The Return of Gilmore Girls

Despite the rocky start, it feels so good to be back in Stars Hollow.

Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s banter is profligate. The creator of Gilmore Girls writes dialogue that winds and meanders from tangent to pop culture joke to pun, the speech flying fast, the meaning coming slow, simultaneously a sprint and a dawdle. Unlike most scripted language, it is not economical. It does not further plot or what we already know about a character. Instead, it creates a rhythm. The only reason the chatter is bearable is because it always come paired, eventually, with silence. Sherman-Palladino’s characters talk like their privacy depends on it. Who needs the silent treatment when a wall of sound is even more effective at keeping others out?

Gilmore Girls returns to Netflix this Thanksgiving weekend after a nine-year hiatus. Everyone still talks a lot. The show, which aired for seven seasons on the WB-turned-CW, followed the adventures of the eponymous Gilmores, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), a woman who broke with her WASP family to have a baby when she was 16, and that baby, Rory (Alexis Bledel), herself 16 at the time the show began. Sherman-Palladino was not involved in the series’ seventh and final (and perfectly serviceable) season, a dismissal that always left the impression, fomented by Sherman-Palladino, that the series had been improperly finished. (Sherman-Palladino, for example, said she knew the exact words the series would end on and was denied the chance to use them, until now, at which point they are pretty well past their sell-by date.) Netflix and the reboot industry in general have revived series for lesser reasons than this, so nearly a decade after it ended, Gilmore Girls is back, with four 90-ish-minute installments, each taking place during one of the seasons of a calendar year.

I don’t know how your reunion with the Gilmores will go, but mine got off to a rocky start. Having spent so many years apart, I was not quite prepared for the flood of stagey language that Lorelai and Rory unleash upon each other in the opening scene, which takes place in their beloved back lot of a town, Stars Hollow, allegedly a dreamy American village but, as far as I can tell, still your basic nightmare. Yes, it’s a thriving, safe, small town where everyone is gainfully employed and civically involved, but it expects its residents to spend half their lives in town meetings and the other half being harangued by irritating, very white people with reams of inane dialogue to unload, all while forcing taxpayers to volunteer at yet another extravagant town festival. Contrary to the girls’ self-assessment of their opening barrage of mannered quipping—it “felt good”—their first conversation sounded to me like a herd of self-satisfied tap dancers running to catch a train. It gets better. As I said, Gilmore Girls is a rhythm, and it doesn’t really sing until there’s some syncopation. That comes in the form of grief.

Despite the passage of time, Lorelai and Rory are basically exactly where we left them, which is worse news for the flailing Rory than the settled Lorelai. (Rory’s storyline in particular pays no heed to time, space, or finances: She’s broke but commuting back and forth from London every few hours.) But two years ago, Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Lorelai’s father, Richard, died, and his death has been written into the show. The ramifications of his death drive all of the substantive storylines in the new episodes, storylines that mostly make up for all the obligatory reunion doohickies—endless, pointless cameos; the kitschy, cutesy antics of Stars Hollow, the most irritating faux–small town in all of fictional America; and Rory’s new boyfriend, Paul, who no one, including the audience, can be bothered to remember. Richard’s death has particular consequences on Lorelai’s relationship with her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), long-since a major character and a Gilmore to boot, though not one you would ever consider describing as a “girl.” Lorelai and Emily end up in therapy—they both refuse to talk, of course—giving the show an occasion to further explore its most dynamic mother-daughter relationship.

Describing Lorelai and Emily this way is sacrilegious. Gilmore Girls is supposed to be Lorelai and Rory’s show. But on TV, casting is destiny: It’s always been Lorelai’s. I mean this as no particular insult, but Bledel has never been able to keep up with Graham—few could. Lorelei talks and mugs, and Rory tries her best to stay apace, but mostly she commands interest with her romances. (All Rory’s suitors are present and accounted for, with Jess packing some extra biceps for good measure.) Rather than undoing the show, this imbalance has always given it an inadvertent psychological depth. The show is written as though its central question is: What is it like to raise a daughter as your friend and yet keep her from making all the same mistakes you made? In this version of Gilmore Girls, the one taking place on paper, Rory is a bright, spirited chatterbox who would be remarkably similar to her own mother except that, in having said mother, she has no one to rebel against and so becomes much more gentle, genteel, and accomplished. But given the charisma imbalance between its stars, the show’s central question plays like: What would it be like to be raised by a loving woman who is so much more than you?

In structure, Gilmore Girls is very close to being a maternal melodrama, about the larger-than-life mom who sucks up all the oxygen from her thoughtful, smart, beautiful but shy child, who does what any quiet, watchful type would do and becomes a writer, keen to cannibalize her mother’s personality for fiction. But that’s not Gilmore Girls. On Gilmore Girls, Lorelai’s not an oxygen-sucker; she’s the best. She and Rory have forged a nurturing and loving bond, punctuated by the occasional bout of painful estrangement. Mother and daughter are BFF and have no boundaries, but somehow that hasn’t screwed Rory up. The one thing keeping this relationship from being too sappy, too perfect, is the unacknowledged pizzazz disparity, a disparity that suggests that one day—perhaps in some reunion special 20 years hence—Rory and Lorelai might too need to avail themselves of a mental health professional’s couch.

Good mothers act like mothers, not best friends, but this is not the presiding sentiment of Gilmore Girls, which is governed by Sherman-Palladino’s authentically weird taste. Gilmore Girls is an argument in support of that taste. The show champions not only boundaryless mother-daughter relationships, but fast-talking dames mating with taciturn men, loud hats, well-made bad musicals, and hellaciously civic-minded American towns. I’m not objectively convinced of the virtues of any of these things, but when Gilmore Girls is working its magic, it can be pretty persuasive.