The familiar “la la las” kick in. It’s adorable Stars Hollow. Lorelai breathes in the fresh air and takes a sip of her coffee. Rory shows up, and they gab about how she looks so good getting off a plane, airborne diseases, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, GOOP, yoga, blood clots, and that’s just what my typing fingers could keep up with in those early seconds.
“Haven’t done that for a while,” Lauren Graham says as Lorelai Gilmore, exuding all the warmth we’ve waited nine years to feel in a winking welcome to Netflix’s revival of Gilmore Girls.
To call Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life hotly anticipated would be an understatement akin to saying Lorelai and Rory Gilmore merely like coffee.
The excitement for the four seasonally themed movies, ostensibly a redo for series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino after she was absent from the series’ polarizing final season, is boiling hotter than a freshly brewed pot at Luke’s Diner. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life can, at times, feel a bit over-caffeinated.
We’re betting, though, that if you’re among those counting down to a Thanksgiving weekend binge when the event series hits Netflix on Friday, you like your Gilmores like your coffee: strong, warm, and in perpetuity.
Typically, a series revival is graded on a curve, with nostalgia and anticipation clouding objective judgment. But a buildup of disappointments in that realm—The X-Files, Fuller House, Arrested Development—may actually make us a bit more cynical about the return of Gilmore Girls. Certainly, the current cultural climate might bring jaded shades to the viewing party, too.
But A Year in the Life is a necessary reminder of the pleasures of a show that refuses to live in cynicism; that embraces earnestness and even uses it as a more effective tool for revealing human and emotional truths—no easy feat.
It’s a reunion, sure, between Graham’s Lorelai, Alexis Bledel’s Rory, Kelly Bishop’s Emily Gilmore, and us. As important and dynamic as their relationships were to each other, they were equally important to us—whether superficially, with all of the “my mom and I are just like the Gilmore Girls!” silliness that sprouted, or deeply, when the heartbreak and hope entwined in their relationships resonated in our own lives.
But this isn’t six hours of sun-soaked nostalgia. Loss and resilience are the big themes, with A Year in the Life revisiting these characters at a time when they’re all unsettled and grieving the loss of Edward Hermann’s Richard Gilmore. (It takes about 20 minutes for your first ugly cry over that to kick in.)
Lorelai is living with Luke (Scott Patterson), but stir-crazy when it comes to running the inn and self-conscious that she’s limiting her partner’s happiness.
Rory has had professional success and setbacks, and finds herself at a career crossroads. There’s drama in her love life, too. The Holy Trinity of Logan, Dean, and Jess all return, but we wouldn’t dream of going any further into it than that. (Mostly because we find the debate over which suitor she should’ve ended up with to be both reductive and obvious.)
And Emily is lost without her husband of 50 years. She’s wearing jeans. She’s Marie Kondo-ing her house. She commissions a wall-sized portrait of Richard, and actually says the phrase, “Have you seen Jerry Maguire? It was on Starz last night and it was delightful.” She’s being nice to housekeepers and trying therapy, but mostly she is just sad.
In grief, these characters have always been brutally honest to each other. Extended, visceral, drag-out fights are hard to watch—but even more painful here, given room to breathe, linger, and sting.
These, as adorable as midnight snack-and-gossip sessions between Lorelai and Rory can be, are the revival’s best scenes. One in particular between Lorelai and Emily over Lorelai’s behavior after Richard’s funeral evokes seven seasons of these characters’ histories, tears at fresh wounds, and is among the finest-acted scenes on television in 2016.
That’s the hard thing to explain about Gilmore Girls.
The show is whimsical to an almost ridiculous degree, set in this fantasyland fictional New England town where no quirk is left undeveloped to its peak precocious potential. The banter itself, entertaining as it may be, is completely unrealistic. Yet regret, pain, yearning, and, ultimately, love cut through this idyllic façade like an emotional knife, serving up a fantasyland that we respond to because it feels so achingly real.
All of that should feel familiar to Gilmore Girls fans when they tune in to Year in the Life. Still, it’s jarring to have a change of format, and four 90-minute films that most of us will watch in one giant six-hour session is an entirely different beast than 45-minute episodes of a series that were written with commercial breaks and speedier narratives in mind.
