These people live in a universe where they feel entitled to get what they want when they want it and they don’t care who’s in their way. I hate that world. Vapid. Selfish.
— Lorelai (Lauren Graham), “Wedding Bell Blues”
Five years ago, Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched the WB a show about a single mom and daughter so close in age that they’re more like best friends than parent and child. This week, the series — Gilmore Girls — turns 100 episodes old with “Wedding Bell Blues,” an hour brimming with evidence that Girls is not the show it started out to be. It’s a generation deeper, and much better.
While the WB promo department still privileges the dramedy’s stunning, younger-skewing mom and daughter — 30something Lorelai (Lauren Graham, proving week after week that there’s nothing she can’t do) and Yale sophomore Rory (Alexis Bledel) — loyal viewers know better. It’s the fireworks between Lorelai and her critical, blueblood mother (Kelly Bishop) that have kept the series crackling.
Obstinate from birth, Lorelai suffered a childhood of propriety and frilly party dresses in WASP-infested Hartford, Connecticut. At 14, she kissed Christopher (David Sutcliffe) in the parking lot of the A&P just because she “wanted to know what it would be like.” By 16, she was pregnant with his child. Both sets of parents wanted the teens to marry — Christopher would support the new family by joining his dad’s firm — and Chris was ready to do as he was told. Lorelai wasn’t. She set off alone with her newborn namesake (nicknamed Rory), eventually settling in nearby Stars Hollow, a town even more quaint than its name suggests.
Aside from the occasional holiday, she didn’t really let her parents into Rory’s life until the pilot, when Sherman-Palladino supplied grandmother Emily with the collateral to demand it. Technically, Lorelai had succeeded on her own terms, rising from maid to general manager of the Independence Inn, but when Rory was accepted to private Chilton Academy, Lorelai couldn’t pay the tuition up front. Borrowing from Emily incurred a stipulation: Lorelai and Rory would join them for dinner every Friday night, so she and Richard (Edward Herrmann) could finally get to know their granddaughter. Those dinners have sharpened the series’ focus. With three generations in the mix, Gilmore Girls captures the myriad ways strong-willed women hurt each other, and themselves, in the name of getting or finding out what they want.
Though the younger Gilmores’ almost-sisterly bond might seem the result of the small gap in their ages, Lorelai also works overtime to keep her relationship with Rory a full 180 degrees different from hers with Emily. That closeness only produces different problems. In last season’s earth-scorching finale, Lorelai was forced to dust off the mom card, cross-examining her daughter for bad judgment after Rory lost her virginity to a married ex-boyfriend (Jared Padalecki). But the resulting pain of being shut out of her daughter’s interior life was too much. When Dean’s wife dumped him and he started dating Rory again in earnest, Lorelai bent over backwards to be cool with it, no matter how wrong-headed she found their romance.
Tellingly, neither Rory nor Emily has such qualms about meddling in Lorelai’s affairs. Much to longtime fans’ delight, this season Lorelai finally began dating Luke (Scott Patterson), the gruff diner owner she’s been leaning on and bantering with for years. Anxious to see the pair happy, Rory ordered her dad to stay out of their way. Emily instructed him to do the opposite. While she is hardly Christopher’s biggest fan (“You were… a weak, but charming boy”), she finds his “good breeding” and “impeccable family” far preferable to Luke:
He’s uneducated, he’s not a proper stepfather for Rory, and he’s completely unsuitable for Lorelai. My daughter’s stubborn, but she’s capable of greatness. And watching her settle down with a man who could hold her back from that is unacceptable. You at least won’t hold her back.
Next to mother-daughter dynamics, class conflict — or more often, class stereotype — is the series’ most prevalent theme. Where Emily likes that Christopher is ‘one of them,’ Lorelai views him affectionately as a fellow soldier: both fought their way out of the blueblood trenches of their parents’ world. Only Rory’s fate remains undetermined. Were 16 years of humble but happy living enough to inoculate her against the breezy swagger of the entitled rich?
Sherman-Palladino only occasionally presents this as a serious question. Her roots are in comedy (like Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon, she once wrote for Roseanne), and mostly she’s content to mine the screwball tendencies in all her characters for laughs. While Dawson’s Creek came with a whiff of Kevin Williamson’s autobiography and My So-Called Life felt like emotional documentary, quirky Stars Hollow and self-important Hartford are no more or less grounded in reality than the undead Whedon-verse. Gilmore Girls is a stylized farce grounded by moments of pathos and high drama.
And I do mean moments. Sherman-Palladino never tires of Stars Hollow’s historical reenactments or jokes about her heroines’ caffeine and junk food consumption, but she’s downright parsimonious with the big confrontations and swoonworthy romance (which ought not be in short supply, given that seemingly every other man falls for a Gilmore girl and never recovers). For every long-awaited scene (Luke and Lorelai’s first kiss) bestowed on viewers, three or four others (like Rory learning about that kiss and exploring the ramifications of a longtime surrogate family member becoming Mom’s boyfriend) happen off-screen.
According to this oddball rhythm, Gilmore Girls is due for a big episode, and “Wedding Bell Blues” delivers. The elder Gilmores are celebrating their 40th anniversary (and week-old reconciliation) with a renewal of vows, and their lavish (but tasteful!) bash offers Sherman-Palladino the opportunity to illustrate both how far her characters have come and how far they have to go.
A book-smart late bloomer, Rory is still trying out personalities in her struggle to find a style that works for her. Often, she mimics her vivacious, outspoken mother, as when Christopher waxes nostalgic about his first kiss with Lorelai. “Did you like it that she kissed you first?” she asks, wheels clearly turning. “Who could not like being kissed by a Gilmore girl?” he replies. “It was the greatest day of my life.”
So informed, she marches back to the reception to pursue — with endearingly shaky confidence — rich, smarmy Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry), who’s a shoo-in for her grandparents’ vote but the last guy her mom would choose for her. Lorelai raised Rory to see through the gauzy trappings of her parents’ world, but she’s realizing that she failed to take into account every daughter’s need to learn her own lessons and make her own mistakes (something Emily could tell her all about).
After countless fits and restarts, Emily and her daughter have achieved a kind of mutual acceptance — or so Lorelai thinks. Seconds after indulging reflex by disparaging her daughter’s hair, Emily apologizes. She’s just nervous about the ceremony, and so relieved to have Richard back after their estrangement. “It’s a wonderful thing to have a husband, a partner, someone who’s always there. Oh Lorelai, don’t you think you’ll ever want to be married?” “Actually,” Lorelai confesses. “I do.” It’s a lovely moment of connection, but it can’t last. As far as Emily’s concerned, the wrong man put that dreamy sparkle in her daughter’s eyes.
She intends for Christopher to win Lorelai back from Luke — a truth revealed in explosive fashion at the close of Episode 100. Lorelai’s suitors move from arguing over their roles in Rory’s life (Luke: “Where the hell were you when she got the chicken pox and would only eat mashed potatoes for a week?”) to their claims on her mom (Chris: “Lorelai and I belong together. Everyone knows it. I know it. Emily knows it.”), and the result is a rupture in Lorelai’s two most precarious relationships: with Luke and Emily. One of these she’ll do her best to mend, but the other Lorelai may have relinquished for good. Evolution — romantic and familial — might take years on Gilmore Girls, but, as in life, a few painful seconds are all it takes to dash that progress all to hell.