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Gilmore Girls Gear Up, 03.01.01 ...

There's a Disneyesque sort of perfection to the small-town "Gilmore Girls" set wedged in the heart of the sprawling Warner Bros. lot. And with its cluster of cozy cafes and quaint shops encircling a grassy park and gleaming white gazebo, it could be an idyllic cousin to George Bailey's Bedford Falls or Andy Taylor's Mayberry.

Welcome to Stars Hollow, the TV hamlet that is home to Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and all their charmingly eccentric friends.

Of course, here in Tinseltown, they're used to whipping up dreams -- or at least facades of dreams -- from scratch. But this lovely bit of abstraction was inspired by the very real burg of Washington, Conn., during a visit there by "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.

"I'm a big-city girl who comes from the Boo Radley house of 'Don't go outside. Don't talk to your neighbors. Walk straight ahead. It's a city -- ignore everyone,'" she explains. "This place, though, had a feeling of such warmth and camaraderie. It was beautiful. It was magical. I thought if I could make people feel much of what I felt while walking around that fairy town, it would be wonderful."

This kind of talk might trigger nausea in some viewers wary of sentimentality. But have no fear: "Gilmore Girls," which mainly focuses on the airtight relationship between 32-year-old Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her brainy teen daughter, Rory (newcomer Alexis Bledel), is a savvy family-friendly dramedy that somehow manages to be sweet and touching without choking on sap.

Now, if only more people could find Stars Hollow on the TV map. As fate would have it, "Gilmore Girls" is scheduled on the fringes of Thursday night's clash of the must-see titans. While most of America is locked in on "Survivor" and/or "Friends," the Gilmores pull in barely 3 million viewers a week on the outgunned WB.

"I think the people who respond to our show feel more loyal to it because they know what we're up against," says Graham during a break between scenes. "But it does get frustrating when you like what you do, and more people aren't seeing it."

Still, there are signs of hope. The WB, which has a reputation for patiently nurturing quality shows, continues to stand behind the series. The network just announced that it will begin airing the show twice a week beginning Monday to give it more exposure. Meanwhile, "Gilmore Girls" is steadily enhancing its image with growing acclaim. The show appeared on more year-ending Top 10 critics' lists than any other new series, and Graham has earned a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actress in a TV drama.

The leggy, 5-foot-9 Graham is one of television's most luminous women, but she endured several false starts ("Townies," "Conrad Bloom" and "M.Y.O.B.") before finally hitting paydirt with "Gilmore Girls," a show that takes better advantage of her innate comic abilities. The character she plays is a free-spirited, fast-talking and often sarcastic maverick who manages the historic Independence Inn.

Lorelai got pregnant at the age of 16 and decided to keep her child even though her boyfriend split and her snooty, blue-blood parents (Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop) all but disowned her. Now that child is 16 and mother and daughter are best pals, attending Bangles concerts together while sharing lip gloss, CDs and plenty of crackling banter.

"I have no kids of my own, but I feel so respectful of that bond," Graham says. "In playing this role, I often think of my brothers and sisters and consider what it's like to feel so attached to someone you love."

Graham insists that one of the key messages of the show is "if you screw up your life at one point, it doesn't have to be screwed up the rest of the way. You can pull yourself out of it and find a way to make something bad into something good."

In this case, the "good" mainly is represented by her daughter, a brilliant, responsible girl who doesn't look or sound like anyone else on the WB. Rory is the anti-"Dawson's Creek" -- a shy prep-school teen who may be in the middle of her first romance, but still feels much more comfortable curled up with a good Dorothy Parker novel.

"It's just nice to be able to play someone who's different," says Bledel. "I've definitely met kids like her -- kids who are mature for their age and have a lot of interests outside of school and their immediate surroundings."

Sherman-Palladino, who has worked on shows like "Roseanne," insists that Rory is a character she has been waiting for years to get on the air.

"You look around at other teen girls on television and they all dress like they're 35 and on the cover of Cosmo and they're all having sex at 12," she says. "I'm like, 'Wow, that was so not what I went through.' I thought somewhere in America there must be one or two kids running around who haven't slept with anyone yet."

Spend some time with Sherman-Palladino and you get the idea that she'd make a great TV character. A native of North Hollywood, she paces the set wearing a miniskirt, fishnets, combat boots and a Siouxsie and the Banshees jacket. Like Lorelai, she's a caffeine-fueled ball of energy given to colorful bursts of dialogue.

"Gavin (Pallone) and I were talking about how it would be so cool to have a show where a mom and teen are more like pals, like contemporaries," she says, explaining how she and her producing partner hatched the show. "And we were discussing how that has never really been portrayed in a manner that isn't like, you know, mom is a struggling cocktail waitress in Reno and it's all very kind of depressing."

Depressing? "Gilmore Girls" is anything but. Ditching tiresome family-show formulas of the past, it has a lot to say -- in a realistic and entertaining style -- about growing up, parenting, family politics and social class.

"I think family shows are the classic shows because anything about a bond and a love and the problems that come out of that provide infinite storytelling," says Sherman-Palladino. "But we do try to cut back on the treacle around here. We want to make a show that doesn't talk down to kids and, at the same time, doesn't make grown-ups want to plunge sharp objects in their eyes."
Credit: Contra Costa

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