TV Rewind: The Sneaky Sophistication of Gilmore Girls
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For a person unusually prone to being moved by the romantic charms of New England, it’s surprising how much I resisted Gilmore Girls at first. A close friend who is a fan of the show kept telling me I would like it if I just gave it a chance. I was mostly aware of the Gilmores in the deep recesses of my memory; I was just a kid when it was on, and sometimes my mom would watch episodes in the afternoons, and I would sit next to her, not unlike the way Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel) would sometimes mindlessly play a movie that somehow reminded them of themselves. As an adult with access to a Netflix account, one day I had a cold, and lying on the couch I played the first episode. And the next, and the next, and the next. I’d resisted the show because I had certain preconceptions that something worth watching should announce itself as such: the cutesy vibes tricked me, and the show’s reputation as something “for girls who like reading” was insulting in the way that kind of generalization is. But this was before I realized this is exactly what Gilmore Girls is: a show for girls who like reading, in the most unassuming sense.
Charm, like cuteness, can wear off, but Gilmore Girls thrives on it for seven straight seasons. There is the charm of Stars Hollow, a fictional Connecticut small town populated by good-natured neighbors whose faults are comically irritating; of a diner whose owner knows the name of every local customer; of a place where property is accessible and you can walk everywhere. Equally as important, there is the charm of the Gilmores: their intelligence and wit, their dreamy blue eyes, the inimitable way Lorelai wears leather knee-high boots with skirts. Stars Hollow matters as the background to all of this because the Gilmores are at once a product of and pergents from their milieu: at once girl-next-door and girl-extraordinaire, a mash-up of the fantasy of a woman and her incontestable reality. They’re aware of the way they embody fantasy and they’re loud about their quirks; they’re also as loud about their persion as they are about their attachment to the environment from which they’re supposed to be fleeing. The Gilmore version of following in your mother’s footsteps is to rebel benevolently: to leave Hartford for Stars Hollow, a few (crucial) miles away; to trade Harvard’s Cambridge for Yale’s Connecticut; to drop out of Yale and then re-enroll; to be the one woman in your local D.A.R group with a pregnant teen daughter who you will criticize as fiercely as you will protect her. This, too, has its charms: the Gilmores are ever unable to leave the place where they’re the most attractive outsiders.
These contradictions are fundamental to the Gilmores and to the structure of their dynamics. The superficial sheen of the cute and quirky belie a nuanced understanding of character, as well as an unrelenting attention to spirit. The show takes a real interest in these women, whose ambiguity is the kind you see written into prestige television. There is a way in which Gilmore Girls reminds me of a much more critically acclaimed show about the successes and failures of womanhood and its bonds; much like Lena Dunham’s Girls, the mistakes, stubbornness and self-involvement of the Gilmores can be maddening in its reality and the way we see ourselves in them.
The show has sympathy for its characters, but is unwilling to let them off the hook; and this is where the sneaky sophistication of Gilmore Girls rears its head. It refuses to appease the audience’s expectations, holding on to a firmer commitment to character than to appeal. Rory and Lorelai screw up often and intensely: they sleep with the wrong men, crash cars and steal boats, are mean to themselves and to each other, and get into stupid fights which they are too stubborn to resolve (Season 6 is a particularly stressful experience for an involved spectator). The season presents the show with numerous opportunities for sappy, easy resolutions, but it doesn’t take any of them. When Rory turns 21 (“Twenty-One is the Loneliest Number”), I thought it was an opportunity, surely, for mother and daughter to make up after a months-long fight: the idiosyncratic, highly-specific plans they had for the occasion would have made for pure Gilmore gold. I watched with a broken heart but a tinge of delight when it wasn’t that easy, because their stubbornness was Gilmore gold, too. Even at their lowest points you recognize the Gilmore women for who they are: like mother, like daughter.
If the show’s commitment to the Gilmore spirit is one pillar of what makes the characters so appealing, then it is their spitfire, quirky way of talking that gives them a reputation. Lorelai is known all over Connecticut for the speed with which she can come up with a quip. It may be annoying to some, but it is a crucial tenet of the show. I kept being surprised, over and over again, with characters’ repertoire, and the way in which their references seemed not tacked onto their lines but emergent of a lifetime of movie-watching and novel-reading. In one episode (Season 4, “Die, Jerk”), Lorelai compares a bizarro performance to Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film The Brown Bunny; Rory’s immersive coverage of the secret collegiate society “Life and Death Brigade” for the Yale Daily News in Season 5 is reminiscent of George Plimpton’s methods. It’s unlikely that an early-aughts, young CW audience would have known Gallo’s work, or even Plimpton’s—and it’s this literacy that makes the Gilmores’ wit so credible. After all, the references aren’t for the audience: they’re for Lorelai and Rory. They speak in a private and internal lexicon filled with self-referentiality and the repertoire of people who would actually be into what they’re into, rather than a forced fake intelligence that doesn’t cut deeper than the surface. In one episode (Season 5, “Norman Mailer, I’m pregnant!”), Norman Mailer is a patron of the restaurant in Lorelai’s inn. I found it amusing that Norman Mailer would agree to be on the show, and looking it up afterwards found that he said, to New York Magazine, “I almost never watch sitcoms; I really have a prejudice against them. But for some reason I find Gilmore Girls kind of agreeable.” Then he compared his daughter to Lorelai and called them both “beautiful hummingbirds.”
Gilmore Girls has enjoyed a period of rediscovery since being acquired by Netflix in 2014 and going through a four-episode revival in 2016 titled Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life, which misses much of the rhythm of the original iteration and reaches awkwardly for contemporary resonance. The revival did, however, rank third that year among Netflix’s most popular productions, and the original series enjoys a steady spot in the streaming service’s “Trending Now” bar 22 years after it premiered. The reason it endures is that, like any great piece of fiction, its commitment is to character and spirit. Contemporary television is disproportionately preoccupied with shock value: audiences are obsessed with scammers, fraudsters, dirty schemes and gore, and less interested in the humanity of the ordinary. Gilmore Girls, by comparison, is so cozy. It sails smoothly in the romantic ideal of Stars Hollow and its residents, of cute Rory and beautiful Lorelai, even of a coffee addiction that comes without the jitters. Still, it’s cozy in the way an elegant, timeless cashmere sweater is: both construction and material are sophisticated enough to last a long, long time.
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Rafaela Bassili is a critic living in New York.
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