Monday, June 9, 2014

Late to the Party #10: Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)

Welcome to Gilmore Girls Week!  A new article related to Gilmore Girls will be posted every day at 8:00 AM EST until Friday.

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

When I was a little 11 year-old kid, I had a huge crush on Alexis Bledel.  (Who am I kidding? I still do.)  For that reason and that reason alone, I'd seen a few episodes of Gilmore Girls during its original airing.  Watching it was like doing spy work -- I felt like I had to "sneak" and watch only bits and pieces of episodes, lest I be caught viewing a WB show with "girls" in the title.  From those cursory viewings, along spending much of the following years reading pop culture websites, I knew many of the show's broad plot strokes.  It wasn't until Bunheads came around in 2012 that I was fully introduced to the work of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.  Anybody who's been reading this blog long enough knows how much I loved Bunheads, and its cancellation left me with a need to satisfy my Amy Sherman-Palladino fix, a need that finally made me decide to watch Gilmore Girls in its entirety.

Because I worked backwards, it was interesting to see where the Amy Sherman-Palladino train first got moving after watching Bunheads.  All the signposts I became familiar with on Bunheads were there from the beginning in Gilmore Girls: the fast-paced dialogue, the primarily female cast, the arcane pop culture references.  Like Bunheads, Gilmore Girls was a balance between small-town drama and family drama, and as with all shows that fall into the former category, it made its setting -- the sleepy, quirky town of Stars Hollow -- a character of its own.  But its true strengths lied in the show's elements of the latter.

Gilmore Girls was a story of generational transference, and it contrasted the parental relationship between Lorelai and her parents, Richard and Emily, with that of Rory and Lorelai.  Lorelai's strict upbringing was characterized by a cold distance from her parents, so when she got pregnant at 16 and ran off to Stars Hollow, she decided to raise Rory in the exact opposite way.  Through Lorelai's relationship with her parents, the show explored how disappointment, regret, and pain could cloud things like love.  But through Lorelai's relationship with her daughter, they showed how unbreakable the bond between mother and daughter could be.  Close relationships between a parent and their child had been depicted before, but none as deeply or complexly as Rory and Lorelai's was.  In just one exchange of dialogue between the two of them, you could instantly see the years of rapport that they've built with each other.  They had the same mannerisms, the same reference points, the same tastes -- Rory and Lorelai weren't just mother and daughter, they were best friends too.

It's that kind of character relationship that carried the story even when the rest of the show was finding its footing in the first season.  Even still, it didn't take long to hit its stride, right around the time of the sixth episode, "Rory's Birthday Parties."  There's something very pure and simple about season one of Gilmore Girls.  It had that heartwarming quality that many WB shows of the time contained, a quality whose last vestiges can be found on a few ABC Family programs, but has otherwise slowly disappeared in the years since the show premiered.  People argue over which seasons comprise its peak phase, but the Chilton years (seasons one through three) are the chunk that feel the most like "classic Gilmore Girls," and the episodes that fans go back to the most are likely to appear in this portion.  In just those three seasons, the show exhibited so many different modes it was capable of operating in: it could do small-town charm ("Cinnamon's Wake," "The Bracebridge Dinner"), family drama ("Forgiveness and Stuff," "Secrets and Loans," "There's the Rub"), romantic entanglements ("Star-Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers," "Teach Me Tonight"), breezy larks ("Road Trip to Harvard," "Richard in Stars Hollow"), and everything in between ("They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?").  But in all of them, you could find an easygoing, comfort food vibe that made each episode so easy to swallow.

Despite the light, airy feel that marks all of her work, Amy Sherman-Palladino knows how to pack an emotional punch when she needs to.  I learned that the hard way with the "My banana's name is Frankie" moment in the Bunheads finale, but Gilmore Girls is crammed with instances of heart-wrenching drama.  It mostly did so by mining conflict from its aforementioned themes of generational divide, both from Lorelai's struggles to reconnect with Richard and Emily but also from her dealing with the responsibilities of guiding Rory through the hardships and heartbreaks of adolescence.  The drama comes naturally on Gilmore Girls.  Characters don't get upset with each other just for the sake of having something to push the story forward; the conflict derives from a place of deep, genuine hurt.

The show faced a problem that all long-running programs that start with a teen in high school face, after Rory graduated from Chilton at the end of season three and headed to Yale at the beginning of season four.  But this was an especially dangerous move for Gilmore Girls, since the series thrived on its scenes of Rory and Lorelai bonding and bouncing off of each other.  Though the proximity of Yale and Stars Hollow allowed for the two of them to still see each other, their storylines began to develop into almost completely separate entities, an indication of the model the show would follow for its last four years.  Despite the danger of less Rory-Lorelai scenes, season four still managed to be pretty great.  It's the show's funniest season, featuring episodes like "Chicken or Beef?" and "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist," and the entire back half is just a roaring stretch of television.

