She wears ripped fishnets, black boots, and a miniskirt. She peppers her sentences with four-letter expletives that are regularly dashed out in this magazine. She’s a veteran of one of the most controversial sitcoms of the ’90s. And yet today she finds herself the darling of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a conservative consortium of advertisers who’d like to turn the clock back to the days when Beaver was just a little Cleaver. ”The foreign press came around last year,” says Amy Sherman-Palladino, the 36-year-old creator and exec producer of Gilmore Girls, the WB hit that’s taking the Gee! out of G-rated TV. ”And the first thing this guy from France said was ‘You don’t strike me as very family friendly.’ I told him to bl — me.”
Anita Bryant she ain’t. But what Sherman-Palladino has unwittingly pulled off is positively revolutionary. In one fell swoop, her dramedy about an unmarried mother and her teenage daughter has managed to get conservatives and liberals agreeing on fine family entertainment. Right-skewing media watchdogs love it, critics — notoriously left of center — heap it with praise, and its audience continues to grow. Gilmore Girls is up 50 percent in total viewers in season 2, making it the fastest-growing show on television (during February sweeps it drew 5.5 million viewers — a million more than former WB powerhouse Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and the most watched by 12- to 34-year-old females in its Tuesday-at-8-p.m. time slot.
Attracting all those eyeballs are the Girls: Single mom Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) — pregnant at 16, ran away from home — and her now-17-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). What keeps the blooming fan base glued, however, is the deep, respectful connection between mother and daughter, and their breakneck, pop-culture-crammed dialogue. (Lorelai explaining to Rory why she wants to marry her then-fiance, Max: ”We’ve been completely in sync — without the slightly gay boy-band affiliation.”) It’s hard to imagine a teenage girl who wouldn’t want to live in the adorably zany little Connecticut town of Stars Hollow with an Earl Jeans-wearing, Belle & Sebastian-referencing mom who takes you to drag bars (okay, only once). Furthermore, this teenage girl — unlike most of The WB’s hyper-hormonal population — is comfortable in her own skin; Rory’s too busy reading Flaubert to think about having sex. The most conservative characters — Lorelai’s rich, disapproving parents, Richard and Emily Gilmore (Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop) — are in many ways the least likable characters: Emily and Lorelai bicker ceaselessly because Lorelai didn’t marry Rory’s charming loser dad, Christopher (David Sutcliffe) — described by Sherman-Palladino as ”Robert Downey Jr. without the drug problem” — and Herrmann’s character initially comes off as stuffy. But both are motivated by an abiding love for their daughter and granddaughter that clearly shines through.
”If you think a kid’s got to have a mother and father, go nab yourself a husband, reel him in, pop out a few kids, and have The Dick Van Dyke Show,” says Sherman-Palladino, who often sounds like the heroine of the show that she used to write for, Roseanne. ”I think that’s fabulous. But there are a lot of mothers like Lorelai out there and a lot of parents like Richard and Emily. And whether you come from a good family or not, things didn’t go right at some point. That’s the stuff I write about — the stuff everyone can relate to.”
Even, apparently, the Family Friendly Programming Forum. The three-year-old Forum includes 48 major advertisers that, as a result of their concerns over the dwindling availability of acceptable prime-time programming, established a development fund to finance new family-friendly scripts; to date, they’ve developed some 50 scripts and one half-hour pilot, Raising Dad, currently on The WB. (Typically, the Forum pays for script development, which can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000. If a script becomes a pilot, the network reimburses the fund and the monies are used to seed more scripts. The WB is a charter member; CBS, NBC, and ABC soon followed.)
”We were looking for programming that wasn’t what people typically thought of as family friendly. We needed to break that mold, to attract the broadest range of audience,” explains Andrea Alstrup, corporate VP of advertising for Johnson & Johnson and Forum cochair. ”We wanted something multigenerational, that would appeal to parents and children.” And the part about the mother being unwed — how did that fly with the Forum’s more conservative members? ”There were discussions about that,” admits Alstrup, ”but we didn’t feel that was a critical part of the story.” WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin offers a more telling (as in lucrative) explanation for the Forum and his network’s endorsement: ”Single-parent households represent half the households in this country. Gilmore Girls is just as much an American nuclear family as the one portrayed in 7th Heaven.”
