Who Needs Friends?

The enemy of salacious TV programming might be the family-friendly wonder Gilmore Girls

Boy, was I excited when I heard that Nickelodeon was running a Square Pegs marathon. (At age 16 I was certain that the sweetly nerdy Sarah Jessica Parker would cherish the incredibly subtle kindness and generosity that, while defining traits of the young Berrett, somehow eluded my female peers.) Boy, was I disappointed at the show's clumsiness, and by 11:04 p.m., after a nostalgic glimpse of new waver Johnny Slash, I had dropped out of the marathon. I can only hope that today's more savvy teens recognize how good they have it in the WB's Gilmore Girls, a surprisingly adult treatment of the parent-child bond that, despite being buried deep in the ratings by the networks' high-test Thursday schedule (it airs at 7:00 opposite Friends and Survivor), is probably the best show on TV.

Though it marks the first production by the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of heavy-hitting advertisers responding to protests over "objectionable programming," Gilmore Girls is anything but puritanical. It embraces the difficulty of granting your parents what you know they want (which is not easy at any age), the challenge of squeezing in room for your desires as a single mother, and the painful necessity of letting children make their own mistakes.

Our heroine, Lorelai Gilmore (a wonderfully tart Lauren Graham), has already made a gallery of such mistakes: She got pregnant at 16, had the kid, and alienated her nearly embalmed upper-crust parents with her refusal to feel guilt. She turns to them for help when the kid in question, 16-year-old Rory (Alexis Bledel), gets into an expensive private school. In exchange for tuition, Lorelai's parents try to extract guilt at frosty weekly dinners, while she reconsiders her own bad-apple adolescence.

TV a mother could love: Gilmore girls Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham
TV a mother could love: Gilmore girls Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham

Though Lorelai's parents inhabit a sprawling mansion in Hartford, she and her daughter live in Stars Hollow, a familiar TV burg (it's roughly the same setting as Northern Exposure and Ed, peopled with endearingly quirky shop owners and sweetly crusty old folks, and filled with amusing backstory). The residents here conduct themselves with the almost archetypal quaintness of those Waspy Connecticut enclaves that sell themselves as havens where folks know one another.

Like the characters, the whole town could easily come across as a saccharine row of gingerbread houses. That it doesn't can be attributed to Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who with Lorelai has reasserted some of the bite she once wrote into Roseanne. This time, though, she has colored her premise with a sunnier cast, and she has selected ailments that afflict those in the middle tax brackets. Although Lorelai's wit serves as an emotional barrier, a method of self-defense, and a means of buying time, it's almost never bitter or angry. In some ways this represents a retreat from Roseanne's unmediated rebellion; in others it's a welcome smartening of our sitcoms' daffy-heroine clichés. "Are you a member of the DAR?" inquires the dreadfully dull preppie that Mom has fixed Lorelai up with, field-testing her wife potential. "No. D-A-R-N," Lorelai ripostes, a line whose onscreen failure only adds to our sense of the survivalist necessity of her rejoinders.

An unfailing chatterbox who never uses one word when ten will do, Lorelai finds her mouth running her into corners she can only back out of, scraping her dignity across the floor as she goes. When forced to assert herself with her parents she regresses into stammering teendom, darting aggressively forward to claim territory, then fleeing at signs of resistance. At the same time, we're never encouraged to laugh at or look down on her. Her missteps are often depicted less as comic fodder than as human frailty, such as when Lorelai meets a headmaster in boots and cutoffs after oversleeping on Rory's first day of school. In scenes like these, Lorelai could be a sister to the too-smart-yet-nonetheless-chagrined heroines in Lorrie Moore's fiction.

Lorelai is ever juggling selves (with frequent drops): She's a mostly capable manager of a successful inn; a dutiful if rebellious child; a mother to her daughter; and a sporadic attendant to her own needs. And in this, Lorelai is the closest TV has come in a while to the unmelodramatic ordinariness of real contemporary life. Similarly, the kids on this show are equally notable for what they aren't as for what they are. That is, they aren't laugh-track-craving smart-asses or problem sites for the unfurling of narrative contrivances. Rory, an intelligent teenager whose favorite book is Anna Karenina, doesn't let her poise and flashes of insight obscure her essential uncertainty. When her boyfriend says he loves her, she freezes, not sure that she can mouth, or believe in, the same phrase--which tells him all he needs to know.

Edward Herrmann was born to play the white-bread paterfamilias, and he does so with a perfectly engaging/enraging nose for propriety that doesn't quite hide his suspicion that there are more things in the world than can be explained by his philosophy. Kelly Bishop, as Lorelai's mother, never lets a hair or an emotion get out of place. ("You're late," she remarks crisply when Lorelai shows up for dinner--a universal remonstrance spoken with individual pique.) Yet these parents really do mean well: Both sincerely want their granddaughter to go to Harvard, and their ceaseless war with their daughter never obscures a fundamental hope that she will "make something" of her life.

There are lessons here, but not in that "very special" way that TV prefers to dole them out. (I would be overjoyed not to see one of Rory's friends suddenly accrue a drug habit.) Instead, truths arrive in the unplotted, episodic manner in which most of us muddle through our days: Oops, don't do that again.

The main lesson here is for us, the viewers. Though the "family-friendly" label may be the commercial kiss of death (the equivalent of a G-rating on a movie), anyone who complains that there's nothing good on deserves to have to watch Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe bed each other until their AARP cards come.

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