Winter makes for an uneven but delightful first chapter of the Gilmore Girls return.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life - Winter
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
December 6, 2016
Although it wasn't a smashing success when it debuted on October 5, 2000, Gilmore Girls had a large, lasting cultural impact that its solid but unspectacular ratings didn't accurately convey. The show's original run lasted seven seasons, debuting on the now defunct WB and then moving to the CW in 2006.
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show focused on the lives and relationships of a mother and daughter who were more like best friends. Palladino originally got inspiration for the show's setting, the fictional Stars Hollow, Connecticut, after making a trip to Washington Depot, Connecticut. The small-town charm had a big impact on Palladino and is a significant part of what made Gilmore Girls so special.
The titular Gilmore girls are made up of Lorelai, (Lauren Graham) who left her parents' home at the age of 16 when she got pregnant. The daughter is also named Lorelai but goes by Rory. (Alexis Bledel) She makes up the second part of the Gilmore equation. Lorelai's family wants her to marry the father but she instead decides to move out and raise her daughter on her own. Fortunately, she and Rory are taken in by Mia, the owner of the (aptly titled) Independence Inn. There, Lorelai worked her way up from a maid to executive manager.
The show begins 15 years later when Rory is about to turn 16; the same age Lorelai was when she had her. Now a high school sophomore, Rory has grown to be a child prodigy and was accepted into a prestigious prep school, Chilton. Unfortunately, aside from being prestigious, Chilton is also very expensive. And after exhausting all other options, Lorelai turns to her parents to help her pay for Rory's prep school tuition. They agree to pay but under the condition that the girls visit them for dinner every Friday. This brings Lorelai's estranged parents back into her life, whether she likes it or not.
It also introduces one of the main conflicts of the show as Lorelai and her parents have years of issues to work through. And it adds Emily (Kelly Bishop) as a very important part of the Gilmore girls.
From the beginning, the show was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for and won numerous awards. And throughout its seven-season run, the show dealt with issues such as relationships, social class, growing up, small-town life, family and many others. It was anchored by very strong performances from the Gilmore girls. But it also boasted a very strong supporting cast.
The dialogue-heavy show was funny but also moving. It was quirky while still remaining grounded and relatable. Its whimsical, stuck-in-a-bubble nature held a special allure that kept viewers coming back to the weekly town meetings and longing to stop by Luke's for a cup of coffee. Stars Hollow felt like it existed in a bygone era and offered a ready-made dose of prepackaged nostalgia every episode.
But unfortunately, the show hit a big snag after season six involving a contract dispute. Amy Sherman-Palladino, along with her husband, who was a big part of the creative team, failed to reach an agreement with the CW. Because of this, Gilmore Girls lost its creators and a completely different team of writers handled season seven.
Although season seven was easily the weakest of the bunch, it's hardly the train wreck that its reputation suggests. The problem was that Palladino had such a distinct voice that it must have been a very daunting task to replace her and it shows. There was a noticeable change in the tone, the famous dialogue wasn't quite right and there were some terrible story lines. (The Lorelai/Christopher marriage was easily the worst.)
Season Seven definitely deserved some of the criticism it received. But it's not hard to imagine that at least some of the fans were reacting not so much to what they got but to what they didn't get. This is especially true for the last episode, which has more than its share of charm. And it should be noted that at the time the writers didn't actually know if it would be the last episode or if they would be coming back. Because of this, the final episode had to work both as a series finale and as a set up for a possible season eight. And while it wasn't perfect, it was definitely satisfying and genuinely moving. It was a nice, optimistic ending that saw the whole town come together to throw Rory a goodbye party in a way that only Stars Hollow could. But it was also as if most of the beloved characters were saying goodbye to audiences. And Rory reclaimed her independence from Logan to chase her dreams of becoming a journalist. She also set out to do all of the great things the show constantly reminded viewers that she was capable of.
But it was widely known fact that Palladino had the series finale planned right down to the last four words. Unfortunately, she left without getting a chance to give fans that conclusion. And because of this a lot of people felt that the finale wasn't the “real ending.”
