SHOWTIME 'The L Word' challenges young actress

A former cheerleader has joined the cast of the Showtime drama.
NEW YORK -- Sarah Shahi auditioned for "The L Word," but once she got the gig she wasn't sure she wanted it. "I was just scared," said Shahi. "It seemed like a great big life change. I didn't know if I wanted it or not. It was not only the material, but could I do it well enough."
The material, of course, is key in the Showtime drama about lesbians living in Los Angeles. The series, which was launched a year ago to critical raves, returns Sunday at 10 p.m.
"It's a pretty big deal to go into everybody's households and be a lesbian," Shahi said. "It's not something that's taken lightly. There's no other show on the air that does what we do as well as we do it."
"The L Word" is a dramatic shift for Shahi, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. In the past, she's played, as she said, "the hot assistant," never something as challenging as her role on "The L Word," which also stars Jennifer Beals, Mia Kirshner, Erin Daniels, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Pam Grier and Katherine Moennig.
"It's just like going to acting school every day," Shahi said.
Her character, Carmen, is introduced in the first episode and quickly gets into a love triangle with Kirshner's Jenny and Moennig's Shane.
"The story lines affect millions of people, whether they are gay or straight," Shahi said. "There's a huge humanitarian part of it you may not have with other shows."
No easy gig
It's that aspect of the show that adds to the pressure on the cast and crew, said Hailey.
"Last year, we didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "There was more of a free feeling. This year, it was living up to all of the expectations of what it could be."
Those expectations, she said, are about being the first lesbian drama of its kind.
"We came into this year and wanted to make sure we did the best we could," Hailey said.
Compared to the first season, the second season focuses on more of the cast. A year ago, Kirshner's Jenny was the hub from which extended most of the story spokes. This time out, each of the cast members has significant story arcs.
"I think they integrated Jenny more into the group this year," said Hailey, the only gay member of the cast. "I don't think any one character can hold a show anyway.
"Last year," she added, "my story lines were more general. I would have sort of peaks and valleys, these little story lines. This year, I had one big arc for the season."
That arc includes Hailey's Alice and Daniels' Dana in a love triangle of their own with Tonya, played by Meredith McGeachie.
"L Word" is Showtime's second gay-themed series, the first being "Queer as Folk." That show, which centered on a of group gay men, ended its run last season.
Too pretty?
Meanwhile, while "The L-Word" got generally great reviews, it was knocked for having a cast full of beautiful women.
"I actually thought it was exciting to break the mold of a lesbian stereotype, and to show people [that] although there are short-haired, flannel-wearing lesbians, there are also long-haired, fashion savvy, quick-witted lesbians," Hailey said. "It would be upsetting if the show was filled completely with stereotypes of lesbians."
Hailey said the show is already a hit in the gay community -- the test is whether it catches on with mainstream audiences.
While it is about lesbians, Hailey said it is more about relationships and friendships -- though there are sexual situations.
"The fact that these women are lesbians is the last thing you think about when watching the show," she said. "The story lines and the characters are so great, it becomes less about who they're sleeping with, although that is part of the show. It's fun and it's entertaining, and that's what's important."