There are a lot of ways to talk about Gilmore Girls: there’s its witty, lightning quick screwball dialogue, full of jokes and pop culture allusions ranging from Donna Reed and Pippi Longstocking to Norman Mailer and Pushkin. (There’s one joke in a season 4 episode that is so opaque the title of the episode is actually an explanation of the punchline) There’s the town of Stars Hollow, where most of the show takes place: a cozy small town that is eminently walkable and hosts a wide variety of quirky locals. There’s its sprawling cast of vividly-drawn, memorable characters, like Luke Danes, Paris Gellar, Lane Kim, or Kirk. You can talk about showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, who wrote the lion’s share of the series herself for 5 years before burning out in season 6 and was fired before the show’s underwhelming 7th and (up until the 2016 Netflix revival) final season.
But the most important aspect, the one the show ultimately always circles back to, is the central, inter-generational relationship among the three titular Gilmore girls. The pilot episode lays out everything that will fuel the rest of the series: Lorelai is a single mother raising her teenage daughter Rory, who is incredibly smart and getting ready to attend the academically competitive private high school Chilton Academy. This dream hits a snag, though, when Lorelai learns that the scholarship Rory earned will not actually cover the tuition expenses. Willing to do anything for her daughter, Lorelai swallows her pride and goes to visit her estranged mother, asking for a loan. Emily agrees, with the proviso that she wants to get to know her granddaughter, and the two will have to attend a family dinner every Friday night.
This dynamic sets up a theme that will preoccupy Gilmore Girls throughout its run, namely the influence of wealth. (The show flirts with talking about class, but most of its characters are a little too comfortable to be interested in really challenging anything) It’s good to have money so you don’t, you know, starve, but wealth corrupts. Emily and Richard have more or less lost touch with recognizable human emotion, living in a singularly insular and duplicitous world that trades in insults and is rooted in pissing contests. (For as much as Lorelai resents the world of her parents, it’s hard not to see the Edith Wharton roots of her snark.) Emily is one of the most complicated and richly nuanced characters on the show, brought vividly to life by theater and screen veteran Kelly Bishop. She is a determined, exacting woman, especially when it comes to her family, which often results in her inadvertently pushing them away, and most of her clashes with Lorelai are a result of overstepping her boundaries. Yet for all of her brash, take-charge attitude, she’s a deeply insecure and emotional woman, and she deeply feels Lorelai’s rejection, and her brief separation from Richard.The most significant example we see of wealth’s corruption, though, comes through Rory, especially a character arc that runs from season 5 through season 6, where Rory drops out of college and moves in with her grandparents. Rory is an often frustrating character to begin with, compounded by the fact that she doesn’t grow quite as much as the other characters, and her worst tendencies are seldom interrogated. For instance: Rory is revealed to be a mean writer; she and Lorelai have a propensity for snarking at pop culture, and Rory has carries that over into her writing without any filter. This is significant twice: once when she writes up a bad ballet and engages in some irrelevant, serious body-shaming of an obese ballerina, who winds up coming after her and calling her out for her shittiness. The second time is when she goes to a party with her rich boyfriend Logan (Rory’s third Bad Boyfriend) and writes a hypocritical article sniping on the various wealthy guests. Though she gets called out on both of these occasions, it seems like the show is never willing to commit to challenging Rory on these tendencies.
Yet this strata also produces one of the show’s greatest characters, Paris Gellar. She has a fun journey, starting out as a Mean Girl foil for Rory at Chilton before revealing a surprising vulnerability. From there on she becomes a mix of Daffy Duck and Cordelia Chase: an ambitious, excitable, brutally blunt truth-teller who is often her own worst enemy. Some of her highlights include the time she became editor of the Yale school newspaper and slowly turned into a dictator, her breakdown during a televised debate after losing her virginity and not getting into college (she believes this is causation), her intense flirtation with Communism after her parents defrauded the IRS and she had no money, the time she kissed Rory because it was on a Spring Break checklist, and this line, delivered after a fellow student asks a dripping wet Paris if it’s raining outside: “No, it’s National Baptism Day. TIE YOUR TUBES, IDIOT!”
