In case you haven't noticed, television has been coarsening during the last two decades. Gone are programs such as "Eight Is Enough" and "The Cosby Show" and "Home Improvement." They have been replaced by "Friends" and "Survivor" and "Titans." Network honchos claimed that the family show had been sacrificed on the altar of advertising. Advertising execs claimed that the networks were producing shows to suit their own tastes. It was a chicken and egg argument.
Then Bob Wehling got involved. In 1999 Wehling, a 61 year-old executive at Proctor & Gamble, co-founded a group called the Family Friendly Programming Forum. Wehling brought together a small number of advertising executives to try and figure out a way to bring family shows back to television. At first, the Forum had just 11 members. Today it has 43 and reads like a Who's Who of the S&P 500: AT&T, GM, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Pfizer, Sears, and others. The FFPF established several scholarships at the film schools of NYU and USC to encourage family-minded screenwriters, and they handed out their own programming awards. Then last March, 12 of the FFPF members donated $1 million to establish a Script Development Fund to produce family-oriented series. The Script Development Fund used the $1 million as seed money, leaving creative control entirely in the hands of the writers and producers.
And in its own small way, "Gilmore Girls" is a fine example of how family programming can be spicy, sophisticated, and wholesome. The show centers around 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore (played by Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). Lorelai grew up in a wealthy Hartford family but got pregnant in high school. Refusing to marry her boyfriend, she left her palatial home to become a maid at an inn in nearby Stars Hollow. She raised Rory on her own, and when we meet the pair they seem like sisters. They use the same lip gloss and listen to the same music. Rory is, if anything, the more staid Gilmore. But when Rory is accepted into the prestigious and expensive Chilton Academy, Lorelai is forced to ask her parents for the tuition money. They give it to her on the condition that Lorelai and Rory come over for dinner every Friday night.
Lorelai and her parents have a difficult, icy relationship, but this isn't "Party of Five." Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore (Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop) don't hate Lorelai for getting pregnant or disgracing the family. They hate her because she left home and cut them out of her and Rory's lives, so while there are bad feelings in the air, nothing in "Gilmore Girls" is tragic. The Gilmores have problems--lots of problems--but they love each other, and we know this will all work out in the end.
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel fit together comfortably as mother and daughter, and the best scenes of the pilot are when the two of them sit together talking, far away from the clunky exposition going on around them. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, a writer-producer from "Roseanne," the writing on "Gilmore Girls" is often crisp and endearing. After meeting a hunky guy from Chicago, the shy Rory stutters, "Chicago. Windy. Oprah." Sometimes the writing is even saucy. When Lorelai excitedly tells Rory that she's been accepted to Chilton, Rory asks nervously, "Mom you didn't...with the principal?"
Both Honig and Wertheimer miss the point. At its core, being family friendly isn't about sex or language or violence, per se, but about intelligence and morality. The most notable thing about "Gilmore Girls" is that the titular family is both troubled and loving. The Gilmores are trying to make life work out the right way, and that is the essence of family programming.