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The Gilmore Girls reboot’s central flaw has nothing to do with the show itself

The show’s greatest enemy turns out to be time.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Winter comes to Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Gilmore Girls was on the air between 2000 and 2007, there were few bigger fans of the series than me. The series was sharp and funny, and it fell squarely within one of my favorite genres: the small-town show.

But I’ve been worried about the Netflix reboot Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life pretty much since it was announced. Some of this stems from my reflexive dislike of reboots and remakes of beloved TV shows; after so much time away, it’s difficult for a series to recapture its magic, because a lot of what makes a TV show successful relies on an alchemy that’s impossible to replicate.

The result is that TV reboots either fall flat from trying too hard to recapture said magic, as happened with the Veronica Mars movie, or they veer off in new, potentially fascinating creative directions that nonetheless bear little resemblance to the show that viewers loved in the first place. (See: Arrested Development season four.) I’ve written about how these TV reboots sometimes seem to be trapping the characters in purgatory for viewers’ entertainment.

Having now seen the first three installments of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, it does manage to hit many of the beats you’d hope a Gilmore Girls reboot would hit, and judging from other reviews, my initial reactions might be on the low end of critical reception. (I’ll post a full review closer to the revival’s November 25 release.) The "comfort food" factor the series always offered is mostly on display, and God knows we could all use a little comfort after a rough 2016.

But to my mind, there’s something fundamental to the appeal of Gilmore Girls — at least for me — that a reboot simply can’t recapture, thanks to how all humans are bound by the constraints of time.

Gilmore Girls is the type of show that doesn’t work well with a "10 years later" setup

Gilmore Girls
The cast of Gilmore Girls, in the show’s heyday.
Warner Bros. Television

The series finale of Gilmore Girls is not how I would have chosen for that show to go out, not least because it wasn’t written by series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. But it arrived at the endpoint the series always needed to get to: Gilmore daughter Rory beginning her career in journalism in earnest. (She headed off to cover the presidential campaign of a young senator named Barack Obama.)

As my colleague Constance Grady frequently points out in her ranking of all 153 episodes, Rory spends much of the original series longing to return to her idyllic hometown of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, while realizing that she never can. If she’s going to pursue her dreams, she has to leave her hometown in the rearview mirror. Her first, minor break comes in the pilot, when she is accepted into the private Chilton Academy, and the rest of the series bears witness as she unfurls her wings.

Thus, Gilmore Girls is a bit of an audience insertion fantasy. If you were closer in age to Rory when you watched it (as I was), you could imagine yourself living in a wonderful little small town where everybody was invested in your well-being, occasionally to an annoying degree.

But if you were closer in age to Rory’s mother, Lorelai, the insertion fantasy worked just as well. Here was a little town that would help you raise your kid, where you could find love and friendship around every corner, and where you could find the acceptance you may never have received from your own family. In short, Gilmore Girls is about finding ad hoc families wherever you can — and whether you are parent or child.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, by necessity, can’t really have this. Rory returns to Stars Hollow, yes, but she’s no longer the kid who needs a whole village to be her parent. She’s an adult, with experiences and water under the bridge. At times, it feels like Sherman-Palladino has simply taken the storyline she might have had in mind for Rory in season seven, the one she never got to write (the writer left the show at the end of season six in 2006) and grafted it onto a 10-years-older version of the character. It works sometimes — but it also underlines how hard it is to make this sort of audience insertion TV.

Now, obviously, if you grew up with Rory in some capacity, you, too, may long for an opportunity to return to an idyllic little town when life doesn’t seem to be working out. That aspect of Gilmore Girls’ insertion fantasy is alive and well. But the opposite side — Lorelai’s enjoyment of having a place where she and her kid can be protected and loved — falls a little flat.

This is not to say the new series is bad, or anything close. It’s simply to say that some sorts of shows struggle to adapt to new environments. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life can never be Gilmore Girls — and if you’re a big fan of the latter (as I am), it can be hard to make that adjustment. Some shows are just bound, inextricably, to the time in which they’re made — and by that I don’t mean the year or decade so much as the period in life the show is meant to represent.

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