A few weeks back, The New York Times ran an article in which Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C., laid out a "Trojan horse" strategy for creating quality programming: Figure out what the network wants (in Schwartz's case, a Beverly Hills 90210-style soap), create a program built around all the expected elements, and then fill it with real substance.
It's a smart move, and one Schwartz could have swiped from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. When her show premièred on The WB in the fall of 2000, it looked like a companion piece to the network's blandly heartwarming family drama 7th Heaven. Those who tuned in took only a moment to learn otherwise. Gilmore Girls takes place in the idyllic Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, where life moves slowly, but the dialogue trots at the speed of a David Mamet play. Loaded with culture-nerd-friendly references (one episode contains the first, last, and only mention of Young Marble Giants in a network show), it shoehorns new material into an old form, borrowing heavily from the witty patter of golden-age movie comedies.
Much of that patter comes from Lauren Graham, a single, 32-year-old manager of a quaint inn, and from 16-year-old Alexis Bledel. They're meant to be mother and daughter, but they could easily be mistaken for pals. (Or even, from a distance, daughter and mother—the conservatively dressed Bledel often looks more like a mom than Graham, in her casual-chic wardrobe.) Given the scenes in which Bledel desperately tries to get work done while Graham natters on about pizza and The Bangles, the show doesn't pass on opportunities to make comic hay of the role reversal, but it also takes its generation gaps seriously. Much of Graham's closeness to her daughter can be explained by her need to not become the distant, moneyed parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) she left behind as a teenage mom; much of the show's drama comes from Bishop and Herrmann's re-emergence when Graham realizes she can't afford to pay for the expensive private school that represents Bledel's best bet at her lifelong dream of attending Harvard.
That same thoughtfulness is evident in the quirky, three-dimensional supporting characters—a gruff, handsome diner owner (Scott Patterson), a chipper, accident-prone cook (Melissa McCarthy), and a Mojo-reading teenager (Keiko Agena) living in a fearfully repressive Korean-American household. There's a Trojan horse inside Sherman-Palladino's Trojan horse of a show. Beneath the banter, Gilmore Girls is a rich, even heartwarming family drama. It just earns its emotion-grabbing moments the hard way: through wit, thoughtful characters, and conflicts with no clear good or bad guys. A thriving hybrid, Gilmore Girls is the only show on television that could leave both Quentin Tarantino and any random grandmother satisfied.