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Growing Pains, TV Guide Feb. 17-23 ...

Alexis Bledel had two strikes against her the day she showed up at a New York City casting call for the part of Rory in WB's witty new drama Gilmore Girls. First, she had the flu. Second, she was indifferent about acting, having no professional experience and no burning desire to get some. The fresh-faced Bledel had occasionally modeled to pay the bills, but she was attending New York University's film school with an eye toward writing or maybe directing. She only came to audition to please her manager.

"She was so 'I don't want to be here,'" recalls Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who supervised the audition with producing partner Gavin Polone. "The first thing we said was, 'So, what's NYU like?' And she said, 'OK. Small talk. I guess we can do that.' By the time she left, Gavin and I turned to each other and went, 'She hates us. Let's get that girl.'"

Conventionally, producers hire actors who actually want to be on television. But convention has little to do with Gilmore Girls, a promising one-hour series about free-spirited, 32-year-old single mom Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her smart, shy, 16-year-old daughter, Rory, played by Bledel. Do the math and you'll quickly figure out the premise: Lorelai had Rory when she was 16. Still a young woman herself, Lorelai must deal with a daughter who has reached a very vulnerable age. But shed no tears for these women who have been surfers of life's weird curves. In an unexpected, glass-is-half-full twist the young women who could be sisters are both happy and successful. Lorelai runs a small hotel in fictional Stars Hollow, Connecticut, and Rory is a straight-A student at Chilton, a prestigious private school. "We've seen the single mom who is working as a cocktail waitress in a truck stop and doesn't know how to make ends meet," says Sherman-Palladino. "But I didn't want the focus to be on that. [Lorelai] found a very supportive world to raise her kid and found good people to help her out."

Lorelai's web of friends includes characters so offbeat they make the inhabitants of Northern Exposure's Cicely, Alaska, look positively normal. There's sexy surly Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), owner of the local diner; accident-prone Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy), the chef at the inn; and bubbly Miss Patty (Liz Torres), who runs the dance school. Also in Lorelai's life are her wealthy, estranged parents, Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann).

Chances are good that you haven't seen the show-It's up against Friends and Survivor at 8P.M. on Thursdays, which led WB to bench the series on February 1 and 8 to protect it from serious ratings damage. The heartfelt-yet-quirky series is, however, a hit with both critics and with teens-especially female fans aged 12 to 17.

Not bad for a show that started out as an afterthought. Sherman-Palladino, a former writer for Roseanne and Veronica's Closet, and Polone, who executive produces HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, went to WB executives to pitch ideas for half-hour sitcoms. After failing to interest the network in their comedies, the two bounced a concept that they had spent, "three seconds in the car thinking about," says Sherman-Palladino. "We said, 'Oh, there's this idea about a mother and a daughter and they're kind of close in age and they're more like girlfriends.' And all of a sudden the entire room went, 'That's what we want.'"

Since Gilmore Girls had the potential to be the kind of show the whole family could watch, WB tapped the Family Friendly Forums Script Development Fund for money to help pay for the pilot. The fund is a partnership between WB and big advertisers like Proctor & Gamble with the purpose of brining more wholesome fare to TV. Sherman-Palladino said she found out about the fund's involvement while in production on the pilot and, at first, panicked, fearing the advertisers would have a say in scripts. So far, however, that hasn't happened.

With it's growing audience, WB will likely renew Gilmore Girls for next season. (The show has earned 2.5 household ratings, respectable for the network.) "As long as we continue to see growth creatively and in [ratings] numbers, there's no reason to think it wouldn't be picked up," says Susanne Daniels, the network's president of entertainment. That's the good news. The bad news is that it will likely stay in TV's toughest time slot. Daniels says moving the show would confuse the audience. "The strategy is to program it in a time slot and leave it," she says, adding that a similar plan helped launch 7th Heaven, the network's most watched show. "That allows an audience to find it and let it build. If it works, that's a time slot that Gilmore Girls could have permanently." Sherman-Palladino, a woman so optimistic that even her computer is rose colored (the I-Mac in Ruby), puts a positive spin on the news: "Being put on against Friends was a horrifying thing to me, but it allows us to grow out of the limelight."

And under the moonlight. A sweet series about both familial and romantic relationships, many of the scenes are shot outdoors at night around a quaint faux town square on the Warner Bros. Backlot in Burbank, California. During a recent visit, the square twinkled in the twilight with plate size and gold stars suspended from the trees, decorations for an episode about Stars Hollow's kooky Founder's Firelight Festival. Bledel and Jared Padalecki, who plays Rory's boyfriend, Dean, are in a scene in which their characters stroll hand in hand in celebration of their third month together. But as soon as the camera stop rolling, the actors begin to cut up. "Hey, the dork store called and they're out of you," Padalecki teases Bledel. "Ha, ha," she responds without cracking a smile, and smacks him in the chest with her evening bag. Sherman-Palladino credits the always blasť Bledel as one of two key puzzle pieces that make the show work. The other is Graham. "You can write the most fabulous thing in the entire world, but if you can't find the right people to bring the spirit and life to the words," she says, "then there are no words." But Graham, 33, nearly missed the fun. She was costarring in NBC's edgy midseason comedy M.Y.O.B when the Gilmore Girls pilot was being cast last spring. "Lauren's name was brought up, and I said, 'No. She's on another show,'" says Sherman-Palladino. When no other actresses fit the bill, she decided to give Graham a look. She instantly knew she had found Lorelai. "Lauren possesses so many Lorelai's qualities of sharpness of humor and of warmth,- the mixture of insanity and grounded intelligence." The job offer left Graham in anguish: She felt disloyal to NBC (she had previously appeared on Newsradio and Conrad Bloom for the network) but "wasn't sure" M.Y.O.B would last. "There wasn't a person in my life who was at all sympathetic," says Graham. "They were like, 'That's a great problem, not knowing which job you're going to have.'"

A native of Honolulu, Graham was herself raised by a single parent, which gives her perspective on her character. After her parents, singer Donna Grant and former congressional staffer Larry Graham, divorced when she was 5, Graham moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., with her dad. "It makes sense to me," she says of single parenting.

Whether Bledel's home life resembles that of her Character is hard to know, given the actress won't talk about it. In her trailer on the set, the 19-year-old seems uneasy with being interviewed. Looking down, she reluctantly reveals that her father is a writer working on his first novel and her mother works for a nonprofit organization that sets up exhibits for young artists. But when asked for her parents' names, she hesitates. "Um, I don't want to go there," she says. It is this shyness that Sherman-Palladino says makes Bledel perfect for Rory. "She was a real innocence and purity to her," she says. "She's really a little girl in a lot of ways."

Graham's character too has a childlike quality, which makes her seem less motherly then sisterly. Still, other thirtysomething actresses would have balked at playing a part where a teenager calls them "Mom," fearing it would ruin their chances to play younger characters later. Graham says she would have had the same fears if it weren't for the way Lorelai is written. "In some ways," says Graham, "she's the kid, and her daughter is the one that's more reserved and conservative."

Back on the set, the night is getting cold as the cast finishes a scene in which Stars Hollow mayor (David Huddleston) explains the founding of the town, which was put on the map by two star crossed lovers on the run. "Many a true love have started on the very spot I stand now," says Huddleston, standing in a gazebo swathed in pink and gold fabric. And while it's too soon to say if TV audiences will continue to fall under the spell of Gilmore Girls, the relationship is certainly off to a good start.

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