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The Best Show You're Not Watching, 06.17.02 ...

To know the Gilmore girls is to adore them. Impossibly clever and terribly funny, they make you wish you could talk like them, that you could just hang out with them in their balmy burg of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, an idyll of eccentricity where they fit right in.

It's hard to imagine anyone resisting the company of a mother-daughter twosome whose idea of a hot night is staying home for a "worst film festival" triple-feature of Cool as Ice, Hudson Hawk and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. And let's not forget the four boxes of Red Vines.

Gilmore Girls has a healthy respect for junk food in large quantities in Stars Hollow, for instance, you order your take-out Chinese from Al's Pancake World. It's that kind of town, and show.

But make no mistake. This WB series (Tuesdays, 8 pm/ET) is four-star cuisine, a smorgasbord of scintillating wit and genuine heart that, despite its gooey title, is anything but saccharine or sappy.

"Do they not understand we are unapologetic mockers?" declared 33-year-old single mom Lorelai (Lauren Graham) last holiday season as she and Rory (Alexis Bledel), 17, ridiculed the baby pictures enclosed in their new crop of Christmas cards. "There's an unexplained innocence in the world," deadpanned Rory, the youthful philosopher who dreams of conquering Harvard.

Is this any way for a mother and daughter to talk? (The correct answer: If only.) And don't even ask which one is the adult. When Lorelai once declared, "I'm the grown-up," Rory shot back, "Says the woman with the Hello Kitty waffle iron."

Gilmore Girls is like Terms of Endearment without all that pesky tragedy or Northern Exposure minus the wandering moose. Think Providence with more irony, less mush. It has so much to offer: bubbling comedy, an undercurrent of poignant drama and just enough romantic intrigue to stimulate our curiosity about who these girls might end up with.

Yet by the major networks' ratings standards, Gilmore Girls would have been a goner by now, ranking 121st among 158 prime-time network series this season with an average of 5.2 million viewers. (Last year's "Best Show You're Not Watching," ABC's Once and Again, was canceled this spring with an average audience of 6.7 million.)

But for WB, the show is considered a bona fide hit after its second year. When based on the network's target audience of viewers 12 to 34, Gilmore Girls leaps to 64th place; on WB, only the breakout dramas 7th Heaven and Smallville do better. The network likes to call it "the fastest-growing show on TV," which may not be a stretch, since it spent its first year in obscurity airing opposite Friends on Thursdays. (For latecomers to the series, repeats of the first season will air on Sundays this fall at 7 pm/ET.)

WB moved the show to Tuesdays last October to replace and compete against Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which the network had lost to UPN in a bidding war. The switch paid off. "Not only did it hold the Buffy audience, it brought more viewers to [the time period] and provided a solid lead-in to Smallville," says TV analyst Marc Berman, who edits Mediaweek's "Programming Insider" column. He calls WB's Tuesday "the most successfully remodeled night on any network" and Gilmore Girls "the breakout sophomore hit of the season."

Rebuilding Tuesday was "our priority this season," says Jordan Levin, WB's entertainment president. "Most people expected Smallville to do the heavy lifting. Gilmore Girls has totally exceeded our expectations." And ours.

If the show were only about crackling dialogue and quirky characters, it would be little more than a guilty pleasure. But that doesn't give Gilmore Girls creator and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino nearly enough credit for establishing a beguiling tone of gentle sarcasm laced with sentiment and for presenting such an unusually complex depiction of a three-dimensional, multigenerational family.

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