Why ‘Gilmore Girls’ Endures

Long ago, in a far-off time and place where people could freely enjoy themselves in the company of strangers, also known as December 2019, an enormous crowd was gathered at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. There were dueling “Team Jess” and “Team Dean” buttons, and while the ever-perky tour guides gave their usual spiel about “Harry Potter” (“Any Slytherins here today?”) and Batman, the attendees on that day’s studio tour were really only there for one thing: to visit Stars Hollow.

The studio had briefly recreated the quirky Connecticut town from the television series “Gilmore Girls,” which ran from 2000 to 2007, and lines had formed in front of Luke’s Diner and the town gazebo to have your picture taken by Warner Bros. employees. It was fakery and pretense, complete with “Gilmore”-themed tchotchkes for sale (I bought my fair share, of course), but it also served as a tangible reminder of how passionately people still love this gentle, witty, kind show about family and community.

October marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of “Gilmore Girls,” and this week a 2016 revival, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” will air as a mini-series special on the CW, the network where it all began, back when it was known as the WB. (“A Year in the Life” debuted on Netflix.) The belated broadcast debut is CW’s attempt to fill a Covid-sized hole in its original programming, but it is also testament to the ongoing appeal of “Gilmore Girls.”

“Gilmore Girls” debuted on Oct. 5, 2000, and last month brought more evidence of its status as a beloved memento of the Y2K era. Some of the show’s stars, including Keiko Agena and Yanic Truesdale, appeared on “Good Morning America” to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. The “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, the writer and executive producer Daniel Palladino, released a statement honoring “a cast that changed our lives.” The star Lauren Graham paid tribute to “Gilmore” fans on Twitter: “Your kindness and devotion to this show have brought me so much joy over the years.”

Sherman-Palladino, whose flair for ingenious dialogue and carefully crafted emotional nuance were the key ingredients in the show’s ongoing appeal, said that given the pandemic, she had forgotten about the anniversary until someone reminded her earlier this year.

“Celebrating anniversaries is on the back burner right now,” she said. “You’re just trying to keep people from coughing and sneezing in your general direction.” (Numerous “Gilmore” veterans offered only one word when asked how the anniversary made them feel: “Old.” It’s “like we need to be called to the Motion Picture Home and reserving a room,” Sherman-Palladino said.)

But she remains happy to talk about the origins of the show that is still her most famous creation, even in a career that includes the cult favorite “Bunheads” and the multiple Emmy-winning Amazon hit “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“Any time you do something that people care about for a week,” she said, “that’s delightful.”

Few would have predicted in 2000 that “Gilmore Girls” would be so enduring. It was never a breakout hit during its seven-year run. It never found its way to a mass audience, was never nominated for a major Emmy, never received the gotta-watch-it buzz of other shows that arrived around the same moment. But through word of mouth, DVD sales, millennial nostalgia, and the power of Netflix, which greenlit the reboot in 2016 after first purchasing the streaming rights to the series, new fans, some of whom had not yet been born when the show premiered, discovered Lorelai and Rory.

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t have a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girl telling me that they’re watching it now,” said Truesdale, who played Lorelai’s acerbic co-worker Michel.

In the 1990s, Sherman-Palladino was a writer on the hit ABC series “Roseanne” — before the creator Roseanne Barr “did conspiracy theories,” she noted. But eventually the writer had a “massive breakdown” and realized that she did not want to work in half-hour comedies anymore. Her husband, Daniel Palladino, then on the writing staff of “Family Guy,” convinced her to take some time off to write something original. There were few distractions in sight.

“It was when Courtney Love and Edward Norton were dating, and she had rented a house across the street,” Sherman-Palladino recalled. “At three o’clock every day, I got to watch Edward Norton drive up, and Courtney Love run out in a nightgown and jump on Edward Norton as they went inside, and that was my big excitement for a few weeks.”

The idea for the show was to tell the story of a bookish teenage girl whose best friend was her 30-something mother. The backdrop would be an idyllic Connecticut town full of oddballs and eccentrics, and the tone would be a blend of character-driven comedy and drama, all set to a screwball pace.

“Of the fans I talk to, they generally fall into two categories,” said Sheila Lawrence, a longtime writer for the show. “Either they have a Lorelai-and-Rory relationship, or they desperately wish they had a Lorelai-and-Rory relationship.”

After the show was acquired by the WB network, Sherman-Palladino insisted on holding out until they found the ideal performers for each role, regardless of their prior experience or fame. Sherman-Palladino picked Graham for the part of Lorelai over several more well-known actors, at least partly for her literary acumen.

“She’s the first actress that pronounced the name ‘Kerouac’ correctly,” Sherman-Palladino told her husband after seeing her.

For the showrunner, Graham was a welcome throwback to a time of captivating, fast-talking female performers: “In the age of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard would have been out the door and she would have taken her place,” Sherman-Palladino said.

