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A Day on the Set of Gilmore Girls, 03.29.01 ...

Say you're the star or creator of one of TV's best new shows, a quirky, invigorating little hour with wit and heart and barrels of entertainment value.

And say your show is as laced with clever pop culture and literary references as it is with breathtakingly quick dialogue and subtle emotions. And that it's got everything: great writing, great cast, even a great premise.

And one more thing: Say critics love your show, I mean absolutely love it. It makes every Top 10 list in the country and ranks fourth in a poll of America's critics by Electronic Media magazine, ahead of shows like "ER" and "Friends" and just about everything else.

You'd be happy, right? Completely thrilled. You'd be counting the years you're going to spend on this series and the many ways you're going to enjoy fame and fortune and, most of all, doing this great show. Right? Of course not. Life is never that easy.

In other words, welcome to Hollywood. Or, as it's known on the Warner Bros. lot, the set of "Gilmore Girls," a razor-sharp, absolutely endearing hour that may have the worst time slot on television.

"Gilmore Girls" airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on WB (Channel 58), which is a worse problem than even the show's name.

Momentary detour: This is not about prematurely worldly teenage girls in tight plaid skirts; it just sounds like that. This is about a really smart-but-young mom, her smarter teen daughter -- the Gilmores, still kinda girls, get it? -- and a bizarrely adorable town.

It's the story of Lorelai (Lauren Graham), 32, and her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), 16 -- Lorelai had her young; do the math -- who live in the Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, where there is a festival for everything, wakes for cats and the owner of a greasy spoon coffee shop is a health nut.

Lorelai moved there when she got pregnant and fought with her snooty, old-money parents (Ed Hermann and Kelly Bishop) who, really, were mostly scared for her. But, anyway, the town became family for the Gilmore girls, and the quaint inn that Lorelai now manages became home with its brilliant but accident-prone chef, its French-accented concierge with all the warmth of a French concierge and its produce supplier who takes great pride in his vegetables.

Rory has her sights set on Harvard, Lorelai borrowed money from her parents to send Rory to a prep school and now the older Gilmores want back in the girls' life.

What we get is small, sweet stories with no villains, and the conflicts come from well-drawn, if slightly odd characters. If all this sounds a bit too twee, the writing is clever and furious, and short of "The West Wing," there's nothing on TV that flies by with such speed and wit.

OK, so say you're Lauren Graham and you're on this great show. There's just this one little problem: You're up against a mammoth hit. Nothing less than "Friends." That's been the most popular comedy and the top-rated 8 p.m. series in America for, what, 100 years? Who doesn't watch "Friends"?

WB tries to help. It airs an episode recap at 8:30 -- midway through the show -- so people switching over from NBC can catch up. That's a good idea because ratings jump almost 30 percent after "Friends." Or they did.

In January, CBS waded in. CBS restarted a little number called "Survivor" at 8 o'clock on Thursdays and we got television's biggest war maybe ever. It's tribal councils vs. super-sized "Friends," and the battleships are blazing away while you're just trying not to get swamped. There's all that noise going on while you're trying to tell quiet, smart stories.

So what do you do now?

"I have no idea," Graham says. "If this were Las Vegas, I'd be going, 'I'm out. I fold. No one beats the house.' "

Or what if you're Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and executive producer of the show. How would you react?

"Crying a lot," she says.

What does she expect to happen to "Gilmore Girls"?

"Hammered," she says. "Killed."

You know what? No. "Gilmore Girls" survived the February sweeps battles and its ratings have grown steadily -- if unspectacularly by the standards of the big networks -- to double WB's time slot numbers from last year.

And last week, WB announced that "Gilmore Girls" would be renewed for next season. Meanwhile, the network is airing reruns from earlier in the season at 9 p.m. Mondays, and has been trying to run new episodes when the Thursday competition is the softest. (Tonight's is a rerun, but it's one of the year's best episodes, involving Rory's first kiss.)

At the Warner Bros. studio, which, like the WB network, is owned by AOL-Time Warner, the bosses are lining up to be supportive.

"We love this show," Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth said after a news conference on the studio lot in January. "We want to let it grow slowly. We think it has everything you need for a real hit."

He's right. Writing, stars, cast, idea. All are unique and exhilarating. And Sherman-Palladino says she knows the network and studio support for the show are special, too.

"What are the odds?" she says a week after the news conference, sitting in her small, though heavily cushioned and pink, office on the studio lot. "To get them to like it and not say, 'You know, if there were just a giraffe in it and it kinda talks and has magic powers and flies.' That's amazing.

