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Gilmore Girls Redefine Family Ties, 03.01.01 ...

There's more than one survivor on Thursday nights.

While most of the attention has been focused on the battle between NBC's Friends and CBS' Survivor, WB's endearing family drama Gilmore Girls has been holding its own, albeit by WB's lower viewership standards. While its 3.7 million viewers might not sound like much, the show has boosted ratings in its time period enough among younger viewers to have WB call it ''a long-term asset.''

More people will soon get a chance to discover that asset. Starting next week, WB will ''double-pump'' the show, airing originals on Thursday and repeats on Monday after 7th Heaven. The show also will get a promotional boost if star Lauren Graham wins a Screen Actors Guild award March 11.

Yet despite the show of support from the network, Gilmore Girls remains something of a WB anomaly. On a network that normally focuses on teens, Gilmore Girls spreads the attention across three generations: 32-year-old single mother Lorelai Gilmore; her bright, loving 16-year-old daughter, Rory; and Lorelai's controlling mother, Emily.

Estranged from her rich parents since her teenage pregnancy, Lorelai has raised Rory on her own. But when Rory gets accepted by an exclusive prep school, Lorelai turns to her mother and father (Edward Herrmann) for help.

She gets it, with one condition: a weekly dinner, so Emily can get to know Rory. And so begins TV's most intriguing three-way relationship, as mothers and daughters learn more about each other and themselves than they expected. The actresses in these roles couldn't have more different backgrounds. Graham (Lorelai) is a veteran of three consecutive short-lived sitcoms: Townies, Conrad Bloom and MYOB. Alexis Bledel (Rory) is a first-year college student making her professional acting debut. And Kelly Bishop (Emily) is an accomplished New York theater actress who won a Tony for A Chorus Line.

It's always a mistake to confuse actors with their characters. Still, at a recent lunch on the Warner Bros. lot, where Gilmore Girls is shot, the three women do seem to share a rapport that mirrors what you see on TV -- with one significant alteration. Graham is adorable and funny; Bledel is smart, reserved and remarkably self-possessed. The exception is Bishop, who shares Emily's maternal instincts but is far warmer than the prickly character she portrays.

Q: Do people tell you they see their mother or their daughter in the roles you play?

Bishop: Absolutely. I've had so many people say, ''You're just like my mother,'' to which I say ''Sorry.'' And a few men say, ''You're just like my wife.'' Then I just keep my mouth shut.

Graham: A friend's mother told us she got in a fight with her daughter and in frustration said, ''Why can't we just have witty banter like Rory and Lorelai?'' It's a model, in a way, for how you wish you could talk to your kid. And for kids, it's the kind of friendship you wish you had with a parent.

Q: What is it like to be the perfect child?

Bledel: Everyone in town had a part in raising her, so they see her as the perfect kid, but I don't think she's perfect by any means. She has no clue what she's doing in so many situations. She's just different than the typical example of teenagers you see on television.

Q: In many ways it isn't a typical WB show, either, in part because the adults are as important as the teenagers.

Graham: It's truly multigenerational. Most of our guest stars are over 40. It isn't a regular WB show and that was everybody's intention, and that's what makes it in the best sense a family show -- which doesn't mean that it's dumb or embarrassing.

Bledel: Or cheesy, 'cause it's not.

Graham: My father said, ''This is the first show I'm not just watching because you're in it.''

Q: Sometimes actors who play parents on TV fall into parental patterns with the actors playing their children. Does that ever happen on Gilmore Girls?

Bishop: When we work together, I feel very much like equals. This is my hero here (motioning to Graham); she's one of the most incredible professional actors I've ever worked with. And I love this one (motioning to Bledel), because she's so good, and she's so smart, and picks it up so fast and so naturally. But I do find when I'm away from the set, I refer to them as my girls. . . . When I step back from it, I kind of assume that protective, matriarchal role, since I don't have that in my real life.

Graham: Because Alexis is new to this business, I try to be respectful of what this process is for her and not intrude on what that is. If she has a question, I'm glad to answer it, but Alexis and I are even closer in age than we play, so I feel friendship, and I think that's right for the character.

