I think of the focus on and fascination with television showrunners as a relatively new phenomenon. There were a handful of producers whose names meant something to viewers a generation or two earlier (Aaron Spelling and Steven Bochco, to select two located at markedly different places on the quality programming spectrum), but by and large the creative process that went into episodic series wasn’t really at the forefront, even, quite often, for those charged with writing about television. The sharpest turn in that direction probably came with the emergence of The Sopranos, a show that was so clearly a different-level work of art that there was a greater urgency to ascribe authorship to it. It wasn’t TV, it was HBO, after all. At around the same time, a far less likely network was doing its part to establish the primacy of the showrunner voice as the most compelling reason to point metaphorical rabbit ears in their direction. The WB launched in 2005 as little more than a desperate attempt to duplicate the success of Fox, right down to weird, carbon copy shows. By the late-nineties, it was settling on its own character, thanks largely to the cult success of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, itself an argument for championing a distinctive creator. The show that represented the same argument made in tandem was Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls.
Considering its development, Gilmore Girls presumably would have more in common with the WB’s most popular program, the religion-tinged, very-special-episode factory 7th Heaven. Gilmore Girls was one of the first series that was financial propped up by the Family Friendly Programming Forum (it seems to now be known as the ANA Alliance for Family Entertainment), a group that provided dollars during the process of creating a pilot. Certainly the presence of a headstrong unwed mother indicated this might not be strictly safe, Christian-y fare, but the shadow presence of that group often led coverage of the program when it debuted. Quickly, though, it became clear that whatever levels of familial drama that may have garnered Sherman-Palladino some support from the group was largely a vehicle for her to provide what really seemed to interest her: the sharpest, wittiest, fastest dialogue she could tap out. It wasn’t for nothing that she named her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Palladino and her writing staff were famous for delivering scripts that seemed far too long to fit into the the 45 minutes allotted for the program. While they had their not-so-secret weapons (star Lauren Graham chief among them) in accomplishing the accordioning of too many words into too little time, mostly it was a dedication to transferring the classic screwball comedy banter to a 21st century awash in high school drama and pop culture references.
The show was solid from the jump, but by the third season, the rhythms were perfectly developed. Importantly, the show also wasn’t yet suffering from the problems that would eventually do it in: an overabundance of implausible small town quirk and a need to prolong the longterm dramatic arcs, especially those centered on romantic relationships, until keeping the desired conflicts in place necessitated a procession of increasingly poor decisions. In Season Three, the show could still play around with its requisite will-they-or-won’t-they storyline, between Lorelei (Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) by opening with a rare instance of a dream sequence fake-out done well.
Lorelei dreams she and Luke are a couple, he cooking her breakfast in the morning and she pregnant with twins (preemptively dubbed Sid and Nancy). As the first scene following summer hiatus, it seemed there could be a real chance that the status quo had been upended. Even as a manifestation of Lorelei’s subconscious, it held some promise of a willingness to take the story in new directions. That promise wasn’t entirely fulfilled during the course of the third season, but Palladino’s interest in toying with audience expectations is a fruitful clue as to the friction of possibility in what would follow.
Much of the success of the season stemmed from the solid groundwork done previously on the show. Gilmore Girls benefitted from well-drawn characters with clear motivations and relationships to each other. Lorelei was trying to provide opportunities for her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), while doing her level-best to avoid relying on the wealthy parents, Emily and Richard (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann, both invaluable), she never forgave for perceived slights in her youth. In the show’s most useful, even ingenious conceit, to get the loan necessary to keep Rory attending the a posh prep school that will aid in her ivy league aspirations, Lorelei has to agree to weekly family dinners with the whole family, meaning the most manipulative action taken by her parents springs from a desire for togetherness. Not only does it set up scenes flavored with the sort of veiled animosity and aspirations towards intellectual one-upsmanship that are the stuff of beautifully barbed dialogue, but it casts the one of the show’s central conflicts in gratifying ambiguity. Richard and Emily may be the antagonists to our beloved, motormouth protagonist, but they really just want to know their granddaughter. How bad can they be?
By this point, the dynamic was so well established that the show could have its most prosperous creative moments in introducing other characters into the dinner scenes. This was often accomplished with boyfriends, since tangled romances were the easiest ways to keep problems brewing for the Gilmores. It’s a sign of the where the show’s real heart lies that the most effective way to shift the dinner sequence on its axis was the inclusion of Richard’s mother, Trix (Marion Ross), an imperious figure whose bullying of Emily both mirrored the treatment Lorelei felt she received from her parents and shifted her sympathy back to her mother.
Given the well-established baselines, there were fruitful, realistic complications that could be added. It had meaning when Rory’s friend Lane (Keiko Agena) could surreptitiously join a band and date a boy outside of her mother’s narrow range of approval (the boy was played by Adam Brody in a performance that anticipated and probably shaped the charms of Seth Cohen). Lorelei’s dreams of owning her own inn with her chef friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) had the weight of developed history when shifting fortunes necessitated unexpectedly early decisions. The love triangle Rory had ensconced herself within had small, wholly believable developments, including one of the relatively rare instances when one of the ridiculous events that were constantly taking place in Stars Hollow, the forcibly quaint Connecticut town where Lorelei and Rory lived, added poignancy to a moment, when one of Rory’s relationships ended at a dance marathon, complete with period costumes.
There’s a key strength to the third season in the “small developments” I refer to. Gilmore Girls is about likable, tenderly flawed people. Keeping their problems at mild, manageable levels is an important strategy. The more complex the series got in providing hardship and setbacks to its characters, the more it needed to rely on uncharacteristic self-sabotage. Palladino wrote smart characters, which made it problematic in later seasons when the plots required them to do stupid things. In Season Three, the proper balance remains in place. Even what is arguably the most problematic recurring storyline in the series, Lorelei’s continued fascination with Christopher (David Sutcliffe), her ex and Rory’s father, fully makes sense in this season, as it’s grounded in his unlikely forward movement towards maturity, which naturally makes Lorelei think about both what could have been and the ways in which her own life is stalled. It works within the established context of the character without diminishing her.
Creatively, Palladino exhibited more assurance during the third season of Gilmore Girls than at any other point in the run of the series. (The final season was the only one that didn’t have Palladino as a showrunner and is best ignored.) Through steady development of the program’s world, she’d earned trust, and the presence of her name connected to the writing credit at the top of the show promised an episode especially rife with brightly bristling dialogue. It was also a welcome reminder that the reason Gilmore Girls was so good was because she was running the show.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One