Home Sweet Home, New York Times TV, Feb. 25 - Mar. 3 ...
Poor little "Gilmore Girls." This witty, charming show about a 32-year-old single mother and her 16-year-old daughter is one of the best series on the air, and possibly the most under appreciated. When it arrived in the fall, Warner Bros. scheduled it against "Friends" (Thursdays at 8 p.m.). That was tough enough, and we all know what happened next: gunning for "Friends," CBS put the second "Survivor" on at the same time. Now "it's the two Japanese monsters coming at each other," said Amy Sherman-Palladino, the "Gilmore Girls" creator, who can envision her own show being crushed underfoot. "It's horrible."
O.K., it's not really that bad. Even before "Survivor," "Gilmore Girls" had gotten critical acclaim and respectable ratings considering the competition. Susanne Daniels, WB's co-president for entertainment, said in a recent interview that she expected the show to return for a second season, though there has been no official announcement and no decision about whether to move it out of Godzilla's way in the fall. ("Something's got to go on Thursday at 8," Ms. Daniels said.)
Meanwhile, "Gilmore Girls continues doing something even more remarkable than surviving against "Survivor." It is redefining family in a realistic, entertaining way for today's audience, all the while avoiding the sappiness that makes sophisticated viewers run from anything labeled a "family show."
The energetic, sardonic Lorelai Gilmore (played with a savvy edge by Lauren Graham) became pregnant in high school, refused to marry her boyfriend, yet has not spent the rest of her life as a penitent or a drudge. Instead, she has happily brought up a smart, ambitious daughter, Rory (played with a beautiful balance of wit and sweetness by Alexis Bledel.)
Lorelai has been estranged for years from her disappointed, rich parents, played by Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop, who capture the elder Gilmores' hauteur yet make them likable. They are back in their daughter's life because they have agreed to send Rory to an exclusive private school so she'll have a better chance of achieving her dream of going to Harvard. They still drive Lorelai crazy; Rory adores them.
Though her parents live in a mansion in Hartford, Lorelai has a white house in the cozy town of Stars Hollow, where her neighbors are like family: Luke (Scott Patterson), who owns the diner; Miss Patty (Liz Torres), a plus size flirt who owns the dance school; Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), the chef at the inn Lorelai manages. (People like to eat in Stars Hollow; there must be some town ordinance against starvation chic.)
This may sound mawkish, but it's not. "Gilmore Girls" is a series for viewers who think the truest family shows are "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Simpsons," in which chaos and squabbles mask deep affection. It is also for viewers who would rather be put in a sensory deprivation chamber than watch "Seventh Heaven" or "Touched by an Angel." In those more traditional family shows, every time a character makes a mistake it leads to a finger wagging, moralistic ending.
In "Gilmore Girls," people make mistakes but are not demonized for them. Lorelai doesn't want Rory to repeat her pattern, yet her character has not been desexualized. She has, however, instituted some Gilmore rules: Lorelai has never had a man spend the night at her house.
And she still makes some bad choices, including her romance with Rory's English teacher (Scott Cohen), a relationship now on hold. Among other things, Rory had a hard time calling him Max instead of Mr. Medina so he suggested nicknames. What would she like to call him? he wondered, in a scene that captures the show's deft mix of simplicity and irreverence.
"Norman," she says.
"Norman? I look like a Norman to you?" he asks.
"I'm sorry," she tells him with complete honesty. "'Psycho' was on earlier and it was just the first name that came to mind."
Ms. Sherman-Palladino, who has worked on shows like "Roseanne," also recreates the "Gilmore" tone when she describes what she was after: "A family show that doesn't want to make parents stick something sharp in their eyes while they're watching it and doesn't talk down to kids."
The show's edge seems surprising if you consider that it is the first series to grow out of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a group of dozens of television advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, who created a script development fund for family shows. The money goes to the network to pay for a script, and if the pilot is made the network repays the money. The advertisers have nothing to say about a show's content and no obligation to buy time on the series. Last year WB was the only network involved; this year CBS and ABC have also joined.
To an outsider the idea is fraught with potential dangers, from advertisers vetoing content to creators censoring themselves. Yet everyone involved, on the network and the advertising sides, said "Gilmore Girls" had breezed through the process, and that no one ever suggested, "Couldn't Lorelai be a widow?"
Robert L. Wehling, global Marketing officer for Proctor & Gamble and one of the founders of the script development fund, says the advertisers decided not to define what family friendly meant. But he described what they were looking for: "Programs we could advertise eon, especially in the early evening, that a multigenerational audience could watch together and enjoy."
What makes "Gilmore" distinctive is that viewers from all generations can find something to like, and not only in the characters they're apt to identify with. The heart of the show may be Rory, who is in the middle of a lovely first romance. She becomes so flustered when her boyfriend kisses her in the market, where he works after school, that she runs out clutching a box of cornstarch, her awkward ruse for dropping by in the first place. As her mother is fond of saying, she is a great kid. And she has a great family: fragmented, odd and wonderfully up-to-date.
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