On Tuesday night, Gilmore Girls (WB; 8 p.m. ET) opened on two dark-haired guys cleaning up a cute, picket-fenced yard after a party.
"Get the wrapper."
"The Tootsie Roll wrapper."
"What Tootsie Roll wrapper?"
"The one at your feet."
"I don't see it."
The guys had hangovers and, when today's rural teenagers are tired, apparently, they talk fast and redundantly like the wound-up characters in American Buffalo or Speed-the-Plow.
But there was no time to brood on that, since the guys' stylized exchange ended very quickly—and a new one was under way. This is the pattern of Gilmore Girls, a well-wrought and life-affirming comic drama about a slim mother in her 30s and her saintly adolescent daughter. Like Scrubs, Malcolm in the Middle, E.R., American Dreams, and, most obviously, The West Wing, Gilmore Girls thrives on a surplus of repartee that, initially, is annoying. Tuesday night's show, in fact, was just gearing up in its opening scene. Only when daughter Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), carrying a moldering black bag, exited the party house and met mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham) did the dialogue hit cruising speed.
"That backpack is permanently scarred. That backpack is Zelda Fitzgerald."
"Well, Zelda's coming home."
"Did they bring the paddy wagon?"
"Yeah, but then we snuck out the back of the speakeasy and headed straight for the Algonquin."
"How was Benchley?"
Over and out. On to something else: a galloping setup for Lorelai's rendition of Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." This aggressive laughs-keep-coming pacing would be plain nonsense ("Zelda" has become shorthand for property damage? And why the 80-year-old reference base?) had not we fans of Gilmore Girls grown accustomed to it, even exhilarated by it. It's not that you actually laugh at the jokes. But you accept them as part of the quirks of Stars Hollow, Conn., where—absent the dangers of city life—people cultivate a racy up-for-anything attitude. They get a kick out of small-town mini-crime: fist fights, police busts, drunk and disorderly. Like other WB producers, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and executive producer of Gilmore Girls, has meticulously created a world so protected and old-fashioned that people's minor transgressions (listening to rock 'n' roll, having sex before marriage) still count as transgressions, and still have compelling moral consequences.
The show's hurried asides about Robert Benchley—along with Hummels, the slow-food movement, the D.A.R., and the Farrelly brothers (and that's just from Tuesday night's episode)—also serve as ongoing proof that Gilmore Girls, however fundamentally gentle it is, does not exist in a know-nothing sphere for rural womyn and grrls. Lorelai and Rory know what's happening on the other channels. They're sharp, culturally literate, and almost never stumped. Their fast and allusive talk cuts the sweetness.
And it is sweet indeed to bear witness to the wonderful lives of non-neurotic, well-adjusted women on television. The small difference in the girls' ages (Lorelai gave birth to Rory at 16) passes for a problem on the show, but it's transparently a pretext for especially capering affection. The show's actual, authoritative mother figure—Emily, Lorelai's own mother, who is proper, rich, and D.A.R.—is an antique, a source of tender satire (and trust funds?). In fact, between the crispness of the patter and the dreamy autumnal look of the show, both Gilmore girls exhibit so much wit and beauty that their charms have become the closest thing they have to a burden. It's an original idea: Conflict on the show derives from the girls' efforts to acquire the noblesse oblige that must attend their many endowments. (How can they be better neighbors? How can they assert themselves and be kind at the same time? How can they bring more fun into the lives of others?)
Sound syrupy? It's not. Because it's fast. Dialogue coaches were hired when the show premiered to help Graham and Bledel with elocution so they wouldn't miss words in their Morklike spiels. Gilmore Girls also eschews stagnant, sentimental camerawork, especially close-ups on trembling lips and teary eyes. Instead, Sherman-Palladino shoots doubles, triples, even crowds—shots of more than one person. This seemingly simple choice, too rarely made in Hollywood, adds interest to a show while making it considerably harder to produce. If one actor misses a line in a conversation, producers can't later record pick-up sound and run it under the image of the listening actor; they have to get the line right, in that very take, with both—or all—actors present. Or go to another take. (Sherman-Palladino regularly shoots a dozen.)
On Tuesday night, almost all the characters were at odds with their parents—but, as usual, for extremely good reasons, and in extremely good faith. Lane, Rory's friend, stood up to her old-world Korean mother, and Mrs. Kim began to accept her daughter's American ways. Lorelai was taking a healthy break from Emily while she set about buying an inn. And Jess, the S.E. Hinton bad seed whom Rory sometimes dates, confronted his disciplinarian guardian, insisting that he wanted to run off with the ne'er-do-well birth father whom he obviously takes after. Around the same time, Jess disinvited Rory to the prom, which made her realize, all at once, that he'd been treating her badly, and that she had to talk to someone about that—her mother. By show's end, the oppressed had asserted themselves, people's hearts had expanded, and the Gilmore girls were once again best friends.
All this, with well-blocked scenes and repartee, too. The showy patter that attends the good-natured stories on Gilmore Girls is not always clever, but sometimes it is—and each joke ends well before it could ever bore you. Moreover, the blasé worldliness of the dialogue makes the plot lines much less soapy; the characters are not feeble enough for melodrama. Ultimately, the show treats, and treats very well, the question of how the lucky should handle their luck—what they owe other people and themselves. This is the drama of the rich, but it is no less dramatic for being that.
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