Thursday, June 12, 2014

The top 10 episodes of Gilmore Girls

Over the course of its seven-season run, Gilmore Girls aired a total of 153 episodes.  Just that count alone would make it hard to narrow the show down to a list of the 10 best ones, but it's even more difficult given the level of consistency exhibited during the show's best seasons.  One of the greatest qualities of the show is that many of the episodes feel self-contained enough that, despite the serialized nature of the seasons, one could pick and choose episodes to revisit without feeling too lost on the story.  The show is the ultimate comfort food -- there's something about its blend of slow-moving plot and fast-paced dialogue that lulls you into a state of relaxation and makes you want to return to it over and over.

In my overview piece on Monday, I noted that the show had many different modes it operated in, and everybody's got their favorites.  Judging from my picks, my favorite episodes tend to be the dramatic ones, as most of them are heavy on conflict and feature a big emotional moment or two.  Some hardcore fans may be appalled by how many episodes from the show's later seasons I have on the list, but my choice can be explained by two reasons: 1. I like the Yale years much more than the majority of the Gilmore Girls community and 2. I tried to spread it out and represent every season.  (For the record, I have a very bizarre ranking of the seasons: 5, 4, 3, 1, 2, 6, 7.)  So I guess it's technically not a list of the best episodes.  For example, I really wanted to find a way to put something like "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist" in the top 10, because I really love that episode, but I felt like the list already featured enough season four material.  However, each of the choices on the list are certainly top tier episodes.

10 Honorable Mentions: "Forgiveness and Stuff" (season one, episode 10); "Love, Daisies and Troubadours" (season one, episode 21); "Like Mother, Like Daughter" (season two, episode seven); "The Big One" (season three, episode 16); "Those Are Strings, Pinocchio" (season three, episode 22); "Chicken or Beef?" (season four, episode four); "Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' the Twist" (season four, episode 17); "So...Good Talk" (season five, episode 16); "Always a Godmother, Never a God" (episode six, episode four); "Bon Voyage" (season seven, episode 22).

10. "Christopher Returns" (season one, episode 15)
Christopher was never a part of the show's regular cast, but he made appearances in every season except for the fourth, and his presence always brought about interesting stories.  It doesn't get much better than his first full episode, where he arrives to Stars Hollow on his motorcycle, much to everyone's surprise and bemusement.  In an instant, you come to fully understand his relationship with Lorelai and Rory -- he's a fun-loving and caring guy, but don't expect him to stick around for too long.  We get to meet his parents as well, when Richard and Emily plan a dinner to bring together the two families for the first time since Lorelai got pregnant with Rory. The way that everyone reverts back to their former selves so quickly, instantly unearthing past grudges and animosities, provides some electrifying scenes.  "Christopher Returns" is a great introduction to a character who always pops up at important moments during the series.

9. "Teach Me Tonight" (season two, episode 19)
In my piece yesterday about Rory's boyfriends, I talked about how I've never been a Team Jess guy, but I can definitely understand the people who enjoy him as a character.  With the gelled hair, army jackets, and sardonic remarks, this tiny little James Dean wannabee is a walking catalyst for drama.  He causes a ton of it in this episode, when Luke asks Rory to tutor him, and the two of them get into an accident while taking a break from the study session.  You don't get to see the actual car crash itself (in true Amy Sherman-Palladino fashion), but that doesn't even matter.  All you need to know is that Jess was behind the wheel and Rory was involved, and the drama unfolds itself.  "Teach Me Tonight" is all about cause and effect; the episode works like dominoes falling.  Lorelai goes ballistic when she finds out about the accident, which causes her to get into her first major fight with Luke, which then causes Luke to ship Jess back to live with his mother.  At this revelation, Miss Patty says, "Well, now what will we do for entertainment around here?," noting how little she can deny his powers as a storytelling device.  It's hard to disagree with her there.

