Pop Culture

Luke and Lorelai, sitting in a tree

He built her a chuppah for her ill-fated wedding. She bailed him out of jail.

They’ve chased after a baby chick together, bonded over failed relationships, and argued about his bad-boy nephew Jess. Then, in the final minutes of last season’s “Gilmore Girls,” longtime friends Luke and Lorelai locked lips, ensuring that Stars Hollow is going to be a different place in the show's fifth season, premiering Sept. 22 on the WB.

So far, their mutual attraction has been deftly handled, and it’s never been the all-encompassing focus of the show. But, uh, now what? Now that Luke and Lorelai are heading down the road to Relationshipville, has “Gilmore Girls" jumped the shark?

Not so, says “Gilmore Girls” creator and executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino. “Just because they’re together, they’re not going to suddenly become different people," she says. "They’re not going to suddenly be sitting around going, ‘You know what, you’re pretty. No, you’re pretty. No, you’re pretty.’ It’s not going to be six hours of holding hands and bunnies hopping by.”

That’s a relief, even for viewers who don’t necessarily have anything against rodents with long ears and puffy tails. In theory, the idea of two formerly sharp-tongued leads now making goo-goo eyes and calling each other ‘Schmoopy’ is hurl-inducing.

While Sherman-Palladino is poised to deliver an onscreen relationship that flies in the face of convention, even she admits that it can be tough to break TV’s romantic curse. “I know that there’s always a fear of, ‘Oh, if they get together, the show will be over,’ ” she says.

And how.

TV history is littered with the pallid corpses of shows that had the life sucked out of them thanks to their characters turning into soft romantic milquetoasts, cuddling and cooing their way from commercial to commercial. In real life, a happy relationship is something many of us aspire to achieve. On the tube, it can be the kiss of death.

All over but the moppet?
Often, once a romantic hook-up takes place, much of the drama drains from a show. And when that’s gone, it’s all over but the stunt guest-star casting and adding of a cute moppet to the cast. Jon Hein, whose Web site devotes a large section to when shows go south thanks to the romantic coupling of their lead characters, says that consummated romance can be deadly.

“I think it's extremely difficult for any show to recover from the loss of sexual tension between its main characters,” Hein says. “When Tony and Angela on ‘Who's The Boss?’ or Fran and Maxwell on ‘The Nanny’ ended up together, there was simply nowhere else for those shows to go.”

Okay, those shows’ scripts aren’t exactly Tolstoy. But it happens to well-written programs, too. When Sam and Diane settled into a bicker-free romantic relationship on “Cheers,” the show went flat — and was only resuscitated after new foil Kirstie Alley came aboard. After Fleischman and Maggie got together on “Northern Exposure,” audience interest lagged. Lovesick Niles finally expressed his pent-up feelings to Daphne on “Frasier” — and the tension fizzled. “Moonlighting” colleagues David and Maddie went from screaming insults to batting eyelashes at each other, and viewers tuned out.

An evolving relationship
No doubt, allowing characters to get together is a slippery slope. Usually, when a couple of characters finally do, er, couple, they spend the next several episodes — or in the worst cases, entire seasons — fawning over each other, which tends to make audiences sick. But Sherman-Palladino says when it comes to Luke and Lorelai, viewers can put away their barf bags, thank you very much.

“We’re trying to keep the dynamic of what was special about the two of them," she says. "And I think sometimes when you get characters together you lose that a little bit. Because now all of a sudden you feel like you’ve got to play them as romantic leads. We’ve had zero trouble, I believe, in the story-breaking room going, ‘Oh, God, are they getting boring, are they getting dull, are they too much smooshy-smooshy?’ It really hasn’t happened yet, and I think part of it is because of the nature of who these two characters are.”

Part of the reason “Gilmore” is on tap to succeed may be that the Luke/Lorelai relationship wasn’t plotted and planned from the beginning. Far from it: In the pilot script, the character that became Luke was originally conceived as a woman. And even when Sherman-Palladino added a bit more testosterone to the show, a romantic pairing was never guaranteed.

“The thing about Luke and Lorelai is it really evolved,” she says. “It wasn’t written in the stars in the first season. They started to have such a great chemistry and a great banter and a good strong friendship, that over the years, it really became ‘Well, that is the guy she should be with.’”

Friends first
A romantic entanglement works best on television when it doesn’t become the black hole of the show, overpowering every subplot with its often-overwhelming gravitational pull.

In “Friends,” Ross and Rachel’s relationship was never the only thing going on. “When Ross and Rachel got together the first time, there were plenty of other storylines to explore with the rest of the cast,” Hein says. The other characters had their own problems, and their own romantic adventures. Ross and Rachel’s relationship was just one element, and only when it threatened to take over the show did viewers start to grumble.

It seems that “Gilmore” is taking that lesson to heart. The show has never been lacking in compelling subplots, and Season Five is shaping up to be a doozy. How can Lorelai concentrate on her newfound love when she’s helping Rory untangle her messy affair with married man Dean? Or dealing with her newly re-chilled relationship with her parents? And the stressful launch of the Dragonfly Inn? As always, smaller crises abound, from Kirk trying to recover from his naked panic attack to Taylor losing a shoe.

Possibly most intriguing is the not-so-minor matter of Rory’s father, Christopher. Thanks to the fact that ABC cancelled his sitcom “I’m With Her,” David Sutcliffe is back for at least seven episodes as Lorelai’s on-again-off-again flame. Their deep connection adds a complication that can only make Lorelai’s love life — and the show — more interesting.

“Quite frankly, if we had not gotten Sutcliffe back this year, I’m not sure I would have taken the exact direction with Luke and Lorelai that I did,” Sherman-Palladino says, hinting that the new couple’s relationship isn’t exactly on track to follow the bucolic conflict-free route.

Shark repellentWith its promise of juicy conflict, a long-evolving relationship to explore and characters that aren’t going to turn into mushy versions of themselves, “Gilmore Girls” is primed to turn the Curse of the Romantic Leads on its ear. Take that, “The Nanny.” With or without a relationship for Lorelai, “Gilmore’s” multilayered characters, engaging plots and rat-a-tat dialogue are firmly entrenched, which could be the shark repellent the show needs to continue to thrive.

“The one thing ‘Gilmore Girls’ has going for it is a history of strong writing,” JumptheShark.com’s Hein says. “I hope they'll be able to handle this.”

Sherman-Palladino is confident they can. “We’ve had four years of watching these two people be there for each other, support each other, fight, not talk, get back together, drive each other to the hospital, whatever they needed. So I felt like it’s a fair time now for me to say to the audience, ‘Invest in these two. Care about them, root for them.’ Because we’ve got all that history,” she says. “We know who these people are.”

Fine. As long as there are no bunnies.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis.

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