On the Heightened Sense of Privilege in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

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L-R: Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Photo: Neil Jacobs/Netflix

Gilmore Girls was never an overtly political show. But during its original seven seasons, which aired primarily during the George W. Bush era, the divide between the wealthy, conservative Emily and Richard “friend of Scooter Libby” Gilmore, and the slightly less advantaged, liberal-leaning Lorelai and Rory Gilmore certainly echoed the political divide in America. But other divides — specifically economic and racial ones — weren’t always illustrated with quite as much pointed clarity.

Money has always been central to what Gilmore Girls is about. Yet, while Lorelai and Rory always had less cash in their accounts than Lorelai’s parents, and while they struggled in their early years as single mom and daughter, it never felt like they were dealing with real hardship. For most people in Stars Hollow — with the possible exception of Luke, and maybe Lane and her bandmates, who lived in a house that always looked grimy — economic struggle was always more of a reality in theory than something that felt real. That’s also true when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity. Yes, some people of color were represented in the Gilmore universe: Lane, Mrs. Kim, Gypsy, Michel, the occasional nonwhite face at Yale. But generally speaking, Stars Hollow and the other places that Rory and Lorelai frequented were largely white.

I mention all this not to chastise the original Gilmore Girls, which was hardly the only show in the 2000s that focused mostly on white people with seemingly bottomless wallets, but to provide some context for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which, in keeping with what we expect from reboots, presents a Stars Hollow whose sensibility is largely unchanged.

Though there are some cosmetic differences and a few more black and brown background actors in that familiar Connecticut town with the kick-ass gazebo, the 2016 version is still a mostly white place where even the idea of paying a parking meter represents too much progress for the populace to tolerate. One could rightly argue, as I basically just did, that Stars Hollow was always like this: provincial, privileged, resistant to change. But in the four new extended episodes of Gilmore Girls, all of this feels more problematic and, frankly, irritating than it did during the original series. Is it because we’ve all grown older, time has marched on, and we now expect more of Lorelai, Luke, and our other diner-frequenting friends? Or were we just oblivious to the show’s flaws in the '00s, a time when coverage of television was not nearly as widespread and think-piece-y as it has become in the ensuing years? Or did the recent election results, which threw multiple logs on the preexisting white-intolerance fire in this country, make us less inclined to embrace the oblivious bubble that is Stars Hollow? (Donald Trump ruined Gilmore Girls, didn’t he? Sure, yeah, let’s go with that. Sookie probably would.)

All of the above factors play a role in our responses to the new Gilmore Girls. But let’s not underestimate the degree to which some of the comedic and narrative judgments in A Year in the Life feel off. One of the most jarring examples is a running joke about Emily Gilmore's (Kelly Bishop) new maid. Emily always had maids waiting on her hand and foot and was famously rude and dismissive to every one of them. In A Year in the Life, she now has Berta (played by Rose Abdoo, who also plays Gypsy) working for her. Not only does she not fire Berta, for a change, she welcomes Berta’s children into the house, even bringing all of them with her when she eventually moves to Nantucket. This is supposed to represent progress for Emily, who's now a widow and is perhaps more inclined to surround herself with people. “Look how far she’s come,” the show suggests. “She’s not only nice to the help, she even treats them like family.”

But there’s something deeply condescending in all of this. For starters, Berta, who does little more than smile, nod, and talk about how wonderful Emily is while her children run amok, could only be more of a demeaning, Americanized stereotype if she wore a T-shirt with the Taco Bell Chihuahua on it.

What’s worse is the fact that Emily constantly complains about the fact that she can’t understand what Berta is saying because her language is unrecognizable. To emphasize just how foreign-sounding it is, Emily notes that she brought over an acquaintance who works for the U.N., and even she couldn't figure out what language Berta and her family were speaking. It’s another moment that is supposed to be funny but again reminds you that Emily Gilmore is basically Lucille Bluth. The difference is that on Arrested Development, it’s very clear that Lucille’s behavior is shameful and hilarious since it's so obviously inappropriate. Because Emily is a more complicated character and one for whom we often feel sympathy, especially now that she’s a widow, it’s harder to tell when the show wants us to laugh with her, laugh at her, or just go, “Oh, honey: No.”

But perhaps what’s hardest to take in A Year in the Life is the slight but irrefutable change in Rory and Lorelai. As I noted earlier, in the original series, Rory and Lorelai struggled with money, even though it often felt like they did not. They could only afford Chilton and Yale with help from Emily and Richard, and later, Christopher’s inheritance money. In Rory’s early college days, Lorelai even had to ratchet back on the takeout in order to save money. Most of the time, though, they lived comfortably. But — and this is important — they lived comfortably in a way that suggested they had not forgotten what it felt like to have very little.

We know that after Lorelai had Rory, they lived in what was basically a shed behind the aptly named Independence Inn, where, before being a manager, Lorelai did the kind of work that her mother’s maids had always done. Lorelai felt strongly about handling things on her own, partly because she resented the way her parents treated her, but also because she didn’t want to turn into them: snobbish, pampered, and walled-off from reality. Even though she and Rory ultimately do accept money from Emily and Richard, that impulse never leaves Lorelai, or, especially in the first three seasons, Rory, who doesn’t fit in at Chilton right away because she doesn’t she think she belongs among so many well-off kids. The fact that the two of them were portrayed as being grounded in this way made it easier to accept their self-centeredness or the fact that they lived in a house that seemed wildly beyond their means.

In A Year in the Life, though, that groundedness seems to have disappeared altogether. Lorelai is operating the Dragonfly Inn very successfully, and can apparently afford to pay every celebrity chef in America to pop in to cook for her. Rory pops over to London whenever she pleases on a freelance journalist’s salary, and never seems even semi-concerned about how she can keep paying for those plane tickets.

Again: This isn’t new. Lorelai and Rory were constantly buying things — mostly food — that it seemed like they shouldn’t be able to afford on a single income. But now, there is less effort expended on conveying their fierce work ethics. Granted, it’s challenging to convey that in four extended episodes versus 22 per season. But with Lorelai randomly cutting out on the inn to go on a Wild trip and, more egregiously, Rory's expecting a career as a respected journalist to be handed to her even when she falls asleep during interviews or sleeps with her wookiee sources, they both possess a heightened sense of entitlement that often overwhelms our ability to empathize with them.

Close observers of the final moments of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life may have noticed an interesting detail about the wedding of Luke and Lorelai: a sign that established Luke and Lorelai’s wedding date as November 5, 2016, three days before Election Day. That makes me wonder how one-time Obama admirers Lorelai and Rory, as well as others in the sheltered if well-intentioned Stars Hollow, a town located in a blue state, responded to the news that Trump would be our president-elect.

If they’re anything like other comfortable, progressive white Americans, they may have been shocked out of a sense of complacency. If that’s true, then what we see in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is not merely a more pronounced, exasperating version of the privilege that the show often depicted in its glory days. It’s also showing us the last, flickering moments when people like Rory and Lorelai could still wallow in that privilege.