Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, shown by Netflix on Thanksgiving weekend nine years after the original series ended its run on the CW, is an object lesson in why classic shows should survive untouched, whatever their flaws, as inviolable bubbles of nostalgia.
Owing to a contract dispute, the series’ creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and professional partner Daniel Palladino left it before they could conclude season seven on a resonant note. Other hands finished it clumsily, rushing the rapprochement between Lorelai Gilmour (Lauren Graham) and her surly but devoted lover Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), respectively the proprietors of the Dragonfly Inn and Luke’s Diner in the fictitious town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut.
Rory (Alexis Bledel), the daughter Lorelei raised alone, graduated from Yale, turned down a proposal from her privileged boyfriend Logan (Matt Czuchy), and set off to cover Barach Obama’s first Presidential campaign.
Lorelei’s monied parents — imperious New England matron Emily (Kelly Bishop) and lordly insurance exec father Richard (Edward Herrmann) — had healed their marital differences and were getting on with being arch-conservative snobs. (They cannot have visualized that, by 2016, so many African Americans would be living in their daughter’s adopted town.) In May 2007 all was well in the Gilmore universe, preserved by six months from the looming recession.
“Winter,” the first of A Year in the Life’s four 90-minute episodes, starts with Richard newly dead from a heart attack (actor Edward Herrmann having died in 2014). Emily, who had been married to him for fifty years, puts on a brave face but eventually has a mild breakdown, manifesting her grief in uncharacteristic apathy.
Lorelei, now 48, represses her sorrow, attributing her ennui not to her father’s death but her uncertainty about her too cosy relationship with Luke and the suspicion she is past childbearing. When the dam breaks, the payoff is dramatically rewarding. First, though, she insists on having an existential crisis —possibly the first one suffered by a resident of the fictional Connecticut town of Stars Hollow in its 237-year post-colonial history.
Rory, now 32, finally suffers a reverse in her post-Yale journalism career. Casually involved with a non-entity called Paul, she is continuing to sleep with Logan, but since he is engaged to a French woman it’s clear she’s colluding in a demeaning situation. “What am I, your geisha?” she asks Logan when he shoos her off to a hotel after a tryst.
The new episodes don’t stint on Lorelai and Rory’s ping-pong dialogue, updated to include modish pop culture references but nothing political. The majority of the key cast members are reintroduced, among them Michel (Yanic Truesdale), Lorelei’s bitchy maître d’ at the Dragonfly; Rory’s serene bestie Lane (Keiko Agena); Rory’s long-gone first boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki) and his Pacino-ish successor Jess (Milo Ventimiglia); babbling Babette (Sally Struthers); worldly Miss Patty (Liz Torres).
Many of these are cameo appearances. A major Hollywood star now, Melissa McCarthy has a sweet and moreish appearance as Sookie St. James, the former Dragonfly chef and Lorelai’s closest friend, but it’s gone in a moment. Liza Weil turns in the funniest performance, winding up her character, Paris Geller, Rory’s neurotic school and college friend, into a paranoid snit.
The emotional highs and lows are too few, given that they are separated by passages of whimsy almost Seinfeld–ian in their length and inconsequentiality. Buster Keaton-ish town twerp Kirk (Sean Gunn) does his Kirk-y thing by ineptly running a car service called Oober. Town leader and busybody Taylor Doose (Michael Winters) supervises a town musical — starring Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Christian Borle — that earns Lorelei’s scorn. Intentionally awful, it’s rendered with none of Waiting of Guffman’s wit.
There is only enough good material in the four shows for two. Another extended sequence sends Lorelai to find herself by following in the footsteps of Wild author Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail — the “Summer” episode’s premise being that she is an inveterate indoors-woman. The horribly arch nadir comes in “Autumn” when the complacent seducer Logan and his faux-decadent Yale alumni buddies swoop down on Rory and whisk her off to a tango club.
The halting of Rory’s charge to Pulitzer-success is problematic. The original series held her up as a shining example for female high school and college students. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to emulate Rory Gilmore intellectually and academically? Yet it was always difficult to believe that so guileless a woman could succeed so quickly in journalism as she did.
A Year in the Life grants her a New Yorker byline and an interview at GQ (with two Condé Nast editors not of this planet) but then derails her professionally as the assignments dry up. Accepting that her American Dream has for the moment slipped her grasp, Rory decides to write a memoir of her life with Lorelai — a nice “meta” touch.
That said, Rory’s retreat to Mom and Stars Hollow — and her bruised look — give the character a fresh authenticity, as if she’s the cousin of the dreamy nymphomaniac Bledel portrayed in Mad Men. Unequivocally, and sadly for real moms, Rory’s 16-year reign as a role model for tweens and teenagers is over unless the Gilmores return for one more round.
“Summer” is the most tedious of the new episodes but, to the Palladinos’ credit, they rescue the miniseries midway through “Autumn.” Thanks to Kirk’s late-flowering skill as a lighting technician, Lorelei and Luke get a Disney fantasy of a town square wedding.
More important, Rory realizes that sustaining an open relationship with Logan is bad for her. Sherman-Palladino’s single smartest stroke is having Rory visit her father, Christopher (David Sutcliffe), and learning that he was too lacking in masculine resolve to bring her up in partnership with as forceful a personality as Lorelai.
Over the course of the original series, Lorelei evolved from a woman with a taste for glib, ineffectual smoothies like Christopher to one capable of falling for the rugged and dependable (and now schlubby) Luke. Her affair with Jason Stiles (Chris Eigeman), a weaselly insurance man compared with her father, but a reasonably caring lover, was transitional.
Though more pragmatic than Lorelai, Rory has had to make her own mistakes. Her romantic trajectory — she gravitates from the kind hunk-next-door Dean via the serious writer and “good bad boy” Jess to the bland, feckless Logan — is the reverse of Lorelai’s path. After cutting the Gordian knot of her relationship with Logan, she can grow.
Maybe she’ll end up with Jess, the ex- who understands her best. Having breezily told his uncle Luke that he’s over his love for Rory, he surreptitiously gazes at her through a window on leaving Lorelai’s house. Given the bombshell Rory drops with the very last words of A Year in the Life, is it too much to expect that he will play a similar part in her life as Luke has played in unwed mother Lorelei’s? His small press could even publish her book, though knowing Rory it’ll likely end up at HarperCollins.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is available on Netflix.