Amy Sherman-Palladino: Losing the Battle, Winning the War

Curator's Note

The television showrunner has become a figure of some notoriety.  From HBO's three Davids (Chase, Simon, Milch) to Mad Men's Matthew Weiner to Community’s dispatched creator, Dan Harmon, the showrunner is an auteur who imparts a unique signature upon each show and who oversees an award-winning (if not ratings-winning) program. More often than not, this auteur is a man.  For example, in a new book, critic Alan Sepinwall spotlights 12 programs that created the contemporary golden age of television.  Of these 12 programs, not a single one was created by a woman. The female showrunner exists but she is rarer. Yet some female showrunners – like Amy Sherman-Palladino [S-P] – break through by asserting their unique authorial voice and by engaging in masculinist discourses of control.

Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls [GG] and Bunheads, delivers a "girly" program yet derides overt femininity. To wit, S-P comments of her current relationship with ABC Family: "I never pictured myself as an ABC Family chick." Known for her signature style (fast-paced, quippy dialogue) and ability to shift from humor to moving drama in an instant, S-P's characters inhabit a world of familial angst, romantic disappointment, and personal discovery. S-P's public persona sometimes seems antithetical to the sentimental world she creates: she curses frequently and is unafraid to battle with network executives to protect the integrity of her creative vision. So determined is S-P that she left GG before its final season when negotiations with Warner Bros. stalled. Seemingly, S-P lost that battle. Someone else wrote the final season of the program she created.

Yet somehow Sherman-Palladino has maintained authorship of GG, notwithstanding. Bunheads, while unique in particular ways, shares an awful lot in common with GG: same small town charm, focus on several generations of women, pop culture-infused dialogue, and even the same actors (including Kelly Bishop, Sean Gunn, and Liza Weil). Bunheads also boasts a similar devotion from critics (here and here). S-P partially attributes her creative freedom to the support of an ABC Family female executive, Kate Juergens. Further, S-P remains GG’s author in another way. She teased in 2006 to spoiler disseminator Michael Ausiello that she knew the exact ending to GG, which would consist of four words. These unknown four words persist in GG lore – to this day, she is asked to reveal them. So far, she has kept mum. For fans, then, the show remains alive until Sherman-Palladino ends it, on her own terms.


Really enjoyed this, Karen! I didn't know too much about Sherman-Palladino as a figure and showrunner before, strangely enough, although I recalled the slight feud with Shonda Rhimes in my post later this week. Gilmore Girls has a really interesting industry history to me because of the network switch up you've mentioned. Although for many, it was those syndicated reruns on ABC Family that we most relate GG back to. And the showrunner's construction and identity of her biggest characters will likely be implanted into her principal actors for the remainder of their careers. Lauren Graham's character on Parenthood to me is very much like Lorelai, which is kind of great. And I think Alexis Bledel's stint on Mad Men was also excellent, because how could we ever not think of her as Rory even after all these years? That made her affair with Pete Campbell all the more shocking, the cherub-like Rory with one of the most loathed characters in TV history. Then there's Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos on The Good Wife, pretty fitting. I only watched the pilot episode of Bunheads, and it didn't really resonate with me. It would be interesting to do a fan studies on the two shows and their audiences, to see how much of the GG diehards also still tune in, or if it's more for the next generation of TV audiences. Unlike a showrunner like Rhimes, whose series all premiered or were on the air around the same time, the time lapse with Bunheads starting 5 years after GG's series finale must be significant. Thanks again and looking forward to the rest of the week! Stefania PS: I've just learned after a quick catch up with Bledel that she's actually half Argentinean and half Mexican, and considers herself Latina. Super interesting.

Thanks for the comment, Stefania. I will admit to being lukewarm about "Bunheads." My GG fandom is such that I quit watching when Sherman-Palladino left (the new writers could not capture her style without it sounding biting) and that it makes it hard for me to see "Bunheads" as anything but GG light. Writing this post helped with that, though, because I read a lot about S-P's background in dance and about her vision for the show. I'm going to revisit the first half of season 1 of "Bunheads" to give it more of a fair chance.

really interesting point by Stefania re how many people actually learned about GG thru ABC Family (indeed, this is the place that I learned about the show with those daily back to back episodes). I love the ASP comment that she never imagined herself as an ABC Family chick, and my brain is ticking away at what she means by this, especially given the crazy swing of what this station actually stands in for. I would be curious to hear a bit more about the opening credits, which I consider disastrously horrible. The early review that posited the credits were a tampon commercial started me off on the wrong foot with the show, but also epitomizes the confusion over what the show wants to be. However, while the show is often uneven -- and taps into the ABC Family style amnesia/disconnected plotting -- the moments it gets right have been the best moments on tv this year (the sex ed montage, the ukulele song, a few of the dance sequences).

Thanks Dana! Yes, I can't actually personally recall any GG fans who watched new episodes every week, but definitely knew a lot, including myself of course, who watched on ABC Family. Would be interesting to see what other series that started in the 2000s have had similar impact in syndication. The ABC Family chick quote also made me think of Amanda Keeler's great chapter from the "Screwball Television: Critical Perspectives on Gilmore Girls" that touches on the family friendly aspect of the series with relation to ASP's intentions and the family dramedy and genre classification. She first points out that GG was the first "advertiser advocated show" with its support from the Family Friendly Programing Forum, but that ASP explicitly stated that her show wasn't going to be Seventh Heaven, which was green-lit by the Parents Television Council. Some of those episodes were like extended PSAs, gosh. GG got the yellow light for some of its more risky content, based on the sex I believe she writes, and of course Lorelai was an unwed mother who got pregnant as a teenager. But doing a show that didn't reveal that traditional heterosexual nuclear family was part of ASP's goals. For the FFPF it was more about showing a teenager who made the good choice in keeping her baby, so that was a win-win for both parties. A show like The OC, also somewhat of a family drama but that had a bit more of that 90210 California high school edge to it, which I still cant help but love due to my own nostalgia, was red lit, Keeler recounted. Even if 7th Heaven was more family friendly, and quite literally preachy, ABC family eventually pulled its airing in favor of a third GG episode. So GG's dramedy hybridity and also between family friendly but I think in the end a more liberal-leaning series, and the multigenerational focus of the mother-daughter duo that made for subsequent diversely aged audiences, is what solidified its place on ABC Family. I wonder how much ASP has had to compromise for Bunheads, or just how risque it gets, you mention a sex ed montage?

You mentioned the actors who carried over from Gilmore Girls to Bunheads but you limited it to just a few. There were several others. Rose Abdoo (Gypsy/Sam) Gregg Henry (Mitchum Huntzburger/Rico) Jon Polito (Pete/Sal) Biff Yeager (Tom/"Fat Bob"), Chris Eigeman (Jason/Conor) Todd Lowe (Zack/Davis) & Michael DeLuise (TJ/JoJo). As well as Sam Phillips providing music for both series. If the series had continued I think the public theatre they were creating would have taken on a larger role opening up new creative possibilities for the series. Really a shame they didn't get the time for the show to truly hit its stride. Oh and in case anyone missed this & is interested... (Really cool Amy Sherman Palladino interview on NPR from 2005.) Oh and then there's this

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