TV's Best of the Decade: No. 18 -- 'Gilmore Girls'
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel brought warm fuzzies to a decade of TV darkness
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When the story of TV in the Aughts is written, much will be discussed about the shift of quality scripted TV to cable and how that shift led to darker programming and edgier programming. And then there will be analysis of how the edginess of cable worked its way backwards and helped make network TV grittier and allowed TV to push more boundaries in all directions.
That's a good story, a nice narrative about a maturing medium coming into its own and whatnot. And I'm not going to lie: A plurality of the shows in my Top 20 are, indeed, cable shows or cable-esque shows, things probably not intended for family viewership.
Still, I hope that the story of the Aughts leaves at least some room for the worthiness of warm fuzzies. I hope that there's still room to recognize and celebrate a little show like "Gilmore Girls."
If not for the seventh season, produced without the participation of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, I could have seen pushing "Gilmore Girls" even further up this list of TV's Best of the Decade. Even acknowledging that flawed-to-crushing season, I'm OK with "Gilmore Girls" coming in at No. 18 on my list.
As small screen comfort food goes, "Gilmore Girls" was the best the decade had to offer.
[More "Gilmore Girls" talk after the break.]
When it comes to mocking the cluelessness of Emmy voters through the decade, I offer only this number:
That would be the total number of combined writing nominations for Amy Sherman-Palladino and acting nominations for Lauren Graham for "Gilmore Girls."
Maybe Emmy voters just took "Gilmore Girls" lightly. It premiered in the fall of 2000, before I'd moved into the TV reviewing racket, and most of what I knew about the show stemmed from its status as one of the first shows to receive funding from the Family Friendly Programming Forum. It was hard not to look at "Gilmore Girls" as another "7th Heaven" and, in that light, it probably wasn't being targeted at me. I suspect I only watched it because Sepinwall told me it was better than it seemed like it ought to be.
Indeed, "Gilmore Girls" *was* better than it seemed like it ought to be, which continued to be the case right up until the end of the sixth season.
Funding from the Family Friendly Programming Forum aside, "Gilmore Girls" was probably one of the most politically complicated and pragmatic shows ever tagged as "family friendly."
There was an essentially conservative undercurrent to "Gilmore Girls." Lorelai Gilmore (Graham) was pregnant at 16, didn't consider an abortion, had the baby and raised her with strong core values. Rather than accepting hand-outs of any kind, Lorelai started at the bottom at the Independence Inn, working as a maid, and moved up the ladder, eventually managing the inn and then starting her own small business, the embodiment of the American Dream. As the show began, Lorelai's daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) was on the verge of ditching public education for the prestigious and elitist Chilton Academy in the hopes of eventually heading off for the even more prestigious and even more elitist Harvard.
But there was a catch. For all of her stubborn independence and her upward mobility, Lorelai still couldn't afford Chilton, forcing her to turn to that ultimate bastion of conservative welfare, the support of her ultra WASP-y, ultra patrician parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann).
Of course, Lorelai's feigned independence was a ruse anyway. If Amy Sherman-Palladino had set out to make a literal adaptation of Hillary Clinton's "It Takes a Village," she couldn't have made her point any more clearly. As much as Lorelai raised Rory, she was equally raised by Luke (Scott Patterson) and Miss Patty (Liz Torres) and Kirk (Sean Gunn) and Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) and Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and Jackson (Jackson Belleville) and Taylor Doose (Michael Winters) and Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda) and Babette (Sally Struthers) and Gypsy (Rose Abdoo) and Grant the town troubadour (Grant Lee Phillips) and all of the other residents of Stars Hollow who came and went over 150+ episodes. Even if Stars Hollow was just an extended stretch of real estate on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, it was an evolving and nurturing part of the Gilmore Girls' lives. Because of Stars Hollow, Lorelai never needed a husband to raise her daughter and Rory never lacked for a father. Like I said, Hillary (and that African proverb) were right and that meant that the Family Friendly Programming Forum was supporting a show that was, indeed, all about family, but an atypical and non-nuclear family. Rory's patrician grandparents, biological though they were, played an adversarial role nearly as much as they were assets.
