Earlier today, Netflix debuted Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, the four-part, six-hour reunion of the beloved family dramedy. I posted my overall thoughts on the revival last week, and now that some of you have had time to watch the whole thing, let’s get into more detail of the parts that worked for me and the parts that didn’t — with full spoilers for the whole limited series — coming up just as soon as I accidentally join a vegetable cult…
GREAT: The opening.
Though I watched these episodes while New Jersey was in the midst of an unseasonable warm streak, I got chills during the entire opening sequence, which perfectly set the mood for the return by opening with snippets of classic dialogue (“Oy, with the poodles already!”) against a black background, all building the sense of nostalgia and anticipation until we hear Lorelai say, once again, “I smell snow”…
… and then it is winter in Stars Hollow, and Sam Phillips is la-la-la’ing, and Lauren Graham sits on the steps of the gazebo, looking serene and happy even before Rory surprises her and they dive into their first bit of epic Amy Sherman-Palladino banter in a decade. After so much time away — not to mention the Palladino-less final season(*) — that opening instantly recaptures the feeling of the show at its best and sets a mood that led me to forgive many of the bumps that followed.
(*) By the way, I’m not one offended by the seventh season’s existence. There had already been a lot of problems near the end of the Palladinos’ tenure (the introduction of April and the Lorelai/Luke estrangement that followed, to name a couple), and all things considered, David Rosenthal wrote a pretty good series finale. But neither he nor any of the other writers that year could duplicate Sherman-Palladino’s unique voice, even if they occasionally came up with strong moments that weren’t quip-dependent, like Lorelai singing “I Will Always Love You” at karaoke.
NOT-SO-GREAT: The famous Final Four Words.
This exchange between Rory and Lorelai was apparently how Amy Sherman-Palladino always intended to end the series, and she just carried it over to A Year in the Life. And you can see some very clear “all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again” full circle storytelling here, as Rory winds up repeating the unplanned(*) pregnancy that came to define her mother’s life.
(*) In the days after I watched the episodes, I briefly pondered the idea that Rory planned this out with help from her fertility specialist pal Paris, but then Myles McNutt suggested I rewatch the Kiefer Sutherland discussion in “Fall,” which is interrupted in the middle by Rory getting a phone call that seems to completely throw her, which in turn makes the Christopher scene play very differently in hindsight: it’s not her doing research for the book, but her feeling him out for whether or not she should make Logan — her history-repeats-itself version of Christopher, a guy who’s perfect on paper but too weak to stand with her — a part of the baby’s life.
But like a lot of Rory’s character arc in the miniseries, it’s something that has a very different connotation when she’s 22 than when she’s 32. Even had Sherman-Palladino gotten to do it back in the ’00s, it wouldn’t have been nearly as big a life-exploding event as when Lorelai became pregnant with her — Rory would be a Yale graduate, an adult, and someone with a much healthier relationship with both her mother and grandparents (and would be more willing to accept the money Emily and Richard could offer to help her manage single motherhood) than Lorelai ever had — but it’s still a major bump in the road for someone who had her entire future mapped out. But in A Year in the Life, we see that Rory got badly lost on the way to that future. She didn’t become the next Christiane Amanpour, or Susan Orlean, or any of the other women to whose careers she might have aspired. There’s no great job in journalism for a baby to get in the way of, no incredible plan that becomes impossible if Rory is now a single mom. If anything — not that this should be a motivating factor towards Rory deciding to have and keep the baby — her pregnancy offers both a conclusion to the memoir she’s writing and an extra marketing hook when it’s published.
Also, the Final Four Words are more frustrating now than they would have been a decade ago, because back then they would have definitely meant the end of the story, where here it’s fodder for talk of Netflix doing yet another limited series, or maybe even a Rory-centric sequel series (James Poniewozik suggested the best title to me: Gilmost Girls). Because anything can be revived now, and often is, it’s no longer the period on the end of the sentence — leaving us up in the air as to what’s coming next, but bringing some thematic closure to the story — but an ellipsis that, whether Sherman-Palladino intended it this way or not, will only drive speculation about more more more.
GREAT: Emily and Lorelai’s reconciliation.
Edward Herrmann’s death was a huge loss, but Richard’s absence gives A Year in the Life the strongest of its three main narratives, as it leads to an ugly falling-out between Emily and Lorelai, and forces the Gilmore matriarch to reconsider who she is and what she wants in a world without her beloved husband.
