At the turn of the millennium, the WC debuted a show with a singular premise: a mother and a daughter who are just fine being a family of two. After Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) ran away from her home in Hartford, Connecticut, she broke ties with her upper-class parents Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard Gilmore (Edward Herrmann) and moved to the small town of Stars Hollow, where she gradually worked her way up to becoming the manager of a local inn. Sixteen years later, her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) gained entrance to the prestigious Chilton School in Hartford, but the only way Lauren could convince her own parents to pay for the tuition was to agree to have dinner with them every Friday in order to repair their relationship. With the addition of Melissa McCarthy as Sookie St. James, Lorelai’s best friend and the chef at the inn, the stage was set for one of the most ingenious and accomplished comedies of the last fifteen years. The rest, as they say, was history.
Given how much ink has been spilled over Gilmore Girls, as well as the fact that I’m planning to rewatch every season, I’m not going to offer a sustained reading or response here so much as a series of impressions and observations. Indeed, from the hindsight of the late 2010s and the post-quality period, the first thing that strikes me about Gilmore Girls is just how far ahead of its time it is in its vision, scope and verbal style. When I decided to rewatch it I wondered whether it would stand the test of time or whether it would be more of a nostalgia exercise – it first premiered, after all, when I was in Year 11, and roughly the same age as Rory. It was incredible, then, to find that it still feels more contemporary than ever, and it’s my bet that the upcoming Gilmore Girls: Seasons will be one of the most memorable reboots of the last couple of years, not least because of the original way in which it has adapted to the Netflix era by revising the screwball seriality of the original franchise into four ninety-minute episodes, each of which will focus on Stars Hollow at a different time of year.
Given how contemporary Gilmore Girls still feels, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s massive cult following hasn’t expanded into a more general critical presence and credibility. Only three years ago, Amy Sherman-Palladino premiered her follow-up, Bunheads, a similarly fast-paced comedy set in a ballet school in Southern California. Glimpsing the screwball potential of Sutton Forster long before Younger, it also featured Kelly Bishop in a bit part, and was released to both critical acclaim and impressive ratings. Undoubtedly, some of those ratings came down to the Gilmore fan club, but it also felt as if Sherman-Palladino was managing to reach out to a new generation of precocious, intellectual and screwy teenagers as well. Only a residual perception that Sherman-Palladino wasn’t in the game of making “quality” television could have led to such a promising prospect being cancelled after one season, with not even the ongoing legacy of Gilmore Girls capable of assuaging and assuring ABC Family that this was one series to keep on deck.
In part, that uneasy acclaim accorded to Gilmore Girls – cult, but not quite quality – arises from its own transitional position between 90s television and what has been described as the most recent Golden Age of television. Spanning 2000-2007 – or 2000-2006 if you go by the years that Sherman-Palladino was showrunner – it’s originality feels somewhat foreign by today’s standards. As many critics have noted, much of the first great wave of Golden Age television, from The Sopranos and The Wire onwards, was drawn by a particularly masculine auteurism that revelled in isolated and tortured male protagonists. By contrast, Gilmore Girls feels more attuned to what Lily Loofbourow has described as “promiscuous protagonism,” a recent movement in television that has tended to replace this tortured auteurism with more flexible, provisional and collaborative approaches to authorship, narrative structure and character development. While Gilmore Girls never ceases to be anchored in Lorelai and Rory’s relationship, there is a protean, emergent, ever-changing quality to their rapport that makes it feel prescient of this movement towards televisual flexibiliy and promiscuity a decade later.
Speaking of Lorelai and Rory’s rapport, it’s incredible to see how beautiful and fully-formed it is from the outset, even if Season 1 sees it growing in leaps and bounds as well. Insofar as Gilmore Girls is of its time, it’s evident in a certain brand of ironic, self-aware, hyper-literate knowingness that plays, in retrospect, like a bridge between Seinfeld and Arrested Development. Unlike both of those shows, however, there’s also a deep vein of soulfulness running through Lorelai and Rory’s relationship, not least because one of Lorelai’s main goals is to prevent Rory making the mistakes she did at her age – although, of course, without those mistakes she wouldn’t have Rory either. That paradox lends the relationship a beautifully poignant and poised feeling that’s only exacerbated by Bledel’s performance. Sweet without ever being cute, precocious without ever being precious, she provides an object lesson in how an adolescent actor can exude the peculiar wonder and excitement of adolescence without ever feeling as if she is mugging for the camera either.
Indeed, for the first couple of episodes I wondered whether Graham could keep up, since while she has a wonderfully elastic comic face she sometimes seemed to struggle to settle it into expressions appropriate for some of the quieter and more touching moments in the show. It’s extraordinary, then, to see how rapidly her range expands over the course of the season, as she takes more and more of her cues from Bledel in ways that just make the mutual dependence of Lorelai and Rory more touching as well. By the magnificent last couple of episodes, both Bledel and Graham have settled into a deep soulful groove that gives even the screwiest moments a poignant edge, imbuing their relationship with so much complexity and depth that an episode can often subsist on just one or two extended conversations between them.