"But the notes we do get, they say things like, 'What's the reality between these two people?' "

That's one reason why "Gilmore Girls" works so well. For all the sweet loopiness -- it's one of the few shows that justifies the ubiquitous comparisons to "Northern Exposure" -- the experiences and emotions feel authentic. Without that, you have a sitcom. With it, you have an hour with genuine drama and real laughs.

"I'm always trying to find that moment, and I'm trying to find one for everyone, when you go, 'Oh, yeah, I've done that, I've experienced that,' " Sherman-Palladino says. "Those have to come from the subconscious. Maybe a lot of therapy would wipe that out, but until it does, I'm going to use it."

Spend any time with Sherman-Palladino and you see where the show's energetic, slightly twisted wit comes from. She's a high-speed comedy machine -- the silly stories, sly thoughts, goofy self-effacing pokes stream out.

Sherman-Palladino is a great match with Graham, her star, another smart, witty woman who gets a lot of words launched in a short time. And when you spend any time with Graham, you see how the show gets so much heart.

On Sound Stage 14, the cast is shooting a scene in the Gilmores' dining room; that would be the older-generation Gilmores, the wealthy ones in Hartford.

(Quick odd point about sets: The elegant Gilmore dining room, which looks so big on TV, is far smaller in real life. But Lorelai and Rory's house, so small and crowded on screen, is actually pretty spacious. Why that is, no one knows.)

They're shooting a scene at the dining room table, and Graham/Lorelai, trying to escape a boring blind date whom her parents, of all people, invited for dinner, is supposed to leave the table. Most takes are straight ahead, though once Graham left before the scene finished, popped back and said, "But, wait, there's more."

Now, the director, Leslie Linka Glatter, wants a different twist. Graham's tones change subtly, except once. On that take, her bracelet catches on the lace tablecloth. Graham gets up and is one step from doing the lounge act of yanking the tablecloth from under the candlesticks and dishes.

"Want to see the ending again without the Lucy?" she asks sheepishly.

Next time up, she stalls. "I got nothing," she tells the director, laughing.

Graham is the same force on the set that Lorelai is in Stars Hollow: high energy, big humor, big heart.

"What makes an actor special," says Sherman-Palladino, "is they walk in the door with something. Lauren is a special, gifted creature. She walked in with heart. And this show lives and dies on Lorelai. If she was someone who just did the banter without the warmth, you'd want to shoot her dead."

Graham gets a little red-faced hearing the praise passed along. She's almost embarrassingly modest and grounded, which makes it hard to believe she's been through the sitcom wars -- her past shows include "Caroline in the City," "Townies" and last summer's NBC clunker "MYOB" -- and she quickly deflects any big compliments.

"The language is so comedic, it's so quick and smart and witty," Graham says during a break on the set. "It's important that it comes from a place that's real. Otherwise I'll feel false and it'll seem false and it won't work."

That pretty much describes why so many network sitcoms fail: There is no ring of truth to the stories or the characters. But "Gilmore Girls" twists it in reverse. The goofy world of Stars Hollow is home to very true emotions and reactions.

And the characters are complex, layered people who get more interesting as we learn their stories, not more clichÈd.

"Lorelai is a woman with a lot of elements," Graham says. "We don't just see how vulnerable she is, we see how tough she is, we see her be snappy and smart. She isn't just soft or just a mouth, she's very well-rounded.

"I'm not saying this is the first place we've seen it, I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm just saying I'm so happy to be playing someone so three-dimensional. And family stories are such rich ground. I don't know anyone who says, 'You know, my relationship with my parents is just solved.' "

Despite Graham's protest, all of "Gilmore Girls' " key characters are unique. Teenager Rory, for instance, is special not just because Bledel plays her with such clever charm. She fills, as Sherman-Palladino calls it, TV's "teenage gap."

"Most of the teens on TV all dress like they're 35 and on the cover of Cosmo and they're all having sex at 12," Sherman-Palladino says. "And I'm thinking, 'Wow, that was so not what I went through.' If you take a kid who's already sleeping with somebody, who's already dressing like Linda Evangelista, you're missing all the good stories.

"I don't mean to be a prude, and there are a lot of good teens out there, but somewhere there's a teenage girl who's very sharp, very bright, into her future and comfortable with who she is. But when it comes to affairs of the heart, she has no clue. She gets kissed and she goes, 'What do I do?' "

Now that the show is guaranteed a spot on next season's schedule, Sherman-Palladino is a little befuddled about her next move. But she's developing a plan.

"I'll crawl into the network offices," she says. "I'll go in on my knees and tell them I'll do anything, just please get us a better time slot. I'll even wash their cars."
Credit: Sacramento Bee

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