Thursday, July 13, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 12: Gilmore Girls

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer

It's fall of 2000 and I happen to leave the TV running after whatever I had just watched, resulting in my catching the opening of a new show I'd heard nothing about. I immediately recognize one of the stars as a woman who seemed to be popping up on EVERY show a couple years earlier: Newsradio, Law & Order, Caroline in the City, a couple failed sitcoms. I mostly remember finding her annoying (which in most cases, was her function on those shows), so my first thought was "Ah, another soon-to-be-dead series." She's having coffee with what I assume to be a friend of hers, a younger woman.

For a reason that I'm sure had NOTHING to do with her coffee companions stunning blue eyes, I leave the TV on while lazily surfing the web and then as a guy makes a pass at each of the ladies in turn, the twist of the show is revealed: This 32 year-old woman and 16 year-old girl are actually mother and daughter. "Okay, show, you had my curiosity... NOW you have my attention," I think. I think there was probably also a cynical musing on how The WB had finally found an organic solution to the problem that all their parent figures were too old to be interesting to their young audience.

My point is - what got my attention was the realization: "I haven't seen these characters before. No one's explored this dynamic - a former teen mom with a daughter who's now like a friend than a daughter, right when the mom is going to really have to step up and be in authority." You could see the potential from the first few scenes and as the rest of the pilot played out more and more unusual wrinkles emerged. So the mom was raised in privilege and ran away after giving birth? And she's been totally self-sufficient since, only is now forced to beg her parents for a loan to afford school for her daughter? We're adding class issues to this, along with the culture clash of small town people with high society?

Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the Gilmore Girls pilot does many things right, and it's probably one that's worth breaking down scene by scene at some point because you can learn a lot about character building and world-building. Pilots are written to sell a series. Sometimes that means you get a show with a lot of flash and eye candy. Other times you end up with a show that "lays a lot of pipe" (writer jargon for "puts out a lot of exposition"), but presents a fascinating situation despite itself. In the case of Gilmore Girls, while it has a lot of foundation to pour, it's done in such an entertaining and seamless way that it doesn't feel terribly pilot-y.

The secret sauce? Character. Every conflict is character driven. Every world we meet is rooted in character, and we're fortunate because they're generally characters we haven't met before. It doesn't feel like we're meeting people in terms of their functions so much as these players seem to pop onto the screen fully-formed and lived in. Remember, before I knew anything about the world or the eventual conflict between Lorelei and her daughter Rory about Rory being accepted into private school, I was hooked by the mother/daughter set-up.

Writing lessons:

Have a strong core relationship to your series. Bonus points for ones we haven't seen before. - I've beaten most of this lesson to death, so I'll just add that in the first scene with Rory and Lorelei, part of what stood out was how easily Rory slid into giving Mr. Pick-Up Artist some shit. (She teases, "Are you my new daddy?" after his pass at Lorelei reveals the mother/daughter relationship.)

The more formed your world is, the more comfortably you can explore your characters in it - The town of Stars Hollow is introduced with a number of regular residents who are depicted exactly as they would be for the remainder of the first season and beyond. True, it's not the familiar town EXACTLY (owing to shooting on location rather than on the WB lot where the rest of the series is filmed) but the spirit of the show is there. The same can be said for Lorelei's parents' home.

Show us there's a story there - All of the relationships are immediately fertile ground for years of stories. Lorelei and Rory butt heads in what seems to be their first major fight EVER. (And to Lorelei's horror, it's over a GUY of all things, when Rory doesn't want to leave public school after having just met the new boy in town.) Just from that moment it's evident that Rory's growing independence from her mother is going to be a running theme of the series. It also doesn't take too many leaps to see the parallels between that and Lorelei's own strained relationship with her mother. Generational tension is always good for a story, and between what's spoken and unspoken in this pilot, it's clear that all three generations have a lot of growing to do.

Characters we haven't seen before on TV - We've covered Lorelei being a former teen mom, but it bears mentioning that Rory was a pretty unique beast at the time. She was a smart girl who was neither a nerd, nor a popular queen bee. She also wasn't insecure about her brains making her an outcast. (Yes, she's looked down on when she starts at Chilton, but it's pretty evident from context that she's never been bullied or shunned for her brains or her love of reading.) The lead girl of a WB show is a book nerd who loves reading well above her age level - can you name ANY time that's happened before? I think my Rory crush was cemented right there!

The beauty of how I'm doing this 16-show list is that I'm not held hostage by later dips in quality. Yes, season 7 is a severe drop from what came before, and you can't be objective and argue that missteps in season 6 didn't make that possible either. My appreciation of the show's early days doesn't mean I'm not critical of where the show eventually took Rory's development. Believe me - I am.

But the first three seasons are consistently strong throughout. If you want to get a good flavor of the show in Season 1 beyond the pilot, I'd look at "Rory's Birthday Parties" and the two-parter "Rory's Dance." All of those make good use of the Lorelei/Rory/Emily dynamic, playing off the tensions that have either been long-simmering or newly-built.

It's in the second season that the show's rapid-fire dialogue really takes flight. The pace is amped up, and I'm still waiting someone to do a deconstruction of Palladino's dialogue and how it ONLY sounds right when delivered double-time. If you try performing some GG scenes at the speed of mere mortals, something assuredly feels off. I almost want to say there are dialogue lessons there, but Palladino dialogue works because they're the only ones who write that way. Imitate at your own risk. Be a first-rate you, not a second-rate Palladino.

The recent Netflix revival is a worthy conclusion to the show, and in almost every way, is a better note to depart the series on than the series itself. You can find my review of it here.

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