BOLD NEW WORLD.

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THE GILMORE GIRLS BRAVE TV'S COLLEGE CURSE
[posted 05.28.2004]

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WHEN IT COMES TO letting TV characters grow while keeping the viewers happy, college is a bitch.

Beverly Hills 90210 grew both sudsier (Kelly in a cult, Kelly addicted to cocaine) and preachier (did moralizing Brandon Walsh ever misstep for long?) when the Peach Pit gang enrolled at California University.Dawson’s Creek — which had debuted in 1998 as the wittier, more realistic alternative to a then-very-long-in-the-tooth 90210 — proved anything but down-to-earth when its kids departed Capeside for various campuses.

Of course, these shows were never terribly good. But straight-A series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have struggled with the transition to college, too.

From the first blush of Buffy’s romance with the undead Angel through graduation, when saving the day required blowing up the high school, Joss Whedon’s series presented monster-fighting as an evocative metaphor for teenage hell. Away from the comforts and structures of Sunnydale High, however, Buffy and her cohorts drifted apart. Many viewers felt adrift as well. This wasn’t the show — or the deflated, retiring young woman — they loved.

Except that it was. Buffy and her cohorts had been thrown into a new world, and they were groping to find their place within it. It took the gang nearly a season to regain their bearings as individuals and as a unit, but they did succeed — just in time to vanquish that season’s Big Bad. Unfortunately, not all viewers stuck around to see that happen.

Gilmore Girls, the WB’s hit dramedy about a single mom and her daughter, just completed a similar arc, both on screen and on Internet discussion boards. This season found Yale freshman Rory (Alexis Bledel) struggling through her first year away from home — and fans, TV critics and even network co-CEO Jordan Levin worrying over the state of the show.

While some of their concerns were valid (Rory’s search for the perfect place to study, which turned out to be…the base of a tree, was hardly engrossing television), others really were not. Fans complained that Rory wasn’t having the kind of fun (keggers, new boyfriends) a college freshman should have. She stuck with old friends rather than making new ones. Worst of all, she depended too much on her hip mom Lorelai.

Now, if we’re looking out for Rory, all these arguments have merit. But if we’re talking about television, and whether the character is behaving in a way that makes sense based on who we know she is after three seasons, Rory’s trajectory isn’t farfetched at all. Headstrong Lorelai (the consistently fantastic Lauren Graham) was just 16 when she ran away from her affluent, controlling parents to raise Rory on her own, and she’s forged a tight, supportive bond — and a mindmeld of obscure, witty pop culture references — with her bookish, more serious daughter. So, while it might seem the norm for college freshmen to strike out on their own with glee, Rory had no restrictions to escape. Constant phone chats with Lorelai (as well as short drives home to Stars Hollow, Conn.) didn’t quite equate with calling home to Mommy because the two are best friends.

It’s this incredibly close bond that makes the time they spend apart so fascinating as character study. Reserved Rory, for example, has the second banana act down cold (there’s seldom another role available to anyone with Lorelai), but when set loose on her own, she spouts off and swaggers an awful lot like her mother.

As for Lorelai, Rory’s absence has allowed her to be more herself than ever. Assured that her kid was prospering at school, Lorelai was free to focus on the construction of her own inn, a dream 20 years in the making. Between that challenge and an ill-fated new romance with her father’s business partner, she was too damn busy to wallow over her empty nest. Hell, she was hardly ever at home.

But series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino never intended the honeymoon to last forever. In a pivotal episode this February (only a month after the WB’s Levin voiced his concern), the women suffered a frustrating week of phone tag just when — thanks to impending failures at work and school — they needed each other the most. Instead, each settled for a male shoulder to cry on. Rory turned to Dean, her married ex-boyfriend, while Lorelai lost it but good in front of ever-reliable Luke, owner of the local diner (but not, I should note, in front of her boyfriend).

These back-to-back breakdowns were all the more satisfying coming well into the year. They also commenced a thrilling, richly layered ride to the fourth season finale.

In that final hour, Sherman-Palladino (who wrote and directed the episode) corralled everything Gilmore Girls does so well, juggling the show’s trademark quirks and slapstick with the juicy drama of adult relationships and misguided youth.

First, the really good stuff. Luke and Lorelai have one of those “Will they or won’t they?” TV relationships that leave viewers salivating over every sideways glance and comment that passes between them — while the writers worry that delivering on that chemistry will kill the show. Well, everybody stepped up this time: After weeks of buildup, a smitten Luke confronted Lorelai about his feelings, then pulled her into a kiss…and Sherman-Palladino actually let her leading lady kiss him back.

But what happened next… Man, motherhood sucks some times.

Lorelai returned home, giddy and eager to dish with her best friend, but she sobered up quick at the sight of her disheveled daughter emerging from her bedroom with someone else’s husband. Turns out that, while her mother seemed poised for a long overdue romance with the friend who’s loved and supported her for years, an increasingly out-of-sorts Rory had been home trying to resurrect a rose-colored past with Dean, the ex she’d long ago rejected for the first well-read bad boy who rolled into town.

His wedding ring likely back on, Dean made a quick, sheepish exit. And the conversation that followed — damn, it was good. A deluded Rory apologized for not talking to her mom about it first — she’d never had sex before — but assured her they’d used a condom, and wasn’t Lorelai glad that her first time had been with someone so sweet and good?

Lorelai was not glad. She was incredibly disappointed, in both her daughter and herself. She swiftly disabused Rory of any notions that this tryst was OK because Dean’s marriage was unhappy and over — had he moved out? — or because he had belonged to Rory first. “He’s not your Dean. You’re the other woman.”

Her dreams dashed, Rory lashed out at the messenger — “I hate you for ruining this for me!” and stormed out to call Dean.

I’ll give you one guess who answered the phone. Heh.

Oh, OK, poor naive, book-smart, emotionally immature Rory.

But lucky me! Lucky anyone who likes messy, enthralling, three-dimensional TV. Lorelai, Rory and, most impressively, Amy Sherman-Palladino took bold new steps with TV’s coolest mother and daughter this season, and I can’t wait for the fallout this October.

In fact, I won’t have to wait for October. The fifth season premiere airs Tues., Sept. 21.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.