TV: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
This is the 2016 Netflix miniseries continuation of Gilmore Girls, the beloved 2000-2007 dramedy about a mother and daughter in a small town in Connecticut.
Last year, in June, I got to see a reunion panel discussion for Gilmore Girls. It was part of the ATX Festival, and they were holding it at the Paramount Theater, a classic old palacial theater in downtown Austin. And they packed the massive theater -- Lindsey and I got in, the three people behind us got in, and then they were sold out. And I remember, as I was walking in, I saw two girls, both maybe twenty years old or so, some distance behind us. They'd just been told they couldn't get in to the panel. And they were just bawling. Inconsolable. Broken.
While I watched A Year in the Life, my mind drifted back to this from time to time.
I liked Gilmore Girls. I can't properly explain what a delightful shock it was, back then. Television was different. The Sopranos had been out for only a year or so. Aaron Sorkin, perhaps Ms. Sherman-Palladino's closest kin in terms of TV dialog, had hit the scene with Sports Night only two years before, but nobody except the TV nerds had noticed. And most of the best of television was yet to come. And Gilmore Girls -- with its dizzying dialog, and its quirky and idyllic world-building, and its resolution to be thoroughly itself, to set itself apart from 'normal TV drama' -- you didn't know what this new thing meant, or what it might protend. But it was lovely, and you couldn't stop watching.
Or "one couldn't", I suppose. *I* eventually did stop watching -- around season five, I tapped out. I remember seeing a long, predictable conversation between Luke and Richard, full of puns around the name "Philip K. Dick," and I realized that, huh, I was done with the show.
So: I liked Gilmore Girls. Along with Sports Night and Freaks and Geeks, it was one of those circa-2000 shows that first showed me that television was changing, that it was moving from 'furniture' to 'art', and that it would have more and more distinct voices telling us stories. But it didn't move me to my soul. It wasn't the relief of finally seeing something I directly related to on television.
I really should've given up my panel seat to one of the bawling twentysomethings. They needed it more.
All of which is to say that I came to A Year in the Life with affection, but with some distance and detachment, too. I was leaning back. I saw problems with it, but I didn't feel betrayed -- no need to post an immediate tirade about Rory or anything like that. And I actually found a lot to like in the reunion miniseries.
In a way, almost all television is tragic, because most shows depict characters who don't change. This is especially true as you go earlier and earlier in TV history -- by the early 90s, you arrive at old sitcoms that hit a reset button at the end of each episode, so they start from square one over, and over, and over again. So in a way, these characters aren't really living -- they're just running around in a rut, forever. Maybe it's the same as the real world -- maybe we never really change, and we never really learn, and we never really grow, but we have to at least *believe* that we can. Otherwise, what are we doing but playing out the string until it's over?
Anyway, with television, that eerie, rigid stasis is something that we unconsciously accept, the same way we accept that nobody knocks on a door or says "goodbye" on the phone, or they way we go along with everybody being preternaturally attractive. But sometimes the stasis gets foregrounded for us, and it's disorienting. There are shows like The Sopranos that make this inability to change a powerful, central theme of the show. And then there are reunion shows -- which we have more and more of, lately -- that unintentionally foreground it.
It's a bind. Ample time has passed since the show's original broadcast, and so logically, an equal amount of time has passed in the fictional world. But people are going to want to come back to the same show they fondly remember, so: same characters, same situation, same same same. And when you take things to that extreme, it suddenly feels stifling. For Gilmore Girls, it doesn't help that Ms. Sherman-Palladino is (I hear) dusting off the plans she'd made for season seven of the show, before she got fired from it. And moving things by a decade has made some stories feel peculiar. If Rory is aimless and couch-surfing at 32, that's a different thing from a homeless 22-year-old. If Lorelai and Lue are suddenly pondering having a baby in their late 40s, that's a very different beast from doing so in their late 30s.
But beyond that, the snowglobe quality of Stars Hollow feels disconcerting. Nearly everybody is in the same place in their lives as when we last saw them. Same jobs. Same status. Same clothes, more or less. And on some level, you think, yes, things stay the same on television. But you also think: ten years? Ten years, and everything is just... preserved like this? Is this all we are? Little wind-up toys that go through the same motions forever?
I remember, as a kid, seeing a Gilligan's Island reunion movie that started with all the castaways having moved on with their lives, and ended with all of them wrecked on the eponymous island yet again. I thought it was the saddest damn thing in the world. With A Year in the Life, my brain kept uncertainly switching between acceptance (this is how TV is) and disappointment (oh god god no).
