The Gift of Gab
It’s a boudoir really, more than an office, this space on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where Amy Sherman-Palladino creates the stories for “Gilmore Girls.” A critically acclaimed show with a “terribly tough” Thursday night time slot opposite “Friends” and “Survivor,” the WB’s hourlong “dramedy” is hatched each week in a room where nearly everything is pink, fuchsia or crimson, except for the life-size cardboard cutout of “Angel’s” David Boreanaz and the chocolate pudding the show’s star, Lauren Graham, is having for lunch.
Graham folds her lean frame onto the pink divan, taking a load off the go-go boots with their 4-inch heels--the ones she wears as single mom Lorelai Gilmore. It’s halfway through a 12-hour shooting day and months since the series debuted, but Graham still sounds enthusiastic about her role.
“It’s rare that there’s a character who has such a specific voice,” she said.
“There’s so many dramas . . . where the people are distinguished by their actions or behaviors as opposed to how they speak.” And how Lorelai speaks is fast, tossing off wry one-liners faster than Annie Hall on amphetamines.
“Almost every scene in this show benefits from speeding it up,” Graham said. “It gives it the right energy.”
Sherman-Palladino, a petite live-wire outfitted in silver spray-painted combat boots and Capri pants, elaborated on Graham’s delivery: “It makes things fly, and I don’t know a lot of actresses who could do that. It’s hard enough to be in character, hit your emotional moments and handle all the technical things you need to know, but then to have a specific rhythm and a specific speed--that is Lauren Graham.”
Sherman-Palladino, 34, said she wanted to get her own voice on television and in Graham’s character. Lorelai runs a New England inn staffed by a French concierge who hates dealing with the public and a clumsy perfectionist cook who rejects nearly all produce deliveries. Neighbors include Sally Struthers as a cat-loving slacker living with her much taller husband, in a house where all the doorways appear to be scaled for dwarfs. Down the street, a Korean American antiques store owner sells desks out from under her daughter while she’s trying to do her homework.
At 32, Lorelai is grappling with dating and addicted to strong coffee, takeout and short skirts. Above all, she is devoted to her brainy, Harvard-bound 16-year-old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), determined to see her daughter enjoy all the opportunities Lorelai missed out on after becoming pregnant at age 16.
Sherman-Palladino said “Gilmore Girls’ ” zippy repartee was inspired by Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films, in which relationships are revealed through sparring dialogue rather than pages of tedious exposition. “Just by listening to Lorelai’s vocal patterns, it says volumes about this woman: First of all, that she’s bright enough to put that many words together that quickly . . . and it says a lot about her emotionally, that she’s got a deflection shield that’s sort of the way she gets through the world, which says survivor.”
If the show’s breakneck pace is modeled on Hepburn-Tracy comedies, Lorelai’s propensity toward acerbic bon mots might be explained by Sherman-Palladino’s obsession with legendary New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker.
“Genius. Love her,” said Sherman-Palladino. “Here’s this bitter, boozy and yet incredibly witty woman. I loved not only her writing style, I loved who she was, and I loved her shortcomings.”
Graham chimed in, “She was so alone too--there was nobody like her in her community, she had no . . . “
“She had no support system at all,” Sherman-Palladino said, completing the thought. “She would take money for writing assignments and then wouldn’t do them. Everything about her always made me laugh, even the way she died; I mean, she was this big gin addict and she didn’t care. First, it was, ‘I’m gonna die young,’ then it was, ‘I’m gonna die youngish.’ And then she was like 80 and it was, ‘Apparently I’m not dying young.’ ”
Sherman-Palladino named her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here as a last-minute name switch from the Devil’s Concubine. A series produced by a woman who worships Dorothy Parker and cozies up to Satan might seem unlikely to receive the stamp of approval from any organization with the word “family” in it, but last year, the Family Friendly Advertising Forum gave the WB $1 million for script development of “Gilmore Girls.” Forum funding comes from Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and more than 40 other mainstream advertisers. (The WB is part-owned by Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times.)
Short Skirts, Sarcasm and a Romance
J. Andrea Alstrup, Johnson & Johnson corporate vice president of advertising, who helped organize the Forum in 1998, said, “I’m really pleased with the development of the show--there’s lots of shows with less audience delivery than ‘Gilmore Girls,’ and I still like the premise. The challenge is to be creatively entertaining without having to be sugary sweet.”
Clearly, Lorelai’s short skirts, sarcasm and romance with Rory’s English teacher fall within acceptable bounds. “We’re not going to get uptight about every nuance,” said Bob Wehling, P&G;'s global marketing officer and Forum co-founder. “I’m generally comfortable with what I’ve seen of the show, and I particularly like the relationship between mother and daughter--it’s open, healthy.”
Graham and Sherman-Palladino bat down any suggestion that the Forum influences the show’s content. Sherman-Palladino didn’t even know about the arrangement until after shooting had begun. And Graham wonders out loud, “Do we all have to be friendly with each other?”
For Now, the Show Stays on Thursdays
So advertisers are happy, critics are abuzz (the show has landed on several top 10 lists), and the creative team is in sync. “Gilmore Girls” would be in a great groove if it weren’t for that pesky time slot. Wouldn’t the show enjoy a bump in viewership if it aired, well, anywhere but Thursday night?
Maybe, but Susanne Daniels, WB’s co-president of entertainment, said she’s not inclined to rejigger the schedule for “Gilmore Girls,” at least this year. “Something’s got to go there,” she said. “Will it be ‘Gilmore Girls’ there next year? That remains to be seen.” At least Daniels is talking about a next year, saying she’ll be inclined to renew the show “if we see ratings growth, even a minimal amount.”
By that measure, “Gilmore Girls’ ” future seems secure, despite averaging a mere 3.7 million viewers this season. To broaden viewership, the WB has begun airing repeats of the show on Monday nights at 9 after its top-rated series, “7th Heaven.”
Jordan Levin, WB co-president of entertainment, said, “We felt this was an opportunity to expose ‘Gilmore Girls’ to different audiences--the ‘7th Heaven’ audience is a very compatible audience, which is our No. 1 show for female teens.”
Even if overall numbers for “Gilmore Girls” remain static, the network can point to a fairly strong showing relative to its target audience, faring disproportionately well among female teenagers.
Graham says some of those teenagers write her letters, wistfully wondering why their own families fail to communicate as well as the Gilmore girls. They might be comforted to know that Lorelai is herself a product of Sherman-Palladino’s wishful thinking. Married to “Family Guy” writer-producer Daniel Palladino, Sherman-Palladino doesn’t have children, and her mother was nothing like Lorelai.
“My mom was in her mid-30s when she had me. I was raised very differently from anybody in this show,” she said. “I came from Van Nuys, and people were still married back then. . . . I really always wanted a big sister when I was a kid--I was an only child--I actually had a sister who died very young, very horrible and sad, so I always grew up thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I could have a big sister who was my pal, and we’d look kind of alike. . . .’ So if anything I think it would be like, if I ever had a kid, I’d probably want to be a pal.”
On “Gilmore Girls,” it’s all about the bond. And Lorelai’s more-pal-than-parent posture extends into Graham’s offstage rapport with Bledel, a 19-year-old actress taking off a year from her studies at Columbia University. “Rory and Lorelai are legitimately on a level of best friends,” said Sherman-Palladino, “which gives you a lot of conflict and stories and richness.”
“Gilmore Girls” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. and Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the WB. (This Thursday the show will be preempted by baseball.)