The Same Mistakes
by CATHERINE ENGH
In October seven long seasons of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls were made available on Netflix. This means that instead of having to wait an entire week to see another episode in which nothing essentially happens, Netflix subscribers and their friends can now watch two, even three episodes back-to-back.
For those who saw Gilmore Girls unfold on the WB thirteen years ago, the re-watch promises to be a nostalgia trip, if nothing else. The show is the same, but we’re all older, our judgments are different. I’ve found, for one, that Jess and his beat poetry are far less alluring than they once were. It’s hard to believe that he has it in him to care about anything but his car and his hair gel. Shouldn’t Rory want to smooch a nice guy like Dean?
A little background: Gilmore Girls depicts the social universe of Stars Hollow—a fictional town an hour’s drive from Hartford. We know everyone there is to know here, down to the guitar player who busks on the street corner. At the bottom of the character- hierarchy are the unnamed laborers who work in the kitchen at the local Inn.
At the top are Lorelei and Rory, a mother-daughter pair who tell each other everything because they are also BFFs. There’s an inescapable dynamic between the two: they consume a ton of coffee and food together, they drop all kinds of allusions to indie culture. They can be a bit annoying—cliquish and self-satisfied—but it’s the kind of thing you can forgive. The other characters on the show certainly do.
Alexis Bledel, the actress who played Pete’s troubled love object on Mad Men, is Rory, a high school student with big ambitions to go to Harvard, become a journalist and travel to all of the nation-states featured on posters around her room. We don’t know why Rory is so uncompromising about her goals, Harvard in particular. What we do know is that if Rory doesn’t make the same mistakes as her mother — i.e. get pregnant — then she’ll go to an Ivy League University and that, somehow, will make everything okay for everyone.
Lauren Graham, recently of NBC’s Parenthood, plays Lorelei. Gilmore Girls repackages the story of Lorelei’s fall from grace more times than it should be possible. The story is simple: Lorelei becomes pregnant as a teen and when she doesn’t want to marry Rory’s father, she leaves her conservative parents’ home and moves in at the fittingly named Independence Inn. The change turns out to be a boon: Lorelei becomes Inn manager and no longer has to suffer the oppressions of life with Richard and Emily Gilmore — parents who never really understood her or her rapid-fire jokes.
Everything is going swimmingly for the Gilmore girls until we learn, in the pilot, that Rory has gotten into Chilton, a fancy prep school. Lorelei can’t afford to replace the girls’ lumpy couch and she definitely can’t afford to pay the Chilton tuition. Richard and Emily agree to cover it on one condition: Lorelei and Rory eat dinner with them every Friday night. It shouldn’t be such a bad deal but Lorelei’s pregnancy stands like a traumatic memory that no one can incorporate — over and over again, it recurs, disrupting the tenuous relationships that everyone in the Gilmore family is trying to cultivate.
The Gilmore girls are, like Cher in Clueless, long deluded about their attraction to the important men in their lives. Lorelei represses her feelings for the town’s diner owner; Rory does the same for the local bad boy. Sherman-Palladino draws these self-deceptions out to such lengths that sometimes it feels like she just wants to keep us watching, wondering if the next episode will be the one where one of the girls finally admits to the obvious and couples with the person she is supposed to be with.
Oftentimes, the supporting characters are more fun to watch than Rory and Lorelei. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as Sookie, the brilliant but clumsy cook at the Independence Inn. Keiko Agena reaches manic heights as Rory’s friend Lane. Living under the authority of a cartoonishly tyrannical mother, Lane’s uneasy mix of resentment and obligation drives her to make many an impulsive decision.
Liza Weil plays Rory’s friend Paris — an intensely driven student who vies with Rory for academic plaudits. Paris exudes all the A-type energy that we don’t get from Rory because we’re supposed to see her as a singular character with sympathies and inner depths. I enjoy Sookie, Lane and Paris so much that I like to think of their frenetic energy as a dissenting outcry against their relatively minor status on the show.
Sherman-Palladino conjures all kinds of drama around the issues of sex and pregnancy, an aspect of Gilmore Girls that grew very tiresome very quickly the second time around. ‘Gilmore Girls’ wants to recover the great old virtue of feminine modesty but, for the modern woman, virginity is for Harvard, not marriage. The Rory-Dean and Rory-Jess narratives function like seduction plots: the premarital sex act looms, ever present, as a potential threat to Rory’s expectations. If Rory has sex with either one of her boyfriends, it will ruin her chances of getting into Harvard. Lorelei frets about Rory’s sexuality, she rewards her for putting off the deed but never once does she bring up birth control. And she’s supposed to be a cool mom!
There’s much about Gilmore Girls that still works. The show’s asymmetrical character structure speaks of a world in which few go to Yale and many are the nameless laborers who work at the local inn. The trope of the woman who doesn’t know her own feelings dramatizes what happens when the head and the heart aren’t working in synch. But the seduction plot, which tells of the social regulation of women’s bodies, is anathema in a show that’s supposed to be about two progressively minded gals living in the 21st century.
Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about her grandmother.
“Sun Shy (acoustic)” – Dresses (mp3)
“Tell A Lie (acoustic)” – Dresses (mp3)