Of course, despite all the soulfulness, that screwiness and knowingness is a big part of the series’ signature, and I found myself how surprised by how much I enjoyed this given that it’s not usually my comic mode. I think that’s because “knowingness” in television is typically a strategy for making fairly staid nuclear couples and families seem more interesting than are, but fifteen years on Rory and Lorelai’s relationship still feels original and provocative. Whether because they’re more friends than family or because they’ve found that sweet spot where family turns into the most beautiful kind of friendship, there’s a demotic and very American equality in their interactions with each other that recalls the great screwball films of the 1930s and 1940s, which are themselves often referenced within the show. As in screwball, friendship is seen as the democratic relationship par excellence, just as every relationship is judged by how closely it aligns with friendship, in its most democratic sense.
Key to that screwball rapport is Lorelai and Rory’s fandom for all things American, from coffee to old television reruns, as well as their obsession with movie and music trivia, which finds its way into every conversation with an enunciative power that has been somewhat lost in an era where every last piece of movie and music marginalia can be found online. That’s not to say that the series seems outdated either, but that it feels positioned on the very cusp of a new kind of media hyperliteracy, as Lorelai and Rory converse at a textspeed that feels comically incongruous with their quaint Connecticut hamlet. Finishing high school in 2001, I was part of that last generation before cell phones became imminent – I got my first email address in Year 12, my first mobile at university – and I vividly remember a rapid-fire, informationally dense teenage lexicon that in retrospect felt like the first inchoate grasping towards a fully digital culture. While the first “No Mobile Phone” signs may be just starting to pop up around Stars Hollow, Lorelai and Rory have already pre-empted and internalised the next decade of social media, providing them with a taste of the future that further narrows and complicates the generation gap between them while ensuring that the series never had to struggle to stay relevant or contemporary, even in its final season.
That particular focus on friendship may be one of the reasons why the series has gained such a strong queer following, since it tends to gravitate the plot away from the normative nuclear structures that typically – sometimes inadvertently – exclude or preclude queer demographics. While Rory’s father and Lorelai’s ex-husband is occasionally a part of the picture, the first season is extraordinarily deft in the way in which it refuses to either value or devalue him enough for him to feel like a critical presence or absence in Rory and Lorelai’s communications with each other. Of course, that’s not to say that there are no romantic relationships, nor that every relationship is a friendship. Instead, the series reminded me of Michel Foucault’s comment that relationships that fall outside a nuclear norm – and especially relationships between older and younger people, such as between Lorelai and Rory – “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship; that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.”
That reinvention of human relations under the sign of friendship rather than nuclear sustainability was always the project of screwball comedy, but it’s given a particularly acute queer inflection in Gilmore Girls. While there are some characters who are clearly queer, the series as a whole has a kind of queer potentiality that often makes it feel as if there is no relationship in which a queer angle is totally ruled out. That’s not to say, again, that every character potentially is queer, but that no single relationship ever feels as if it belongs to a world in which queer people are structurally marginalised. In televisual terms – and in terms of queer visibility on television – 2000 is a long time ago, and there’s a beautiful deftness to the way Gilmore Girls manages to embrace a wider queer demographic within the constrictions and conventions of its time. Just as screwball comedy thrived precisely because of the forced limitation of the Hays Code, so there is a sense that Gilmore Girls uses the censorship of queer desire to its advantage to evoke the pervasiveness of queer kinship as something that eludes censorship and doesn’t need explicit or direct representations to make itself felt.
It’s no surprise, then, that Lorelai and Rory’s “particular special thing” has attracted deep gestures of queer love, most notably the web series Gilmore Gays, in which a pair of gay guys go through and analyse every single episode. With 21 episodes per season, that’s a mammoth task, a devotional gesture that’s very much in keeping with Lorelai and Rory’s own obsessive-compulsive fandoms. Indeed, Gilmore Girls increasingly designates fandom itself as a queer space, as mother and daughter periodically retreat from the expectations placed upon them by boyfriends and fathers to a world of late-night television, worn-out video cassettes and endless fast food. For obvious reasons, classic screwball comedies were obsessed with converging eating and talking – consuming language – and among other things Gilmore Girls is a tribute to the American diner, as Lorelai’s romance with local diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) sees some of the most poignant and smouldering conversational moments delivered through a mouthful of fries, burgers, pizza, pancakes, muffins and whatever else happens to be on offer.
In such a hyperactive verbal environment, then, it makes sense that Sherman-Palladino opted out of any extended soundtrack, with most of the bridging music revolving around a series of “La La La” compositions that usually act as a palette cleanser between one dense conversational exchange and the next. For the most part, music is introduced in the spirit of fandom – one early episode involves a pilgrimage to a Bangles concert – or as part of the townscape of Stars Hollow, with Grant Lee Phillips playing a recurring role as the local busker. Make no mistake, music is front and centre, but it is always incorporated into discussions – especially Rory’s discussions with her best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) – rather than used to suggest some non-diegetic space beyond conversation.
The one exception is Carol King’s “Where You Follow,” which accompanies one of the most heartfelt opening credit sequences since Golden Girls. When the track was first released on Tapestry in 1971, some critics pointed out that it seemed to suggest a fairly regressive message about a woman’s need to follow her man. At the same time, however, it took its inspiration from the Book of Ruth – and from the relationship between Ruth and Naomi more generally – which is perhaps why King actually chose to re-record the song with her own daughter for the opening credits of Gilmore Girls. Like Ruth and Naomi, Lorelai and Rory often seem to be wandering in a world that is not of their own making, even as their relationship seems to leave a new world in its wake, or at least the possibility of a new world, in one of the most beautiful duos to ever appear on American television.