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Bowled Over by Small-town Charm, 10.09.01 ...

With all the doom and gloom streaming out of our television sets, now is a very good time (barring pre-emption for news), to take a couple of trips to Stuckeyville and Stars Hollow, the fictional hamlets that provide the settings for NBC's "Ed" and the WB's "Gilmore Girls."

They don't make TV towns like this anymore, haven't since Mayberry, really.

Stuckeyville, which in real life is in northern New Jersey but on the show is Anytown, USA, is the kind of place where the local bowling alley can be declared a landmark just because people like going there, where the two most popular hangouts are the pie shop and a tavern called The Smiling Goat, where everyone works out their troubles during walks around the nearby pond.

Stars Hollow, shot on a studio backlot in California but set in wintry Connecticut, is even more of a fairy tale town. Tonight's two-hour "Gilmore Girls" season premiere climaxes with a lavish engagement party in the town square that's just begging to be painted by Norman Rockwell, complete with dozens of little girls in bridal gowns, matching thrones for the bride and groom-to-be, and row upon row of gifts and yellow daisies provided by everyone in town.

These are two very nice towns and two very nice shows, in every sense of the word. Other primetime series may be funnier or cut deeper emotionally, but none can match the sheer pleasure you can get from spending an hour with these amiable people.

The "Gilmore" premiere is an especially charming reintroduction to Stars Hollow, and particularly the kooky Gilmore clan.

In case you missed out on last season -- not hard to do, since it was buried opposite both "Friends" and "Survivor" -- 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) is the mother of 16-year-old Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), and the narrow gap in their ages draws them together and drove Lorelai apart from her blue blood parents, Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Edward (Edward Herrmann). Women in the Gilmore family simply did not get pregnant in high school, nor did they choose to live on their own, guzzle coffee like water and get a job as the manager of a nearby bed-and-breakfast -- until Lorelai, that is.

Rory and Lorelai are so close, in fact, that they act more like sisters, and have developed their own kind of stylized, hyper-speed banter that's so ingrained, they're practically like a nightclub comedy duo.

Early in tonight's episode, for instance, Rory's boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki) asks what movie the Gilmores are planning to watch.

"The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story,'" Rory stars to explain, "starring - -"

"- -Joan and Melissa Rivers," Lorelai continues. "A mother and daughter torn apart by tragedy - -"

"- -suicide- -"

"- -not getting 'The Tonight Show'- -"

"- -mean boyfriends- -"

"- -identical noses- -"

"- -You'll laugh, you'll cry- -"

"- -'Cause you're laughing so hard- -"

"- -It'll be an evening to remember!"

It's not a coincidence that "Gilmore" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino named her production company after legendary wit Dorothy Chandler, and the sheer force, intelligence and speed of the dialogue make the series a weekly must-see.

But it's also worth a look because it has tremendous heart and decency, so that even when Lorelai and her mother are roaring into their latest spat, they're always placed on even footing: No one's right and no one's wrong.

And because it's so obvious that the men in their lives won't ever come before each other for Rory and Lorelai, the show doesn't get snared in the usual will-they-or-won't-they traps of serialized romantic comedy. Yes, there's an ongoing triangle involving Lorelai, suave teacher Max (Scott Cohen) and gruff coffee shop owner Luke (Scott Patterson), but it never threatens to overwhelm the proceedings and turn the show into a bad "Moonlighting" knock-off.

Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman, the creators of "Ed" could take a lesson from that. As much fun as their show is, its least appealing element is also its most prominent: the hesitant, never-consummated flirting between bowling alley lawyer Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) and former prom queen Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen).

There are two problems with the Ed and Carol relationship/non-relationship. First, Carol is not that interesting. Beautiful, yes. Friendly, yes. Good to old women and dogs, sure. But she doesn't have the kind of effervescent personality that the show seems to think she has, and every other woman who has professed an attraction for handsome goofball Ed -- notably Carol's bubbly best friend Molly (Lesley Boone) and teasing attorney Bonnie (Rena Sofer, who returns tonight and steals the show) -- seems like a much better match for him.

Still, Ed certainly seems smitten with Carol, and therein lies the second problem. Most will-they/won't-they shows keep the tension going by presenting a pair of attracted opposites who have no business being together except undeniable sexual chemistry. Think Sam and Diane on "Cheers" or Joel and Maggie on "Northern Exposure." It was more of a kick to watch them fight than to watch them kiss. Ed and Carol are too nice, too compatible for them to not be together by now, and every plot twist thrown in just to delay the inevitable has gotten increasingly annoying.

I don't care whether they get together or not, frankly, because the rest of the series is where the comic action is at. I love Ed's silly $10 bets -- like having to kiss a neighbor's lawn gnome -- with best friend Mike (Josh Randall), or Mike's never-ending humiliation as the junior partner in a medical practice run by smiling sadist Dr. Jerome (Marvin Chatinover). I love the antics of Warren Cheswick (Justin Long), a teenage version of Ed who can't seem to avoid tripping over his own geekiness.

Above all, I love watching Ed take on all sorts of inane court cases -- defending a magician whose tricks were stolen, suing a golf course heckler who ruined another man's putt -- and making them each seem as important as a class-action lawsuit against big tobacco. Many critics, including this one, pegged Tom Cavanagh as a Jon Stewart lookalike, but with each passing episode, he seems more like a Capra-era Jimmy Stewart.

The best part of tomorrow's season premiere actually revolves around the character who usually works the least: Phil, the obnoxious bowling alley manager played by Michael Ian Black. When last we saw Phil -- in an episode written before Black got a gig hosting NBC's tasteless hidden-camera show "Spy TV" -- he had left Stuckeybowl to audition for a tasteless hidden-camera show called "Outrageacs." Phil returns tonight, declaring a review of that program that sounds an awful lot like Burnett and Beckerman channeling their inner TV critic:

"It's nothing more than an idiotic and mean-spirited rip-off of 'Candid Camera,' a total embarrassment to the airwaves. I remember a time when television used to entertain us with the craftsmanship of writing, acting, directing. Now they just try to shock us with the drek of sensationalistic sewage. Soon, they'll be putting people into coffins filled with rats!"

For that rant alone -- plus the chance to check all my troubles at the couch for an hour with this agreeable, wacky bunch -- it's good to be back in Stuckeyville.

"Ed" (Tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 4) Bonnie returns to town to complicate Ed's attempts to romance Carol, while Warren Cheswick goes on trial for bringing a keg of beer to a party in the second season premiere.

"Gilmore Girls" (Tonight at 8 on Channel 11) Lorelai's marriage proposal from Max and Rory's reconciliation with Dean put the mother and daughter at odds with the Gilmore grandparents in the second season premiere.
Credit: The Star-Ledger

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