Sometimes it’s just a similar premise. Sometimes the resemblance is uncanny. But every now and then a TV episode can’t help but recall another. In Double Takes, we explore the doppelgangers of television, the unshakable connections between them, and the illuminating distinctions.
We now know the mid-2000s as the first course in a feast we’re still stomaching, some of us more keenly than others, but at the time it was a bountiful television banquet. Antihero and genre shows were forging what people smartly, if ahistorically, called the golden age of television drama. But there’s more to the golden age than difficult men and institutional scope. Far away from HBO, across the vastness of cable, two small-town family dramas struck gold on network TV with an uncomfortable rite of passage. On Gilmore Girls’ “Raincoats And Recipes” and Friday Night Lights’ “I Think We Should Have Sex,” mothers and daughters have “the talk.”
Other things happen in these momentous episodes, such as Tim Riggins tragically discovering shirts, but everything is overshadowed by their centerpieces, long, tearful têtes-à-tête in which a mother confronts her teenage daughter about her first time. Not just any mothers, either: Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore and Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor, two of the pantheon performances of the golden age delivered by former roommates. One a bubbly free spirit, the other a down-home voice of reason. One defined by single motherhood, the other famously devoted to marriage. One a quirkville rebel and the other a Texas authority figure.
For such a sensitive and universal issue, it’s surprising that the sex talk isn’t much of a staple for TV drama. There’s the “You look different” scene favored by genre shows: Joyce Summers and Keith Mars prey on the fear that your parents know things just by looking at you. Then there’s the antihero drama, which co-opts the story of a teenage girl starting to get interested in sex into the larger story of an overprotective father’s bad behavior: Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin, Marty Hart. Even non-antihero Coach Taylor fits the bill, alternately lashing out and fuming at the prospect of his daughter getting physical with her boyfriend. The sex talk is natural sitcom material, though. Home Improvement, then the most-watched show on ABC that wasn’t football, launched its sixth season with an episode where mom Jill catches eldest son Brad making out with his girlfriend in his bedroom. It’s a typical sex talk episode, wringing every last joke out of dad Tim’s discomfort before finally buckling down and having a very special conversation about a very special subject.
Although I didn’t catch that episode at the time, the promo is burned in my brain, a pearl-clutching affair promising a taboo subject with dire consequences. This played many a psychological trick on me as a child. Brad is on the verge of becoming a bad kid, tonight on Home Improvement! A couple years later, still not a teen, I remember another TV ad hyping teen sex, with less hellfire and more suds. Don’t miss Pacey climbing into bed with his teacher, tonight on Dawson’s Creek! The WB was after a different audience.
Television is a powerful, glossy, glib mass medium, but “Raincoats And Recipes” and “I Think We Should Have Sex” take their subject seriously. They reframe the talk as a question of parenting, locating it in a long history of mother-daughter counsel. They keep both mother and daughter in focus throughout, never letting the parent’s wisdom overshadow the child’s thinking. And they tease out their once-inseparable duo’s now conflicting goals in an emotional, escalating showdown. In short, they replace sensationalism with good, old-fashioned drama.
The Gilmores went first, in an episode written and directed by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Lorelai is stopping by her house, absent-mindedly yammering away like always to her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), still in her room. When Rory finally comes out, she’s trailed by her ex-boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki), who recently got married. He’s breathless, she’s frazzled, there’s a neon sign above them saying they just had sex. And Graham’s face just drops. I still get goosebumps when she goes speechless. Gilmore Girls is all about gab. No situation, no matter how banal, can repress Lorelai’s screwball instincts. Until this one.
Dean quickly dismisses himself, ceding the final five minutes of the show’s fourth season to a dramatic mother-daughter fight. It starts with Lorelai’s quiet march to Rory’s room, where she sees the unmade bed. The silence is unsettling, but it’s part of the scene’s integrity. Sherman-Palladino is careful about time and space, the distance between the women and the impossibility of escape. She makes us live in the moment, enduring the long walk to the bedroom even though we almost don’t want to look. Rory immediately ’fesses up, but she doesn’t seem to realize Dean is not her boyfriend, which is far more entitled than her usual level of entitlement. Thus Lorelai follows her through the house trying to get her to face the facts. It’s a chase scene, both in action and words.
