The parent trap

Who says there aren't any adults on the WB? "Gilmore Girls" and "7th Heaven" give the Frog's viewers two sides of tadpole-raising.


The parent trap

In the WB’s teen universe, parents are mostly dead, absent or background static. If they are around, they’re figures to be manipulated (“Popular”), feared (“Dawson’s Creek”) or protected (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Which is why “Gilmore Girls,” the WB’s much-touted new Thursday drama, is such big news — it dares to break the WB mold by focusing on a mom who is much more than an offscreen Charlie Brown cartoon wah-wah trumpet.

“Gilmore Girls” is about the almost-sisters relationship between 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). “Gilmore Girls” is the first series to come out of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium set up by advertisers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson to fund shows that parents and kids can watch together. And, yes, it is a pleasant surprise to find that the consortium’s definition of “family friendly” is broad enough to include a show about a girl who got pregnant at 16, raised a great kid as a single mom and didn’t go straight to hell.

In fact, “heaven” would be a more accurate description of where Lorelai has ended up. She and Rory live a cozy hippie-yuppie life in Stars Hollow, a cute little Connecticut hamlet, where Lorelai manages a highly regarded inn, Rory is the smartest girl in town and mom and daughter sip endless cups of joe at the homey greasy spoon. (Rory’s father is not in the picture; all we know about him is that he’s some kind of Internet hotshot in California.)

The boisterous Lorelai is 32 going on 16; the serious Rory is 16 going on 32. Despite the difference in their temperaments, Lorelai and Rory wear each other’s clothes and listen to each other’s CDs. Guys try to pick them up in tandem. In one episode, Lorelai pulls a junk-food-laden all-nighter to help Rory cram for a big test. In another episode, Rory chatters happily about a planned mother-daughter backpacking trip through France after she graduates from high school.

“Rory is my life. She’s my pal. She’s my everything,” Lorelai exclaims in one episode and her love for her daughter is almost palpable; you can feel it in the way she looks at her across the table, not quite believing that this came from her. And you could feel it in the first episode, in the way she swallowed her pride and asked her estranged, hoity-toity parents to loan her the money so Rory could transfer to Chilton, an academically challenging prep school. “Gilmore Girls” is more than family friendly; it’s downright inspirational.

I admit it, I’m sucked in by “Gilmore Girls,” even though the show is laden with cardboard cutouts of “small-town eccentricity” (Stars Hollow is the kind of place where everybody turns out for a cat’s funeral) and “the nurturing female life force” (embodied by the Rubenesque trio of Liz Torres as a flirty dancing school owner, Melissa McCarthy as a clumsy chef and Sally Struthers as the mother of the dead cat). Worst of all is the clichéd “upper-class snobbery” of Lorelai’s parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) and the headmaster, students and parents at Chilton. In every episode, Lorelai commits the cardinal sin of exhibiting joie de vivre in their constipated presence, and they all recoil with cartoonish disdain at the miniskirted hussy. It’s like they’re extras in a Three Stooges movie; you keep waiting for Lorelai to start the pie fight.

But then Rory comes on, and all of the show’s formulaic fluff is forgiven. What a wondrous, brilliant, funny, responsible kid! Newcomer Bledel doesn’t look like anybody else on the WB, and that’s partly why Rory stands out; tall, with a round doll-like face featuring a prominent forehead and a grave little dimple in her chin, Bledel looks like a wise baby. You fear for Rory as she negotiates the shark-infested waters of Chilton.

But Rory (who wants to be the next Christiane Amanpour when she grows up) has inherited her mother’s ambition and sparky self-protective humor. When Rory is humiliated by an ultra-competitive classmate, she doesn’t fall apart; she hits the books and uses her intelligence the way Xena uses a sword. She’s a brain warrior princess, determined to reach her lifelong dream of getting into Harvard. There was a sweet scene a while back where Rory bonded with her grandfather over their shared fondness for H.L. Mencken; when he gave her a rare volume of “Chrestomathy,” her face lit up the way another girl’s might have at the prospect of a date with Pacey. Like “Freaks and Geeks” before it, “Gilmore Girls” is a luminous portrait of a girl in love with learning.

As for Lorelai, a little of her flip sarcasm and overgrown teenager shtick goes a long way. With Lorelai, there’s no such thing as a straight answer. Every exchange is a performance, as in this scene, where Rory asks her if the birthday party her grandmother is throwing for her will be a big deal: “Not really. The government will close that day. Flags will fly at half mast. Barbra Streisand will give her final concert — again [eye roll]. The pope has previous plans, but he’s trying to get out of them. However, Elvis and Jim Morrison are coming, and they’re bringing chips [self-satisfied smile].”

Lorelai revels in her bad reputation; she pushes her mother’s buttons like she’s still 16, saying exactly the things she knows will set her off, even as Rory frantically motions the “cut” signal. It’s kind of pathetic, really; you know from watching her masterfully run the inn that Lorelai is capable of tact and maturity. You want to take Lorelai and shake her and say, “Grow up!” But the show is stacked in her favor. From the fairy-tale intensity of Emily’s witchy coldness to Lorelai, to the way Lorelai stands up to the snobs at Chilton on her daughter’s behalf, we are cued to believe that Lorelai can do no wrong. Even when she forgets to pick up her dry cleaning and shows up to meet the headmaster on Rory’s first day at Chilton dressed in a ridiculous get-up of short-shorts, tight T-shirt and cowboy boots (she expected to keep her coat on), we are supposed to feel for Lorelai, because the snooty rich people are mean to her.