Q: Do you ever feel like Emily's daughter?

Graham: Oh, yeah. It feels familiar, but I don't know where it's coming from. There was no one in my life that had the kind of rigidity Emily has. But somewhere in me, I know the experience of being nagged.

Q: And Alexis, do people on the set mother you?

Bledel: Oh, yeah.

Graham: She has it bad.

Bledel: All the time. The whole crew. They're always thinking that I can't do things for myself.

Graham: I feel responsible for that, because as a joke, I refer to her as ''The Kid.''

Bledel: (sighs) ''The Kid.''

Graham: And I think that's become a fun thing to call her.

Bishop: They also use ''Mama G'' for me. You're ''Baby G.'' Ed (Herrmann) is ''Papa G.'' And what's Lorelai? She's ''Hot G.'' (They laugh.)

Q: Is it ever annoying to have all these people treat you like you need to be protected?

Bledel: To tell you the truth, it's not that bad. If people want to take care of you, what are you going to do, turn them down? Sometimes I think, you know, I'm actually 19. But I have the rest of my life to be an adult. It's kind of like holding on to my childhood for a couple of years. It's going to end anyway, so why rush it?

Q: Lauren, after three failures, did you have any concerns about doing another series?

Graham: The experience was disappointing, one after the other, but I feel really fortunate to have had each and every one, because it puts me in a much different mindset for having something be successful. I feel like I've worked my way in the company, instead of getting a big promotion before I knew how the machines work.

Bishop: Well, you handle it so well. She really, really deserves it. I think back to after Chorus Line, when we were just all the rage. And yeah, if I'd sat out here, I probably would have had a series, but would I have handled it well? I was like 32 when that happened and I don't think I would have been so gracious and grateful if I had gotten a regular part in a series. I'm very professional, but I don't think I would have appreciated how special doing a good show is.

Q: Can you imagine being a TV star at 19?

Graham: It's so tough. Who wants to work 14 hours a day? Nobody wants to do that, let alone when you're 19. I don't know what I was doing then. I think I was a camp counselor, and that was hard work, let me tell you.

Q: Alexis, what do you think?

Bledel: It doesn't register at all. I don't really have an objective perspective of how it affects people. I can't explain so many things that happen in my life. Things just happen and you go with it, and it's great most of the time. And sometimes it's not.

Q: Had you ever seen any of your co-stars' work?

Bledel: I saw MYOB last summer.

Graham: I never thought of that. I just assumed nobody ever saw anything ever.

Q: Anything by Kelly?

Bledel: One of my roommates in college, her favorite movie was Dirty Dancing. (Bishop played Jennifer Grey's mother.) I didn't make that connection for a long time, then it finally clicked. I showed the pilot to my roommate, and she was like, ''Oh my God!'' She was completely freaking out.

Graham: I've seen Dirty Dancing. ''Nobody puts Baby in a box.''

Bledel: In a corner! It's ''Nobody puts Baby in the corner.'' Come on.

Graham: I must be confusing it with another Patrick Swayze movie. But I knew Chorus Line, and I was thrilled about that. It's still very meaningful out here when an agent says by way of description, ''She's a real New York theater actress.'' That's what I wanted to be, and that carries a lot of weight with me.

Bishop: You are, actually.

Q: Alexis, since this is your first role, was it hard to master things like camera technique?

Bledel: I'm not a master, by any means. . . . I was in the film school, so I was conscious of cameras and what I liked in an actor and what I didn't like.

Bishop: She is truly a natural actress. She and the camera understand each other so completely. It just happens every once in a while, the camera and Alexis come together and they love each other. It's quite amazing to me.

Bledel: Thank you.

As lunch ends, the three women turn their attention to a plate of cookies. Graham examines one, but it has too many nuts.

Graham: I'm putting this one back. Does anybody care?

Bledel: I'll try it.

Bishop: It's a family. It's truly a family.
Credit: USA Today

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