Still, that was the only ending given, and it seemed as if audiences would never get to hear the infamous “four words.” But the current nostalgia obsession that brought back the X-Files, Full House, and Arrested Development, among others suddenly presented Gilmore Girls fans with renewed hope. And when Netflix announced the series revival it felt more like inevitability than a shock.
The revival, set roughly 10 years after the original finale, would bring back the Gilmores and cover a year in their lives. The series spans four 90-minute episodes, with each representing a season of the year.
Although the Carole King intro would have been the obvious and easier way to go, A Year in the Life chooses a different but perhaps even more effective way to kick off the revival. As the episode begins, there is nothing but a black screen and voiceover dialogue that spans the show's original run. It then gives away to the voice of Lorelai as she claims to smell snow.
The title card reads “Winter,” which is Lorelai's favorite season. Sam Phillips' famous “La-La-La” score begins playing and just like that, audiences find themselves back in Stars Hollow. Various town residents are seen going about their business. There is a couple carrying shopping bags, a woman with a tray of coffees, a man, half-heartedly shoveling a walkway and a couple, arm in arm, taking a photograph. They break their embrace to walk away, revealing Lorelai sitting on the famous gazebo. She takes a big breath of the winter air, (she really loves winter) takes a sip of her coffee and behind her, Rory is seen walking up the steps before sitting down next to her mom.
It's a beautifully shot, if overly choreographed, scene. On one hand it certainly does call attention to itself and at first it is a bit jarring. But on the other hand, a certain level of artifice has always been a part of the show's charm. Besides, everyone knows that Stars Hollow was, as Lorelai put it, “constructed in a snow globe.”
But without missing a beat, the two engage in a rapid-fire exchange that is the famous Gilmore banter. As always, it's delightful to see these two riff off of each other. But there is also an added element of joy in watching them fall back into the roles they left behind nine years ago.
From there, they go on a town tour that, like a lot of what happens in the first
act, is mostly for the audiences' benefit. It's a neat little trick that's almost as effective as it is transparent. Lorelai brings Rory, and by extension the audience, up to speed. And it is also a nice opportunity to squeeze in a bunch of cameos of the Stars Hollow community. Kirk shows up to announce his new, ridiculous business venture. Taylor is still…well, Taylor.
But the downside of this cameo extravaganza is that it draws attention to the passage of time. Nine years have passed since audiences paid a visit to Stars Hollow, but the characters would have still been in each other's lives. Because of this, things are ostensibly normal. Rory's return from London isn't a momentous event, yet she engages in quite a few awkward expository exchanges. Her “conversation” with Lane (Keiko Agena) at Doose's market is perhaps the worst offender. If they had turned to speak directly into the camera, it wouldn't have made any difference. Of course, this is for the audience's benefit, but it is a bit distracting.
As the tour winds down, the town troubadour is given a nice little moment to shine as the day transitions to night. Finally, the girls make it home to find Luke in the kitchen. And here, again, some of the cracks begin to show. There is something off about the way the kitchen looks. It's seems bright, clean and new. And it feels more like a facsimile than the real thing. Unfortunately, that's a feeling that at times applies to the episode itself.
At this point, the show introduces one of the few new characters, Paul (Jack Carpenter). But in doing so, it also digs out one of its worst habits. The show always seemed to misjudge just how lovable Lorelai and Rory are. Audiences were expected to ignore the many times the girls did cruel things or acted selfishly. And the way Paul, Rory's new boyfriend, is treated is a perfect example of this. He really serves no purpose other than being a punching bag. He is literally a running gag that everyone forgets and treats like garbage, sometimes to his face. And the writers seem to think this makes Rory and company, quirky or funny when in reality, they just come off as horrible. And this seems especially odd considering how much ground the episode needs to cover. If Paul had been completely cut altogether, it wouldn't have been a great loss. But more importantly, it could have freed up some time to get better reacquainted with some of the returning cast members.
Things really kick off once Emily enters the picture and the show finds its emotional core. The quick tongued banter and pop culture references have always been a delight, but the familial drama has always been the real highlight of Gilmore Girls. The relationship between mothers and daughters is one of the main pillars of the show and is represented in two very different ways. The relationship between Lorelai and Rory is very ideal and hopeful. It's optimistic and the two feel a genuine joy to be in each other's lives. On the other hand, Lorelai and Emily's relationship is the flipside of that, encumbered by resentment and regret.
