Television gets a lot of things wrong in the name of entertaining us. And, to be honest, in most cases, that’s a good thing. I’d rather watch the CSI team solve a case than turn their findings over to other officers who then go to arrest the perpetrators. And I’d rather watch the small town antics of Gilmore Girls than the umpteenth spin on Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Most TV small towns fall into one of two categories—hyper-romanticized or deeply, deeply confining. If the actual reality of a small town (expressed best in NBC’s Friday Night Lights) falls somewhere in the middle and is nowhere near that interesting, it’s perhaps more fun to live in a hyper-romanticized little burg like Stars Hollow, the home of Lorelei (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) Gilmore.
Gilmore Girls launched seven years ago on the now-defunct WB as the latest attempt by the network to capture a family audience. Telling the story of a mother who had her 16-year-old daughter when she herself was 16, the series languished opposite the then-dominant Friends and seemed destined to fade into obscurity despite critical acclaim. Instead, The WB resurrected the show for a second season, moving it to Tuesdays, where it caught on and became one of the network’s bigger hits. Indeed, an eighth season of the show was prevented only at the last possible moment, meaning that tonight’s series finale (airing on The CW at 8) was originally written as a season finale and may be disappointing to the fans the series has left.
What’s perhaps most surprising about Gilmore Girls is that it worked at all, much less for as long as it did. The series blended together a long list of things that are singularly irritating in other television shows—a twee tone, a town full of quirky yokels, and fast-paced dialogue that spent most of its time talking around the emotional core of the scene instead of addressing it head-on. What’s more, the series often substituted pop culture references for genuine emotional connection (we were expected to buy, for example, that Lorelai and Rory were well-suited as friends and relatives because they liked all of the same things, while Lorelai’s parents were simply unsuited to the task of being in their circle because they just didn’t understand). While the cultural references were often sharp and obscure, the show always had to fight the inner temptation to simply give in to a “spot the reference” game of the type that does in other shows that traffic heavily in this sort of mirth—from Family Guy to Mystery Science Theater 3000.
But the show worked in spite of itself because creator Amy Sherman-Palladino kept such a firm hand on the proceedings, rewriting nearly every script and directing a handful of them every season she was on the show. Her sense of the show’s universe as a deeply liberal and generous one also helped Gilmore Girls get away with a lot. Palladino genuinely believed in the idea of the village raising a child, and the idea that every resident of Stars Hollow took a vested interest in Rory’s upbringing gave the whole show a generosity of spirit that carried it through rough patches. Stars Hollow was a deeply unrealistic place to live, but you wanted to live there, even when it was at its most irritating, simply because everyone seemed to care about each other and love each other.
This is why the show never worked as well as a drama as it wanted to. Gilmore Girls could occasionally try to wring pathos out of love triangles or intrigue from the townsfolk themselves, but this all too often felt like a cheap attempt to stir up excitement for the sake of excitement. Perhaps the most egregious twist in this regard was when Palladino gave local diner owner and Lorelai paramour Luke (Scott Patterson) a daughter he had never met simply to drive a wedge between the couple, who really had nowhere to go but to get married. It was something that could have been death to a romantic comedy such as this.
There were whole episodes of Gilmore Girls where literally nothing would happen. The writers wouldn’t even attempt a plot, so content were they that we would find their characters endlessly fascinating. Most of the time, this was grating, the ultimate example of a hit show resting smugly on its laurels, but the show’s willingness to do this, and our willingness to keep watching, was fascinating. In the end, it came down to Palladino’s appealing vision of what life could be if the whole world was like Stars Hollow. While never as sharply written as, say, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, Gilmore Girls could capture some of the same sensibility when it really wanted to—sure, dark things could happen (though Palladino would never get as dark as Lubitsch could), but there was always a basic, central community waiting to pick you up when you fell.
Gilmore Girls also had a belief in family that overcame many of the show’s faults. Palladino originally conceived the show as being about a mother who was never able to forgive her own mother, but midway through the first season, Lorelai’s scenes with her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) were already taking on the feeling of two women who longed deeply to let bygones be bygones. While the idea of intergenerational conflict was always returned to (Lorelai and her parents never quite solidified their relationship), the characters themselves were all so concerned with the well-being of Rory that they became, in effect, an extension of the town of Stars Hollow itself. Palladino portrayed these generational and class conflicts well (Lorelai’s parents always looked down on her independent existence in a small town instead of living in luxury as they did), but the show itself seemed to always want to return to that generous core.
The series was also anchored by one of the all-time great television performances from Graham. Graham nicely defined her character as a truly independent woman who was forced by circumstance to make herself more than she thought she could be. She could do crying scenes as well as giddy, bubbly scenes, and her face was able to be completely open and raw when she needed to be. Graham was also spectacular at the technical aspects of the performance as well, delivering the show’s whiplash-inducing dialogue with articulate ease. Graham’s never going to have a role this good again (especially in Hollywood, where she seems destined to play a long succession of kooky wife roles), and even if you don’t really like the show, it’s worth watching just to see Graham at work. While the rest of the show’s characters were well-played (Bishop, in particular, found the center of the blue blood brittleness in Emily’s character), Graham’s performance was so effortless that she made the show that much more fun to watch.
Rory eventually went off to college on the show, and it sort of lost its center. While there were many good-to-great moments in the fourth, fifth and sixth seasons, the show was truly at its best in the first three years, when everyone was involved in everyone else’s business. Palladino left the show after the sixth season due to a contract dispute with production studio Warner Bros. and the show was sort of a shell of itself in the seventh season, replicating the pace and pop culture references of the earlier seasons, but never quite finding the spirit that Palladino lent to the proceedings. Under Palladino, Gilmore Girls had its flaws, but it was mostly a vision of what we might like America to be—a kind, loving place where everyone’s got something funny to say.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.