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The New ‘Gilmore Girls’ Is Bigger Than Nostalgia

Sure, it’s plenty sentimental. But the reboot has a few lessons for the rest of TV.

(Netflix/Ringer Illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer Illustration)

The Achilles’ heel of any reboot is context. A pop culture revival is burdened with both the associations that audiences have with the original and their expectation that it’ll pay tribute, but it also has to account for existing outside of the time and place in which its predecessor thrived. The reboot isn’t even incentivized to function as anything other than an echo of what it’s rebooting; when it tries, the task is doubly hard. And when the rebooted object is as precisely carbon-dated by its self-aware references to pop culture beloved by “white women on the WB between 2000 and 2007” as Gilmore Girls, it’s triply hard.

The good news is that Netflix’s A Year in the Life miniseries — really a quartet of episodes with the total length, if not the structure, of a movie — steers away from the reboot’s occupational hazards. A Year in the Life is more than a nostalgia pile-on, though it’s exactly that when it needs to be. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, in something of a cosmic corrective to her and husband-collaborator Daniel Palladino’s notorious absence from Gilmore Girls’ final season, has added a coda that actually moves Rory and Lorelai’s story forward rather than skims over its greatest hits.

That’s because the Palladinos, who wrote and directed every installment, famously had something to add, starting with those four final words we were all promised (and which will almost certainly dominate the internet this weekend, though no spoilers here). The plot maneuvers required to shoehorn certain bit players back into the action would more accurately be called “contortions,” but they’re just that — detours from a larger plot about Rory’s career anxiety and Lorelai’s and Emily’s attempts to grapple with the death of Gilmore patriarch Richard, a real-life development (actor Edward Herrmann died in 2014) that’s movingly replicated onscreen. The postcard Connecticut town where they live may be frozen in amber, but the mother-daughter duo we’re so invested in aren’t.

That still leaves the question of what A Year in the Life shows us about Gilmore Girls itself. Dragging the show out of the rose-tinted fog of nostalgia and into the harsh light of 2016, we find something that’s stylistically dated but structurally sound, and even instructive to the rest of TV rather than wholly out of touch with it.

I came late to the Gilmore Girls phenomenon. I didn’t find it on the WB or even in syndication, but on Netflix, giver of the show’s second life. Along with Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The West Wing, Gilmore Girls is one of the platform’s mutually beneficial Ol’ Faithfuls, shows that fleshed out the streaming service’s catalog in its early years and went from cult hit to mainstream touchstone in the process. They did so by acquiring fans like me: just far enough outside the target demo to have missed it the first time around, and just close enough to it to get the appeal once we’re exposed.

Those fans have likely always found Gilmore Girls a little dated, and they’ll find its apparent age less jarring than diehards tuning in after a decade only to find that the Palladinos’ M.O. hasn’t changed much with the times. In a TV industry increasingly obsessed with authentic locations, for example, Gilmore Girls wears the blatant artifice of a Burbank studio lot masquerading as a charming Connecticut hamlet on its sleeve. It extends that treatment to the places where Rory conducts her now-adult life as well: You’ve never seen a London flat that looks less like a London flat. That all this is rendered in ultra-modern ultra-high-def rather than the charming lo-fi of yore only compounds the feeling.

But that’s just aesthetics. Since the first teaser landed this summer, the open question has been the state of Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel’s repartee, the fast-talking, reference-laden, somehow-constituted-entirely-of-complete-and-complex-sentences foundation on which the entire show supposedly rested. After a decade out of practice — and in Graham’s case, holding down an entire other show — could the leads get back in their highly caffeinated groove? Or rather: could the show?