Stars Hollow's 'Brigadoon' quality is striking in another way: by staying resolutely the same, A Year in the Life shows us how much our world has changed in the decade since it went off the air. In the early 2000s, Gilmore Girls was aspirational: Rory entered Chilton, a world of the hyper-rich, and we gasped with wonder at their carefree opulence. Now we're post-Occupy and pre-Trump, and these are instead the gormless 1% that are devouring and ruining the world. During the show's run, Richard Gilmore's job in "insurance" was basically a signifier, a signpost that he was a stuffy old man who wore a suit and carried a briefcase and got paid lots of money to have dull conversations about numbers. But now we're watching insurance slowly strangle the American economy, a mad profit-golem that leaves our friends tragically uninsured when things really do go wrong.
So: I want to go back to Stars Hollow. But maybe I can't, any more. Maybe too much has changed.
But there are advantages to that wide span of time, too. It carries emotional weight. This was most striking, to me, when Rory talked to Dean about her book. And she told him how he was the best possible man she could have hoped for as her first boyfriend. That moment took my breath away, just because: wow. Fifteen years. And so many stories, week in, week out, of their shared experiences. What would it be like to get that chance -- to happen across your first love in a grocery store, and have occasion to thank them for what they meant to you, and to suddenly feel, in that moment, all the time that's gone by in between.
If that were just a scene written in isolation, it would mean nothing. It's the time that gives it weight.
Whew. 1300 or so words in, and I'm still not really talking about the show. Don't worry, I'll get there eventually.
This reunion also got me to thinking about how, for all the talk about vaunted 'creative freedom' in television, a lot of the greatest TV shows come from a tension between an idiosyncratic showrunner who wants to run wild, and the network suits who want them to color between the lines. If either end of the tug-of-war rope is missing, everything falls apart. Without David Milch, you get a blank CBS acronymic cop show. Let David Milch do whatever he wants, you get John from Cincinnati. Neither is ideal. The best work very often comes from an auteur being forced to work within TV's very utilitarian, "build a story that'll hold on to eyeballs" framework. The suits tell Mitch Hurwitz to do an episode where kids learn a valuable life lesson, and the room comes up with "Pier Pressure", for example. They do what the spec requires, but in a way nobody would have imagined.
And with Gilmore Girls, I feel like that tension had to do with the structure of the show. It was one of the only (perhaps *the* only?) network TV dramas I've ever seen that lacked "act outs" -- the cliffhanger-like moments of tension that lead into the commercial breaks. Gilmore Girls would just stop, trusting that you'd come back for more. The whole show felt like that -- never an air of "YOU'LL NEVER *BELIEVE* WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!", but rather a feeling that they were showing you a slice of life, watching these characters drift through this amusing snowglobe of a town, talking the way we wish we would if we were transported into a 40s screwball comedy. But still, you could sense a network holding that somewhat in check. You could sum up each episode with a "logline" of what happened -- it wasn't just a slice of a neverending movie. And you could tell that there was a force generally nudging the show into resolving *some* question of "how things would turn out". It was often ignored, but it was there.
And then, the reunion show. There have been so many reunions lately that "reunions on streaming networks" have become a recognizeable subset. And those tend to be the reunion shows where the showrunner is given unprecedented creative freedom. And that's where the showrunner's tendencies are put front-and-center. Season four of Arrested Development became a byzantine puzzle-box, less concerned with tight runtimes and efficient laughs than it was about constructing its dizzyingly interweaving plot.
And with Gilmore Girls, you watch the tension of the show -- the "how will it turn out?" of it all -- go almost completely slack. Sure, there are questions here and there -- what did Lorelai do before "Winter" to piss off Emily? will Luke and Lorelai stay together? what happened to Rory's lucky outfit? -- but generally you're looking at a boat without an engine, here. And as such, it drifts this way and that. Now Emily and Lorelai are in therapy for a series of amusing scenes. Now Rory is aimlessly trying to find a career. If you were to recap the story, you'd use a lot of "and then this happened," and relatively little "so then this happened".
And in many ways, that meandering quality is a strength. The therapy scenes, for example, include long, awkward silences that a broadcast-network taskmaster, insisting on 'getting back to the story', wouldn't let them get away with. A Year in the Life is full of digressive running gags like the secret bar, or Kirk's "Üüüber" venture, that enrich the show. And I loved the breathing room that let the show, say, throw in a silly interstitial with the town troubador chasing off his meddlesome sister.
But there's the flip side to that, which is that often I wanted the show to just get on with telling a story. The running gags were of varying quality, and when the jokes were iffy sitcom gags (again, Üüüber), then the show became kind of a slog.
And yes, let's talk about that musical.