Stars Hollow, while by no means poor, represents the opposite of wealth and pretension. It is the Ur-Small Town, defined by a handful of small businesses, comfortable locations and colorful characters. There’s Luke’s Diner, run by the eponymous Luke. He’s gruff and no-nonsense, the classic screwball romantic interest who acts as a grounding rod to their flighty love interest, and whose cynical front is carefully constructed to protect a big, soft heart. (In the third episode of season 5, “Written in the Stars,” Luke reveals that he vividly remembers the first time he and Lorelai met, when she came into the diner with a hand-scribbled horoscope saying “You will meet an annoying woman today. Give her coffee and she’ll go away”) More than that, he has a strong sense of responsibility, meaning he often winds up trying to help difficult people close to him. This includes his flighty, former drug-addict sister, her James Dean-wannabee teenage son Jess (Rory’s second Bad Boyfriend), and the brilliant, awkward daughter he didn’t know he had, April. That last one is the worst plot line for the character, where he decides to keep April a secret from Lorelai, who he’s engaged to at the time. The antique store is another significant location, run by the Lanes, a small Korean family. Lane Kim is Rory’s best friend, a dutiful daughter hiding a whole other life of interests, especially of music, from her overbearing mother. (She actually keeps her extensive CD collection under the floorboards of her bedroom) Lane has a great arc, building slowly in the margins over the course of four seasons before blowing up in “The Clamor and the Clangor,” where Mrs. Kim discovers the music collection and kicks Lane out of the house. They eventually reconcile, though Lane never moves back in.Most significant is the hotel where Lorelai works, alongside the perpetually sour Frenchman Michel and the effervescent expert chef Sookie St. James, played by future comedy superstar Melissa McCarthy. (The role was originated by Alex Borstein in the unaired pilot, but she was unable to move forward due to a restrictive contract with another show. She would guest star as the hotel’s disgruntled harp player for several episodes) Sookie and Michel are clearly opposites, but she’s also a strong contrast to Lorelai, too. Where Lorelai is often sharp and sarcastic, Sookie is soft and open-hearted, and where Lorelai has a slew of romantic interests, Sookie meets the man she will marry fairly early on, Jackson. They’re adorable together. Sookie, Michel, and Lorelai will eventually leave the hotel and open The Dragonfly Inn near the edge of town.Other significant townspeople include Miss Patty, the local dance teacher always ready with a sordid and saucy story from her time in show business; Dean, Rory’s first bad boyfriend who oscillates between different kinds of one-dimensional, and is easily the show’s worst character; Taylor Doose, the town mayor with aspirations of dictatorial control who brings a lot of the quirkier events to the town; and then there’s Kirk: a jack-of-all-trades who holds at least two dozen jobs and might secretly be the glue that holds the whole town together.
I could go on and on about Gilmore Girls, spewing praise for things I loved (the epic, elliptical family discussion in s6e13, “Friday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” Paris’ air-headed Chilton sidekicks, the way Luke realizes his feelings for Lorelai while listening to a self-help tape in s4e20 “Luke Can See Her Face,” that time Lane dyed her hair bright purple for a few hours in s3e04 “One Has Class The Other Dyes”), and I could rant about problematic or dumb aspects (Jess, up until he goes away; the back-half of season 6, where the show becomes downright miserablist; the departure of Lane’s amazing love interest, Dave, because the actor’s show The OC got picked up, and they just slotted bandmate Zack into the part, like they were even comparable; the boring-ass nature of Lorelai’s ex, Christopher; Rory’s string of terrible boyfriends), but I’ve talked enough as it is.
And then there’s Lorelai herself, played by Lauren Graham, who carries the show beautifully. No one feels as complete and real as Lorelai, who winds up wearing multiple hats, often in the same episode. When she interacts with Luke, or goes on dates, she’s an effervescent, silly flirt, though when the relationship with Luke gets serious we also see her romantic side (their dance at the wedding of Luke’s sister in “Last Week Fights, This Week Tights”). It’s also with Luke that we see Lorelai’s intense vulnerability (the dream sequence in “Say Something,” s5e14, is heartbreaking expressionistic surrealism), something which typically comes out most acutely when confronting emotional damage from her parents (several, but most potent in the second series finale “Fall,” s8e04, when Lorelai calls her mom to share the cherished memory of her father that she failed to deliver at his memorial service). Lorelai is also a complicated parent; as we saw in the pilot she swallowed her pride to ask her mother for a loan so Rory could go to Chilton. Also in the pilot we saw Lorelai banter with Rory like a peer, rather than a sibling, but in the season 4 finale/season 5 premiere (“Raincoats and Recipes”/”Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller”) she can call upon serious, sober-minded parenting to call Rory on a major moral transgression when she sleeps with her married ex-boyfriend, Dean, while also offering support for having made a mistake. Later, though, in season 6 when Lorelai is having problems with now-fiancé Luke over April, she will wind up sleeping with her ex (and Rory’s biological father) Christopher. We have several flashbacks to her rebellious, irresponsible past (s03e13 “Dear Emily and Richard,” which shows us her getting pregnant, giving birth to Rory, and running away from home), and get to watch her take steps toward an exciting future, with her partnership with Sookie to make her dream of owning her own inn into a reality. I could list more examples of Lorelai’s many facets, but you get the idea.
I mean oy! with the poodles already!