With Graham, Sherman-Palladino saved an actress who was right on the brink of show-killer status after "Townies" and "Lush Life" and "Conrad Bloom." As a viewer who really liked Graham on two of those shows, I never thought Graham needed saving, but she certainly needed the right part. With Lorelai, Graham got to be funny and whip-smart, making the most of Sherman-Palladino's ripping dialogue, which cribbed from the patter of fast-talking classics like the Nick & Nora movies and banter-heavy favorites like "The Front Page" and "Philadelphia Story" and "His Girl Friday." Sherman-Palladino's verbiage was spiked with such a wide range of pop culture awareness that future generations may need to watch episodes with a Wikipedia search engine running on their computer. "Gilmore Girls" was both immediately of its time, but so marvelously far-reaching that even when episodes aired, they sent even the most savvy of viewers scurrying to catch all of the references.
Instead of pairing Graham's Lorelai with her own William Powell or Cary Grant and letting romantic sparks fly, Sherman-Palladino gave her Rory, simultaneously a daughter and a best friend. The joke initially was that Lorelai was the impetuous one and Rory was grounded and driven, but as the show progressed, we saw Rory more and more as her mother's daughter, for better or worse. I've seen enough of the "Traveling Pants" movies and "Post-Grad" to know that Bledel may never get a part this good and this helpful again, which is bound to be frustrating. Getting to read Sherman-Palladino's prose and getting to play off of Graham is a privilege for your first real acting job, but it doesn't necessarily leave you with much room for growth (though I liked Bledel in her small "Sin City" role). In addition to earning her photograph next to the word "winsome" in the dictionary, Bledel kept up with Graham as well as anybody could have. It was a two-sided relationship and if Bledel hadn't held her own, we wouldn't have cared what happened between Rory and Lorelai.
There may be no greater sign of our love for these characters than just how pissed off viewers got whenever Lorelai or Rory did something we didn't like. And they were always doing things we didn't like.
The show was established on the foundation of a screw-up, specifically Lorelai getting pregnant at 16. But built into that foundation was the very clear idea that people learn by making bad decisions and that just because something seems wrong at time the doesn't mean that it isn't a valuable step in taking you where you were always supposed to go. And even though the show established from the very first episode that Lorelai was prone to impulsive, sometimes self-defeating, behavior and that Rory was capable of the same choices, it never ceased to frustrate us. And even though we knew early on that both Lorelai and Rory had, to put it kindly, questionable taste in men, that fact didn't lessen the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. We wanted these two women to be happy, even though they were hard-wired to complicate things for themselves. No matter how aware we might have been of their ingrained predilections, that knowledge wasn't going to make it less painful when Lorelai and Rory fought or were estranged. That discomfort was required so that we earned the warm fuzzies when the inevitable reconciliations came.
And they made so many mistakes.
We knew Lorelai was supposed to be with Luke from the pilot, but for any number of reasons (some narrative, some behind-the-scenes), it behooved the show to keep them apart. So we had to follow Lorelai from Max (Scott Cohen) to Jason (Chris Eigeman) and through several arcs with Christopher (David Sutcliff). Rory's romantic destiny was less secure, so she worked her way through Tristin (Chad Michael Murray) and Dean (Jared Padalecki) and Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), all of whom were wrong for one reason or another, but at least each of the actors got their own shows as parting gifts. We had the ridiculous idea that Marty was the boy for Rory once she got to college -- Yale, not Harvard -- but it turned out that she was really destined for Matt Czuchry's Logan, at least in the short term. Realistically, Lorelai and Rory were destined for a "Grey Gardens"-style life-long cohabitation, a reference the show made back when "Grey Gardens" was a relatively obscure camp-classic documentary from the Maysles Brothers, rather than an Emmy-winning HBO movie.
This post is already running long without having tipped my cap to the excellence of Bishop and Herrmann, who were both Emmy-worthy in their own right. And without having mentioned Keiko Agena's Lane or Liza Weil's Paris who were, at times, the show's secret weapons. [Then again, I've also dodged having to justify that last season, in which suddenly the character lost much of their wit and the dialogue lost much of its sparkle. If "The West Wing" happens to make its way onto this list, you'll hypothetically notice me ignoring Season Five in the same way.]
Before this entry, I rewatched the first four or five episodes of "Gilmore Girls" -- Kirk was named "Mick"! -- and was both happy and sad to see how quickly I was able to fall back into the show's rhythms and how much I'd love to have Lorelai and Rory back.
So that's why "Gilmore Girls" stands at No. 18 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? I cheat a little and teach a lesson in synecdoche with the help of Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru.