Nostalgia is a warm, inviting, but tricky and slippery thing. It can make us want to revisit old TV shows that we loved more than a decade ago, and even conjure great enthusiasm for having them brought back to life. But it can also make people rigid to change, convinced that “back in the day” will always be superior to the here and the now.
Those two impulses inform both the response to and the content of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, the highly anticipated, four-part revival of the beloved WB (and, later, CW) series about the bond between the bright young Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Lorelai, her quick-witted mother (Lauren Graham) who gave birth to her as a teenager. When I say highly anticipated, that’s not just standard TV-review hyperbole. Since the return of Gilmore Girls was confirmed at the beginning of this year, with creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and fellow executive producer Daniel Palladino back onboard as architects of the Gilmore narrative, details about it have been leaked and eagerly gobbled up on the internet for months. Fans of Stars Hollow, the Connecticut town where Gilmore Girls is set, proved they’re just as voracious as fans of Star Wars. They have been counting the hours until November 25, the post-Thanksgiving date that Netflix set for the Year in the Life premiere, enabling viewers to settle in for a binge-watch the same way that Rory and Lorelai would: with a mountain of leftovers spread out in front of them. (Also, probably a couple of pizzas and at least one box of Chinese food.)
The first of the four seasonally titled installments, “Winter,” does indeed open in a way that feels as comforting as digging into a just-warmed plate of turkey and cornbread stuffing. We see Stars Hollow, all a’twinkle with holiday lights. We see Lorelai, seated in that familiar town-center gazebo. And then we see Rory, again by her mother’s side and diving right back into their signature, run-on-sentence, pop-culture-reference-packed banter. “Haven’t done that for a while,” Lorelai says after a particularly quick game of dialogue ping-pong. “Feels good,” Rory replies.
And it does, for at least some of the time. It feels good to see these two ladies together again. It feels good to see so many of the other familiar residents of Stars Hollow — the ornery but ultimately generous Luke (Scott Patterson), Rory’s steadfast friend Lane (Keiko Agena), the still utterly bizarre Kirk (Sean Gunn) — on our screens again in non-rewatch form. Gilmore Girls signed off the air in 2007, at the end of its famously Sherman-Palladino-less seventh season. But while some major events have transpired in the lives of its characters since then, things otherwise have not changed a whole lot. Lorelai still has issues with her wealthy, stubborn mother Emily (Kelly Bishop). Both Rory and Lorelai still have love lives that do not always run smoothly, and still wolf down junk food and pots of coffee without gaining an ounce. The la-la-las and ba-ba-bas (sung by Sam Phillips) that always bridged the transitions between scenes remain ever-present. (The opening credits, on the other hand, are missing, and the absence of Carole King’s “Where You Lead (I Will Follow)” is felt, even though it does eventually appear on the soundtrack.)
But there’s something about the sameness of Stars Hollow that feels less quaint in A Year in the Life than it did during the run of the series. The town, some of its inhabitants, and even those who live a few miles away, like Lorelai’s parents, were always pretty tethered to the traditional. Given their disdain for snobbery and their appreciation of the quirky, Lorelai and Rory often acted as a counterpoint to all that, although even their fixation on old films and TV shows was, in some ways, an endorsement of the past over the present. But even mother and daughter, at times, come across as more judgmental and petty than they did before. (They make some unnecessary fat jokes, for example, that should be beneath their characters.)
In these four new episodes — which, at around 90 minutes a pop, are really more like four movies — the comedy is often rooted in critiques of modern society and trends. Luke has always had an anti-cell-phone sign in his diner and still does. But now he takes active steps to keep customers from using his Wi-Fi, a move that town busybody Taylor (Michael Winters), who’s usually at odds with Luke, fully supports. “This isn’t your office, it’s a diner!” Taylor shouts at the customers. “Go home. Pay for your own Wi-Fi!” Lorelai, who always was more of an analog girl, has embraced her DVR but has no patience for social media. “I don’t need some cool guy running around tweeting and making me feel uncool at my own inn,” she says at one point. There’s even a running gag about what’s referred to as the 30-Something Club: a group of adults who live in their parents’ basements and travel in a gaggle while making references to the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s meant in good fun, but in light of everything else I just mentioned, it’s also an oddly “Get off my lawn”-ish note to strike considering that millennials are a prime audience for A Year in the Life.
Before Gilmore fans totally have a stroke, know that some things do work nicely in this go-round. There are some fun cameos and nods back to the original series that will delight Luke and Lorelai loyalists. I’d tell you what at least a couple of them are, but given Netflix’s determination to shut down any and all spoilers, I’m pretty sure I’d get arrested just like Rory and Logan did that time they tried to steal a yacht. The music, TV, and movie references are, as usual, delightfully all over the map. (A binge-watch of the original version of The Returned figures into one of the seasons.)
Graham, who was always the show’s most valuable player, slips back into Lorelai mode without missing a sarcastic beat. She’s still a deft handler of sharp, quick-draw dialogue, and in light of the passing of her father — that’s not a spoiler since Edward Herrmann, who played Richard Gilmore, died in 2014 — she’s convincing in the more emotional moments as well. Bledel, always the weaker link in that mother-daughter chain, has become more assured in her performance, too, although, for a supposedly dogged journalist, she still types with all the urgency of that sloth in Zootopia. As for the widowed Emily Gilmore, Bishop still brings the same no-nonsense assertiveness to the character that she always has. Emily is basically a less funny version of Lucille Bluth, but in A Year in the Life, with her better half now absent, her edges are even more jagged and her emotions more raw.
There’s a song about Stars Hollow in A Year in the Life that runs through a list of all the terrible things in the world, from “anything by Jeff Koons” to Vladimir Putin. Its lyrics then proceed to conclude that this Connecticut town is one of the globe’s few saving graces. “What’s there not to love about the town of Stars Hollow?” the song asks, in what is both a sincere question and, perhaps, a swipe at the place’s provincialism.
While watching Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, you may find yourself asking the same thing, and you may conclude that there is still plenty to love. But you also may find yourself looking more critically at this Main Street, U.S.A., and more easily spotting some of the flaws that co-exist alongside its charms.