Where the passage of time has radically altered the nature of Rory and Lorelai’s relationship — it’s simply less remarkable for an adult daughter to be so friendly with her mother than when she was a teenager — the decade that’s passed changes nothing about who Emily and Lorelai are in relation to one another, which makes it easier to jump right back into their dynamic, and to offer some real growth and closure to it.
Kelly Bishop and Lauren Graham both did great work together, and apart, throughout this arc, but particularly in its climactic scene, where Lorelai — having failed in her attempt to recreate Cheryl Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail hike from Wild — calls her mother and tells her the story she wishes she had told on the day of Richard’s funeral, with both women smiling through tears as they finally get to grieve this great man at the same time, in the same way. Beautiful.
NOT-SO-GREAT: Most of the material about the men in Lorelai and Rory’s lives.
This is more a Rory issue than a Lorelai one, but neither thrilled me.
I’ve been rewatching the early seasons with my daughter, and given how distant the characters grew towards the end of the series, it’s startling to be reminded of how palpable and hot their chemistry was back in the days when Lorelai was helping Luke repaint the diner. It was a bummer in later seasons when they seemed like they barely wanted to be in the same room together (even at times when the characters were meant to be getting along), and the lack of passion in their relationship when we revisit with them is also disappointing, even if it’s meant to be the point. Relationships don’t burn hot and bright forever, and they’ve reached the comfortable, if boring, old (non-)married couple phase of things — a rut that eventually sends Lorelai across the country to figure things out. It’s not an unrealistic story, but it reminds me of how one of my sisters used to complain about TV reunion movies (or long-delayed sequel films) because she didn’t like seeing how much older the characters looked after all that time away. Here, everybody looks great, but Luke and Lorelai going through the motions had just as much of an air of “you can’t go home again” as Rory’s adulthood – even if things ended happily with them realizing they have exactly what they want and finally getting married.
As for the younger Gilmore girl, at times A Year in the Life seemed designed specifically to frustrate the members of fandom’s various romantic teams — as well as those who were never crazy about any of the guys in her orbit.
Team Logan partisans get to enjoy that he has the most screentime of the three, is still romantically involved with Rory on some level, and appears to be responsible for Rory’s pregnancy (the timing’s all wrong for the Wookiee), and he’s less overtly a jerk than he was when they were in college together. But in many ways, their relationship is even crueler now, because for all of her protestations about their arrangement and understanding of its rules, he’s still cheating on his fiance with her, and will never commit to her, even if they might otherwise fit together so well.
Team Jess fans get to appreciate Milo Ventimiglia’s new pumped-up This Is Us physique, the fact that the nicer and more mature version of Jess we last saw in “The Real Paul Anka” seems to have stuck, and the way that he gives Rory the inspiration to start writing the book. And they can maybe even take comfort in the lovelorn look we see on his face when he leaves the Gilmore house late in “Fall.” But his appearances are brief, and it’s clear that Rory has stopped viewing him as a romantic option, though perhaps that could change in the wake of her pregnancy: if Logan is her Christopher, then Jess could be her Luke, content to help her raise another man’s child.
I suppose there are still members of Team Dean, who have perhaps forgotten all of the many signs of how wrong he ultimately would have been for Rory, but as it is, Jared Padalecki only pops up for a brief, semi-obligatory cameo to remind us that he is married with many, many kids and still understandably uncomfortable around Rory.
Rory’s love life was never as compelling to me as her many friendships and familial bonds, and the way that she’s still so bound to Logan a decade later is another sad way in which it feels her life has been trapped in amber since last we saw her, because the Palladinos had a specific story they wanted to tell about her and were going to do it, come what may. The introduction of Paul seemed to be mocking the idea that Rory might have actually developed another love interest in the time away — as well as stealing a running gag from Arrested Development in a fashion that became particularly obvious when Mae Whitman (“Her?”) stood in line with Rory for half a minute in “Spring” — but mainly made Rory, Lorelai, and Luke all come across as self-involved jerks. (Rory is sleeping with Logan while technically still in a relationship with Paul, among other issues.) The Gilmore girls are often in danger of that to begin with (Lorelai in particular), so anything that emphasizes that quality is a bad idea.
GREAT: Sookie’s one scene.