Back in 1999, Sherman-Palladino was not so excited about the Forum’s involvement. ”I was concerned that four guys all dressed alike were going to march into my office and say, ‘Here is what we consider family friendly,”’ she says. ”Thank God that didn’t happen.”
Critics were equally skeptical; most assumed the show was being used to advance a right-wing agenda. ”I can’t even tell you how many reviews I read that said, ‘I wanted to hate this show because of the family-friendly thing,”’ recalls Sherman-Palladino. ”We were lucky they managed to look past it.” In fact, the Forum has remained remarkably hands-off, and Gilmore quickly became a critical darling, earning three Television Critics Association Awards nominations its first season and ultimately winning Outstanding New Program (in addition, Graham has received two SAG nods and one Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a TV Drama).
Not everyone is heaping glory on the show, of course. We are, after all, talking about a mother and daughter who have double-dated, not to mention a mother who allowed her onetime fiance to sleep over, who rarely cooks a meal for her daughter — and heck, doesn’t Rory drink an awful lot of coffee for a teenager? Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents TV Council, publishes an annual pamphlet, assigning every prime-time show a green, yellow, or red light — green indicating the safest, etc. In the latest edition, Gilmore got a yellow light, with Honig noting that many scenes ”aren’t what a lot of Americans would describe as family friendly. The show can also get racy at times, and sometimes the mother acts more like a friend than a parent.”
Graham, 35, readily admits that Lorelai’s relationship with Rory isn’t standard TV fare, but she is equally convinced that the show has more than earned its family-friendly label. ”Lorelai’s situation is not a traditional example of what you’d like to happen — it’s not even a good idea,” she acknowledges. ”But no one is saying, Wouldn’t it be great if all parents were closer in age to their kids. What the show says is that sometimes a family needs to make the best out of the situation.” Bledel, age 20, agrees, and believes having a mother exactly twice her age has actually proved to be an advantage. ”You have to remember that Lorelai got pregnant at 16, the same age Rory is now. Someone who grows up with a constant reminder of what having sex as a teenager brings to you in life is going to be extremely cautious before becoming sexually active.”
And, really, Gilmore Girls does plenty to support picket-fence America: The town of Stars Hollow, for example — with flowers on every corner, hayrides, and picnic-basket auctions — is a veritable blueprint for traditional values. But just when you think you’ve been transported back to It’s a Wonderful Life, Sherman-Palladino yanks the rug out from under you, as in Rory and Lorelai bonding at a bachelorette party at the aforementioned drag bar. Which is exactly why Gilmore works. ”The show lulls you into a sense of peace and calm, then nails you with really witty lines,” says Scott Patterson, who plays caffeine dealer Luke Danes, owner of the local diner. The dialogue ”is the glue that holds the show together and why we’ve doubled our audience.” That and an unerring sense of what won’t alienate teenage viewers or their parents. Gilmore, says veteran actor Herrmann, ”provides a setting where there is a sense of continuity between the adults and the kids. This show doesn’t isolate the kids together. [Rory and her friends don’t] have to go on the road like Kerouac in order to experience real life. They can do it in a safe place where adults are around to help them understand things.”
Sherman-Palladino, who is married to another Gilmore exec producer, Daniel Palladino, tends to dismiss criticism of the show’s authenticity, including the most personal accusation: that she shouldn’t be writing about parenting when she doesn’t have a child. ”Lots of people told me a real mom would never do the things Lorelai does,” she says. ”I tell them there are lots of ways to be a good mom. Lorelai is a great parent who isn’t completely defined by her kid.” She shrugs. ”This is our truth. It’s TV. We make things up here. I don’t want to scare anyone, but Martin Sheen is not the real president.”