Daughters, mothers and 'Gilmore Girls'
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
May 18, 2004
This week's episode of "The Gilmore Girls" is the season finale, but for me it is the end of something much more important. It is the last time my daughter Rachel and I will watch the show together because she is leaving for college in the fall. When she goes, one of the things I will miss most is our Tuesday night post- "Gilmore" discussions.
Both of my children usually think it is a little unseemly of me to enjoy the music or movies they like, but with "The Gilmore Girls" the fact that Rachel and I both love the show has been as great a pleasure as watching the program itself.
Rachel was about 14 when she first told me about "The Gilmore Girls," then in its second year. It sounded sitcom-y and formulaic -- a single mother who had a baby at age 16, her daughter Rory, then 16 herself, and their relationship with the mother's wealthy parents.
I politely tried to think of something nice to say: "Rory is a pretty name."
"Her real name is Lorelai, like her mother," Rachel said matter-of-factly. "But that's because she was so young when she had her that she didn't have good judgment, and mistakenly just gave her own name when the hospital asked her what the baby's name was." Well now, this was interesting. A television show had informed my daughter that teenagers can make foolish choices they later regret, and she liked it?
I got another surprise when I sat down with her to watch the next episode, about Lorelai's reluctant agreement to organize a school fundraiser.
Amazingly, this did not follow the standard television formula for comedy plus warmth: Incompetence leads to comic mayhem, happily concluding when a powerful character either intervenes or is delighted with the unexpected outcome; then everyone learns a lesson and lives happily ever after until next week.
This was different. Lorelai was confident and capable. The characters were complicated and intelligent. There was plenty of humor and warmth, but it came from the people and the dialogue. And that dialogue -- it was fast, funny and dazzlingly, omni-culturally literate, sprinkled with references from Henry David Thoreau to feng shui, Kofi Annan, Joseph Campbell and any television star who was ever featured on a lunchbox in the 1980s. I was hooked.
"It's easy to make things funny if people mess it up," producer-writer Amy Sherman-Palladino said in a telephone interview. "It's harder to make people qualified at what they are doing and find the comedy somewhere else. Lorelai can be a bit of a kid, but this is a woman who made a life for herself with no formal education, a woman of great determination and great competency."
Sherman-Palladino wanted to make sure Lorelai was the kind of person who would create a cheerful, loving environment for her daughter. She also wanted Lorelai to read, because of her own curiosity about the world and to keep up with her brainy child.
And she wanted Lorelai and Rory to be irreverent, but not snarky. "They don't take things seriously, but they are genuine. They know how goofy some of their town's festivals are, but they truly love them," she said.
The same could be said about the show's quirky characters. One of the best is Rory's roommate, the hyper-focused, hyper-competitive Paris.
"Rory's nemesis has to be not the popular girl with the blond hair and perfect stomach dating the football player, but the smartest girl, the one who, in the womb, was preparing for her SATs," Sherman-Palladino said.
"With Rory, I wanted to write about a teenage girl whose focus in life was books, music, reading, Harvard; friends with her mom; who was not interested in being in a clique. She needs challenges, and Paris is relentless. Rory will want to stay close to that kind of person because it keeps her sharp, her eyes focused on the prize."
She said she liked the contrast between "Rory's complete acceptance of people for who they are" and Paris, "who is not willing to accept anyone, even herself."
One of Sherman-Palladino's best ideas was to bump the mother-daughter conflict in the show up a generation. The clash is between Lorelai and her mother, Emily, who is firmly committed to traditional standards of behavior. Lorelai was estranged from her parents for 16 years, until she needed their help to pay for Rory's tuition at a private school. In return, they insisted that Lorelai and Rory have dinner with them once a week.
"Their last real interaction was when Lorelai was 16, so they didn't have the softening, growing-up years," Sherman-Palladino said. "They revert back to the rebellious 16-year-old and judgmental mother."
Teenagers get to see Lorelai as both idealized mother-as-friend with her daughter and as conflicted, angry and needy with her own mother.
Rachel has grown up with Rory, and we have loved watching together as Rory found her way through the challenges of high school, friends, boyfriends, family, applying to college and her first year at Yale.
I hope one lesson Rachel has learned from Rory is how easy it is to stay in close touch with home, even from a dorm room.
She and I and some friends are planning a "Gilmore Girls" marathon party to watch the first year of the show, just out on DVD, so we can catch up on the episodes we missed. I hope families whose daughters were too young for the show when it began will watch it together on DVD too.
I am looking forward to going back in time to when Rory was just starting high school. If only I could do the same with Rachel.
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Daughters, mothers and 'Gilmore Girls'