Orthodox liberals and libertarians often argue that any FCC restrictions at all have "a chilling effect." The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which would increase maximum fines to $325,000 per wardrobe malfunction, was reintroduced to the Senate a couple of weeks ago, so get ready for more dire warnings about a fascist freeze on free expression. And yet despite increased enforcement, the FCC hasn't been exactly iron-fisted; last month, for instance, it dismissed 36 complaints (mostly involving TV) of indecency.
Anyway, is a chilling effect always so terrible? In the case of a wet blanket thrown over a trashcan fire it can actually be quite welcome. Not, I suppose, if you're the vagrant who started the fire -- but I say my right not to smell a noxious fire in the alley outweighs the vagrant's right to a weenie roast. Odds are that any dreaded chilling effect will be more like a few ice cubes lobbed at a hot tub in the Playboy Mansion grotto. Annoying, possibly, but not exactly a sign of an impending cultural ice age.
One show that constantly pushes the envelope back and forth between wholesome and edgy is the WB's Gilmore Girls, which tonight celebrates its 100th episode. It was the first show produced with help from the Family Friendly Programming Forum. (Other shows the group has funded sinceGilmore Girls premiered in the fall of 2000 include NBC's American Dreams; ABC's Eight Simple Rules and Complete Savages; CBS's Clubhouse; and the WB's Steve Harvey's Bigtime.) The FFPF is a consortium of about three dozen major advertisers that joined forces a few years ago to help develop programming that wouldn't frame their products in sleaze.
The critically acclaimedGilmore Girls is perhaps the group's biggest success, and although even a WB hit will still have a much smaller audience than a comparable show on one of the original big three networks, Gilmore Girls is quite popular. Recently a friend of mine bought tickets for a members-only Gilmore Girls event at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles, then realized she had a scheduling conflict and couldn't attend. She sold her pair of $12 tickets on eBay for over $700.
Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had wanted to write a family-friendly show when she pitched Gilmore Girls as "something that Mom and Dad and the kids can all watch together, and that maybe even Grandma can walk in and not have to go, 'In my day, we had to walk 12 miles in the snow to school,'" as she put it when I asked about this just before the show premiered. But she was worried about the FFPF's influence, which she still gets asked about regularly.
"I was terrified," she said at a WB news conference last month. "It sounded like guys who come in hoods in the middle of the night and set fire to your barn. But the thing is, I never heard from these people. I've never seen them. I tried to send them a coffee cup once at Christmas and couldn't find them. They're like in a bunker in Oslo somewhere, and for some reason chose to give us a chunk of change and then go away -- which, you know, is my favorite kind of person, basically."
Despite occasional confusion, the FFPF has no official connection with the Parents Television Council, Brent Bozell's lobbying group that filed the 36 indecency complaints. Unsurprisingly, the PTC wasn't happy when the FCC dismissed them in January; spokeswoman Lara Mahaney called them "confusing" and reflective of exiting chairman Michael K. Powell's poor leadership. As it happens, a few of the complaints involved a November, 2003 episode of Gilmore Girls.
Offending scenes included Yale freshman Rory Gilmore discovering a naked, passed-out male classmate in her dorm -- sexual hijinks didnot ensue -- and Rory's grandfather then reminiscing about his own naked college pranks at Yale. I can't always figure out why or when the PTC is going to be ticked off about something. They have a red/yellow/green traffic light system of ratings, and while American Dreams is deemed not green but yellow, it's also listed under the group's top ten-best shows for families. The WB's yellow-rated Everwood, however, is considered among the ten worst, while Gilmore Girls, also yellow, makes neither list.
I enjoy all three shows and consider each one family friendly, but part of what makes America great is that everyone has the right to be offended by particular pet peeves. Take theGilmore Girls, for instance, a single mother in her mid-30s who had her daughter as an unmarried 16-year-old. They both have model-perfect figures even though they never exercise and subsist entirely on a diet of greasy restaurant food, which is of course every bit as fantastic as its fairy-tale portrait of unwed teen motherhood. This isn't to say I don't love Gilmore Girls -- I do -- even though it can be occasionally (O.K., more than occasionally) cloying. But as a single mom myself, I often wonder about its rather loopy version of reality. Lorelei Gilmore's daughter Rory cheerfully accepts all her impulsive mother's peccadilloes, even when they border on the deranged.
When Lorelei suffered a broken romance a couple of seasons ago, for instance, she dragged Rory off for a road trip and then made the girl miss dinner, just because she couldn't bear to mingle with the boring crowd at a cutesy B&B. Then there's her nutty habit of waking her daughter out of a sound sleep at 4 a.m. every year to celebrate the exact moment of her birth. Rory, unbelievably, just goes along with it. Just for one of those birthdays, I'd like to see mom get a well-deserved slap.
Gilmore Girls has gotten some flak for encouraging adolescent coffee drinking: Lorelei is a caffeine addict who, when her daughter was in high-school, would greet her at the bus stop with an after-school cup of java. But coffee disapproval strikes me as especially silly when you consider how many cans of caffeinated (and sugary) soda American parents think it's OK for American children to drink. Compared to that, coffee is relatively harmless and certainly more civilized. What I think might actually benefit from a "Kids, Don't Try This At Home" warning is the Gilmore girls' general eating habits.
Lorelei, who refuses to cook, has raised her daughter on a steady diet of diner and take-out food, with extra fries and ice cream at every opportunity. Yet they remain slim and perky, with shiny hair and bouncy gaits and no serious shortage of cash. I once took out paper and pencil and estimated their restaurant bill at a conservative $1,500 per month.
The sad truth is that you cannot enjoy a Gilmore Girls appearance on a Gilmore Girls diet, although the world would certainly be a prettier place if you could. I don't know what color-warning light I'd give it for that particular transgression, but I do know I'll continue to watch.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.
By Catherine Seipp
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online