Early in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) is trying to answer a phone call, with little success. Could it be — as her mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), surmises — because the little burg of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, where the pair resides, has bad reception due to the giant snow globe it exists within?
It’s a joke, of course. Gilmore Girls is not revealed, at least at this juncture, to be a stealth sequel to Under the Dome. But it’s a particularly telling one at this moment in pop culture, in the Year of Our Bubble 2016.
In a world where, post-presidential election, seemingly everyone has an opinion about how modern progressives are too ensconced in their own bubble — or, no, conservatives are too trapped in their bubble — here is a TV show that takes place in what often seems to be a literal progressive bubble. Nothing too serious ever happens; the characters might struggle, but they take care of each other, and if genuine neo-Nazis started marching through the middle of Stars Hollow, it’s all but certain the town would shut them down like a body rejecting a virus.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is a gauzy bit of frippery. It struggles to see beyond its limited world view, and even aside from that, it has all of the typical problems you’d expect with a TV revival — where it’s always impossible to recapture exactly what made a show work the first time around. (That particular difficulty is especially pronounced with A Year in the Life, for reasons I outlined here.) It feels, at all times, like it’s making easy choices instead of hard ones, like it’s content to let the audience soak in a warm bath of nostalgia instead of forcing us to consider hard truths.
Goodness, did I enjoy it.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is more than just an excuse to get the gang back together
Sherman-Palladino hasn’t always had the best of luck since she was forced to leave Gilmore Girls in 2006, before its seventh and final season began production. Her 2008 Fox comedy The Return of Jezebel James flailed when she tried to put her signature whiplash-inducing dialogue in front of a live studio audience. Her dance dramedy Bunheads, which ran for one season on ABC Family in 2012 and 2013, was tremendous television, but tremendous television that nobody watched. And there were several failed pilots and abandoned projects in between.
Even when she was working on other stuff, Sherman-Palladino used to tease the idea that she would love to return to Gilmores’ world, either for a movie or something more substantial. She even suggested that she already knew the series’ final four words of dialogue and refused to reveal them to journalists, hoping she would eventually get to put them on screen. (Yes, they cap off A Year in the Life, and they’re a little bizarre.)
Now she’s finally fulfilled her dream of going back to Stars Hollow — and the result is messy. Every one of A Year in the Life’s four episodes — one for each season of the year — is 90 minutes long, introducing Gilmore Girls to the concept of Netflix bloat. They all contain long scenes that just sort of sit there, seemingly just to fill space. Like most Netflix shows, A Year in the Life might be better at two-thirds or three-quarters of its current running time.
Sherman-Palladino collaborated on the revival with her husband, Daniel Palladino; she wrote and directed "Winter" and "Fall," and he wrote and directed "Spring" and "Summer." The couple has made an effort to incorporate cameos for nearly every character from the original series, major or minor, and while a few of them are fun (Liza Weil’s Paris Geller will always be Gilmore Girls’ stealth scene-stealer), the majority end up feeling like pointless time-sucks.
When they’re not indulging in Gilmore Girls nostalgia, they’re ceding the stage to lengthy bits featuring either actors from Bunheads (including that show’s star, Sutton Foster, in a bit that’s hilarious but goes on forever) or actors from Parenthood, the show Graham went on to star in after Gilmore Girls ended.
So, yes, it’s self-indulgent. But A Year in the Life succeeds despite its "getting the gang back together" vibe. Both Palladinos use this opportunity to interrogate the core insecurities of the three most prominent Gilmore women — Lorelai, Rory, and grandmother Emily (Kelly Bishop) — and to explore the trio’s grief in the wake of Gilmore patriarch Richard’s death. (Edward Herrmann, who played the character, died in 2014.)
This turns out to be surprisingly masterful. In the final two installments of A Year in the Life, the Palladinos flirt with touching the third rail of their own show — namely, the notion that even if you’re stuck in a charming, quaint little town that takes care of its citizens, you’re still stuck.
As Lorelai realizes that other people in her life are moving on to better things and Rory finds herself ensnared in career frustrations, the two start to wonder if living in Stars Hollow is more of a curse than blessing.
Gilmore Girls might be a bubble, but it’s one you’ll want to live in
This tension between blessing and curse has always made Gilmore Girls a great TV show, more bittersweet and less twee than its reputation. Essentially everything about the series that makes you say, "Oh, I wish my life was like that!" is also the sort of thing that becomes harder to take if you consider it from a slightly different angle.
Rory and Lorelai are more like friends than family, but their co-dependence makes it hard for Rory to escape both her home and Stars Hollow. It also leads, in both the original series and this one, to some genuinely terrible arguments, where neither participant is right but both say horrible things.
Similarly, Stars Hollow is a perfect, idyllic little town, but it’s also too perfect, like the sort of town you might visit on vacation and wish to stay in forever in a Twilight Zone episode, only to realize your wish had become literal truth. Nothing ever changes in Stars Hollow, just as nothing ever changes on our favorite television shows. To quote a very Gilmore Girls-y band, The Decemberists: What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.
Gilmore Girls has always struggled to depict the world beyond Stars Hollow, because its central tensions require the town to be a hazy oasis, slightly untouched by time. (It has the internet and smartphones, but otherwise might as well exist in 1985 or 1945.) That’s especially true in A Year in the Life, as Rory flits between the big, wide world and Stars Hollow itself, or as the show takes side-trips to California, London, and New York.
But it also underlines why Gilmore Girls has become such a pivotal show for many of its biggest fans, and why its name has become synonymous (sometimes with an unmerited and snide cynicism) with the idea of watching TV for comfort and warmth. Stars Hollow might be a bubble, but it’s a kind, loving bubble. You might yearn to escape it. You might even need to escape it for your own personal growth, but it will always take you back.
Gilmore Girls aired at the dawn of TV’s antihero age, when Tony Soprano and his progeny strode the primetime landscape like colossi. As such, the show, with its goofy asides, episodes where nothing happened, and fleet of small-town weirdos, was too often written off as a candy-covered trifle — good, but insubstantial.
Those criticisms missed how smart the show is about money and class (particularly when it comes to Lorelai’s attempts to put her own upper-class past behind her), or how beautifully it deals with intergenerational strife. And they occasionally made too much of the show’s sealed-off quality, the sense that, yes, everything took place inside a snow globe.
But A Year in the Life only underlines that those criticisms also missed how aware the series is of the bubble it exists in. Stars Hollow isn’t real. With its perfect surfaces, cascade of strange but lovable characters, and willingness to believe that understanding and compassion are stronger than fear, how could it be? We see evidence to the contrary every day.
And yet, here it is, again, like Brigadoon, the legendary Scottish village from the musical of the same name, which disappears for centuries at a time, only to resurface whenever you might need it most. Look again, before the dream fades once more.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life begins streaming on Netflix Friday, November 25.