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The Ex Files, 2.03.04 ...

It has been a challenging season for this charming and crisply written series about a mother and daughter who treat each other like best friends instead of generational representatives of their family tree.

When the show premiered in 2000, the concept was simple: Free spirit Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) had her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), when she was 16 and left home to raise the child on her own instead of marrying Rory's father or depending on her stuffy socialite folks for financial assistance. The two kept few secrets and consulted each other on everything. They behaved more like sisters, often with overachiever Rory providing the voice of reason and grounding her Peter Pan-like mom as they navigated their way through the pleasures and potholes of life.

But now Rory's attending Yale and the two must learn how to function independently, something the show's writers have yet to find a way to believably explore. Though it was touching when Rory called Lorelai almost immediately after being dropped off at Yale to tell her mother she missed her, Lorelai's first-night-at-college sleepover in her daughter's dorm was a scene out of a Codependents Anonymous documentary. Of course, college students come home and parents visit, but over the course of the 11 episodes since Rory started school, she and Lorelai have seen each other 11 times and that's not counting their weekly Friday-night dinners with Richard and Emily (Edward Herrmann, Kelly Bishop). Most parents are lucky if they see their kids on national holidays.

Unfortunately, Lorelai's not the only one having trouble letting Rory go. High-school adversary Paris (Liza Weil) is her roommate; childhood pal Lane (Keiko Agena) is crashing at her dorm; and it appears that married ex-boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki) is still carrying a torch for her. Other than her suitemates and a naked boy she met in the hallway after a party, she's made no new friends at Yale.

That said, it's still somewhat surprising when Milo Ventimiglia returns tonight as Jess, Rory's troubled other ex who took off for California last spring without saying goodbye to her. (Like Padalecki, Ventimiglia was supposed to headline his own spin-off series chronicling Jess' experiences in Venice Beach, but the studio shelved the project citing soaring production costs. No wonder Rory hasn't had much luck dating; playing her boyfriend may not be considered a wise career move.)

Jess is back in Stars Hollow to reclaim his car, which his no-nonsense uncle, Luke (Scott Patterson), hid from him in an attempt to keep the hard-nosed teen from skipping school and flunking out. Jess is hoping to sneak in and out of town unnoticed and avoid confrontations with the numerous people he disappointed, but the self-absorbed punk is stranded in town overnight by his inoperable auto. It's inevitable that the churlish young man and the bewildered girl he left behind are going to have an encounter; one can only hope that this will be a cord that Rory is ready to cut. I know I'm ready.

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