If Gilmore Girls is the comfort food of television, then the recent Netflix reboot, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life served it with an unexpected aftertaste.
Writing a relevant follow-up to a series that ended ten years ago is no easy task, but husband-wife writing duo Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino prove that much of the show’s original charm still plays today. The rapid-fire dialogue outscores any Aaron Sorkin series in terms of wit and cultural know-all. At a time when juice cleanses and fitness crazes are mainstream, there’s something refreshing about watching Rory and Lorelai tucking into Chinese food, pizza and donuts without writing it off as “a cheat,” “a guilt meal” or “an indulgence.” (Seriously, how can anyone “indulge” in day-old lo mein?) There were heightened perks, too: Paris Gellar as an adult tour-de-force, and newly-widowed Emily Gilmore serving up some of her most biting lines yet.
The new season was not without its low points as well. There was something tragic about seeing the perennially-cool Lorelai donning dowdy outfits and overdone hair, looking like a candidate for her mother’s D.A.R. chapter. The “Stars Hollow: The Musical” preview sequence was so unbearably long and irrelevant that I let it run while making dinner. Some of the jokes fell flat or were out of character. But the most disconcerting factor, be it good or bad, was the transformation of the character of Rory Gilmore.
Last time we saw Rory, she had just graduated from Yale and was tentatively setting off to cover Barack Obama’s presidential run, in lieu of the prestigious New York Times fellowship she had been denied. Ten years later, she hasn’t achieved much at all, save for the occasional submission to Slate or The Atlantic, or a single “Talk of the Town” New Yorker piece, which receives an embarrassing amount of hype from friends and family precisely because it is such an unexpected achievement. She seems to have abandoned her childhood dream of becoming a foreign correspondent à la Christiane Amanpour in favor of cultural criticism, one of the most-coveted and least-available segments of the journalism industry - and she’s failing at it.
She’s blowing interviews for jobs she hates, musing about writing books, and clinging to old flames. In the original series, Rory’s brilliance was exalted, and her success was taken as a given. She has not lived up to that, and she knows it. “I just need to be twenty again!” She cries out.
The reboot might be criticized for portraying Rory as more of a twenty-something post-grad and less of a thirty-something professional woman, and if that’s not what the Palladinos intended then it should be. But the Palladinos are better writers than that, and it seems that they’re using the new season to bring some of the character flaws of the original series to light, giving a quintessential feel-good show a darker turn.
We now understand exactly how spoiled Rory was, not by money but by praise: from her goofball mother who never seemed to engage with her education, only marveling that she had produced such a brainiac child; from her doting grandparents who were fixated on class rankings and name-brand schools; from her tiny Connecticut town, which upheld her as the resident genius. She mostly surrounded herself with underachievers; even her intellectual boyfriend Jess was a contrary high-school dropout. Meanwhile her prep school/college frenemy Paris Gellar was such an overachieving caricature that she could never be a serious influence.
Rory’s schooling was the framework of the show. The pilot involved Rory’s acceptance to an elite private high school, with Lorelai going to her estranged parents to ask for the necessary funds, and the series concluded with Rory’s graduation from Yale. School was largely her raison d’être, and she had clearly mastered the art of academic success, adhering to clear rubrics, timeframes and expectations. Yet as the New York Times rejection might have indicated, professional success is a different animal. In a challenging industry like journalism, so much hinges on aggressiveness and personal initiative. Rory, so accustomed to being handed her chances to shine, evidently could not make the transition.
I only started watching Gilmore Girls towards the end of the sixth season, and I was eight years behind Rory on my own academic track. Still, I caught up with everything thanks to the 11am WB reruns, and it was clear to me that Rory was a kind of nerd hero. A deviation from the television bookish girl cliché, her interests were remarkably balanced, and she could discuss Tolstoy and the Clash in equal measure. She harbored no secret desires to be extroverted or popular and stayed home on Saturday nights by choice, preferring to watch movies with her mother or hang out with her childhood friend Lane. She had attractive boyfriends who respected her intellect, even if they couldn’t necessarily keep up. In the seasons prior to the boat theft breakdown (everyone has to snap at some point), Lorelai liked to boast that her daughter was perfect, and few could contradict her.
But whereas I once saw a role model in Rory, I now see a flashing red light. The emergence of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is particularly auspicious to twenty-something post-grads because it warns of what can happen if we get too complacent, too entitled, and too confident in the power of our prestigious degrees to open up doors. It’s not Rory’s end result--struggling freelance journalist--that’s so dire, it’s the feelings of wasted time and bitter disappointment, as well as the emotional stuntedness that got her there. The reboot doesn’t reveal whether Rory will achieve the success she craves; she evidently doesn’t turn The Stars Hollow Gazette into an award-winning publication, and she may or may not write a book. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s storied “final four words” of the season do indicate that Rory may be forced to grow up after all, but for different reasons. As for the rest of us, the urgency to “grow up” has never seemed so real.