The lesbians of "The L Word" could serve as role models for their straight counterparts on "Desperate Housewives": They've put a sophomore slump behind them to return more heartfelt and more playful.

Starting its third season Sunday (10 p.m. EST), Showtime's drama about a circle of gay friends and lovers who move in the trendiest of L.A. circles has upped the emotional ante while restoring the light touch that graced the first season.

"The L Word" can't match ABC's series in ratings, still strong despite critics' reservations about year two. But the action on "The L Word," including a wrenching journey for tennis pro Dana and — wait for it — Alice's fling with a vampire, makes Wisteria Lane look sleepy.

That doesn't even address the fact that the ladies of "The L Word," with couture duds to die for, are the better-dressed. And, courtesy of premium cable, they also have extensive opportunities to strut their stuff naked.

The ensemble cast includes Jennifer Beals, Pam Grier, Erin Daniels, Laurel Holloman and Katherine Moennig, with Alan Cumming, Dana Delany and Rosanna Arquette among the guest stars in the dozen new episodes.

"We were in our adolescence in the second season," said Daniels, whose character, Dana, faces breast cancer this year. "In the third season, we've grown up and really figured out what works."

"I made a conscious decision to go back to what we did in the first season, which I think worked better," said series creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken. "We went for more naturalistic drama, and we went for the humor which we missed the second year."

One example: Alice's (Leisha Hailey) obsession with her ex, Dana, reaches comic proportions, including a spooky shrine. Then comes a rebound romance with Uta the vampire, whom Alice meets through a bisexual speed-dating service.

"It's not completely absurd," Chaiken said. "When I brought up that story (to the series' writers), I said, 'Lesbians and vampires: there's something there. How shall we do it?'

"A couple of the younger girls on the writing staff said, `Well, there are these cults of lesbian vampires.' Another said, `Oh, yeah, it's called getting embraced; I got embraced,'" Chaiken recounted.

But "The L Word," committed to exploring the lives and relationships of lesbians, doesn't shun substance. Jenny (Mia Kirshner) introduces her pals to Moira (Daniela Sea), her gender-bending girlfriend.

"She's our first real butch on the show — a fabulously attractive butch, but nonetheless a real butch," Chaiken said. "And we deal with the issue of gender. We wanted to tell that story, a big story in the gay community and, in the last couple years, a huge story in the lesbian community."

In story discussions, she and the writers realized how "many of us know men who used to be women, and how many of us have ex-girlfriends who are now guys. I don't, but there were a few girls in our writing group who could speak to that experience."

Politics also is part of the mix, as art curator Bette (Beals) launches into an angry, anti-government lament in private when the National Endowment for the Arts revokes its funding of her "Art of Dissent" exhibit and goes public at a U.S. Senate committee hearing.

But the show's emotional pulse beats most strongly this season with Dana (Daniels) as she confronts her mortality.

"We've all been affected by the experience of dealing with a serious illness in our group of friends," said Chaiken — and for lesbians, she said, friends can constitute the closest of family.

The story also touches on the discomfort some gay women feel toward the medical community because of "all the presumptions that are made about us," she said. "There's so much shame involved that many women, particularly in smaller communities, just don't go" to doctors.

The issue of breast cancer inevitably has a broader resonance.

"Ilene and I talked about that a lot, about how it's so important because it's not just lesbians, it's women. And this is something most women fear," said Daniels.

Dana's perfect, athletic body ("If there was one thing she was in control of, that was it," Daniels said) is in jeopardy, and so is her emotional state.

"Dana has always wanted to be more loved than she was and more accepted than she was. Finally, she gets to a point where she's comfortable and she's slapped in the face with another harsh reality ... In Dana's case it brings out an angry side, 'Why me?'"

Even before the new season has started, the rumor mill (aka the Internet) has been churning with speculation about the popular character's fate.

"People come up and ask me, `Is it true? We know Dana has cancer. We just need to know if she dies,'" Daniels recounted.

The actress is mum on the subject.

But she's happy to talk about what the series and its social impact mean to her.

"I would say the show is responsible for making it more OK for lesbians to be seen publicly and to be out there. That kind of opportunity for an actor doesn't come around very often," said Daniels.

The first time an enthusiastic fan voiced her appreciation, Daniels was unused to being recognized and recalls getting "bright red and nervous." Now she welcomes it, she said, because it's a sign of the show's value.

"I get, `Thank you so much for giving me somebody to identify with,' or 'Giving me the courage to come out to my parents,' or `Giving my sister an example so that she can sit me down in front of the television and say see that ... I'm a lesbian.'

"That's awesome," said Daniels.