“Gilmore” was stubbornly insistent on the richness of the mundane. “Roseanne” had offered a helpful motto, courtesy of the producer Bob Myer, which Sherman-Palladino carried over to her own series: “Make the small big, make the big small.” There were episodes about Lorelai dressing inappropriately to visit Rory’s snooty new prep school, and Rory getting a D on a test. “Gilmore” studiously avoided what Sherman-Palladino refers to as “Who in the town killed Sookie?” story lines.

The tone was set from the moment the writing staff was first assembled. “Amy was telling us about the show,” said John Stephens, who was on the “Gilmore” writing staff for four seasons. “She said, ‘This show is about a mother and a daughter who are best friends as well as being mother and daughter, and every conflict and dynamic should ticktack back and forth on that one point.’”

While the series shared a glossy visual aesthetic with other WB shows from the era, like the teen dramas “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill,” the writing set it apart. The scripts were “very sophisticated and brilliant, and we were on this new network that was teenybopper shows,” said Jamie Babbit, who directed 18 “Gilmore Girls” episodes.

“Gilmore” was daunting at first for the performers, who had to memorize scripts that were 20 pages longer than the average hourlong series. To make matters tougher, Sherman-Palladino insisted that performers deliver the lines exactly as written. “This was a show where if you changed one word, they would cut,” Truesdale said.

Actors also had to adjust to Sherman-Palladino’s belief that television characters in 2000 should sound like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

“The feedback was, ‘That was great. Could we do it again, just a little bit faster?’” said Agena, who played Rory’s best friend Lane. George Bell, the show’s dialogue coach, would ask guest performers to “Gilmore-ize” their performances. When they looked at him, befuddled, he would explain: “Speed it up. You’ve just got to speed it up,” he said.

The dialogue, according to Babbit, was too fast to allow for traditional editing: “It would be like watching a Ping-Pong match,” she said. Instead, the show preferred to stick two characters in the frame and let them talk it out, with scenes filling five or 10 pages of script, instead of the customary page and a quarter.

Scott Patterson, who played the diner owner Luke, Lorelai’s will-they-or-won’t-they love interest, said he and Graham both quickly realized they had to quit smoking if they wanted to survive. “She needed her wind, and I needed my wind,” he said.

On-the-fly rewrites, in addition to the volume and pace of the dialogue, kept the performers scrambling. Patterson recalled one shooting day that began with “a 10-page scene that came out of the writers’ room at 6:30 a.m.,” he said. “Lauren and I were sitting in the makeup chair,” he said. “We looked at each other with this abject terror, and then we got to work.”

Bledel, a model and college student with limited television experience, needed more help than the others at first, not even knowing which camera she was supposed to face. “I remember saying to Lauren at one point, ‘I love when I’m watching the show, how you’re always touching her,’” said Kelly Bishop, who played steely WASP materfamilias Emily Gilmore. “She said, ‘Actually, the reason I started doing that was because I wanted to get her to her mark.’”

Popular culture was the lifeblood of the series, and Rory and Lorelai’s conversations, speckled with rapid-fire allusions to bad television shows and great books and distant historical epochs, were the joyous center of the show, offering fans a utopian fantasy of familial love grounded in the deep appreciation of “Cop Rock.” A single episode might reference Nikolai Gogol, “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” the punk band Agnostic Front, the Velvet Underground collaborator Nico, “Fiddler on the Roof,” David Hockney, and the Franco-Prussian War.

“There was going to be an Oscar Levant mention in there, and if you don’t know who he is, that’s OK! Look it up,” Sherman-Palladino said.

Perhaps partly because it was on the fledgling WB, where it faced off against Nielsen behemoths like “Friends” and “American Idol,” and partly because of its reputation as a “girlie” show in an era that celebrated middle-aged masculine antiheroes like Tony Soprano, “Gilmore Girls” never received much awards attention. The show received one Emmy nomination and award, for best makeup.

“We were continually shocked that we were overlooked by the Academy and never really got any nominations for the show, or individual acting,” Patterson said. “Not that we were doing it to get awards, but you want to be recognized. You want to be given credit.”

The cast and crew were especially dismayed that Graham never received the Emmy nomination they believed she richly deserved. “I can’t even think of anyone else who could do what she did,” Lawrence said. “And I hate that she wasn’t acknowledged with some hardware for that.”

Some “Gilmore” veterans blamed sexism for the show’s second-class status. Series about the ordinary triumphs and heartaches of women have until quite recently been treated like they are of inherently limited interest.

“The industry is really conservative and doesn’t know how great things are, especially when they’re written and created by women, and about women,” Babbit said.

“Gilmore Girls” turned 20 while we were mostly hunkered down in our homes, separated and anxious, awaiting good news and the eventual return of community. For many fans, Stars Hollow has always been their happy place, and is only more so now.

“I’m in California right now, you can’t breathe, you can’t go outside and be with other people, this election is looming,” Stephens said in October. “The world can be a terrifying place, but in Stars Hollow, you can go there and the world is still this wonderful, lovely place.”

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