When Gilmore Girls begins its 7th season this fall it will do so without its executive producer and creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Under her direction Gilmore Girls has been one of the quirkiest, smartest, wittiest and most beloved shows on television, boasting razor sharp dialogue, the fastest banter this side of His Girl Friday, a series of realistic, loving, and fraught mother-daughter relationships, and in, Lorelai Gilmore, perhaps the most fully developed female character on television.
But under Palladino’s direction Gilmore Girls has also been one of the most frustrating and flat-out weird shows on TV, consistently forsaking the major characters and plot development in favor of donating exorbitant amounts of screen time to the peripheral, supremely irritating characters that populate Lorelai and Rory’s quaintly surrealistic hometown, Stars Hollow. Without Palladino, Gilmore Girls will certainly be different… it just might be better.
Throughout her tenure on the show, Palladino has shown herself to be like one of those parents who only doles out three pieces of Halloween candy per kid, and insists that one of those pieces is a small box of raisins. Gilmore Girls’ viewers never get as much of the good stuff as they really want.
Take, for example, this past season’s excruciating finale. Both Lorelai and Rory were involved in season-long story arcs in need of resolution, yet neither dominated the episode. Instead, a third of it was taken up by an immaterial talent show. Stars Hollow’s resident “troubadour”, a fellow who sings on the town’s streets, had been plucked off the corner to open for Neil Young. Hoping to catch such a break, dozens of musicians (including Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub) descended on the fictional town, sending Taylor, Stars Hollow’s persnickety top politico, into a tizzy of speechifying that all this music was bad for business and sleeping. One third of the season finale was taken up by content that could be fast-forwarded without missing a thing about our eponymous girls. Raisins.
Of course, Palladino absolutely loves raisins (“But, sweetheart, raisins are candy!”) She’s not trying to show you something you won’t like — she wants to show you something she thinks is absolutely fantastic. Her enthusiasm for this storyline radiated off the screen. The fact that most viewers of Gilmore Girls would probably have rather (no offense to Kim Gordon) seen Lorelai than Sonic Youth doesn’t seem to have mattered very much to Palladino.
Indeed, watching the show, one regularly gets the feeling that giving the audience what they want isn’t very high up on her priority list. Not that Gilmore Girls is in the practice of killing off main characters or even keeping love interests apart. Rather, it’s the whimsies of Palladino’s aesthetic sensibility that dictate the happenings on Gilmore Girls. Palladino is probably a big fan of Yo La Tengo. She wanted them on her show, so they were. Her personal taste trumps all else — which is how you explain not only the season finale, but episode after episode when town meetings and recreations of the American Revolution are all that happen on screen.
But Palladino’s taste also accounts for what’s great about Gilmore Girls, and why it doesn’t feel like any other show on the air. In addition to the annoying, kitschy, time-sucking subplots she throws on the screen, she’s responsible for Lorelai and Rory and Emily, for all their talk, and for of a pace and quality not realistically attainable by unscripted humans, but still magnificent and whirling nonetheless. She’s also responsible creation of this crazy town — a charming setting — if only it wasn’t on screen so damn much.
For all she did wrong in the finale, when Palladino finally got around to tackling the major story lines, she did a bang up job. The episode contained a brief, but intense fight between Luke and Lorelei, the culmination of months of tension. It wasn’t long, it wasn’t thorough, but it was well written, well acted — an enormous, painful release. After endless inaction this three-minute fight carried the emotional weight of an entire episode.
Palladino’s restraint with the show stopping, knock down drag-outs makes Gilmore Girls one of the more realistic shows on television. To speak of realism and Gilmore Girls is a tricky thing, given how patently unrealistic Stars Hollow is. It’s a town out of time, where there’s no fast food or gas stations, everyone is bizarre and involved in each other’s business, and they all gather frequently to stage weird rituals on the town green. It’s a town with a troubadour. And Sally Struthers lives there, too.
But in this strange little town lives a woman who, for all her snappy, snide banter, for all her willingness to bicker, avoids truly painful confrontations with the people she loves for as long as she possibly can– just like most of us. Lorelai regularly ignores the gaping dysfunctions in her relationships with her mother, boyfriend, and daughter. Those people are in her life for good, everyday doesn’t need to be a scene from World War III.
Delaying emotional confrontations between the main characters makes the episodes where they do occur seem quite dynamic – and other episodes less so. Season after season, Gilmore’s major problem has been one of pacing. Watching many of the episodes before Lorelai and Luke’s fight, or before Lorelai and Rory’s reconciliation after a painful falling out earlier this season, or before the consummation of Luke and Lorelai’s relationship last season, when the writers inexplicably squired him off to a Renaissance fair, was like staring at someone treading water: the show’s not going anywhere, at least not this week. Instead of seeing any forward movement in the plot, you watch Lorelai and Rory participate in some ridiculous town spectacle.
That’s not to say every single episode of Gilmore Girls should involve an enormous fight. If Luke and Lorelai had a heart-to-heart every time they met, their arguments would be meaningless, the show would be maudlin and overly dramatic. Gilmore Girls would be One Tree Hill. It is to say that doling out the right amount of plot to keep viewers from feeling bored without degenerating into a soap opera is a complex balancing act, and it’s not one that Palladino has always managed well.
And it may be one that a new showrunner could do better. Someone who could say, “Ok, so we want Yo La Tengo, but how about we skip Sonic Youth? Or, maybe we can figure out a way to integrate Rory and Lorelai into this troubadour storyline, so it doesn’t feel so unnecessary.” Someone such as this might pay more attention to story flow and not let five or six episodes go by with no development on major fronts. Palladino did the hard work, already; she created people and a place that are distinct and interesting and that viewers care about. But perhaps it’s time for someone who’s a little less quirky sensibility will be able to put together a consistently better television show.