“Gilmore Girls” is capable of a much more affecting portrayal of parental (and daughterly) angst, as it showed in the Nov. 8 episode, “Rory’s Birthday Parties.” For the first time, you could sense the longing and fear that fuels Emily and Lorelai’s glib, sniping exchanges. Lorelai wants to be forgiven, Emily wants a second chance at being Lorelai’s mother, and they’re both fighting to be the dominant influence on Rory. At its best, “Gilmore Girls” gets at one of the hardest truths of parenthood — that becoming a parent makes you see things from your parents’ point of view.

There are moments, though, when Rory is clearly the parent in her relationship with Lorelai. It’s a classic sign of family dysfunction, but “Gilmore Girls” makes it seem like big fun. Call me old-fashioned, but I have a problem with the way Lorelai takes her palsy-walsy approach to parenting to extremes. She teases Rory about her preference for body-hiding clothes. She is oddly tickled when Rory admits that she’s being harassed by a boy at Chilton who keeps calling her “Mary” (as in “Virgin”). She whines about being bored and wanting to go out for ice cream when Rory is trying to study. In the show’s most troubling development, Rory’s English teacher hits on Lorelai (at a parent-teacher conference!) and persists even after she declines; finally, she can’t resist temptation and agrees to go out with him, despite the possibility that this could make her daughter’s life at Chilton a living hell if word got out.

And Rory’s laid-back response to Lorelai’s budding relationship with the teacher is too accommodating to be true; I keep waiting for her to fall into a more credible funk of resentment and anger at her mother’s sexual assertiveness, like Grace on “Once & Again.” This is Rory’s turn to bloom, but how can she, when mom is always hogging the sunlight?

There are hints, though, of an imminent change in Lorelai and Rory’s mother-daughter dynamic; shy Rory is on the verge of her first relationship, with a leather-jacketed kid who goes to her old high school. A few years ago, “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote a tough and clear-eyed episode of “Roseanne” in which Roseanne took her sexually active daughter Becky to a clinic to obtain birth control. I’m curious to see how Sherman-Palladino will deal with teen sexuality here. I want to see what advice Lorelai gives Rory to keep her from following in her footsteps. I want to see how Lorelai responds in a situation that requires her to be a parent, not a pal.

At the other end of the WB parenting spectrum, we have Eric and Annie Camden, the über-dad and mom from the network’s squeaky-clean family drama “7th Heaven.” Executive produced by Aaron Spelling, “7th Heaven” is the most parent-centric series on the WB, and the Camdens are TV’s whitest family since the Bradys. (Dad is a pastor, mom a homemaker who has recently gone back to college.) Indeed, this weirdly addictive show serves the same purpose “The Brady Bunch” did back in the ’70s — it gives kids (and parents) a glimpse of the old-fashioned structure and harmony that most families lack. The five older Camden kids, teen idols all, and their infant twin brothers are a spirited bunch, but in this house, mother and father know best and nobody could even imagine grooving to the new Rancid CD with dad or swapping clothes with mom.

Boomer parents look longingly at Eric and Annie and wish there was a way they could command such respect (while remaining cool parent/buds, of course). But in the pivotal Nov. 13 episode, Eric and Annie (Stephen Collins and Catherine Hicks) were uncharacteristically flummoxed by a parenting dilemma. There’s something about Mary, their wayward oldest daughter, and it ain’t good. (Mary is played by wayward actress Jessica Biel, who posed semi-nude last year for a magazine layout in an effort to tart up her image; her role on the show is being reduced.)

Once a high school basketball star with a bright future, Mary got arrested last season after a vandalism incident involving her team. She avoided jail time, but was put on probation. Her college plans in tatters, Mary graduated from high school and fell into a downward spiral, running with a crowd of potheads and failing at a succession of cruddy jobs.

Eric and Annie tried to give her time to work things out on her own. Instead, Mary stole hundreds of dollars from her baby brothers’ piggy banks to make her car payments and got her siblings to cover for her. In the Nov. 13 episode, Eric and Annie made a last-ditch attempt to get her to straighten up; they shipped her off to Buffalo, where she would live with Eric’s father, a no-nonsense former military man. They told her she had no choice in the matter, that she would have a job working with homeless people at a community shelter in Buffalo, send her paychecks home to pay off her debts and enroll in community college classes with her grandmother as a chaperone. I guess this is marginally preferable to having Mary whisked away under cover of night to one of those teen boot camps you see on “Maury.”

Anyway, Mary boarded the plane sullenly, refusing to say goodbye to her weeping father. After she was gone, Annie hugged Eric, crying, “It’s better to have an angry kid than a dead one!”

Jeez , being a parent is tough! Compared to Eric and Annie’s problems, Lorelai’s fizzy fantasy of being the hippest, coolest mom in the world looks pretty darn appealing. In fact, with “Gilmore Girls,” the WB may have hit on a new kind of escapist programming — a parent-free zone for parents.

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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