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Fit for family viewing, yet still witty and wise

"Gilmore Girls," a mother-daughter drama from the WB, is one of the most pleasant surprises of the new season.

Like "Ed," an NBC show premiering Sunday about a lawyer who returns to his hometown and opens a bowling alley, "Gilmore" is also set in a small town with wall-to-wall, likable off-beat types straight out of "Picket Fences." Also like "Ed," the series has an optimism and earnestness that immediately distinguishes it from the cynicism, darkness and irony-mistaken-for-insight that characterizes much of our popular culture.

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The drama centers around 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). The ages are important, because the history of the characters includes Lorelai getting pregnant with Rory at 16, a mistake for which her wealthy parents (played by Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) have never forgiven her.

But Lorelai is a hard worker who's established a nice life for herself and her daughter, starting at the bottom and building a career as the manager of the Independence Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast that looks like a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Much of the fun in the series is found in the loopy cast of Lorelai's co-workers at the inn, including Michel (Yanic Truesdale), the pretentious concierge with a French accent and a tart tongue.

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A typical exchange between Lorelai and him starts when she asks him if he's going to answer the phone that's ringing off the hook.

"No," he says dismissively. "People are particularly stupid today. I cannot talk to any more of them."

"You know who's really nice to talk to?" Lorelai asks, putting her face right up against his. "The people at the unemployment agency."

Michel rolls his eyes and answers the phone.

Even more fun is the hotel chef, Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), who is also Lorelai's best friend. Sookie is a brilliant cook, but she's also a hopelessly accident-prone klutz. The scenes in the kitchen, with two male helpers trying to anticipate Sookie's every collision and crash, are brilliantly choreographed. There are kitchen sequences with moments of physical humor worthy of Lucille Ball.

Really, I mean it.

The pilot centers on Rory getting accepted to Chilton Prep, a prestigious and very expensive private school. It looks like the big drama is going to involve Lorelai having to reconcile with her parents to get the money to pay Rory's tuition.

But, just when Lorelai appears to have solved the money and parent problems, Rory informs her that she doesn't want to attend Chilton. The reason: She met a boy whom she likes a lot.

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"Does he have a motorcycle?" Lorelai yells, as Rory storms off to bed following a big fight. "Because, if you're going to throw your life away on some boy, he better at least have a motorcycle."

This is from a mom whose parents still believe she threw her life away on a boy when she was 16.

Executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino has created a wonderful world with the pilot of "Gilmore Girls," starting with the hardware store on Main Street that includes a restaurant where Lorelai seems to eat most meals. Well, they're not usually meals. Lorelai is a caffeine addict, and she loves the coffee at Williams Hardware, though owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) is trying to cut her intake.

A typical exchange as Lorelai holds out her cup: "Please, Luke. Please, please, please," she says.

"How many cups have you had this morning?" he demands.

"None."

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"Plus?"

"Five. But yours is better."

"You have a problem."

"Yes, I do.

"Junkie," he says pouring her a big cup.

"Angel. You've got wings, baby," she says cradling her steaming mug as she happily strolls to a table.

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"Gilmore Girls" is the first show from the Family Friendly Forum's Script Development Fund, an initiative by big-ticket advertisers and the WB to develop more family programming for prime time.

I admit I expected safe, sentimental schmaltz from the project. Instead Sherman-Palladino and the WB have delivered a wry, wise and winning look at a single-parent family.

In its own right, the pilot for "Gilmore Girls" is a delight. Seen as part of a larger movement of infusing optimism into prime time, with series such as "The West Wing," "Ed," and "Providence," it's one of the most encouraging developments of the new season.

Here's hoping this show finds an audience.


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