01 October 2014

A Long Stay in Stars Hollow, or How I Got Gilmored

Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel
as Lorelai and Rory.

The television series Gilmore Girls is receiving welcome attention right now, as fans look forward to the show’s debut on Netflix, beginning today. That’s all well and good for some, but I only just completed watching the series, start to finish, on DVD. Which I purchased, and which now occupies physical space in my apartment.

I’m not sorry to have made the addition to my library, however, and I use the word “library” on purpose. Gilmore Girls is very much a writer’s show, carefully constructed with a unified vision and all its elements in place from the first minutes of the pilot episode. The denseness of the dialogue (“Life is short. Talk fast” ran one ad for the show) combined with the richness of the characterizations recommends Gilmore Girls for prolonged study, over long intervals, much in the way of a good novel. I’d hardly ended my first tour of Stars Hollow before I began yearning for a return trip.

The greatest of the show’s charms are the Gilmores themselves, thirtysomething Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). The background, even before the first episode: pregnant and unmarried at 16, Lorelai fled her wealthy parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) and brought up Rory alone — with the help of nearly everyone in Stars Hollow, a picturesque Connecticut town peopled by colorful eccentrics. Really, the show is a seven-year illustration of the truth that “it takes a village,” and as the series begins, both Lorelai and Rory are poised to make adult choices and to determine their future lives.

Initially, much of Rory’s appeal for me had less to do with Bledel’s performance (lovely though she is) than with the presentation of her character. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino designed the show for parents and children to watch together, and she and the writers (including her husband, Daniel) injected just enough soapy teen angst (and cute boys) to entice their younger audience. But they had more interesting motives and goals.

Most (but not all) of the recurring cast.

Rory, after all, is a high-school student who reads books. This would be singular enough in television, where books are primarily used as props to be dropped at the cue of a doorbell: books signify simultaneously that the character is intelligent and serious, and that she is about to be interrupted by someone with dramatic news to share. The great example of this is Brooke (Julia Barr), the resident intellectual of Pine Valley on All My Children. Oh, yes, she reads. But only when she is alone. Which she seldom is. And you seldom never hear her say a word about what she’s read.

Not so Rory Gilmore, who not only reads books so that we, the audience, can see the title (astute viewers have compiled long lists of Rory’s favorites) — she also alludes to those books in her conversations, makes educated references to the authors’ lives, and draws comparisons between literature and the events in her own life. She does the same with old movies and TV shows, too, but the books are, as I say, the real shocker.

Rory’s intellectual life defines her, and among teenage girls on television, I’ve never seen anyone quite like her. She values academic achievement and aspires to attend a top college. (Harvard, at first — but quite sensibly she changes her mind and winds up at Yale instead.) Her principal nemesis, the divine fussbudget Paris Geller (Liza Weil), isn’t a bitchy gorgeous blonde cheerleader, she’s another ambitious intellectual — only she’s more neurotic than Rory is.

Please note that the title is clearly visible.

Still, being smart doesn’t impede Rory and Paris’ social lives. Both of them get boyfriends (granted, Rory’s tend to be cuter than Paris’), and the two girls develop a profound friendship over the years. Since the show was aimed in part at tweens and teens, it probably counts for something that both Rory and Paris wear pretty clothes, too. And it’s reassuring that Rory’s penchant for bad boys turns out to be pretty tame. Lunkhead mechanic Dean, wannabe Beat poet Jess, clueless Marty, nearly identical poor-little-rich-boys Tristan and Logan: they’re ultimately just diversions.

Rory’s true story isn’t about which boys she kisses, and she finds her real strength in her mother, her grandmother, and role models like Madeleine Albright and Christiane Amanpour. Rory herself (and, to a lesser degree, Paris) is presented as a role model for tween and teen viewers: no matter what else is going on in the plot, she consistently demonstrates that girls should exploit their abilities, that intelligence is an asset to be promoted, not hidden, and that their dreams aren’t reliant on the whims of a boy with good hair.

When Rory follows a different path for a while, we’re meant to understand it as wrong, a betrayal of her true nature and of her potential. Certainly Lorelai takes it that way, though when it comes to her own personal life, she makes remarkably bad choices, of which teen pregnancy is only the first. We’re given to understand that, right up until the series begins, she’s led a faultless life as a single mother — but, boy, once she loosens up a bit, she makes a series of horrible choices in her love life.

Fully aware that it’s inappropriate to date her daughter’s English teacher, she forges ahead. Conscious that Rory’s father is one of the least reliable people she’s ever known, she nevertheless rekindles her old flame repeatedly, with predictably disastrous consequences. When you look at Lorelai’s choices, many seem to stem from a barely conscious reluctance to commit to the man who is obviously her soulmate, Luke Danes (played by Scott Patterson), the owner of the local coffee shop. But then, Luke has commitment issues of his own.

