Leisha Hailey in The L Word by Paul Michaud/Showtime Leisha Hailey in The L Word by Paul Michaud/Showtime
The when: Sundays at 9 pm/ET, with Season 5 premiering Jan. 6. What's what: A look inside the lives of a kaffeeklatsch of Los Angeles-based lesbian and bisexual women and their lovers, relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Who's who: It's a very large cast, but the core characters are: Alice (played by Leisha Hailey), an open-hearted if mildly acerbic radio host; Jenny ( Mia Kirshner), a somewhat troubled writer who finds success with an autobiographical novel about the group; curator and professor Bette ( Jennifer Beals) and studio executive Tina ( Laurel Holloman), a couple who split but share custody of a daughter and otherwise uncomfortably remain in each other's orbit; hairstylist and former adolescent prostitute Shane ( Katherine Moenig), who's unsurprisingly rather guarded and afraid of commitment, but is also fiercely loyal and apparently irresistible to many women; and, increasingly, Kit ( Pam Grier), Bette's "straight" older half-sister, who's attempting to restart her aborted singing career while running the café and nightclub, the Planet, where the others often meet. What's next: Resolution of the major cliffhangers from last season: whether Jenny, upset over the way her novel was to be filmed (and who was involved), might've drowned herself; what the legal consequences might be of the theft of money by newer character Helena (Rachel Shelley) from her controlling paramour and boss Catherine (Sandrine Holt); and how the budding but already-rocky new romances for Bette and Shane might proceed, particularly with Shane losing her temporary guardianship of her young half-brother. Why watch?: At its frequent best, The L Word is a genuinely funny and often-touching drama about a group of well-realized and by no means whitewashed characters making their way in a world that often will arbitrarily hold things other than their sexual preferences against them. The arc involving Moira Sweeney becoming Max Sweeney ( Daniela Sea), particularly the awkward and partial but genuine attempts by his puzzled father to reconcile with the former daughter he'd alienated, was extremely well-handled, avoiding many of the clichés that have already arisen in this kind of scenario. While such American series as Ellen (the sitcom), Roseanne and Once and Again had dealt to some degree or another with fairly realistic lesbian characters (and Xena certainly winked and coded), even the U.S. version of Queer as Folk seemed to treat its Sapphic cast as metaphorical little sisters. The L Word has been the first to make lesbians its primary focus, and to make a game effort to touch on as many aspects of women's experience as possible... even if, particularly in the early episodes, few of the characters seemed to need to work very often. At its infrequent worst, The L Word is a mildly interesting, somewhat-cartoonish soap opera where characters (particularly the protean Jenny) seem to suffer abrupt behavioral changes and make plot-driven arbitrary decisions with disproportionate consequences. Say what?!: A Taiwanese-American lesbian friend of mine has a sort of love/not-quite-hate relationship with the series, in part for continuing a trend she sees in a lot of U.S. television and films, wherein the East Asian-descended characters (such as Catherine here) are most often pettily to grandly evil. Even the rather positive "Papi" character played by Indian/Dutch-American Janina Gavankar was Hispanic rather than South Asian. Of course, part of what my friend also doesn't like about the series is that Papi won't be continuing into the new season. - Todd Mason What do you say? L Word fans, tell others why you've turned on this Showtime series! Use our Online Video Guide to find clips from The L Word and get better-acquainted with the ladies. More Strike Survival guidance from TVGuide.com: " Do NBC's Gladiators Deserve a Fighting Chance? " HBO's The Wire: Why You Should Tap into It " What to Watch: Your Guide to January Premieres