Scenes tend to go on for a skosh too long. (Or, in the case of “Stars Hollow: The Musical,” way too long.) Musical montages that I don’t recall being used this frequently—if ever?—in the original, feel masturbatory and sometimes emotionally manipulative, which is the bigger bummer considering that, emotionally, Gilmore Girls almost never hit a false note.
Freed of network input, some indulgences are fun. Homosexuality—finally—exists in Stars Hollow! Others are distracting, like a parade of unnecessary cameos and some forays into surrealism.
Like they always did, characters make decisions that are infuriating (cough, Rory, cough). The “Fall” episode has Lorelai and Rory follow paths that keep them separated for much of the finale. But it’s admirable how A Year in the Life resists the temptation to send the mother and daughter skipping along together to merely please fans, instead opting for an arc that might not be immediately gratifying, but is creatively truthful and respectable.
Much more than that, we can’t really say. Netflix’s spoiler guidelines are intense and specific enough to instill the fear of Taylor Doose into any TV critic. (Therefore any information or reaction to those legendary final four words, other than the fact that, yes, they exist, are withheld from this review purely as a survival mechanism.)
But rest assured that every return of a Stars Hollow favorite elicited an involuntarily coo of excitement from said Gilmore Girls fan, and each, from Kirk to Babette, is given at least one scene-stealing moment. In this town that, as Lorelai jokes, was constructed inside of a snow globe, they are, after all, each their own special snowflake.
It’s the returns of David Sutcliffe’s Christopher Hayden, Melissa McCarthy’s Sookie St. James, and especially Liza Weil’s Paris Gellar that, for this fan at least, were the most impactful. Weil, especially, is a force, torching every scene she’s in with moments destined to be instantly pull-quoted, memed, and GIF’d.
There has always been talk about the exceptional acting on this series and its lack of recognition, and if there’s any justice Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop might finally find themselves Emmy nominees for this buzzy return. Each lead delivers the kind of emotionally walloping, spritely, yet still grounded performance you craved when you heard this series was returning, with even Scott Patterson as Luke rising to the high-profile occasion with stellar work in the “Fall” finale.
But as reliable a secret weapon as Weil has always been on the series, she’s a spitfire revelation here. There’s a scene in a bathroom that is the only one I rewound to watch again because it was that good, and she leaves us with the joy of Paris Gellar ranting: “Apologize to your parents. Tell them you’ll pay them back for the two semesters you spent studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s effect on the feminist agenda.”
For all the talk about how eager quote-unquote “everyone” is for the return of Gilmore Girls, it’s worth noting, too, that there is a large, just as passionate swath of TV fans who, at best, don’t see the show’s appeal and, at worst, want to hurl blunt objects at the TV screen at the first sound of this famous banter.
The truth is that in its original run the show never got its fair shake, written off for any number of reasons. It was a WB drama before those were respected, dismissed as the TV version of a chick flick before complicated female relationships were appreciated regardless of gender, and delivered dizzying, referential dialogue at a time when such writing was routinely scoffed at as merely cute, instead of hailed as “sharp” as it is today.
People constantly refer to Gilmore Girls as the TV equivalent of comfort food, but these characters are far too messy, these experiences too distressing, and these life choices too excruciatingly misguided for that to be true. Even the warm appetizer of Carole King’s theme song is absent from A Year in the Life, which uses its Netflix, four-film platform to challenge the limits of this story.
Sometimes it feels indulgent, like comfort food. Sure. But that branding, I think, devalues the ambition of the series: revealing the strain that the simple existence of familial bonds has on the best of us, and the worst of us.
Narrative wrongs from that disappointing, Sherman-Palladino-less final season are corrected, which is quite lovely and satisfying. Some closure is a bit on the nose: Lorelai experiences a major moment of clarity literally involving coffee. Others, particularly the final scenes, are incredibly audacious.
There will undeniably be a cry for more Gilmore Girls once these new episodes are consumed. The highest praise that we can give this new series is that where Sherman-Palladino led us—to Netflix—we followed, and the show retained enough of its integrity and beauty to make us want to follow again.