Luke + Lorelai = 4Ever
Scott Patterson and Lauren Graham.

Lorelai ought to be a colossal pain in the neck and the principal reason not to watch Gilmore Girls. But in Lauren Graham’s performance, she’s the best reason to watch, the embodiment of the guiding spirit, the one actor who consistently makes the scripts’ rapid-fire, reference-laden, tragicomic dialogue seem like normal speech from a real person — from a woman you’d really enjoy hanging out with. That Graham is pretty helps her cause, certainly, but she’s a proud heir to the legacy of Elizabeth Montgomery, a good-looking woman who’s perfectly willing to pull a face if it means getting a laugh. I’d seen Graham before but underestimated her: given a central role of great complexity, she proves herself a phenomenally versatile actress. And she even speaks French.*

Graham is especially good in scenes with the Gilmore parents, and it’s a sign of her talent that she holds her own opposite pros like Bishop and Herrmann. These veteran actors could play their roles in their sleep, yet they’re inspired here, bringing tremendous invention and nuance to every scene. I grew up admiring Herrmann (and, starting with his Klipspringer in The Great Gatsby, I often tried to be like him), but I’d seen Bishop only in smaller roles and wasn’t prepared for the complete command she brings to her art. Emily and Richard Gilmore can barely communicate with their daughter, and sometimes they scarcely try, yet there’s a depth of feeling in every second of their interaction with her. They dote on Rory and see her as a second chance to correct their earlier mistakes — too much so for anybody’s comfort, in season 6 — yet they seldom realize that it’s with Lorelai, not Rory, that correction is needed.

Themes of mother–daughter relationships are explored throughout the series, notably in the characters of Anna and April Nardini (Sherilynn Fenn and Vanessa Marano) and Mrs. Kim and Lane (Emily Kuroda and Keiko Agena), and in the mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationship of Emily Gilmore and the terrifying Lorelai the First (Marion Ross). The father figures in this show are also searching for the right answer, though they’re somewhat less frequently the focus of the drama — and sometimes they’re altogether invisible, as Mr. Kim is. The real emphasis is on the mothers.

What we have here is a failure to communicate:
Emily (Bishop) and Lorelai (Graham).

Bringing up children, Gilmore Girls suggests, is one of the riskiest undertakings on earth, with few guideposts and no sure bets. If Rory turns out so well — or at least so sure of her destiny — it’s due not only to Lorelai’s single-minded single-motherhood but also to the zany neighbors, as we see most clearly in the ambiguous-yet-satisfying finale of the much-maligned seventh and final season. Everyone in Stars Hollow is personally invested in Rory’s success, everyone is proud of her achievements, and everyone celebrates the young woman she has become.

That the residents of Stars Hollow are so odd and so comical (and played irresistibly by actors like Melissa McCarthy, Sally Struthers, and Liz Torres) makes the show entertaining, certainly, but their communal lunacy doesn’t alter the fundamental message that the show conveys to young people, especially young girls: it’s okay, it’s even popular, to work hard and do well. People will still like you even if you read books. They’ll forgive your missteps and foolish choices so long as you stay on track.

I’m not sure there’s a more uplifting theme in series television. Family values got the Waltons through the Depression, and true-blue American values got the Enterprise through the future. But the community of Stars Hollow, larger than a family yet smaller than a nation, less cynical than The Simpsons’ Springfield, less angst-ridden than thirtysomething’s Philadelphia, gets the Gilmores through a far less certain present.

That’s why the best way to watch Gilmore Girls is with somebody else. Whether the show functions, as intended, as a program for parents and children to watch together, I can’t say — though I’d be willing to bet that it does. If you’ve got someone else to watch with, someone to discuss with, someone to scream with every time Lorelai doesn’t wind up with Luke, you’ll get more out of Gilmore Girls. So find somebody to watch with. Form your own community. Create your own Stars Hollow. Order a pizza. Read a book. And oy with the poodles already.

The last shot of the series echoes the last shot of the first episode.

*NOTE: Rory is supposed to be the French scholar in the Gilmore home. The catch is that Alexis Bledel spoke Spanish before she spoke English, and her French accent — like that of Yanic Truesdale, the Canadian actor who plays the Parisian Michel — pales beside that of Lauren Graham. But I overlook such petty details, really.

We also note with pleasure that one of Rory’s colleagues on the staff of the Yale Daily News is played by Devon Michaels, who played a little boy with uncanny high notes in Rags in 1986. So now I know what happened to him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yanic Truesdale grew up speaking French.