If you know anything about Gilmore Girls, it’s probably that Gilmore Girls is “the show with all the talking.” Specifically, all the fast talking.
“Anything said quickly can seem wittier than it is!” insists a MADtv parody, as its faux Gilmore girls trade quips at breakneck speed. The characters on the show talk so fast that producers had to hire a dialogue coach to get the actors up to speed. They talk so fast that episode scripts were routinely 80 pages long, even though the typical length of an hour-long TV episode script is 40 or 50 pages.
The fast talking is crucial to Gilmore Girls’ whimsy and charm; it makes the show feel like a His Girl Friday screwball throwback. But it’s also a smokescreen. Because the show’s most important moments are the ones the characters never talk about at all. They’re never even shown onscreen.
Gilmore Girls never shows you the explosion, only the fallout
Toward the end of Gilmore Girls’ second season, there’s an episode where Rory — the daughter in the central mother/daughter pairing, played by Alexis Bledel — is involved in a car crash. The episode foreshadows the crash lovingly: There’s a foreboding shot of the car veering wildly as Rory’s bad boy love interest, Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), takes his hands off the wheel; as they drive, he keeps looking away from the road to stare at Rory.
But the car crash doesn’t happen onscreen. It’s not even implied onscreen: there’s no shot of the steering wheel swerving, and no one gasps with wide eyes right as the show cuts to commercial. Instead, we learn that the car crash happened when Rory calls her mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), from the hospital.
That’s because Gilmore Girls is not interested in the crash itself. It’s not interested in any big, explosive scene, and that’s why we never see such moments onscreen — not the car crash, not the time Lorelai told her fiancé she wasn’t going to marry him, not the time Lorelai’s father Richard (Edward Herrmann) collapsed at Christmas dinner.
Instead, the show is interested in the fallout, in how the characters talk around explosions: in how Lorelai uses the car crash as a justification for her hatred of Jess, in the fear of commitment that keeps her from going through with her wedding, in how her father’s collapse stirs up all her old confusions and regrets about her relationship with her parents.
We never even see the most important moment of the entire show, the one that sets everything else in motion: the moment in which 16-year-old Lorelai decides to leave her parents’ house with baby Rory in tow. Lorelai’s choice to leave home is the primordial family trauma that powers Gilmore Girls’ entire run — the choice the characters talk around for seven seasons — but it is never, ever shown on camera. The closest we get to witnessing Lorelai’s departure is a flashback in which her mother, Emily, reads Lorelai’s goodbye note; Lorelai never even appears onscreen.
On Gilmore Girls, the explosion is never what matters: It’s the fallout. That’s true for the action, and it’s also true for the dialogue.
On Gilmore Girls, subtext is king
The key to understanding the way Gilmore Girls thinks about dialogue is in the first fight we ever see between Lorelai and her parents, in the pilot. Lorelai is talking to her parents about how successful she’s been as the manager of a fancy inn. She’s proud, and she wants them to acknowledge her pride: She’s succeeded without them; she is not someone they need to be ashamed of.
But Richard isn’t interested in Lorelai’s success. He seems bored, and he keeps calling her inn a motel. Finally, he interrupts her:
RICHARD: Speaking of which, Christopher called yesterday.
LORELAI: "Speaking of which"? How is that a "speaking of which"?
RICHARD: He's doing very well out in California. He's got his own practice now. (To Rory:) He's a very talented man, your father.
LORELAI: She knows.
RICHARD: (To Rory:) Always was a smart one, that boy. You must take after him.
Lorelai, furious and betrayed, storms away. “I think you took what your father said the wrong way,” Emily tells her later.
“How could you take that the wrong way?” Lorelai retorts. “What was left open to interpretation?”
Richard’s message certainly comes through loud and clear, but it’s not in what he says. It’s in what he doesn’t say. Lorelai wants him to say that he’s proud of her, and he doesn’t. Instead, he pointedly directs his pride at her estranged ex. He doesn’t tell Lorelai that he considers her unworthy of his approval; he doesn’t need to. It’s there in the subtext.
That early scene serves as a kind of user manual for Gilmore Girls, where people will talk a great deal in order to obscure what they really mean to say. They will talk around their true intentions. They will make their meanings clear through the things that they do not say.
Fans sometimes find the show’s tendency toward obfuscation frustrating. Luke and Lorelai, the central couple, hardly ever say “I love you” to one another, much to their supporters’ dismay. When Rory and Lorelai make up from a fight, they almost never talk about the thing that pushed them apart. Fans hate that: How can we tell that Luke and Lorelai love each other if they don’t say it? What was the point of the fight if Lorelai and Rory didn’t learn anything from it?
But for Gilmore Girls, talking explicitly about these issues would be kind of anticlimactic. Everything is addressed in the subtext of the dialogue. We know that Luke and Lorelai love each other because they banter together so well. We know that Lorelai and Rory are affected by their fights because they stop bantering together so well, because after every fight, they make another topic of conversation off-limits.
“I love you” stays offscreen the way the car crash does, and for the same reason: because Gilmore Girls isn’t interested in looking at explosive words and actions directly. It’s interested in looking at them side on, through a whole storm of endless, fast-paced verbiage. That’s where the true drama lies.