I’d like to say before we start that, in spite of all my professional expectations, the new network season does not suck. It doesn‘t even nearly suck. Some shows in particular suck, of course, and some are not so much sucky as just transparent — cultural placeholders whose negative effect only equals the time you waste on them. And though nothing but the will of the really big masses will guarantee that the better series will not be canceled — some perhaps even before this column appears — overall it really looks this year like the big boys and, yes, girls are trying to do something more than pick your pocket.
Of course the season has not yet been entirely unveiled, but nothing left to come will be any worse than Hype!, the WB’s superatrocious, desperately energetic topical sketch comedy (like being trapped in some local improv house in the privacy of your own home), and though it really might be the worst show I have ever seen, even that has not killed my cheerful mood. (Cheerful vis-a-vis television, I mean; the state of the world is something else again.) The bad and the ugly do not overwhelm the good, and even a one-joke exercise like The Trouble With Normal — four paranoiacs and their babe therapist — offers the welcome company of Jon Cryer and David Krumholtz. Even the Everest of trash that is Aaron Spelling‘s prime-time ubersoap Titans (another NBC blow against the family hour) is oddly likable, so clearly a parody of itself that when Yasmine Bleeth turns up in yet another barely there bathing or sleeping costume, it doesn’t read merely as the boob-and-navel show it undeniably is, but as a joke we can all enjoy.
My favorite new show so far this year — and I hope, in saying this, I am not according it my famous Kiss of Death — is Gilmore Girls, which restores to the WB the good karma Hype! squanders. It is, though you should not hold this against it, the first series the network developed with seed money from the Family Friendly Forum, a consortium of powerhouse advertisers that includes GM, McDonald‘s and Sears, formed to raise the tone of the so-called family hour — do you hear me, Garth Ancier? — and to reinstate the great American practice of the whole clan gathering together in front of the set instead of, you know, fucking off somewhere reading or playing the piano or learning how to hot-wire a car. The Forum’s goal, according to its original prime mover, Procter & Gamble marketing exec Bob Wehling, was to help create programs that young and old ”can watch together — a mother and a daughter or son, and a grandmother, and all find it entertaining and relevant, without having it be embarrassing, particularly, for the mother or father.“ That it would also create as well a demographically broad reservoir of viewers in whose ear Forum members might pour honeyed words regarding burgers and cars and soap was not, you may suspect, merely incidental to the plan. I haven‘t worked out whether this deal — the Forum contributed more than a million dollars to the WB’s script-developing budget, admittedly a drop in their collective corporate bucket — was bribery on the part of the advertisers or extortion by the network, but in any case it produced, out of eight scripts and two pilots, a show I am happy to try to make you watch.
In spite of its goody-goody genesis, the series, created by writer-producer Amy Sherman-Palladino (Roseanne, Veronica‘s Closet), hardly tastes of apple pie: Its heroine is a 32-year-old never-wed mother with a 16-year-old daughter — that mama Lauren Graham and daughter Alexis Bledel are both young is a central conceit of Gilmore Girls — who are portrayed as none the worse for their lack of an in-house male. I am made immoderately happy by this series, and am willing to admit that has much to do with Graham, whom I have admired from my side of the screen at least since Townies, though I remember her being funny on Caroline in the City before that. (I missed her entirely in this year’s midseason-replacement replacement M.Y.O.B.) Never showy and always real, she‘s a life-size actress in the Jean ArthurIrene Dunne mode, and she’s been given a part here that rates her talent. The writing is good throughout — witty, but not drawing-room witty — and provides abundantly the small moments which, compounded, create a reality.
The show is set in a small Connecticut tourist town, populated, in the words of some WB copywriter, by ”an eclectic mix of dreamers, artists and everyday folk.“ That sounds nothing like Northern Exposure to me, and in fact it rather misrepresents Gilmore Girls, which, though it comes with a complement of slightly pixilated and strangely irascible citizens, exaggerates only around the edges. The central story, to oversimplify, is all about mothers and daughters (and grandmothers — there‘s that multigenerational-appeal thing in play), and the right to one’s own life and one‘s own mistakes. Graham’s character compounds sex and sensibility, stubbornness and a (largely misunderstood) satirical tongue. (Creator Sherman-Palladino, whose production company is named Dorothy Parker Drank Here, has said of herself, ”I‘ve got a big fucking mouth.“) Screen daughter Bledel, who has a Korean-American best friend (Keiko Agena) and some new WASPy nemeses at the prep school she started in episode two, is new to acting but absolutely natural; she’s soulful and brainy and moody and ironic. On the pixilated tip are Yanic Truesdale, the snotty concierge at the inn Graham manages; accident-prone chef and best bud Melissa McCarthy (some first-rate balletic slapstick surrounds her); Liz Torres, once of The John Larroquette Show, as a dance teacher; and a scary harpist whose name I don‘t know. Less pixilated, but still a little strange, is Scott Patterson (a former Dodger, in this life we call real) who runs a cafe — though he disdains caffeine — and is being slowly set up as a love interest; his is a choleric-phlegmatic humor, and he reminds me of David Strathairn. Graham’s parents, who are rich and trouble, but who are right as much of the time as anybody else is — nobody in this show gets to be right all the time, and nobody is ever exactly wrong — are wonderfully acted by Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann, who is apparently no longer allowed to play a character with an income of less than half a million dollars a year.
Quite in the same conceptual small-town universe is NBC‘s Ed, a romantic comedy in which Tom Cavanagh as the title character, having lost his big-city job and cheating wife in a single day, gets back to where he once belonged — fictional Stuckeyville, Ohio — to make a new old life for himself and court the girl he was too shy to talk to in high school (Julie Bowen, from TV’s short-lived Three — and fluent in Italian, you might like to know), even though she‘s going out with Gregory Harrison. He courts her heedlessly and elaborately and pathologically — in a suit of armor, for instance. He also buys a bowling alley. Created by Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman, both vets of The Late Show With David Letterman (Letterman’s Worldwide Pants co-produces the series), it‘s well-written, quirky and sweet — old-fashioned sweet, even at times a little too sweet, but ultimately redeemed by the authors’ Late Show absurdity training. Cavanagh, who reminds me continually of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart were stretched on a rack, has an engaging and original manner (except for the Jon Stewart resemblance), and is persuasively quixotic in a Capraesque mode — he‘s Mr. Deeds come back from town. But Stuckeyville itself is more out of Sturges, the screwball American hamlet of Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, rigidly ordered and on the verge of pandemonium (with Michael Ian Black — Johnny Blue Jeans of Viva Variety! ”fame“ — as Ed‘s slacker-entrepreneur aide down at the lanes, occupying the approximate William Demarest position). I think it no coincidence that Eddie Bracken, the star of those two films, showed up here as magician Stuckeyville Stan — happy casting indeed. Bracken was old-pro wonderful, and if the season continues this well I’ll have to give up the criticizing for proselytizing: TV is great! Watch TV! (Ah, but you know it won‘t.) (Will it?)