8. "Dear Emily and Richard" (season three, episode 13)
Gilmore Girls always betrayed the common conventions of delving out information, preferring to employ a "tell, don't show" rule.  In the show's first two and a half seasons, the show emphasized this through Lorelai's relationship with her parents, Richard and Emily, whose backstory was felt through explanations of past events.  It's kind of crazy that the show held back on showing such a rich tale for so long, but they chose the perfect moment to depict the events that got everything started.  "Dear Emily and Richard" parallels the present day scenes of Sherri, Christopher's fiance, in labor with flashbacks of Lorelai discovering that she's pregnant and then giving birth to Rory.  The differences between the two timelines become instantly clear.  Sherri's friends may be too busy working to come to the hospital, but at least she knows she has a support system.  She's got friends, she's got parents, she's got Christopher.  Lorelai didn't have anything.  "Dear Emily and Richard" is one of the show's most bittersweet episodes.  It depicts a celebratory event -- the twin stories of a baby being born -- but highlights the way that everybody's lives can be irrevocably changed by one seismic event.

7. "The Bracebridge Dinner" (season two, episode 10)
In my first run through the show, I resisted "The Bracebridge Dinner."  Before I'd actually seen any episodes, I always heard Gilmore Girls fans cite it as one of the very best of the show's offerings.  So when I finally came to it, I expected something earth-shattering, and got an episode that I thought I was just okay.  Upon revisiting it, however, I was able to see its appeal.  What makes "The Bracebridge Dinner" such a special episode is that it's the kind that you can rewatch endlessly because it's so darn pleasant.  It's got a nice wintry vibe and tons of characters -- Stars Hollow natives and outsiders alike -- coming together and bouncing off of each other.  The tiny amount of conflict that does appear -- Lorelai being upset that Christopher wants Rory to stay with him for Christmas, Emily getting mad about Richard not telling her that he's decided to retire -- gets resolved less than 10 minutes after it comes up.  This is an episode about putting things aside for a small moment, and letting yourself bask in the simple joys that life can sometimes provide.  On a list full of dramatic, emotionally taxing episodes, "The Bracebridge Dinner" stands out as a relaxing oasis.

6. "Twenty-One Is the Loneliest Number" (season six, episode seven)
Season six moves a little bit slower than the preceding seasons, which sometimes hurt it, but occasionally helped the drama to simmer a little better as well.  The pace works for "Twenty-One Is the Loneliest Number," which centers around Rory's 21st birthday and brings her and Lorelai's separation arc to a climax.  At first, it just seems like a collection great scenes: the priest talking to Rory about maintaining her "purity" (perhaps the funniest Gilmore Girls scene of all time), Rory calling Luke to see if Lorelai's coming to the party, Sookie and Lorelai discussing sausages, the running joke of Luke not knowing what the DAR is, Richard realizing that they've lost Rory. But it all comes together in that penultimate scene between Lorelai and Rory that makes you realize the chasm of distance between them.  Even small talk, usually their strong suit, has become strained.  The symbolism of Rory being pulled into the wealthy Hartford crowd, away from Lorelai, is the episode's most devastating scene.  The two of them eventually making up was a foregone conclusion, but "Twenty-One Is the Loneliest Number" does a great job of wringing drama out of their estrangement nonetheless.

5. "Rory's Birthday Parties" (season one, episode six)
Rory's birthday -- her 16th -- factors into this one as well, which is the show's first truly great episode.  I've talked at length about the show's sense of history in my pieces this week, and "Rory's Birthday Parties" shows that they had a great handle on it pretty early on.  So many years of hurt and disappointment are conveyed through the interactions between Lorelai and Emily, as they butt heads over Rory's separate parties.  There's such nuance to a character like Emily.  She could easily be portrayed as brittle and harsh 100% of the time, but you can tell that she really does care about Lorelai (and Lorelai can be childish and impulsive sometimes).  "Rory's Birthday Parties" features some amazing acting from Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop, and plays off of an explosive dynamic that the show would return to frequently.

