“I want to just start by saying that I’m a very serious person,” Sean Gunn (who plays Kirk) insists before demonstrating “The Robot” in “Our Favorite ’80s: Favorite Era Dance Moves,” a goofy DVD extra for the Gilmore Girls third season set. Refusing to groove for the camera, Melissa McCarthy (Sookie) protests, “This has nothing to do with anything!” Though she’s right, the casual, chatty extras (including “All Grown Up,” in which cast members discuss their childhoods) capture the series’ spirit: whimsical, free-spirited, and tinged with nostalgia.
In the series, close-knit mother and daughter Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) work toward brighter futures in quirky small town Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Now available on DVD, Gilmore Girls: The Complete Third Season chronicles the year their work pays off, with Rory’s acceptance to three Ivy League schools and Lorelai’s opportunity to open her own inn. Lorelai, pregnant at 16, has spent her adult life ensuring that Rory will have more success in education, career, and love, than she has had. Now that Rory is leaving the nest, the Gilmores must find independence from each other.
In this way, Gilmore Girls sets itself apart from other parent/child dramas, like Everwood. Though on the surface these two shows are boy and girl versions of the same premise (single parents remove their exceptional children to small town havens), Everwood tells the more standard story of an estranged teenager and his parent finding common ground and connection. In contrast, Lorelai and Rory have spent 17 years building a self-sustained two-person society, impenetrable even to best friends, boyfriends, and Rory’s father Christopher (David Sutcliffe).
As Gilmore Girls is about a mother and daughter living without men, it necessarily explores female independence. But the show rejects the notion that women find independence by taking on traditionally masculine roles. The Gilmores revel in their girliness: “I’m a girl and we’re supposed to throw like this,” Rory declares before ineptly chucking a ball in a game at the Winter Carnival (she wins anyway). However, they don’t subscribe to the traditionally feminine either. Though they never set foot in their garage and Lorelai traps a spider under a cup and considers “giving it the kitchen,” they also eat like they’re preparing for hibernation, and rarely do their own cooking (“I will put this right on the counter, and stare at it for many years to come,” Lorelai says when her mother gives her scone mix). Instead, protected from the outside world by the two-layered forcefield of home and Stars Hollow, the Gilmores are free to form their own definitions. At times, they seem to be a single entity, voicing each other’s thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences.
Because no one can compete with their connection, romance has previously taken a backseat to the mother/daughter relationship. In Season Three, boys are beginning to play more central roles. (Fans can relive the coupley bliss and angst in “Who Wants to Fall in Love?” a montage of the season’s “best romantic moments.”) For Lorelai, this involves deepening her “will-they-won’t-they” relationship with curmudgeony diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson).
In “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” Lorelai asks Luke to fix her shoe during a dance contest (“Do I look like a cobbler to you?” he grumbles. “If I say yes, will you fix my shoe?” she begs). As he does so, they discuss children, agreeing a baby would be nice if they “ever happen to meet the right person.” They briefly share charged eye contact before Luke remembers himself and goes back to gluing her shoe. As Lorelai and Luke’s coupledom draws closer (it will take another full season to officially begin), it becomes clear that Lorelai’s future is tied to Stars Hollow.
Luke’s too-cool-for-school nephew Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), on the other hand, tempts Rory away from small-town life (and her mother). Smart, sarcastic, and hell-bent on snagging Rory from her puppyish boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki), Jess brings the cynical, dangerous outside world into the Gilmores’ utopia, fascinating Rory and inciting Lorelai’s ire. Lorelai, accustomed to Rory’s good sense, can’t comprehend her daughter’s first bad boy phase.
As Lorelai asserted her independence by moving two-year-old Rory to Stars Hollow, Rory must now shed her golden-child skin and become her own entity. However, since Rory’s identity is entwined with her mother’s, to do so is to dismantle her understanding of herself. For this reason, Rory makes independent decisions in stages, taking two steps forward, then a quick hop back. It isn’t until Dean publicly calls her out for her obvious Jess-lust that she acts on her feelings. Though he’s a far inferior boyfriend (Dean built Rory a car, Jess later crashed it), Rory’s relationship with Jess allows her to be deceptive and guided by instinct. In short, more complex than we’ve seen her before.
As Rory becomes more layered, she also veers (slightly) from the path she and her mother set for her. Ever since six-year-old Rory rooted for Harvard in cheerleading class, the Gilmores’ Rory’s-going-to-Harvard quest has been a defining element of their lives. Succeeding in this quest will prove they need nothing more than each other. To ensure Rory’s success, Lorelai accepts financial help from her parents (in exchange for her and Rory’s presence at Friday night dinners), but she fights tooth-and-nail to limit their influence on Rory’s life. So when Rory decides to apply to (and ultimately attend) Yale, her grandfather’s (Edward Herrmann) alma mater, Lorelai is unreasonably threatened: “For seventeen years, she was going to Harvard, and now all of a sudden, she’s applied to Yale and she’s mimicking everything you say. This is just crazy.”
Despite the women’s evolving dynamic, Gilmore Girls retains its first-season charm, stuffing the scripts with pop culture references (the DVD set includes a helpful manual, “Your Guide to Gilmore-isms”) and appearances by Stars Hollow locals. By season’s end, things have returned to the status quo. Jess leaves, and Rory handles it with trademark reason (“I think I may have loved you, but I just need to let it go”) and Lorelai tamps down her attraction to Luke for another season. But the issues broached this season are mere hints of eruptions yet to come. Gilmore Girls has grown up along with Rory, and as she becomes deeper, braver, and more complex, the show follows suit.