Melissa McCarthy’s availability was extremely limited, but Sherman-Palladino got the maximum amount of value from the one scene she could commit to, which had virtually everything (other than flirting and/or bickering with Jackson) we might have wanted both from her returning to the role and her on screen with Lauren Graham again. It gets meta at points — Sookie on no longer being at the Dragonfly could just as easily be McCarthy comparing her first big role to her career today: “I miss it. I mean, I love what I’m doing…” — but largely stays focused on the dynamic between the best friends, and also the constant tension between Sookie and Michel, which is magnified now because Michel has had to take over Sookie’s role in Lorelai’s life, more or less.
And speaking of which…
NOT-SO-GREAT: Everything about Sookie’s absence.
Obviously, McCarthy’s stardom — and whatever level of estrangement she may or may not have from the rest of the Gilmore alums (who didn’t mention her by name once at the huge ATX Fest reunion of nearly every other surviving actor) — tied the Palladinos’ hands somewhat, especially since they didn’t know until late in the game whether she would appear at all. Still, many of the choices made to cover for Sookie were less than ideal, like having various celebrity chefs randomly opening pop-up kitchens at a small-town Connecticut inn. And good as the Lorelai/Sookie conversation was, I’d have gladly sacrificed a chunk of it if it had given the production enough time for McCarthy to do a quick wardrobe change, stand in front of a green screen, and smile broadly so that Sookie could be digitally inserted into the impromptu wedding scene. Once you establish that Lorelai’s best friend is back in town and eager to be a big part of her wedding, it becomes distracting and kind of sad to have her not standing there — even waaaaaaaay off on the fringes of that gazebo — when the nuptials actually happen. The Palladinos and Yanic Truesdale did a good job plausibly suggesting that Michel had risen up in Lorelai’s friendship rankings over the past 9 years, but it’s not right to have him standing up for her there and not Sookie. The wedding sequence as a whole — with its dancing girls, endless floral arrangements, and Luke passing Lorelai off to Rory (the true love of her life) — is so pretty and quintessentially Gilmore, but Sookie’s absence from it was unfortunate.
GREAT: Everything Paris-related.
I gave up on How To Get Away With Murder a long time ago, so I’m glad Liza Weil was able to find time in her schedule to reprise her role as Paris, who seemed to pop up whenever possible throughout the first two episodes, still capable of firing out Palladino dialogue with a speed and force equaled only by Graham and Bishop(*). And Paris was the show’s biggest success story in terms of showing a character transformed by the years and yet still fundamentally the same person we loved to watch way back when. She is older, a mom, and “the Pablo Escobar of the fertility world,” but she is also as neurotic and terrifying as always, whether she is hurling statuesque blondes at Luke, quoting Joseph Stalin at unnerved Chilton students, or yelling at Doyle(**) about the exhausting stairs in their house.
(*) Alexis Bledel’s greatest strength was always on the dramatic end of things (watch the look on Rory’s face as another encounter with her dad has gone south), but even now, she has to flatten out her delivery to get all the banter out on time, where Weil, Graham, Bishop and a few others can fire it out while changing inflection as needed to really make the jokes land.
(**) It’s unfortunate that she and Doyle couldn’t make it work, but not surprising — again, Paris is very difficult — and the show got to have fun with Danny Strong’s screenwriting career with Doyle’s new d-bag airs.
NOT-SO-GREAT: Continuity errors.
Even in the good old days, Gilmore Girls wasn’t all that diligent at keeping track of its own history, particularly when it came to how long and how well Luke and Lorelai knew each other before the events of the pilot. So it’s not surprising that the Palladinos would get some small details wrong a decade later. But because I’ve recently been rewatching season 1 with my daughter, some of the gaffes stood out more to me than if it had been a while since I’d refreshed my memory. For instance, Taylor spends much of “Winter” trying to get rid of Stars Hollow’s septic tank system, when one of the key facts that Lorelai and Rory tell Christopher upon his first visit to the town is that they recently replaced their septic tanks with a sewer, while the business about Emily and Richard’s familiar fall vacation rental in Nantucket ignores that their favorite rental place was on Martha’s Vineyard, and they went in the spring, because the fall was for their periodic trips to Europe. Neither of those, nor any of the other small continuity slip-ups, is a big deal, but when you make a show that’s primarily designed for obsessives, you are going to have the obsessives notice things that don’t fit.
