There’s a particular pleasure found in watching serialized television; characters grow and develop, the ongoing story is like a novel in visual form. A good series reveals the seeds within its protagonists and antagonists, we watch who them grow, their eventual fates arise naturally from a confluence of plot and characterization.
Gilmore Girls is one such series. The story—a single mom, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) whom, upon getting pregnant at 16, left behind her upscale Hartford society life to raise her daughter without interference—starts when that daughter, also Lorelai, but called Rory (Alexis Bledel), is now the same age as her mother was when Rory was born, and she’s just been accepted to prep school. Lorelai must swallow her pride and resentment and ask her parents for financial help.
The rest of the series follows mother and daughter (and grandparents) as they navigate family, friendship, romantic, and professional relationships, ending with Rory’s graduation from Yale and the start of her journalism career. By the end of the series, Rory has decided to strike out on her own, without parental supervision or romantic entanglements, and Lorelai has come to an understanding with both her on-again/off-again significant other, Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), and her parents, Richard (Edward Herrmann) and Emily (Kelly Bishop) Gilmore. Indeed, one of the last things Rory says to her mother is “You’ve given me everything I need,” a nicely touching moment that also serves as an endorsement for differences in Rory’s upbringing (middle class, working parent, close and understanding relationship) versus Lorelai’s (upper class and socially and emotionally restrictive).
The final season of the original series, however, was plagued by production-side issues, particularly a breakdown in contract negotiations between series creator and showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and the CW network, which resulted in both Sherman-Palladino and her husband and co-showrunner Daniel leaving the series after the sixth season. Given that the narrative and much of the writing of the series had been developed by the Palladinos—as well as the messy storylines that characterized season six (introducing a secret love child of Luke’s, or Lorelai giving Luke an ultimatum, then showing up at Rory’s father’s door in the final scene of the season)—meant that the series’ final season was operating with serious deficits. The signature writing style that characterized the Palladino era was notably absent, and much of the season was taken up with the series painting itself out of the plot and character corners in which the Palladinos had left it. That Sherman-Palladino had frequently claimed to have written the final six words of the series at the time as she’d written the pilot was an enduring mystery that seemed destined never to be solved with their departure.
Enter Netflix, which agreed to revive the series on its platform, in four 90-minute episodes now known as Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Revisiting the characters ten years after the final season, the series was structured so that each episode covered a single season: “Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer”, and “Fall”. Finally, viewers would be privy to those elusive final six words — with the added bonus of escapism from a contentious and ugly presidential election in the real world — into a quirky small town with equally quirky characters
Maybe it was the 2016 US Presidential election itself, or the death of Edward Herrmann, whose nuanced performance as the Gilmore family patriarch and strong advocate for revisiting the series made his absence hard to take and cast a pall over the series. Maybe it was the fact that both the showrunners and actors claimed to either have not watched or not recalled the seventh season. Perhaps, however, it was the fact that, with one notable exception, the intervening decade hadn’t resulted in the significant character growth suggested in the final season. Luke and Lorelai may be living together, but they still neglect to discuss important things — like whether they’d like to have children or get married. Rory, who ended the original series with a low-paying job with good potential (following Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign), is reimagined as a trust fund kid flitting between New York, London, and Stars Hollow with few writing credits, and fewer life skills, all while cheating on her forgettable current boyfriend with her now-engaged college fling, Logan (Matt Czurchy).
Indeed, it’s the millennial generation in the series that suffers the most due to the revival’s self-induced amnesia regarding the final season: Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena), who wanted nothing more than to have her own band and escape the life her mother had planned, limits herself to local gigs while working with her mom in the family antique shop. Paris (Liza Weil), who was Rory’s friend and rival throughout high school and college, ended the original series on a wave of success: finally getting into Harvard, with boyfriend Doyle (Danny Strong) happy to support whatever choice she made. Riffing on Strong’s own success as a writer in Hollywood, the revival finds the two in the midst of a contentious divorce driven by Doyle’s success, with Paris having a meltdown when she runs into a high school crush. Logan, who impressed Lorelai by defying his parents’ plans for him—both professional and romantic—works for his father and is marrying the partner they’ve chosen for him. Even Luke’s daughter April (Vanessa Marano), an inventive and scientifically minded teenager, has been transformed into a pot-smoking hippie.
Rory, however, is the prime example of what appears to be the Palladinos’ generational animus. The driven, bookish Rory of the original series is nowhere to be seen in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Revival Rory has no fixed address, repeats the relationship mistakes of her teen years by cheating on her boyfriend, relies on Logan’s connections to get a sit down with Conde Naste—an opportunity she wastes—and implodes during an interview for another writing job she obviously expected to be hers.
It’s the aforementioned final six words, however, that are the most disturbing part of the revival, particularly for what they suggest about the Palladinos’ planned arc for the series. Sitting with her mother in the Stars Hollow town square, the newly single Rory reveals she’s pregnant. While getting pregnant at 32 is preferable to getting pregnant at 16, or 22, if that was the plan all along, there’s a deeper problem at work. Having Rory’s arc mirror her mother’s suggests that single mothers raise daughters who also become single parents, despite being given numerous financial and professional opportunities. (Even fantasy series such as Buffy didn’t hit the “destiny” button this hard.) In the world of Gilmore Girls, there’s no transcending one’s upbringing: Lane never escapes, Logan never defies, and Rory never succeeds. For a bright, witty, and colorful series such as Gilmore Girls, it’s a dark and depressing message.
That being said, there are some great moments within the series. Emily’s character arc, in which she comes to terms both with Richard’s death and what kind of life she actually wants, is masterfully done. The final episode, “Fall”, offers many such moments, particularly Emily calling her society friends on their, to use her word, “bullshit”, then selling the family mansion to settle instead into a small house in Nantucket; a house she opens up to those she spent dismissing throughout the original series. Lorelai’s call to her mother to share her best memory of her father is moving and long overdue, as were Luke and Lorelai’s fairytale-themed nuptials. Rory’s conversation with her father Christopher (David Sutcliffe), who shares enough personality traits with Logan to make both relationships a bit queasy to watch, is a well-written and subtle scene whose true resonance isn’t clear until the end of the series.
It’s possible that these four episodes don’t represent the end of the Gilmore universe; there has been some talk of a second season on either Netflix or Amazon (Amazon is producing the Palladinos’ new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal). Despite my disappointment in the stagnated character growth—or lack thereof—a second season of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life offers numerous thematic and narrative elements worth exploring. With any luck, it would leave the Gilmores in a better place.
Sadly, while the DVD offers a good transfer, it’s also a bare-bones release. There are no deleted scenes, episode commentaries, or panel discussions. The ATX TV Festival that reunited the cast not long before Herrmann’s death would have been a great addition, or a featurette focused on his contributions to the series. The lack of special features offers little to differentiate this release from its release on Netflix; another missed opportunity in a revival defined by them.