Because that, to me, fits in this "loose, digressive storytelling" discussion, but it transcends both the 'good' and the 'bad' categories I outline above, and gets into that trippy Showgirls territory of "welp, that happened". It's kind of jaw-dropping that they start in on the musical, and you think, "Huh, that's a good call-out joke to see a bit of this awful musical," and then you think, "Wow, they're spending a long time in this scene," and then it turns into "Holy shit, they're actually gonna show *the whole musical*." And I mean "jaw-dropping" in both the good sense -- it's a bravura move that few conventional television shows would go anywhere near, and one that I could scarcely believe as I watched it -- and the bad sense, in that it just didn't quite work for me as comedy. I've seen bad musical theater. And yes, they were doing bad musical theater. But there wasn't anything nuanced or particularly knowing about their portrayal of bad musical theater -- it didn't have an opinion or a point of view that was so detailed that it needed fifteen-odd minutes to explicate. It was just sustained, intentional badness for fifteen minutes.
It also started feeling a little bit like 'punching down' to me. After about minute two I stared sliding from "yeah, bad musical theater is silly" to "c'mon, these fictional characters are trying their best, don't be an ass". And that was a sour undercurrent I saw throughout the reunion, most noticeably with the eponymous girls fat-shaming pool attendees at the start of "Summer".
And the strangest thing is that the show seems almost willfully blind to its faults. Rory and Lorelai sneer at someone's back-fat, and the show eagerly grins at how witty it is, with no sense that we might recoil from that kind of privileged cattiness. It's like with Logan whisking Rory away to an evening of "the 1% ordering everyone around" -- the show doesn't see anything 'off' here. Instead, the show hints at how magical and romantic the evening is. Honestly, to me, Luke and Lorelai's whole relationship felt like that: a relationship with some deep fault lines that they first address with "hey! having a kid will fix this!" and then address with "hey! getting married will fix this!" But the show finds that adorable. Its breezy confidence -- it's "This is all fine, of course" quality -- can be kind of off-putting, and no doubt contributes to the vitriol of the haters' reviews.
And that's sad, because there are many things to like in this reunion. Towering among those things: Lauren Graham's performance. She ably picks up where she left off with the show -- which had a pretty high degree of difficulty to begin with -- and arguably does that even better, bringing a decade of steady acting experience to bear on the material. There are long stretches where it's just Lauren Graham talking. No edits. No scoring. No fancy camerawork or witty banter. It's like an audition video, where there is nothing to aid her, and the whole production hinges on whether she can convey credible, nuanced emotion. And over and over again, she nails it. The final song in the Stars Hollow musical is not that good; Ms. Graham's reaction *makes* it good. The speech about Richard Gilmore buying her a pretzel looks like *nothing* on the page. Her delivery makes it sound like something deep and wrenching, acknowledging the agonizing loss, and nostalgia, and love that are among a million conflicting and ambivalent feelings.
And that brings me to my next point: she does wonders with material that's not necessarily great on the page. She *sells* this 'snowglobe world' where nothing's changed for a decade and that's normal. She follows a lot of the odder decisions the script puts Lorelai through -- okay, they're suddenly gonna hire a surrogate now? for a baby? -- with so much conviction that it isn't until later that the "wait, *what*?" feeling kicks in. And the series' ending, which feels like it reduces Lorelai's whole life story to "and then she had a pretty wedding and that was the whole point of her existence", works in the moment because Ms. Graham plays it perfectly.
It's one of the best TV performances I've seen in months, and I've seen some exceptional television lately.
And for all my smug snooty TV-nerd commentary, it is great to go back to Stars Hollow. The things that worked about the original show still work now. The supporting cast is still delightful. I would still watch a whole goddamn spin-off about Paris Geller. They used Edward Herrmann's (and, therefore, Richard's) death as the launching point for a lovely story arc for Emily Gilmore. The way they snuck in Sookie -- apparently they sorted out a deal with Melissa McCarthy at the last minute -- was, somehow, beautiful and fitting instead of forced and clumsy. And, yes, the idyllic New England fantasy town is heartwarming. I love that part of the country, and I am not made of stone. And the crazy, rat-a-tat pop-culture dialog of Gilmore Girls has yet to be imitated, let alone matched.
So, for all its flaws, A Year in the Life is a nice coda for a show that fired its showrunner and ended somewhat ignominiously. I'm glad this was made, and I'm glad I saw it.
For next week: I'm watching a Whit Stillman adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, reading a compilation of Chinese sci-fi, and continuing on an audiocourse about the economic history of the world. I also have a lot of media to catch up on, including season 3 of Sherlock and a book about the passing of Obamacare. While exercising, I'm still watching season 10 Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.
 As you might expect, television, with its week-in, week-out storytelling, has always been better at this trick than film has. It's a happy surprise to see the exceptions to that rule, like Apted's Up documentaries, or Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy.
 ... which I loved, by the way. All you haters can, as the kids say, suck it.
 A storyline so inconsequential that it foregrounds how this show never really was about story -- plot was just an excuse, a clothesline to hang the quirk and the dialog on.[3b]
[3b] ... which was always a sensible arrangement of priorities, for that show. Play to your strengths.
 But maybe I'm just world-weary, on that last one. It's possible I'm just projecting the ditches I've seen my friends drive into, here.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none