE: I didn’t know that.
MA: It never came out.
AE: Was Alice on a napkin?
KG. Yes, but I don’t think her name was Alice.
MA: And she wasn’t as kooky and funny as Leisha [Hailey] brought to the character.
KG: But she was always going to be a magazine writer or editor … the one to call people on their bullshit.
MA: For sure, Dana was there.
KF (to MA): And she’s based on you.
MA: She was the least composited character. …We wanted a person who grew up in a conservative environment and has to deal with a lot of social pressures that keep her in the closet. So we thought, let’s make her an athlete, a public figure. … I wasn’t a public figure … but I played some pro [tennis] tours. I was also really closeted and in a sorority. And you can’t be a lesbian in a sorority.
AE: Oh, yeah, you can!
MA (making fun of herself): Unless you’re me!
MA: The goofiness of her, you know, being the transparent person [to whom everyone says], “Oh, honey, you’re so gay! Why do you keep toting around this beard?” was right out of my experience. … I had some ridiculous beards! … And when I started meeting gay women they called me out.
AE: Like Alice and Tina did to Dana.
MA: Right. And then I came out like a bat out of hell and started running lesbian parties in San Francisco. So there was that element [on the napkins], too — the club scene, the DJ …
MA: Yes, but she wasn’t called Carmen. [The clubs were] the first portals, the places to go to find girls…
AE: What about Kit?
KG: We started with a character we called “The Old Sea Captain,” who was like a historian, a woman [who’d] been through decades of change.
MA: She was an activist, a touchstone for the historical aspects of the movement. And there was a person in town like that.
AE: So that explains Kit in a sailor cap and with braids in the retrospective.
KG: Oh, God!
AE: She was a cross between Pop-Eye, Pippi Longstocking and Angela Davis. What the hell were you thinking?
MA: Aye! Come to me, I’ll tell you tales of the old days!
AE: Clearly that character lost something in translation, as did The Chart on Kit’s back. Was The Chart on the napkin?
MA: The Chart was on the napkin, absolutely. It seemed crazy to do an ensemble piece without referring to it. But The Chart was in the zeitgeist. No one person can claim that’s an original idea. … But it was certainly never intended to be on Kits’ body!
KG: We originally thought it might be an art installation, a good avenue for feminist expression.
AE: Can I assume that the original Chart had your names and the names of your friends on it?
AE: Okay. Who are Lauren and Tamara?
KG: I don’t know who Tamara is.
AE: That’s all you’re giving me?
KG: That’s it.
AE: Do you want another drink?
KG: That’s not going to work.
AE: Back to the collective consciousness, the lesbian zeitgeist. As you pointed out, what group of lesbians hasn't said, ‘We should write a book/TV show about our lives’? But few actually do, because they lack the necessary connections. It's unlikely that the show would’ve made it past the notes-on-a-napkin stage if it weren't for the people you knew...
MA: That’s true. … We sat on the idea for a while, until one day Ilene called Kathy and said that she was approached by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey [World of Wonder founders and directors of Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye] about doing a lesbian TV show. But theirs was a campy Charlie’s Angels-ish version, as I recall. … Ilene had pitched to Kathy in the past at Working Title, and Kathy is the Godmother to Ilene’s children, so they had a relationship. … Anyway, Ilene had envisioned a lesbian show of her own, so she called to ask Kathy to collaborate with her.
KG: I told her that I was working on a show myself with Michele, who Ilene also knew for many years, and I said we should all join forces. So we did. We pitched our version of the show to Randy and Fenton, and then it was pitched to Showtime …
MA: One of the key selling points was a scrapbook of ‘The Last Lesbian Blow-Out of the Millennium.’
KG: Oh, no!
MA: Kathy had these legendary lesbian-only parties at her house up in ‘the bird streets’ [that was] formerly George Harrison’s house. … The parties were peppered with celebrities … Ellen and Melissa, studio execs … and the Hollywood lesbian scene. … These were the pool parties of Bette and Tina.
AE: But nobody ever died in your pool?
KG: Nobody died, right.
