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Gilmore Girls Deserves Attention, 02.22.01 ...

Fight! Fight! There's going to be a fight! Voices will be raised! Lapels will be grabbed! Doors will be slammed! Martinis will be spilled!

OK, this isn't exactly All-Star Wrestling. It's not even "Crossfire." But on the set of "The Gilmore Girls," where the most dangerous behavior is usually a double-entendre, this is a major event.

As rain pours down on Hollywood, the cast and crew of this WB series are spending a January afternoon on a soundstage at Warner Bros. Studios, filming an emotionally packed scene in the parlor. In this episode, airing next week, a visitor played by Guthrie veteran Peter Michael Goetz insults Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) to the point where her usually stoic father (Edward Herrmann) goes berserk.

It's a surprising twist on a show full of surprises, the biggest one being that the rookie drama has quickly developed into the smartest, sassiest show on the air -- and hardly anybody knows it.

That's because "Gilmore Girls" airs opposite both "Friends" and "Survivor" on a network likelier to promote the sexy stars of "Dawson's Creek" and "Charmed" than the clever scripts of a (shudder) family show.

"They can do all they can to kill us," joked Graham during a break from shooting. "We can't be stopped!"

Let's hope not. For those who have no idea that WB is even on the air during Thursday's highly competitive hour, here's a summary:

Lorelai is a 32-year-old single mother who had a child out of wedlock when she was 16. Now her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), is 16 herself and trying to bond with her upper-class grandparents (Herrmann and Kelly Bishop), who had practically disowned her mother. It all takes place in a Connecticut postcard town called Stars Hollow where Lorelai works at a charming inn, Rory attends a preppy all-girls' school and everyone gets together for a big Sunday dinner.

By now you're probably asking yourself: When does John Boy stroll into the picture? Relax. Despite the sugary premise, "Girls" manages to be wholesome enough for preteens while being cynical enough for more grown-up viewers, not unlike the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s.

"There's no reason that a story about a family has to be 'Little House on the Prairie,'" said Herrmann, a respected stage and film actor who seems like the last person on earth to appear on a network aimed at teens and young adults. But Herrmann said he signed on for "Gilmore" -- his first series -- partly because he saw an opportunity to address important issues such as high-school pressure, dating and teenage sex in a clever way.

"Children want to know about real things, and sex is a real thing," said Herrmann, a father himself. "It doesn't always have to be in your face and sadistic. Most people's lives don't run that way, and kids are hungry for some island of sanity."

The show's voice of reason is Lorelai, a free spirit who acts even younger than her more reflective daughter. Operating on a constant stream of caffeine and a quick wit that she uses as a defense system, she's the most engaging TV joker since Hawkeye Pierce.

Here's how she deals with her daughter's boyfriend when he peeks in through the bedroom window: "Shouldn't you have a squeegee or something?"

Here's how she mends fences with her daughter: "There are only two things I totally trust in the entire world: that I'll never be able to understand what Charo is saying no matter how long she lives in this country, and you."

Here's how she expresses guilt over her strained relationship with Dad when she was growing up: "He went to work, he got home, he read the paper, he went to bed, I snuck out the window. He was a very by-the-numbers guy. I was never very good with numbers. My dad is not a bad guy. He lived the life he thought he was supposed to. He followed the rules set by his non-fishing, non-Barbie-buying dad. He built a nice home, he provided for my mom. All he asked in return was that his daughter wear white dresses and go to cotillion and want the same life he had.

"What a disappointment it must have been to have me."

Graham steps out.

Most of the words come courtesy of the show's creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, a former writer for "Roseanne." But it's Graham who embodies the show's spunky, sarcastic attitude. After years of being wasted on such mediocre series as "Townies" and "Conrad Bloom," her perky personality is finally front and center.

"I never felt I could be a leading lady kind of person," Graham said. "I always played the wacky neighbor. But Lorelai is coming from a slightly skewed point of view. It's a voice that I recognize."

The biggest problem is making sure Lorelai isn't too funny. Sometimes Graham asks Sherman-Palladino to tone it down so she doesn't come off as just a joke machine. Still, there's enough hilarious blabbering that Graham's short-term memory is about to blow a fuse: "I can't even remember my own phone number now."

Lorelai has to stay real enough so she doesn't come across as a sitcom character, said Michael Katleman, one of the show's producers and frequent directors.

"Lorelai's jokes can't come across as 'Look at me and laugh,'" he said. "They have to come from an honest place."

But do young viewers really want that? Or is it more important that the show's teenage characters wear midriff-baring shirts and find excuses to hang out on the beach? That's the gamble that, in many ways, is more intriguing than figuring out who will win the immunity challenge on "Survivor."

"So many of us get tired of commercial television because it's not smart," Bishop said. "It's the computer age, where we think, think, think. But I think the networks worry that the audience isn't smart enough."

It's unlikely that "Gilmore Girls" will get a better time slot before the end of the season, but that may be good news. Because it is on Thursday night, the network's expectations are low, and the show probably will return next season if it ekes out a halfway respectable rating. But if it moves to another night and doesn't instantly capture a significant audience, network executives might bring out the ax.

However, Jamie Kellner, the WB's chief executive, heaped praise on "Girls," and hinted that when the show moves to a new spot, it'll stay there.

"We generally get a show started, and then we'll put it in the time period where it will stay for many years after," he said. "We'll see how it does against 'Survivor' and then we'll decide where it's going to fit for a long period of time."

Even if the show doesn't become a ratings hit, Graham said she's content, because she's in a show that makes her proud, if not popular.

"I would rather do a job that's respected than have more people stop me at the supermarket," she said.
Credit: Star Tribune

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