The decline and fall of the Gilmore girls

The new Gilmore Girls isn't a fairytale. Good.

Gilmore Girls has always been a difficult show in disguise. Despite its aggressive lightness of tone — the small-town kookery, troubadours, and motor-mouthed repartee — the series revolved around three generations of smart, deeply flawed women whose baggage was heavy indeed. They are all three "difficult women": Ambitious and driven, but also selfish, stubborn, and myopic. Viewers weren't quite ready for that in 2000, so the show came drenched in comforting hints that we shouldn't worry, that this was all just a charming, lovely insubstantial bit of romantic fluff. There are fall leaves, winter coats, and look! Two beautiful women prattling prettily about pop culture and marriage and distributing a thousand daisies to their small town peers! Heartwarming. (Never mind the undercurrent of crippling doubt, anxiety, and Grey Gardens.)

The show's notorious hyper-referentiality and stylistic excess wasn't only there to camouflage some brutal emotional sparring (and financial coercion — this show deals with the economics of love more intelligently than most). Pleasure matters in this series, and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino loves spectacle and the absurd. But what made Gilmore Girls a particularly brilliant pop culture artifact was the way it folded that frivolity into its deeper dramatic project. Its soft-focus whimsy doubled as an expression of single mother Lorelai Gilmore's longstanding rejection of her parents' upper-class reserve. Camp and kitsch were her weapons. Excess, impracticality, and questionable taste became, for Lorelai, a kind of politics of resistance against the Gilmores as an institution.

Those were the terms of the original series.

But in the show's recently released Netflix "revival," Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, that institution has collapsed. So has Lorelai's resistance. Her father, Richard (Ed Herrman), has died, and his absence throws the family's usual chess moves and counter-moves into disarray, even irrelevance. With nothing to rebel against, the Gilmore girls are in serious — not whimsical — freefall.

To put it bluntly, the revival is grim. Rightly and rewardingly so. The world is a different place eight years after the 2008 financial crash (and ensuing recession) than it was when the series began. The Gilmores believed in a very particular kind of meritocratic future: Work hard, go to the best schools, and get a great job as a reporter. The series ended with Rory, the youngest Gilmore (played by Alexis Bledel), rejecting her rich boyfriend Logan's proposal and accepting an offer to report on Barack Obama's presidential campaign. All signs pointed toward integrity and independence and a better future.

A decade later, journalism has spat Rory out. She's floundering, freelancing, and failing to rise above her peers in a generation so seriously underemployed that Stars Hollow has its own "30-Something Club" back home living with their parents. Whatever ideals Rory once had are warped beyond recognition: We never see her reading books or making lists. She's burned out and underprepared at interviews. She sleeps with a source and falls asleep while interviewing another one. Not only did her high-minded rejection of Logan not stick, she's lost whatever moral standing she claimed when she lambasted him for cheating. She's now his embarrassed sidepiece as he prepares to marry someone else, and cheating on her own boyfriend in the process. Guilt? What guilt? The girl who used to agonize over keeping a library book past its due date seems to have no moral qualms at all.

We've seen Bad Decisions Rory before, but this is an especially degraded, almost unrecognizable version of the character with whom we began the series. Still, some important things do track enough to make this arc believable.

Take the tap dancing. Rory and Lorelai have always been high-effort, high-maintenance people. They talk fast, work hard, and play hard. Their mythical metabolisms shed calories through sheer force of will. In the original series, that nervous energy was always in the service of something: The Franklin, the Yale Daily News, town events, even the Daughters of the American Revolution. Now, it's just leaching out: Rory can't sleep, so she tap dances. Badly. (At children, sometimes!) She's performing her okayness. She's doing great. She's doing great.

When Rory says she smells like failure, she's right: Even her first ex-boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki), now a father expecting his fourth, seems taken aback. Their amicable reunion ends awkwardly: He has no response when she tells him how much he meant to her, and when he walks away, there is no hug. No one is excited to have Rory write about them — not even Naomi Shropshire — and nowhere is Rory's selfishness more evident than when she guilt-trips Lorelai, who doesn't want to be written about, for not cheering on Rory's project of a book about the two of them. "Give me this," she says, as if Lorelai hasn't already given her everything. And as if she couldn't have predicted that Lorelai, a woman so obsessed with crafting her own story on her own terms that she left home at 16, would recoil at the idea.

As for Lorelai, the life she built around community and togetherness is now structured by voids. The Dragonfly Inn was her project with her best friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy). Sookie is gone. Rory is hardly ever there. Michel (Yanic Truesdale) is leaving. The Dragonfly has no space to grow. Her relationship with Luke (Scott Patterson) has stagnated. Richard is dead, and Lorelai's core identity, the witty rebel who lashes out, finds no purchase when she subconsciously claws at her bereaved mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop). This is a gregarious woman with endless drive and nothing to drive toward or against. Even her capacity for whimsy is hamstrung — the Lorelai of the original series would have adored the Stars Hollow musical. All this one does is take notes.

