In the opening minutes of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore catch up with each other the way they always have: through rapid-fire banter laden with references to “I Dreamed a Dream,” Goop, Zoolander 2, and Omar from The Wire, among other things. At one point, Rory has to pause, acknowledging to her mother that she’s winded from all the talking and allusions.
“Haven’t done that for a while,” Lorelai smirks.
“Felt good,” Rory admits.
It’s the first, but far from the last, self-aware moment from Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a reunion miniseries shot and set 9 years after the end of Gilmore Girls, and a decade since the show’s creator and dominant voice, Amy Sherman-Palladino, left in a contract dispute (along with her husband and fellow writer/producer Daniel Palladino). A Year in the Life is a chance to get the band back together — the metaphorical band, that is, though Lane’s band Hep Alien tears through a tasty cover of Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” at one point — to catch up on how Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) are getting on, how adulthood is treating Rory (Alexis Bledel), what happened to everybody else from Stars Hollow and Chilton and Yale, and to give Sherman-Palladino the chance to end her creation on her own terms, down to the four final words she always promised but never got to reveal.
We’re in the midst of a boom in TV show revivals, because nostalgia rules the entertainment world, and because familiar brand names are one of the few ways to break through the clutter of Peak TV. Jack Bauer returned to battle terror one last time in 24: Live Another Day, and Fox has a Kiefer-less sequel series debuting in January — about a year after the network’s six-part X-Files sequel. NBC tried to muster enthusiasm from the 10 people who watched Heroes all the way to the end with Heroes Reborn, while Netflix — which will release all four 90-minute episodes of A Year in the Life on November 25 — gifted the world with Fuller House. Sometime next year, we will probably get the long-awaited Twin Peaks sequel on Showtime, along with a flood of other resurrected catalog titles.
The problem with revivals is that great TV shows — or even mediocre but successful ones — are alchemy: A product of a specific time in the lives of the people making the show, the characters on the show, and even the culture in which they originally aired. Even if all of the original participants return, it’s hard to recreate the feeling of them being together back in the day. You can maybe bottle the lightning again for an episode (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”), or generate a fainter flicker for a season (Live Another Day was a solid, if uninspiring, approximation of late-period 24), but overall disappointment is all but inevitable.
The passage of time is particularly acute for Gilmore Girls, and not just because Edward Herrmann died two years ago, which turns the loss of Lorelai’s father Richard — and how it’s affected her relationship with her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) — into one of A Year in the Life‘s more prominent story threads. Gilmore Girls was the story of a woman who had a baby at far too young an age, who had raised the girl to be more best friend than daughter, and who was now watching Rory be tempted to make the same mistakes she had at that age. The relationship between a 32-year-old mother and a 16-year-old daughter — even one as unusual and specific as this — is fundamentally different from that of a 32-year-old daughter and her 48-year-old mother, and it’s less remarkable that they would act like pals than in the days when Lorelai wasn’t happy that Rory didn’t immediately tell her about her first kiss.
Because of that fundamental shift in the dynamic, because the Palladinos are trying to squeeze nearly every significant Gilmore character — not to mention exposition about what they’ve been up to since we last saw them — into four double-sized episodes that each cover an entire season of the calendar, and because TV reunions almost always feel out of sync from the shows that spawned them, it’s not a surprise that A Year in the Life is frequently a mess, and one that occasionally feels at best like a well-studied imitation of the genuine article.
There are a lot of running gags that don’t click (including a belabored payoff to the revolving door position of being Emily Gilmore’s housekeeper) or reflect poorly on the regulars (one character has a new love interest whom everyone else forgets about the second they’re out of the room). Episodes frequently pause for cameos by famous fans and friends of the show — Parenthood alum Mae Whitman is wasted on a 30-second appearance that exists solely so Lauren Graham can appear on-screen with both her TV daughters at once — and the only one that really adds anything at all is by Sutton Foster from Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads, who has a show-stopping moment late in the third episode.
The super-sized episode length is less of an issue than the difficulty figuring out the passage of time from scene to scene (it’s startling — and long overdue — when a later installment features a “ONE WEEK LATER” title card), which makes it hard to keep proper track of the emotional journeys of Lorelai and Rory and Emily. And Rory’s arc often seems like a remnant of whatever plans the Palladinos had for the end of the series, and would probably fit a twentysomething Rory more than a thirtysomething one.
Even some of the stronger material falls victim to the compromises required of almost any reunion. Because Melissa McCarthy is otherwise engaged being one of the biggest movie stars in the world, for instance, we get a lot of clumsy rationalizations for why Sookie is never around whenever something’s happening at the Dragonfly Inn, despite being Lorelai’s best friend and business partner. The one scene in which she was able to appear is excellent — one of the highlights of the entire enterprise — but it also makes her absence from a later scene more distracting than if she hadn’t popped up at all.
But if it’s a mess, it’s a periodically glorious one, and every time things have ground to too much of a halt so we can find out whatever happened to one of Lorelai’s neighbors, or catch up with Rory’s many terrible ex-boyfriends, the show will suddenly roar to life with a delightful piece of banter, or a tableau that warmly evokes a classic moment from the series, or entire story threads that are so assured and quintessentially Gilmore Girls that they create the illusion that the series has been secretly in production for all these years, and this is simply the first footage in a long while that the Palladinos have allowed us to see.
While the absence of Herrmann is huge and sad, it also provides a structure and sense of purpose that’s absent from a lot of the revival. Richard’s death leaves a huge void in Emily’s life, and in Lorelai and Rory’s, and it creates new sources of conflict among all three where — like the best arguments from the WB days — everyone’s right and no one is. It provides new opportunities for Graham and Bishop to spar with their usual lightning quick delivery of Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue, for Bledel (who, like Rory, often struggled to keep up with her elders’ pace when it came time to banter) to emote, for Scott Patterson to be comically befuddled as Luke gets caught up in all the Gilmore family drama, and for everyone to plausibly keep coming together and breaking apart over the course of the year. And, like they could back when Rory was still wearing plaid skirts and knee socks, the Palladinos deftly wring almost as many laughs as tears from the loss of the family patriarch, particularly with an ongoing bit about a portrait of Richard that Emily commissions to create a physical reminder of him in the house.
I’ll have a lot more to say about A Year in the Life after Thanksgiving, but for now I’ll just note that it’s an imperfect recreation of a show that, even at its dazzling best, was almost proud of its imperfections, and it’s the first reunion project in a long time to not make me regret the existence of it. Usually, I come out of a revival wondering how much I liked the original show in the first place, but I’m glad A Year in the Life exists. This one, though it’s frustrating and meandering and bloated at various points, also conjures up enough of the old magic — notably through most of the fourth episode — to make me happy for reasons beyond pure nostalgia. There was a specific time for Gilmore Girls to be as special as it was, and that time is as gone as the network on which all the Palladinos’ seasons aired, but A Year in the Life manages to connect its complicated present to that wonderful past often enough to be worth the visit.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org