MA: But there were lots of fun times in that pool…. In the pilot, they sort of … Shane …
KG: That didn’t happen at my house!
MA (Imitating KG): I’m just a farm girl! (Laughter) … All right, moving on. The scrapbook showed the studio execs a world they had never seen or imagined as traditional lesbian culture.
KG: And, to be fair, it was a subculture of the subculture.
AE: Prominent L.A. lesbians, you mean?
MA: Exactly. At the time, we both were in the thick of it. I was dating an agent …
KG: Madonna’s agent.
MA: And Kathy was running around with k.d. [lang].
KG: That was the Leisha connection, through k.d.
MA: It was the time of Madonna’s Sex book and we were ensconced in that world. … And the scrapbook was a window into that world. … [Showtime executives] said, ‘Oh, we get it. Now we see what you’re talking about.’
AE: How did you envision the show then? As a Drama? Comedy? Horrifyingly tedious nonsense?
AE: A soap?
MA: It’s a fine line… When we were rehashing all of our stories, they did seem pretty unrealistic.
AE: But unrealistic is different from preposterous, right? The word ‘campy’ has been thrown around, but camp is over the top and makes a statement …
KG: It wasn’t satirical enough.
MA: But the characters stayed true to what our vision was, and we were always floored by the actresses and what they were able to do with what they got. They’re all great.
KG: That’s absolutely true, but the storylines weren’t always what we envisioned.
MA: In the beginning, we were thinking it would be more self-deprecating … like if Tina Fey were a lesbian. But it didn’t go that way.
AE: I suppose it’s hard to find that tone when dealing with serious issues.
KG: I think finding a tone … was always going to be difficult in terms of appealing to a broader audience. Comedy works when people are aware of the references. Making this too comedic would have gone over many people's heads, because it assumes an inside knowledge, and that, perhaps, would have ghettoized the show.
MA: The execs didn’t want it too niche. …There was an intentional awareness at Showtime to make it super-glamorous, appealing to straight people.
AE: I get it. So, Kathy, as a screenwriter, do you think The L Word writers had a greater responsibility to accuracy — to do a good job portraying our distinct differences — or to make good TV?
KG: See, she waits till we’re drunk. …
MA: She’s, like, ‘Oh, I’m getting them!’
AE: I want to be Katie Couric when I grow up.
KG: I have to be honest, that’s a very difficult question. I don’t know. …The show’s defense has always been, ‘We’re trying to make good TV, as well as be accurate.’ … But that’s not really an issue anymore, is it?
AE: Well, the more visible we become on TV, the less critical we’ll be, I suppose. But criticism of the show began early, primarily because it was all we had and we wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible. Even though everyone was well aware that it was only a TV show …
MA: Why criticize then? Sex and the City was not a show that captured the diversity of all women. It was about niche group. And so was our show.
AE: Okay, but what do you say to the people who complain that they weren’t represented well? To bisexuals, for example, who felt let down because they found representation in Alice in one season, and then lost it in another?
MA: The intention was there. … You say, “There’s a Shane in every group,” and that’s true, but that girl might not be dialed in the same way as Shane. …
AE: She might not be an arsonist?
KG: Or a skateboarder!
MA: Exactly! But there’s a ‘cad’ everywhere. Ours was just dressed-up for TV. …Every character was. Marina, for example, was ‘The Predatory Lesbian’ dialed up.
AE: So the writers did a better job of making good TV than they did at making it accurate?
KG: Yes. But trying to straddle those two things might have been the failing of the show in the eyes of some people. The right answer is to strive for good storytelling. It’s not about TV or accuracy, it’s about more filled out and rounded storytelling, and pulling storylines all the way through.
AE: Speaking of storytelling, let’s talk about Dana’s death. Michele, you’re healthy now, but you were diagnosed with breast cancer during development. How did you feel about Dana's death?
MA: I thought it was total bullsh-t that she died. I liked her story until that point. …We were all aware of my issue and talking about it in development. It was on the table — not in the script, but on the table personally — and it was pretty distracting for me as far as what was important in my life. … Once you get in that world, it’s very scary, because there’s no doctor who can tell you, “Okay, here’s exactly what you have to do.” You have a million different choices and you have to go to different oncologists. … It’s insane, the complexity of treatment.