And here is where I air my very hottest Gilmore Girls take: I don’t think it’s ever been a truly great dialogue show. A distinctive one, sure, but not great. Especially because it’s a contemporary of both The West Wing and Buffy in real time and in Netflix perpetuity, it’s always surprised me that Gilmore Girls got a reputation as one. Yes, the Gilmores and the Palladinos who write them are fluent in pop culture, as much so in 2016 as they were in the aughts; the studiously contemporary proper nouns dropped over A Year in the Life’s six hours include Zoolander 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Marie Kondo, and Kathryn Schulz’s widely discussed New Yorker article “The Really Big One.” The more names Gilmore Girls drops, though, the more apparent it is that the show never really does anything with them besides let them and the erudition they imply but don’t quite demonstrate hang there. It’s knowledge as a substitute for cleverness, and while the substance of Gilmore Girls original banter obviously ages, its style does as well. And now that Twitter allows us to scroll through news, links, and scripted bons mots by the thousands whenever we please, being a cultural polyglot isn’t a mark of distinction for a TV character. It’s assumed.

And as it did the first time around, mileage will undoubtedly vary on Gilmore Girls’, ah … colorful ensemble, which returns and even expands to decidedly mixed effect. Melissa McCarthy’s cameo is lovely, if “I cost more now than you can afford” brief. Sutton Foster’s lasts about 12 minutes past reminding us she’s an acclaimed Broadway actress, though the Hamilton burns might be worth it. Paris Geller has blossomed from a terrifying teenager into the terrifying Brooklyn mommy she was born to be. Lane is a 30-something mom now and looks it, but she still dresses like a 16-year-old who hasn’t fully outgrown her middle school wardrobe yet. Logan had to make an appearance, of course, but did his stupid knockoff Skull and Bones friends have to, too? Complete with waistcoats?

But this is Gilmore Girls, and the only people no one will mind spending time with are the Gilmores … even if Alexis Bledel still says “crap” like the very concept of profanity is foreign to her. Bledel’s half-hearted line readings might be an unintentional callback to the original series, but they’re an effective one.

Gilmore Girls may not do convincing repartee, but it does fights better than almost anyone else, because they’re grounded in the irreconcilable differences among three distinct yet equally stubborn women. Gilmore Girls best moments come when it digs underneath the cutesy and taps into the source code of the show: the astonishingly messy relationships between a single mother (Lorelai), the Connecticut WASP whose lifestyle Lorelai rejected and who never forgave her for it (Emily), and a woman who grew up with an insecure bestie instead of an authority figure (Rory). Luckily, that combination was combustible enough to give us a hyperverbal showdown to air grievances and expose fault lines at least once a week, a frequency that holds with A Year in the Life. Gilmore Girls has always been a superlative character show, and that’s what ultimately makes its many flaws not just forgivable, but endearing.

That’s why Emily, force of matriarchal, power-jacketed nature, has always been the Gilmore who stands above the fray, and why she stands the test of time the best. As the least central of the main trio, she’s exempt from some of the show’s more frivolous fringe elements; much as I’d like to see what would happen should Emily and, say, Miss Patty end up in the same room, it’s probably for the best we never have to find out. When Emily’s around, it almost always means we’ll revisit one of the series’ core conflicts: Lorelai’s teen pregnancy, the yearslong estrangement it caused, and now, the looming absence of bemused peacemaker Richard. Thanks to that last one, Emily and Lorelai start going to therapy in A Year in the Life, and it’s immediately unbelievable that talking out one’s mundane-yet-insurmountable problems on the couch had somehow never entered this show’s universe before. Or maybe it is believable, because Gilmore Girls didn’t need therapy to get its protagonists to lay their baggage out week by week.

More than the studied quirkiness of Stars Hollow or the quantity-over-quality dialogue, it’s this that Gilmore Girls still has on the rest of television, even after television has had 10 years to catch up. Human-scale drama is easier to find in your living room than at the multiplex, but it’s still incredibly rare for a show’s stakes to hinge on a mother learning to acknowledge her daughter’s independence rather than who dies after a cliffhanger. While Gilmore Girls could certainly turn on the suds when it needed to, most of the time, it operated squarely within an important tradition of shows meeting audiences where they live instead of transporting them away from it — nothing felt more central than first kisses, or night classes, or applying to college. And on Netflix, with its algorithm-targeted niches, neither Gilmore Girls nor any of its other reboots has to do anything but play to its own strengths. Sixteen years later, the Gilmores are still acting out at funerals, showing up unprepared to job interviews, and demanding emotional commitments in exchange for financial ones. Everything in Stars Hollow comes full circle — even the fuck-ups.