(On the other hand, Lorelai’s anecdote about her 13th birthday also flies in the face of things said in the original series — where Lorelai once lamented that she and Richard never had some great big moment almost exactly along these lines — but the execution of that scene is so lovely that I didn’t care. Plus, you can always choose to read it as Lorelai telling a very elaborate fib as a kindness to her mother.)
GREAT: Sutton Foster’s closing musical number.
The solo that Foster sings near the end of “Summer” is every bit the show-stopper you might have hoped for from the Tony winner and former Bunheads star, one of a handful of the very best things in all of A Year in the Life, and easily the best part not involving someone from the original series. (Though some of the scene’s power obviously comes from seeing Lorelai’s reaction to it as she considers the state of her life and relationship.)
NOT-SO-GREAT: The rest of the musical performances in “Summer.”
At first, the spectacle of Foster and her Tony-winning ex-husband Christian Borle giving their all to Taylor’s awful musical about the history of Stars Hollow is funny in a Waiting for Guffman sort of way. But it just… keeps… going. The sequence lasts over nine minutes, by which point the joke has long since been exhausted — not just due to the length, but because in the attempt to make clear how terrible the show is (which Lorelai can see and Gypsy and the others somehow can’t), it goes wildly off-brand for Taylor and for the town, which have both always been portrayed as Pollyanna-ish to a fault. It’s the sort of indulgence made possible because of the 90-minute length of each episode, and surely the first thing that would have been trimmed, if not removed outright, if the Palladinos had to deal with time limits.
(Even Carole King’s cameo as a Stars Hollow townie whose private singer-songwritering is not appreciated didn’t fit the worldview of a show that gleefully marinates itself in popular culture. You don’t have to have King play herself, but if you’re going to have her in another role, play one of her signature songs, and get dismissed by Taylor and company, it’s going to feel off.)
GREAT: Hep Alien plays Joe Jackson.
As happened throughout the later seasons of the series, Lane and her band got pretty short shrift in A Year in the Life, but it was still sweet to have the band get together for one performance, tearing their way through a cover of “I’m the Man.” It feels fair that the band never hit the big time — or even the medium time — and that Zach has had to take a straight job while Lane helps her mom run the store, but the group still gets together to play their tight power-pop covers after all these years.
Plus, Paris’ reaction to the performance is maybe the best thing Liza Weil does in the whole endeavor.
NOT-SO-GREAT: The Life and Death Brigade rides again.
As with the continuity errors, your feelings about the Life and Death Brigade will likely depend on how recently you rewatched the series, and how far you got into it. I honestly had to look up these guys on the Gilmore wiki to remind me who they were. Parts of the sequence with them were fun — feeling more like a musical version of the show than the Foster/Borle songs from “Summer” did — but like Taylor’s musical, it just ran and ran. If you’re a big fan of season 5, you may have delighted at it all; as someone who prefers the Chilton years, I’d have rather seen some of that time go to Lane, or Gypsy, or even a catch-up with someone the miniseries otherwise didn’t have time for. (Max Medina? Luke’s sister Liz and her boyfriend T.J. finally getting out of escrow? Even more Digger? Okay, maybe not that last one.)
GREAT: Emily — and only Emily — swears.
It doesn’t happen until more than midway through “Fall,” but hearing Emily Gilmore loudly — and in the repressed, social norm-revering company of her friends from the DAR — say “Bullshit” was delightful. She says it a few more times, and in a later scene, she gets to refer to her Nantucket neighbors the Blackstones as “pricks.”
I wouldn’t have blamed the Palladinos if they had wanted to go full Mamet after spending all those years dealing with WB censors, but it wouldn’t really fit the voice of the show any more than most of season 7 did. At the same time, mistress of decorum Emily Gilmore learning the joy of Words You Can’t Say on Broadcast Television felt very true to the story A Year in the Life was telling about the woman she’s become in the aftermath of Richard’s death.
NOT-SO-GREAT: All the cameos from Gilmore newbies.