“I hate you for ruining this for me,” Rory finally says as she rushes out the door. That’s the heartbreaker. Your first time is fraught with expectation as it is—hope, fear, shame. Rory’s an over-achiever desperate to have a successful inauguration, but thanks to her mother, she can’t compartmentalize the way she’d like to. The sex is bound up with the adultery. In the end, Rory’s the one who’s speechless, especially when she tries to call Dean and his wife answers. She gets it. She’s too smart not to have ruined it for herself eventually. The season ends with her crumpled on the front lawn, crying into her hand, as her mother closes in on her in the background.
FNL’s Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) is a lot like Rory: smart, independent, and woefully naïve. She stuns her boyfriend and titles an episode when she tells Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) “I think we should have sex.” Like Rory, she has blinders on. She doesn’t see what the big deal is, and she just wants to get it over with. Unfortunately, her mother Tami happens to see Matt buying condoms at the grocery store. And she’s lying in wait to discuss those condoms when Julie gets home.
One of the cameras captures the two framed photos on the mantle, Tami in her wedding dress side by side with Julie on a pony—the little girl her mother still sees her as. There’s no sense of space in “I Think We Should Have Sex,” and I’m not talking about privacy: Written by Elizabeth Heldens and directed by Allison Liddi-Brown, it’s all tightly focused close-ups in FNL’s characteristic on-the-fly shakycam. Tami tries to stay on-message (STDs, pregnancy), but when Julie laughs at her for calling it “making love,” she flies off the handle. “Don’t you smirk at me right now. I am very upset! You are not allowed to have sex! You’re 15 years old!”
When Tami cools off, she tells her husband she knows firsthand what growing up in a repressive environment is like. “My mother used to tell me that I was gonna go to hell if a guy ever touched me, and you know that didn’t work. I’m sure as hell not gonna do that to Julie.” Like Lorelai, her parenting is a response to how she was parented.
Lorelai and Tami are coming from very different places, but they turn out to be awfully similar moms. After the shock and the tears, they share the same goal: to offer a wider perspective that their teenage daughters don’t have. Tami enlightens Julie about what all can happen besides, as Julie puts it, one body part going into another: “What can happen is you can become hurt, and you can become degraded, and you become hard, and you can become cynical.” The way Britton’s voice cracks at the end is telling. This isn’t about preserving purity. Tami just hopes to prolong her daughter’s faith in people.
Finally Tami says, “I want you to be able to talk to me about it.” Lorelai has the same goal. Back when Rory dates bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia), Lorelai brings up the possibility that sex is the logical destination for those two. She knows Rory is her mother’s daughter. At the time Rory insists that sex isn’t even on the horizon for her, but by the end of the episode, Rory tells her mom that she and Jess are thinking about sex after all. Lorelai just asks her daughter one thing. “Could you tell me before?” More than anything else, Lorelai and Tami just want communication.
Because ultimately these aren’t their stories. Rory spends the next episode avoiding her mother and relapsing with Dean, and Julie spends the next scene shopping for lingerie with an older girl. They’re at a stage in life where they’re taking more control of their lives. Tami can’t enforce abstinence and Lorelai can’t break up with Dean by proxy. All they can do is provide the support, discipline, and wisdom to help their kids make good decisions for themselves.
In their own ways, that’s what these shows are all about. Just as the Taylors strive to help their students do the right thing, FNL strives to impart its lessons to its audience. It’s an issue show, especially in the early going, focused on things like alcohol, racism, and disability. In “I Can’t,” Tami counsels a student on her abortion, a smart bookend to “I Think We Should Have Sex.” Meanwhile Gilmore Girls is focused on parental failures. Nearly all the central drama for seven seasons grows out of the premise of Lorelai’s teenage pregnancy and subsequent estrangement from her parents. It’s a world of overbearing mothers and absentee fathers. No wonder, when it comes time for the talk, Tami catches her daughter early, but Lorelai’s too late. Both shows are about parenting, but Friday Night Lights lives in the struggle, while Gilmore Girls lives in the consequences.
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.