Ilene Chaiken Has No Regrets -- Except Killing Dana

By Caroline Ryder

Originally published on Advocate.com January 16 2009 1:00 AM ET

Before January
18, 2004 -- when the first episode of The L Word
aired -- Ilene Chaiken was a resolutely
below-the-line, behind-the-scenes kind of lesbian. Today,
thanks to show’s success, she needs little
introduction -- and not just among the LGBT audience.
Chaiken is an integral component of TheL Word’s global brand, a mainstream
entertainment commodity that has been sold in dozens of
countries around the world, from Uruguay to Lithuania
to Iceland. Being thrust into the role of lesbian
storyteller in chief has occasionally proved jarring for
the cerebral, reserved writer-director.

“I was a
blithering mess in the beginning,” says Chaiken,
smiling. “It’s terrifying when
you’re someone who is not groomed to be in front of
an audience, and you don’t really feel
well-suited for it.”

For the first
year after the show launched, she took beta blockers.
“Then I didn’t need to worry anymore.
These days, I don’t shake nearly as much when
I’m making speeches.”

The sixth and
final season of the show is set to begin on Showtime
January 18, exactly five years after the series launched.
While it’s a bittersweet goodbye for Chaiken,
one gets the sense she’s a little relieved.

“I feel
that it is exactly the right time to be moving on,”
she says slowly and purposefully, grating lemon zest
for a mousse dessert as she talks to Advocate.com in her kitchen.
“I’ll miss the community of The L
Word,
but I was personally ready for it to end.
Jennifer Beals did joke that someday Bette and Tina would
have grandchildren -- but I think all of us agreed
that it was best to go while we were still relatively
young and sexy.”

We spoke a few
days before Christmas -- she’d recently returned to
Los Angeles from Vancouver, where she had wrapped the
20-minute pilot of her new, as yet unsold L
Word
spin-off starring Leisha Hailey. It's rumored
to be a prison drama, but Chaiken declined to go in to
any detail about it. Even so, one would be safe in assuming
that Chaiken has plenty more lesbian-themed
entertainment up her sleeve, right?

“Yes, but
remember, I never saw The L Word as purely
lesbian-themed,” she points out. “I saw it as
a show about lesbians for everyone. Personally,
I’m interested in telling stories. Telling
lesbian-themed stories, yes, but not exclusively. I’m
interested in making mainstream entertainment.”

Her determination
to appeal to a mass audience has occasionally put
Chaiken at odds with women who felt unrepresented among the
show’s glamorous cast of characters. But
Chaiken makes no bones about her position --
she’s making TV for America, and America likes
lipstick.

“I never
had any qualms about the way we were representing the
culture,” she says.

When The L
Word
ends in March, there may be no TV show on
U.S. mainstream cable or terrestrial television featuring
predominantly gay or lesbian characters to replace it.
It’s a problem, says Chaiken. Niche cable
channels that focus on gay content, like Logo, are
“great for what they are,” she says,
“but they don’t preclude the need to
represent us and our lives and our stories in mainstream
entertainment.”

And despite its
massive global reach, The L Word has received
little formal acknowledgment from Hollywood -- just
one prime-time Emmy nomination in six years.
“It’s pathetic,” says Chaiken.
“We really were ignored by the Emmys.” (The
late actor Ossie Davis, who played the father of
Jennifer Beals’s Bette Porter and Pam
Grier’s Kit Porter, received a posthumous nomination
for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in
2004.)

There’s
always the possibility season 6 will receive more
recognition. With Jenny Schecter (played by Mia
Kirshner) revealed to be dead in the opening moments
of the first episode, you can be sure that the final
season of The L Word will continue take the
term lesbian drama to new levels. All in just eight
episodes.

”Having
eight episodes was a business decision by Showtime,”
says Chaiken. “We agreed it was actually kind
of a great thing for a final season, because we could
make it more contained. So we came up with a concept
for wrapping it all round one story idea.”

And once The L
Word
’s final chapter closes, then what?

The Farm, Chaiken’s Leisha Hailey–L
Word
spin-off, has been taking up much of her
time.

“It’s a very different show to TheL Word,” says Chaiken. Actresses Famke
Janssen, Melissa Leo (who played Winnie Mann on The
L Word
), and Laurie Metcalfe (Roseanne)
are also rumored to be on board.

And what about an
L Word movie?

“I would
love to do an L Word movie,” she
says. “My cast would love to do an L Word
movie. We have no formal plans, but when I have a moment to
take a breather, I certainly will think about what the
climate is for actually doing one.”

Chaiken is also
working on “a couple” separate film projects
as a writer and director, and she has plans for a new
Internet venture. Ourchart.com, the social network for
lesbians that she cofounded, is on ice -- editorially
speaking, at least. (Users can still network through
the site, but there haven’t been any blog posts on
the home page since November). Chaiken’s new venture
“may or may not be separate to
Ourchart.com,” she says. Whatever the future of
OurChart, she promises to find a place online for the
OurChart users who were L Word fans -- no doubt music
to the ears of those wondering where they’ll be
able to pontificate on Tibette (Tina and Bette) and
express their continuing fury over Dana’s death.

“If I
could do it all again, that’s the one and only thing
I’d do differently,” says Chaiken of
killing off the L Word’s Dana character,
a move that resulted in a minor revolt among the
show’s fans. “I think if maybe I had known how
people would react to that and how long the anger and
despair would last, I might have reconsidered it ...