It was a masterful stroke to have the visit to Emily's house in this episode mirror the way it happened in the original pilot all of those years ago. Like in the pilot, here, a visit to Emily's provides a needed sense of direction. But more importantly, it leads to a flashback scene of Richard's (Edward Herrmann) funeral. There, things start out pleasantly enough but, as usual, a conflict slowly rises between Lorelai and Emily.
Afterwards, at the reception, Emily asks the guests to share their favorite memories of Richard. Granted, it's a somewhat awkward request but none of the other guests have trouble coming up with something pleasant to say. Leave it to Lorelai to complicate things.
In an unnecessarily cold move, she shares not one but two embarrassing stories that paint her recently deceased father in a poor light on the day of his funeral. It seemed like the actions of a teenager acting out instead of a woman who is almost 50 years old. It felt contrived, simply to instigate drama. But it can be forgiven because it leads to what is easily the most powerful scene in the episode.
The mother and daughter have an unflinchingly raw and emotional fight that would be hard to watch if it weren't so captivating. Emily unleashes her anger over Lorelai's careless mistake until old grievances come flooding out. Her words aim with marksman like precision at wounds that have never healed. This leaves the two women emotionally exhausted but sets them on a path towards their own respective journeys. Emily has to find new meaning in her life now that her husband of 50 years is gone, and Lorelai is left to wonder how much truth there was in Emily's harsh words.
Unfortunately, what follows is a silly, superfluous surrogacy story line that just doesn't hold a candle to what immediately preceded it. In a way it is a plausible outcome from the fight Lorelai had with Emily. But it's still hard to believe that in nine years, Lorelai and Luke never bothered to have a serious talk about children. Luckily, the story line gets dropped very quickly.
The only great thing about it is that it reintroduces the always great Paris Geller. Paris (Liza Weil), with her stylish haircut, is a live wire who easily steals the show. In a great touch, audiences hear her before they see her, and it's clear that Weil still has it.
From there, it's off to London to find Rory working on a book proposal. Unfortunately, this comes in a close second behind the surrogacy plot as the least interesting story line of the episode. There is also a very well-staged scene in which it first appears as if Rory is talking to someone on speakerphone until Logan (Matt Czuchry) walks out of a room. Not much is revealed about what has happened between them since Rory turned down his marriage proposal at the end of Season 7, but it is a bit disheartening to see that they have a “what happens in Vegas” arrangement that bears a striking similarity to their situation in college. It didn't work for Rory then and it seems a bit regressive to find her doing this again. But the show doesn't linger on them for long. It just raises questions that will, presumably, be answered in later episodes.
But the episode instead ends with Lorelai and Emily in a scene that is the flip side to their previous blowout. Where their last encounter was all fireworks and rage, here they share a reconciliatory meeting filled with remorse and melancholy. It also sets up Lorelai and Emily's upcoming therapy sessions that will no doubt play a major role in at least the next episode.
And just like that, the first chapter comes to a close. There was certainly a lot of ground to cover and a lot of faces to reintroduce, so it's no surprise that the episode would hit some snags. But the cameos were generally pleasant all around even if some were executed better than others. (The Hep Alien rehearsal was particularly delightful.)
Although the performances were strong all around, it's Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop who stand out. It's great to see that the chemistry is still there. And there is something poignant about how the passage of time has informed their performances. Graham has given her portrayal a more pointed edge. And in a particular scene she fires potential cooks for her inn with a ferocity that would have made Emily blush. It calls to mind how merciless Emily could be with her maids. And it fits with the episode's theme of things coming full circle.
It's also great to see how they chose to honor Edward Kirk Herrmann's death. His winning, understated performance as Richard always added a sense of gravitas and warmth to the show. And it makes sense that his passing would loom largely over the show's return. His death acts as an overarching thread that ties the story lines together and adds a sense of melancholy to the events.
The first episode wasn't perfect by any means, but for the most part it was a delightful treat. There's a sense, particularly in the first act, that the show is still finding its footing. And while understandable, it seems that they went a bit overboard with the fan service cameos. By the end, things seem to more or less fall into place, and there is reason to hope that the upcoming episodes will build on the seeds planted here.