Talk about a sugar high: Gilmore Girls is still the sweetest show on TV. It’s also one of the smartest, weighing in somewhere between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos. A young mom and her precocious teenage daughter live out their days in the alternative universe of Stars Hollow, an eccentric New England town where everyone is stunningly witty, pop-culturally literate, emotionally complex, and can speak unfeasibly fast. Yet strangely, five seasons on, it has never attracted a massive audience nor once been nominated for an Emmy.
Discerning viewers are probably deterred, as I was initially, by the notion that this is either a homespun family drama, another WB teen soap, or a chick show. The last accusation isn’t entirely unfounded, since the series focuses on the relationships among three generations of ornery women and uses the milky, ethereal vocals of Sam Phillips as background music. But Gilmore creator-producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, who talks as frenetically as her caffeine-fueled characters, protests: “We don’t do menstruation story lines—although who knows, maybe this will be the year that everyone in Stars Hollow starts to ovulate on the same cycle.”
The series revels in cutesiness one moment, only to gleefully thrash it the next. That’s especially true of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), a thirtysomething woman who left the wealthy, stultifying home of her parents at age 16 to raise her baby daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). Now a teenager herself, Rory is bookish and serious, sometimes more mature than her impetuous mother. The two have a symbiotic, almost creepily close relationship. But last season, Sherman-Palladino created huge fissures in the plot. Rory departed for Yale, which forced mother and daughter to conduct their rapid-fire banter via cell phone; Lorelai’s parents (the marvelous Edward Hermann and Kelly Bishop) separated; and Rory, a Bambi-faced ingenue, committed her first morally questionable act: losing her virginity to ex-boyfriend Dean and breaking up his marriage in the process. The most risky gambit in terms of the show’s chemistry was the consummation of Lorelai’s long-simmering flirtation with her best friend Luke (Scott Patterson), the grouchy but lovable owner of the town diner.
These moves convinced critics and fans that the series was jumping the shark, but Sherman-Palladino is philosophical about the criticism. “I understand that viewers get attached to something and then it changes and throws you,” she says with a sigh. “But that is the way life goes. I liked Rory in her little plaid school skirt too, but this girl has to grow up and find out what kind of woman she wants to be.” And the key to keeping alive the tension between Luke and Lorelai, she insists, “is to make sure they don’t become new people. A lot of the time when shows pair people up, everyone’s going, ‘You’re pretty!’ ‘No, you’re prettier!’ But the conflict in how they make a relationship work can be just as interesting as wanting them to get together. These are two people who’ve been single for a very long time and they’re very independent—so commingling isn’t necessarily going to be the easiest thing on the face of this earth. They’re still going to get on each other’s nerves.”
Maybe I’m less alarmed by these changes because I’m a late convert, having only started watching regularly a few years ago. But I can see how someone might get unhealthily attached to the past. After my mother died, I found that the only thing that perked me up was total immersion in the fabulous DVD boxed set of Gilmore‘s first season. Not only is it awash in fully fleshed-out mothers and daughters, but you also get the tingly flush of first love and the crackle of teen-girl camaraderie (Rory and best pal Lane Kim, played by Keiko Agena). Lane’s Korean mother was so strict that Lane had to hide her enormous cache of indie-rock CDs under the floorboards and lie about dating her nerdy bandmate, played by Adam Brody. Then Adam Brody defected to star in The O.C., bringing more than a little of Gilmore‘s chatty pop sensibility with him. When I broach the subject of Gilmore‘s influence on The O.C. with Sherman-Palladino, she chuckles. “Then I would like a check, please—or at least a donut.”
As dense with clever repartee as The O.C. may be, it still doesn’t come close to matching the verbal velocity of Stars Hollow inhabitants. “I dare someone to clock us! It’s the way I write. Comedy plays better faster, like Woody Allen at his height—it doesn’t get better than that. You take the air out of something and it’s immediately more entertaining.” When she wrote the original pilot script, Sherman-Palladino was told it was way too long, so she cut it drastically. But because the dialogue unfurled so quickly, the episode ended up being 15 minutes short. “Everyone had a fucking heart attack and I was like, I told you!” Now she says Gilmore scripts are about 30 pages longer than an average hour-long show. Just call her the Ramones of the screenwriting world.
Sherman-Palladino (whose production company is named Dorothy Parker Drank Here) started her television career in her twenties as an award-winning writer for Roseanne, a high point in the history of intelligent feminist comedy. It taught her how to make the small details of everyday life feel big and the big tribulations small, something she has carried over to Gilmore. But the standards on Roseanne were so high that she claims it spoiled her. “You get hired on someone else’s show and you’re saying, ‘That’s not good enough.’ And you have 12 people staring at you like, ‘Uh, don’t you want to go home now?’ Which is why I decided I needed to get my own goddamn show.” On Gilmore, she has carved out her own wishful-thinking world that closely resembles our own, only smarter, gentler, and funnier. In fact, according to Sherman-Palladino, the place even has political advantages: In Stars Hollow, Al Gore is president.