Small towns star in big-hearted shows

Three dramas fulfill longing for community

Americans are hungry for community. Those of us who live in medium-to-large cities barely know our neighbors. But we may form, at least, the semblance of community in our churches or clubs or even in our workplaces with those who are like-minded.

TV sometimes reflects that sense of fellowship in workplace dramas like "NYPD Blue" and comedies like "Ally McBeal."

But then, there are those shows set in small towns populated with eccentric, lovable folks.

"Northern Exposure," surely one of the best of the community-of-eccentrics genre, certainly seemed Capraesque in its regard for individuality, kindness, social responsibility, and pulling together when the chips were down.

Three new shows this season - "That's Life" (CBS, Saturdays, 8-9 p.m.), "Gilmore Girls" (The WB, Thursdays, 8-9 p.m.), and "Ed" (NBC, Sundays, 8-9 p.m.) - join NBC's "Providence" (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.) in imagining delightful, idiosyncratic communities that sustain their characters' creative, as well as social lives.

In That's Life, the community is Italian-American - the only TV show that depicts ordinary, working-class Italian-Americans who are not involved in the mafia.

Thirty-something Lydia DeLucca (Heather Paige Kent) dumps her demanding, insensitive, but family-approved fianc and goes back to college. Her parents don't understand this peculiar decision.

Her dad (Paul Sorvino) thinks she should go to church if she wants to find herself, and her mom (Ellen Burstyn) just wants grandchildren.

But through it all, family and friends - who form a kind of small town within a big city in New Jersey - secretly approve of her plans even when they openly complain. Her ethnic background seems to guard her in her workplace and from the arrogance of her professor.

Family is a bit more oppressive in Gilmore Girls. Lorelai (Lauren Graham) was only 16 when her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) was born. The two are as much girlfriends as they are mother and daughter.

But Lorelai's disapproving parents approve of her brainy daughter and hope to win her over to their highbrow way of life.

From the coffee shop called "Hardware Store" to the fancy inn Lorelai manages, little Stars Hollow, Conn. is peopled by decent folk.

Writer/producer Amy Sherman-Palladino promises that the inn will have a growing role in the series.

In fact, when she first pitched the concept about a mother and daughter who are best friends, she says, she went to stay in a Connecticut inn to think it through. And that's where the whole story fell into place.

"I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and it's not like a real city," she said in a recent interview.

"We never talked to our neighbors. I never grew up with community - and that idea is so charming to me, that I wanted Lorelai to have sought out a community where Rory could grow up protected and free...."

The backstory, she says, which will come out later in the season, is that the innkeeper and the other workers took Lorelai in and helped her raise the baby. The town, she says, is so close-knit that everyone who lives in it is expected to fully engage in every holiday celebration - from bell-ringing to caroling.

Over the course of the show, we'll get to know the town folks and the neighbors (Sally Struthers among them).

"The town has a personality," she says. "[The characters] walk from store to store, or to school which is across the street from the library which is across the street from the coffee shop and the courthouse. It makes it richer for the characters because they have all these little outlets and people who know them.

"I don't know if I'd even like to live in a small community," she adds. "I only know, it sounds warm and rich and colorful and safe."

In this fast-paced day and age, how realistic is the concept of a tight-knit community?

"Yes, it's heightened for television," says Sherman-Palladino. "This is an era of computers that can put you in touch with people halfway across the world, but you're not sitting in a room with them. You're not forced to deal with people now.... It takes an effort to walk outside and say hello. It would be nice if we did."

She layers community upon community in her series: There are the grandparents Gilmore, the inn and the town, and then there's Rory's new private school. The competition to get into Harvard from there is really tough.

"Rory is very comfortable in her mother's world," she says, "as opposed to the teenage world. Now she is thrown in with kids who will kill you if you throw the curve off."

Rory's school experience offers a vivid contrast to what Stars Hollow represents, just as the elder grandparents offer a contrast to Lorelai's brand of mothering.

As in "Gilmore Girls," the characters in Ed roam the streets at night in perfect safety. Stuckeyville, Ohio, is the kind of town where tradition tends to reassert itself, and where a guy can go for a fresh start.

New York lawyer Ed (Thomas Cavanagh) loses his job and his wife in one really bad day, and decides to go home to Stuckeyville for a visit. But so enamored of his high school crush is he, he up and buys a bowling alley and settles down in his hometown hoping to win that girl of his adolescent dreams.

"Ed" is shot in a small New Jersey town that closely resembles its creator's own hometown.

"I think we all long for that time in our lives when we had our families and our friends, and did have a community," says Rob Burnett. "It's a way for me and Jon Beckerman to experience some of those things again.... "

"I do love living in New York, but I absolutely miss that community," he says.

The comedy writers, who wrote for Dave Letterman for a long time, were inspired by "Northern Exposure," says Mr. Burnett.

"The community plays a big part in the story. [The episodes] have to be funny, they have to have an interesting story, and they have to have emotional depth - which comes from the community....

"We're shooting a story right now about Ed throwing a Thanksgiving party in the bowling alley for all his friends, trying to recreate a tradition ..., " Burnett says.

"But traditions are not easy to come by and it takes time.... There are issues of friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness, the terror and exhilaration of a clean slate."

The media has fragmented community, he says, "and that has had a huge impact on all our lives. With the Internet and dozens of channels to choose from, we are having fewer shared experiences.

"With the Internet, we don't even have to go shopping, we don't need to be with other people...."

Burnett says that "Ed" is not cynical by design. "All good comedy and drama comes from the same place - expectation versus reality. You want something and you can't get it. It's not people cynically making fun of each other, it's people going about their business and getting knocked around a little bit."

Does "Ed" reflect real experience or is it idealized?

"I think the community is idealized a little bit ..., " he says, "an idealized version of the way you think things should be.

"Ed is the best version of a guy like this. But [Stuckeyville] is a nice gentle place that I hope people will want to visit once a week."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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