KG: It would have been a great thing to explore in the show. It was a missed opportunity.
MA: Anyone who’s experienced it knows the truth of it — you always want to see someone survive. … I think the threat of death would have been enough of an element of drama. … Viewers could have been taken on an inspirational journey where Dana battles cancer and wins. It was a rotten portrayal and it didn’t play out.
AE: You’d get no argument from fans … or from Erin [Daniels]. But she nailed her part.
KG: Yeah, she was great.
AE: All the original cast members were. Can you share a memory you had with them during production?
MA: There was this amazing moment after a day of shooting, when we ended up in a karaoke bar in Vancouver. …
KG: Kate [Moennig], Leisha and Erin got up and started singing “What A Feeling” from Flashdance to Jennifer [Beals]. Jennifer was mortified at first, but then, like the good sport that she is, she grabbed a bottle of Perrier off a table, took the stage, dumped the water over herself and started dancing.
AE: The dance?
MA: No, but she swung her hair around and spun a bit … She rallied!
AE: I like her even more now!
MA: I’ll have the utmost respect for her forever for that.
AE: Why do you think there’s nothing on TV comparable to The L Word? Do the execs think we can only ‘process’ one lesbian show at a time?
KG: The answer has less to do with the fact that it’s a lesbian show and more to do with how executives program. … Creatively, execs would rather be seen breaking new ground and not copying existing formats. But I think the real answer is that the audience is already somewhat niche and loyal, and there would be a risk that [another show] would only get, at best, a portion of that audience.
AE: How did you feel about the retrospective prior to the finale, especially given that you weren’t acknowledged at all?
MA: It was moving, but we watched with a lot of ambivalence. We were sad to see it end — the show accomplished more than we ever thought it would — but we were also relieved to see it end …
KG: It was what it was. Regardless, watching it made me feel lucky to have had a hand in something that engaged the community in so many ways and gave us unprecedented visibility.
AE: What did you think of the ending?
MA: I thought it was consistent with everything we had come to expect from The L Word. I think it would've been great if Sounder the dog had come back and pushed Jenny into the pool himself. (Laughter) Who knows, maybe Sounder will be investigated and confess. Stranger things have happened on the show.
KG: To me, it felt incongruous They tried to accomplish a lot in a little amount of time and it ended up a little muddled. But, it’s an auspicious task to try to wrap up a series. I also think that a show that ends in a non-answer, like The Sopranos did, is basically trying to tell the audience, ‘This wasn’t the issue; this isn’t germane to the show.’
AE: But The Sopranos didn’t end in a way that made some of us feel baited, as The L Word did. It didn’t end with, ‘And stay tuned for a special announcement!’ — which was a plug for The Interrogation Tapes.
KG: I know what you’re saying … but I’m also saying that you can do that when you’re taking a loftier view on the whole show, and you have a point. But The L Word never was that.
AE: No, it wasn’t. So we were forced to focus on the whodunit and, in the end, many viewers felt gypped.
KG: This wasn’t one of those genius reveals where we’re able to look back on that information and say, ‘Oh my God, that totally makes sense.’ … The show early on stopped being a show and started being a commerce feed, a brand.
MA: Right. … I’m trying to think of another show, in any other genre, that did that as much. The ourchart site … the Interrogation Tapes … What other shows do that?
AE: The self-promotion was obvious and weird.
KG: Yeah, so from that point [viewers] already felt manipulated.
AE: Do you have anything to say to The L Word fans that were disappointed in the finale?
MA: Don’t blame me!
KG: It’s not my fault!
AE: Finally, what are you both doing now?
KG: I’m working on another draft of a movie for Working Title, and just finished a couple of comedy scripts for Paramount Vantage and Walden Media.
MA: I’m producing commercials, running my production company, and I just wrapped a TV pilot.
KG: And together we're working on something that might help to fill some of the space left by The L Word.
AE: Really? … Will you tell us more about that when you can?