That stretch closes out with "Raincoats and Recipes," an episode that leads to the twin bombshells of Lorelai kissing Luke and Rory sleeping with a married Dean, the latter of which causes a fight between Rory and Lorelai that bleeds into the beginning of season five.  The fifth season is my personal favorite, mostly because of how dramatically satisfying it is.  It's almost as if Amy Sherman-Palladino and her crew of writers made season four so comedic and fluffy in order to turn things around and knock us off of our feet even more with season five.  This season was all about the show's ground shifting, and almost every relationship that stood upon it -- Richard and Emily, Lorelai and Rory, Lorelai and Emily, Rory and Emily, Lorelai and Luke -- was shaken up.  In doing so, the show finally started tapping into the visual and emotional poetry that Bunheads would later prove itself capable of achieving.

Most television shows, particularly network ones that have to craft 22-episode seasons, are a very collaborative process.  However, Gilmore Girls was so clearly the vision of Amy Sherman-Palladino who, along with her husband Daniel, wrote and directed many of the episodes, and even took passes at ones they weren't credited for.  By the time season six rolled around, the workload became overwhelming.  This led to some behind-the-scenes drama between the two of them and The WB, who wanted them to do more work instead of letting them hire more writers.  They couldn't come to an agreement, and the Palladinos decided to step down as showrunners for the seventh season while in the middle of writing the sixth.  There were some grumblings about the show losing its touch right around the start of the Yale years, but many fans consider season six to be a complete drop-off in quality, and some cite the fact that Amy Sherman-Palladino knew she wasn't going to come back while writing it as a reason for the decline.  To them, the events of "Partings," which included Lorelai breaking off her engagement with Luke and sleeping with Christopher, are an example of Palladino salting the earth for the new showrunners.

Others just think the show was running out of steam regardless.  However, I think we're in need of a critical reappraisal of season six, which isn't the show's finest year, but is still a good season of television.  Season six is basically divided in half by its two most divisive storylines: Lorelai and Rory's extended fight and the arrival of April Nardini.  I'll defend the latter first, since it's probably the most controversial thing the show ever did.  I understand the natural inclination to retch at the idea of Luke discovering that he has a daughter he never knew about, but the storyline skillfully took something that feels extremely soapy and made it very "un-TV."  It's a complicating factor, but one that is imbued with enough subtlety and honest emotion that it doesn't feel like just a plot device.  In its later years, the show got very good at long-form plotting, and the way that the April story added to the slowly accumulating problems with Lorelai and Luke's engagement made their breakup in the finale well built to.

The fight between Rory and Lorelai was an even greater example of the meticulous accruement of story during the Chilton years.  It may have seemed like it was forced and inorganic, until you realize that the growing distance between the two of them was something that began way back in season four.  The fact that their squabble didn't end quickly like it would've in the early years doesn't make the conflict out of character, it just makes the separation hurt more.

Staff writer David S. Rosenthal took over as showrunner as the Palladinos stepped down, and the biggest problem that the show faced in its final season was the question, "would Amy and Daniel have done this?" lingering around every plot point.  Clearly, Rosenthal and the rest of the staff were handcuffed by Christopher and Lorelai now being together, even though the show's end game was contingent upon a happy ending for Luke and Lorelai.  As a result, they had to figure out a reason to dissolve Lorelai's relationship with Christopher and bring her back with Luke, and the execution was clumsily handled.  Additionally, though the show was never heavy on plot, many of the episodes felt logy, a quality underlined by an absence of the quick repartee that marked the show's first six seasons.  Even still, season seven is not terrible, and once all of the wreckage from the season six finale gets cleared up, the show settles into a lovely run for the last handful of episodes.

Before the drama with The WB, Amy Sherman-Palladino once said that she could have seen the show lasting beyond seven seasons.  But it's good that it ended when it did, even if the final season had the misfortune of carrying on without her.  As it stands, Gilmore Girls is a perfect encapsulation of one girl's adolescence -- mapping out Rory's start at Chilton to her graduation from Yale -- and a mother fully growing into adulthood via the process of guiding her daughter through that coming of age.  They say that you prefer whichever of the Gilmore girls you're closer to in age at the time you're watching the show, and that theory holds for me.  As a senior in college at the time of burning through the show last year, I found that Rory's stories resonated with me far greater than Lorelai's did.  (Being in college could also possibly be the explanation for why I'm so fond of the Yale years too.)  Many people find Rory to be a character who's increasingly difficult to like as the show goes on, but I found her arc as the golden child who slightly flounders before finding her way again to be incredibly moving.

Like many other network classics of its era -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, The X-Files -- Gilmore Girls is unwieldy and bloated in a way that its cable contemporaries aren't.  It had a couple of lesser seasons, and many fans argue that it could've ended sooner, but when it was operating at the peak of its powers, it was an undeniable classic.  Its top tier episodes stand up there with the best television of the previous decade, and in a period defined by violent, dark shows, its family-friendly small-town drama made it stand out among its peers.  With Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino didn't just construct a story for one-time viewing; she crafted an entire world to come back to again and again.

Gilmore Girls Week continues tomorrow at 8:00 AM EST with a piece on season four's "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais."


  1. Replies
    1. I've wanted to change the name for a while because even though "Things You Don't Care About" is a joke, it might make me seem unlikable to a stranger lol. But I'm bad at coming up with names for things, so I just kept it like that. Then I came up with the new title, which is a reference to a classic Gilmore Girls line, and decided to wait to change it until Gilmore Girls week.

      tl;dr: Yeah, I changed it.