4. "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?" (season three, episode seven)
This is most people's favorite episode of Gilmore Girls, and with good reason.  It's the kind of episode to watch if you want everything the show has to offer: small-town quirk (an annual Stars Hollow dance competition), relationship drama (Dean breaking up with Rory), mother-daughter relationships (Lorelai forcing Rory to compete in the contest with her), laughs, tears, etc.  "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?" taps into the screwball sensibilities deeply ingrained into the show's DNA and turns it up to 11.  There are so many storylines dancing (pun noted) around throughout the episode, and it's a testament to Amy Sherman-Palladino's gifts as a writer that she's able to balance so many characters and plotlets weaving together without going off the rails.  But credit is also due to Kenny Ortega's direction, which infuses the bulk of the episode with a frantic, high energy feel.  He's also able to turn the pace on a dime, making an excellent transition from upbeat dancing to the zombie-like shuffle at the end of the night.  All of this leads to the devastating ending, with Rory crying in Lorelai's arms as the camera pans out.  It's one of the most iconic images of the series, so it's only fitting that it closes out one of the show's most iconic episodes.

3. "Wedding Bell Blues" (season five, episode 13)
As mentioned elsewhere, Gilmore Girls tends to skip over the big events -- weddings, babies, etc. -- but they go all out for Richard and Emily's renewal of their vows in the show's 100th episode.  (Even still, it cuts to commercial right before they exchange their vows.)  Amy Sherman-Palladino may be lauded for her writing prowess, but this episode, which she stepped behind the camera for, is magnificently directed.  Just look at all of the excellent technical choices: the roving camera dancing around the reception hall, the close-up shot of Luke as Christopher enters the church out of focus in the background, the perspective switching between characters by following a glance, the way Emily and Richard's solo dance keeps cutting to various relationships looking on, the swirling camera circling an incredibly long take of Rory and Logan dancing.  "Wedding Bell Blues" is an episode full of big moments, and it gets the grandiose treatment it deserves.

2. "Raincoats and Recipes" (season four, episode 22) / "Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller" (season five, episode one)
Technically, this is a cheat because it's not a top 11 list, but these two episodes work so well together that it's hard to separate them.  Gilmore Girls, for its first three seasons, structured their finales around the similar emotions that Rory and Lorelai feel, almost as if by telepathy.  Season one's finale found them both happy because of good news in their love lives, season two's had them both sad because of unexpected events altering their plans, and season three's depicted them both happy about Rory's graduation from Chilton.  Perhaps indicative of the growing distance between them, season four upends that format, by having a big moment happen to Lorelai -- finally kissing Luke -- only for her to discover that Rory has slept with a married Dean.  The later seasons of the show were characterized by big conflicts between Rory and Lorelai, but "Raincoats and Recipes" was the first instance, and their long, drawn-out altercation is the possibly the most affecting scene of the series.   It would've been easy for the show to backpedal and open season five with a quick resolution, but what makes "Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller" so ballsy is that it doesn't do that.  Instead, it logically plays out that conflict, which lasts for a few episodes.  Together, these episodes are some of the most exciting, daring stuff that Gilmore Girls would ever attempt.

1. "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" (season four, episode 14)
"The Incredible Sinking Lorelais" is a stressful episode of television.  It shows Rory and Lorelai dealing with separate problems and stripping them of the biggest cushion they have: each other.  As an audience we take on the stresses and anxieties of the two protagonists while watching.  The livewire energy begins to feel intense and claustrophobic.  Characters pop in and out of frame like there's Benny Hill music playing in the background.  The editing rapidly cuts from speaker to speaker.  Every time Rory and Lorelai pick up the phone and it's not who they expect, it just adds another stressor.  By the time the ending comes around, showing Rory and Lorelai both having breakdowns in the arms of men, we're ready to cry too.  "The Incredible Shrinking Lorelais" brilliantly takes the show's signature elements and turns them into something enervating and uneasy.  For more on this episode, check out this piece from earlier in the week.

Gilmore Girls Week ends tomorrow at 8:00 AM EST with a piece comparing the show with Amy Sherman-Palladino's most recent show, Bunheads.  The series kicked off on Monday with an overview of the entire show, followed by Tuesday's essay on season four's "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," and Wednesday's look into Rory Gilmore's dating history.

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