If you only watched the pilot of Gilmore Girls, you might think it was just another WB show. It offers up the usual trite scripts, abnormal families, and high school melodrama that have come to characterize the network responsible for Dawson’s Creek and Everwood. Missing is the series’ trademark “wit,” identified in a featurette on Warners’ first season DVD collection as a primary draw for the stars. In fact, the pilot’s prominent point is this: 30something Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Lorelai (nicknamed Rory and played by Alexis Bleidel) fight constantly.
Notably, one argument is initiated when Mom, who dropped out of high school when she had Rory at 16, demands that Rory leave public high school, where she is the star student, to attend the prestigious Chilton Academy. Harvard-bound Rory might have been thrilled with the opportunity, if not for the fact that she just met Dean (Jared Padalecki), a cute guy who likes Nick Drake, Liz Phair, and her.
The mother-daughter dramas that follow—not just between Rory and Lorelai, but also between Lorelai and her well-to-do mother Emily (Kelly Bishop)—are painful to watch. Fearing that Rory will follow in her footsteps and choose the attractive boy over academic glory, Lorelai tries hard during this first season not to become her own oppressive mother. Rory does eventually choose Chilton, not to avoid her mother’s “mistake,” but because she believes she can have her cake and eat it, too, dating Dean while commuting to school in Hartford.
Her affection for her hometown underlines the series’ celebration of the fictional Stars Hollow, Connecticut (inspired by Washington Depot, a New England town creator Amy Sherman-Palladino visited). Here relationships, even in tension, are cozy. By contrast, Emily and Lorelai’s first onscreen fight reveals their mutual distrust. Emily and Richard Gilmore (Edward Hermann) agree to put up a loan for Rory’s Chilton education, but only if she will have dinner with her grandparents every Friday night. At times like these, the battle for Rory’s loyalty seems more like a custody battle between divorcees than between generations with her best interest in mind.
Whereas the townsfolk, including Lorelai’s best friend Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy), Miss Patti (Liz Torres), and Babbett (Sally Struthers), are eager to invite the elder Gilmores into their close-knit community, the elder Gilmores insist on integrating Rory into their life rather than becoming part of hers. Such effort unites Lorelai and Rory, as when Emily and Richard insist on throwing Rory an extravagant 16th birthday bash (in the episode, “Rory’s Birthday Parties”), with dozens of her un-near and un-dear Chilton classmates, Lorelai and Rory the “Gilmore girls” are irate (since they moved to Stars Hollow when Rory was a baby, they’ve always celebrated her birthday with their neighbors, never with the Gilmore elders). As if in support of their upset, the locals resent Emily as well, as she’s never been to visit previously.
As it turns out, entire first season concerns definitions of family. At a time when President Bush and the GOP are promoting abstinence and hetero-marriage, the “Gilmore girls” offer a less traditional model, finding strength and sustenance in each other rather than men, challenging the assumption that teen pregnancy has to end in regret and catastrophe. And indeed, the show has been praised by conservative groups for promoting “family values,” winning Viewers for Quality Television Award and a Family Friendly Forum Award. This mother and daughter love their independence, as denoted by the name of the inn Lorelai runs: The Independence Inn.
This theme is repeated throughout the season. In “That Damn Donna Reed,” Rory gets angry when Dean says he likes the idea of Donna Reed, that is, a wife who cooks for her husband. To teach him a lesson, Rory dresses up like Donna Reed, petticoat and all, and cooks him a 1950s dinner, refusing to allow him to do anything other than what he deems “the man’s job,” emptying the garbage. As the Gilmore girls can’t cook to save their lives (they eat at Luke’s Diner every day), Rory is heating up frozen foods, not exactly showing her to be the “model wife.” But she makes her point, using gender discourses of the 1950s to illuminate Dean’s backwardness.
Add to this cleverness the Gilmores’ outlandish wardrobe choices, outspokenness, and tendency to break men’s hearts like it’s their job, and you start to see why fans are so devoted to the show. Lorelai demonstrates her own sort of ingenuity: as Sherman-Palladino notes in the featurette, “Welcome to the Gilmore Girls,” Lorelai is written to challenge as well as entertain, her dialogue filled with pop culture references delivered at top speed. (The scripts are reportedly twice as long as those for most other hour-long shows, and the DVD devotes an hour to explaining these allusions in “Gilmore Goodies and Gossip.”)
As the scripts privilege the girls’ relationship over all others, their romantic objects usually serve as means to develop the mother-daughter focus. Rory’s English teacher, Max Medina (Scott Cohen), falls in love with commitment-phobic Lorelai, only to be rejected because she fears making Rory uncomfortable. Dean’s extravagant three-month anniversary plans go awry when he tells Rory those three sacred words—“I love you”—words she calls a “serious matter,” since her father told her mother he loved her and then her mother got pregnant. And when Rory’s biological father, Christopher (David Sutcliffe), proposes to Lorelai, she rejects him.
This concentration on the two Gilmores is framed by the conventional setting of the emotionally healthy, if delightfully quirky, small town. In Stars Hollow, everyone cares for them “like family.” For the impressionable Rory, it’s devastating when Miss Patti finds her asleep with her boyfriend in a barn after a chaste night, then informs Lorelai (and the whole town) about her daughter’s apparent impropriety in “Rory’s Dance.” Another near crisis erupts—and predictably subsides—in “Kiss and Tell,” the extended family threatens to displace Lorelai as Rory’s confidante and best friend, when Dean first kisses Rory in the supermarket aisle, and Lorelai finds out, not from the daughter who tells her mother “everything,” but instead from Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda), mother of Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena). But the episode closes on yet another happy-family note, when Rory tells her mom all about the kiss. In a later episode, she celebrates Lorelai’s first date in ages, asking, “You’re happy. Did you do something slutty?”
Lorelai’s glow and the sassy rapport she and Rory share here leave Gilmore Girls fans in anticipation of the next season as we see Lorelai and Rory running to meet each other in the middle of Stars Hollow as the season finale (“Love, Daisies & Troubadours”) ends—Rory to tell her mom that she and Dean are back together; Lorelai to tell Rory that Max (with whom she reunited, in “The Breakup, Part II”) proposed to her. At season’s end, she still needs to discuss matters with her best friend/daughter. Lorelai’s answer, when it comes, won’t be based on her feelings for him so much as her enduring relationship with Rory.