The revival is, in short, neither heartwarming nor uplifting. But that's not as radical a departure from the original series as it might seem; it's just a much less camouflaged version of the difficult show Gilmore Girls always was. Its emotional logic remains deadly accurate, even if it's less cathartic and more brutal.

Gilmore Girls started at a time when female audiences were pretty starved for Bechdel-compatible stories that had more than one significant female role. Gilmore Girls arrived on the scene positively drenched in femininity. Not only was it a three-generation mother-daughter story, it was a woman-heavy story whose opening sequence was unapologetically, even cloyingly femme: all soft-focus and Carole King and small-town charm. Its sugary intro seemed almost provocatively sincere in its desire not to court the young male demographic every other network was fighting over.

A side effect of that ultra-feminine packaging is that many people mistook the series for an uncomplicated You Go, Girl! endorsement of everything its protagonists did. The Gilmores did not always do the right thing, and people love to argue over whether the women in Gilmore Girls — Rory and Lorelai especiallyare likable or terrible people. (I'd argue that, like most interesting characters on television, they're both — and that we tend to demand "likability" more stringently of female characters, and define it in ways that blur into uninteresting "Is she nice enough?" tests.) Some fans were smitten with Lorelai's quick wit, generosity of spirit, and stubborn resolve in the original series; some saw themselves in Rory, a bookish and serious non-nerd at a time when there weren't many on TV. Some critics argued that Lorelai was insufferable, impulsive, self-centered, and rude, and that Rory (whom everyone in Stars Hollow seemed to regard as an angelic genius) was worse than spoiled.

Everyone is right. I've come to think of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino as a principled maximalist. That's not always a good quality — A Year in the Life is shaggy and I'd have happily traded the musical, the Life and Death Brigade, and some of the Wild bits for extra time with Lane — but it also means she goes to extraordinary lengths to portray the good along with the bad. Take, as one example, that Life and Death Brigade sequence. If, like me, you were disgusted to see Rory hanging out with those guys again, especially now that they're in their 30s, you also couldn't deny that the night they planned looked irritatingly magical.

This is what Gilmore Girls has always done well: If it fully and even seductively portrays the rich boys as witty, debonair, and even thoughtful, they're also total assholes — and the show is unstinting in its portrayal of that too. We see them be kind to Rory and we see them break into Doose's market and literally throw money around for some poor schmuck to gather and pick up in the morning. One buys a club just so he can blast Rosemary Clooney at the incredible tango dancers who are there to, you know, dance tango. In case you missed the ugliness there because you like Rosemary Clooney, he talks about how great it is to have stupid amounts of money. As a viewer, you are forced to understand that their fun (and Rory's, and yours, to the extent that you enjoy watching their shenanigans) has an ethical price tag, and it isn't pretty.

The show takes that same approach to the Gilmores themselves. They do and say awful things and terrific things, sometimes both at once.

Take Emily's plan to look at possible locations for other Luke's diners. Emily is acting out of love there. She is doing Richard's bidding. She is trying to take care of Lorelai. She is trying to embrace Luke. She might even have a point: Luke does lack vision and drive and probably could do with a bit of direction. But she is also callous and even cruel; when she gleefully gossips with the agent about the current owner's financial straits right in front of him, Luke apologizes, over and over — that could be him being railroaded, and he knows it.

For all that Gilmore Girls looked like a sentimental confection, it's always been more clear-eyed and curious about the human condition than disciplined in its moral messaging. That was and is what makes it good. It wasn't the rose-colored fairytale the credits made it out to be, nor was it particularly worried about making the girls unlikable for long stretches, or "fixing" them. Quite the contrary: You could argue that the series actively resisted some correctives plenty of fans were rooting for — some wanted Lorelai to "develop" and outgrow her issues with men and resented her lack of progress. Lorelai just kept making the same mistakes.

That's arguably what the show gets right: People don't change that much. They don't grow that much. Family stories are almost always more about repetitions than resolutions.

The real sadness haunting the revival is that those repetitions aren't available anymore. Rory's walk through the empty Gilmore mansion was a moving meditation on that loss: The Friday night dinners that structured so much of the series are a thing of the past. The institutions around and against which all three women built their identities are crumbling. Emily has left the Daughters of the American Revolution, for God's sake.

The pain and beauty of the revival is that the strife — the fight to connect that structured the show — is now behind them. The new roads they're forging won't bring them closer. Lorelai's acceptance of Rory's project is contingent on her not reading the manuscript. Emily's new life will have less of Lorelai in it — a point made brutally clear as the camera cuts back and forth between Lorelai's wedding and Emily's quiet night in Nantucket. Rory's new path will be lonely and fraught. The good news is that all three Gilmore girls will be energized going forward.

That their lives will be pointing in different directions is difficult and painful, but there's also some beauty in it. And it feels true.


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