With the exception of Foster’s solo, plus a few newcomers (fellow Bunheads alum Julia Goldani Telles, Ray Wise, Alex Kingston) who stuck around long enough to be given actual characters, nearly all the cameos were so clumsy and perfunctory that Graham might as well have just turned to the camera at the start of each to say things like, “Why, it’s my other TV daughter Mae Whitman!” I’m aware that in many cases, these are busy actors (or celebrity chefs) who couldn’t stop by for more, or in different places, but even the context in which many of them were used was disappointing. How do you put Whitman, TV’s best crier, on such a tear-friendly show and not give her some excuse to let the waterworks fly — even if it’s just over her failure to get a new cronut? Since Jason Ritter has played love interest to both Graham and Bledel (even if Us & Them never aired), couldn’t he have popped up in a scene with both Gilmore girls? (If you’re going to go in-jokey anyway, might as well have Lorelai and Rory uncomfortably realizing they’re attracted to the same guy for the first time ever.)
Also, you don’t have Luke explain that he’s secretly good friends with Kiefer Sutherland and then not actually produce Kiefer Sutherland. That’s poor sportsmanship.
Some other thoughts that didn’t quite fit the high/low format:
* Would it have been so hard to cut together scenes from the whole miniseries to create a new title sequence when it finally came time to play “Where You Lead” over the closing credits? Lane plays drums, Paris yells about the steps, etc.
* Though the Richard story was mostly about Emily and Lorelai, the scene where Rory enters Richard’s study to start writing the book — and an archival Edward Herrmann clip is inserted for a moment to make it feel like Richard is still there — was incredibly poignant. Rory was ultimately closer to Richard than Lorelai ever was, and her loss needed to be acknowledged, too.
* Character I was most pleasantly surprised to see return: Alex Borstein as Gilmore family personal stylist Miss Celine. Borstein was originally cast as Sookie (I’ve seen that version of the pilot; Sookie’s clumsiness in the final version and the next few episodes are an artifact of how good Borstein was at slapstick) but couldn’t get out of her Mad TV contract, so the Palladinos wrote her a few consolation prize roles, first as the Independence Inn’s harpist Drella, then as Miss Celine. Since A Year in the Life is as much an ode to the entire life of the series as it is a continuation of the story, it felt good to have Borstein there, playing a very broad character, but one who works in small doses.
* Character I wasn’t expecting to see in that way: Tristan, but only from the back of his head. I don’t know if Chad Michael Murray was busy, or just uninterested in coming back for a role he hasn’t played in 15 years, but if he wasn’t going to do it, better to just have Paris reference an off-camera Tristan than to show a blonde stand-in.
* Mixed feelings about Emily’s newest housekeeper Berta. On the one hand, it’s another running gag the miniseries devotes a lot of time to with diminishing comic returns. On the other, by the end, the presence of Berta and her ever-expanding family in Emily’s homes is sweet, even touching — as crucial a sign of Emily’s transformation post-Richard as the cursing. Once upon a time, Emily Gilmore replaced her housekeepers weekly for the most minor of sins; now, she keeps Berta and her family in her life, despite Berta not being particularly good at her job, because she and her cousins make the house feel less lonely.
* Another nice nod to the show’s origins in a different way: in the Christopher scene, Rory quotes Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show that helped define the WB and make it a place where Gilmore Girls would soon belong.
* Kirk having a pet pig is one of those ideas that was probably funnier in theory than it turned out in execution, but the Oober running gag from “Winter” kept amusing me, particularly when we hear Lorelai yell “Do not make that sound!” from off-camera at one point.
* Michel’s personal life was a mystery on the original series, but here he’s written as explicitly gay, while there’s also a weird joke at one of the town meetings where all the locals are eager to hear Taylor finally out himself.
* For a show that usually steered far away from body-shaming humor (and rarely even alluded to the difference in size between Lorelai and Sookie), the running gag early in “Summer” about the overweight guy in the Speedo at the pool felt very wrong.
* Michel with possibly the line of the miniseries, cruelly interviewing his potential replacement: “So, your name is Molly. Why?”
* One smaller disappointment about the musical: we only got about five seconds of Kerry Butler — the Tony-nominated actress who played Emily’s therapist Claudia — singing a number from Bye Bye Birdie in her audition. She’s not as famous — particularly in TV circles — as Foster or Borle, but once I saw her as Claudia, I assumed she was cast because she’d get a chance to sing. Which she did — just very, very briefly.
* Given his hatred of technology intruding into the diner, why would Luke have installed wifi in the first place, especially if it meant constantly being asked about the passcode?
* Grant-Lee Phillips singing Fountains of Wayne’s “Valley Winter Song”? Thank you very much for that, Gilmore Girls.
What did everybody else think? And who wants the next phase of the Netflix revival to be Emily Gilmore: Whale Museum Guide?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org