A friend recently asked me about Gilmore Girls, which took me back to that fateful evening I discovered the iconic WB dramedy about a preternaturally verbose mother-daughter combo. At the risk of coming off like an obnoxious hipster, I fell in love with Lorelai and Rory Gilmore long before they became popular, which is to say five minutes into the pilot. Here I was, zapping aimlessly in mental preparation for a double graveyard shift at my student job, when the witty banter between a single mom, her teenage girl, and their grumpy waiter caught my attention. The writing was unprecedentedly clever; the performances, pitch perfect; and my heart, forever captured.
I suppose my obsession with Gilmore Girls stems in part from personal baggage. I deeply relate to Lorelai as a character. Obviously, I never got pregnant as a teenager, nor do I come from an obscenely rich family. However, we both left home at an early age, made a whole bunch of mistakes, hide our insecurities in seemingly random streams of pop culture references, talk fast, take great pride in what we do, and have a profound affection for stupid puns and self-defecating humour. Ba-dum-tish!
Lauren Graham proves nothing short of phenomenal in the role, exemplifying how to convey wit and confidence without compromising the character’s sense of vulnerability. When Lorelai cracks wise, we laugh or, in my case, swoon at her impeccable comedic timing. When she hurts, though, we feel our own tears swell up, enabling Gilmore Girls to shift seamlessly from whimsical farce to poignant family drama. It helps that Graham herself is irresistibly smart and charming. I once saw her dominate a table on Celebrity Poker Showdown; I’d never been so turned on in my life.
Alexis Bledel also gives a solid performance as Rory, playing mousy straight man to the whirlwind of zaniness around her. Back in the day, her age-appropriate casting must have caused a fair bit of controversy over at the WB. Imagine that: a high school student with a short stature, puffy cheeks, and a body that isn’t yet done with puberty! It’s astounding how much credibility these features lend to Gilmore Girls. After all, the series tells of three generations of women, who should look the part.
You read right: three generations. To me, Gilmore Girls pertains as much to Lorelai’s bond with Rory as to their complex relationship with Emily, the former’s estranged mom. She’s a fascinating woman, and Kelly Bishop deserves a lot of credit for maintaining a relatable through line as her character routinely switches from well-meaning parent to manipulative monster. I also love the scenes with Edward Herrmann, who portrays the Gilmore patriarch, Richard. Watching the two stage veterans play off each other felt downright magical at times, and I wish we’d seen more of him, especially in later seasons.
However, the true star of Gilmore Girls remains its offbeat and phenomenally dense writing. Amy Sherman Palladino has achieved the impossible in adapting to television the “Americana Quirky” aesthetic, which is notorious for resulting in crap Hollywood movies like Where the Heart Is (2000). For those unfamiliar with it, the literary subgenre consists of mixing fairy tale tropes into the basic plot of a romance novel and then dousing the whole shebang with a healthy layer of postmodern irony so as to empower the female protagonists.
Think of Lorelai as a contemporary take on Snow White. Oppressed by an evil mother figure, our heroine is forced to leave her kingdom, otherwise known as Hartford, and find a new home in the woodland called Stars Hollow. There, she meets colourful characters who, like the seven dwarves, provide help whenever needed and regularly squabble to reinforce her position as their spiritual queen. Early seasons of Gilmore Girls even give the woman a special connection with snow to flag up the reference: “Snow has always protected me before. It’s been a white blanket of love! We had a symbiotic thing going on!”
Of course, Gilmore Girls subverts a lot of these fairy tale elements, filtering them through a feministic sensibility. Consider the subtle inversions of Lorelai actively fleeing Hartford rather than being exiled, Emily proving less wicked than overprotective, and the two mending their relationship instead of competing for male attention. This version of Snow White takes full control of her fate, you see, finding a second lease on life not through Prince Charming but by running her own inn and raising the perfect daughter. Lest we forget, “Rory” is short for “Lorelai”.
A such, our heroines’ various trysts have less to do with finding the perfect partner than deconstructing genre conventions. Throughout Gilmore Girls, Lorelai keeps hesitating between the same two spousal archetypes (as does Rory in later seasons): the wealthy socialite from fairy-tale books and the hard-working nurturer from romance novels. In “Americana Quirky”, handsome soul mates only serve as a prize for the protagonist finally sorting out her crap, so I wonder whether Palladino ultimately intended for Rory’s father, Chris (David Sutcliffe), to reward Lorelai’s courage in confronting her past or for Luke (Scott Patterson), the aforementioned grumpy waiter, to validate her initial decision to run away.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Owing to executive power plays during the WB-UPN merger, Palladino was booted off her own hit series a season away from the finish line. In retaliation, she saddled Gilmore Girls with unworkable cliffhangers like Lorelai cheating on Luke and the latter sprouting a teenage daughter out of nowhere. Despite never quite nailing the dialogue (the characters suddenly spent all their time outlining their feelings), the new show runners did the best they could to salvage this mess, though I’d be remiss not to mention their one unforgiveable blunder: they centered all the major storylines on the boys, turning Lorelai and Rory into the very sort of passive storybook damsels they were meant to subvert.
Oh, well. At least these new writers got the final shot right: our two heroines talking alone about the wonderful adventures that await them without ever mentioning men, marriage, or their girly feelings. I’ve heard some people complain that nothing ever happens in Gilmore Girls as if the comedy of manners could have delivered anything other than Lorelai shifting her outlook on life from point A to point B as Rory becomes her own person. It may not seem like much for fans of dragon-slaying knights or steamy melodrama, but those of us who fell in love with the characters (and Palladino’s unique voice) wouldn’t have had it any other way.