Spoilers ahead for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
Whatever else you think about the new Netflix season of Gilmore Girls, it is unquestionably uneven. There are highlights. There are some really rocky bits. There is the last sentence, which is sure to be divisive, but which should probably be considered as separate from the rest of the episode. Here, then, is how the four seasons break down, from bumpiest to most worthy of the classic Gilmore Girls.
The new season of Gilmore is at its best when it feels comfortably like itself in the older days, or when it dives into the complicated emotional realities of where the characters are now. “Spring” does the least of either of those things. Emily and Lorelai’s attempt at family therapy is frustrating for exactly this reason — it feels like it should lead to a moment where they grapple with their inter-family dynamic, but instead it just … fizzles. Luke’s franchise hunt with Emily is slightly more effective, enlivened by the chemistry between Emily and her aggressive commercial real-estate investor.
But on the whole, the threads in “Spring” feel too disconnected from the bigger season. Paris has a remarkably watchable meltdown worrying that she’s still in love with Tristan, but that plot goes nowhere. Rory’s book project falls apart, without all that much to-do. And in the end, our indicator of Rory’s slipping handle on life is that she has a one-night stand with “a Wookie,” and her response seems to be more about how she should be feeling than any emotional trauma she actually evinces. It is the baggiest, most piecemeal of the four entries. But there is a new “Film by Kirk,” so there’s that.
Summer in A Year in the Life is the season of “almost, but not quite.” As Rory becomes more adrift in her career, she moves past the unfortunate, clichéd rock bottom of sleeping with a Star Wars character and is forced to confront some more meaningful truths about her life. With Jess, of course. (Of course.) This feels like a step in the right direction for her character, but gags like the “30-something gang” hold the show back from giving Rory the depth that would actually communicate real drama for her. In parallel with Rory’s slow lurch toward self-knowledge, Lorelai and Emily do the same. Emily’s bit with the incorrect gravestone feels like something straight out of the original episodes, but at the same time Lorelai’s need to find herself feels a little out of the blue.
“Summer” is the installment with the strongest, funniest, most Stars Hollow-iest bit: Stars Hollow: The Musical, which is hilarious and amazing (and also 50 percent too long). Sutton Foster and Christian Borle are delightful, and the solo number Foster sings at the end is everything I miss about the unapologetic, overt theatricality of Bunheads. On the other hand, “Summer” is also the installment with the worst jokey Lorelai and Rory bit: everything to do with them at the pool, but most especially their insistence on pointing out who looks bad in a bathing suit. Just … why?! Who thought that was a good idea?
There are a few pieces of “Winter” that don’t necessarily land with 100 percent certainty. Kirk’s Ooo-ber venture is forced; the scene with Lorelai and Luke potentially picking out a surrogate feels extremely out-of-character for both of them (in spite of Paris’s typically excellent performance and killer new haircut). It also suffers from a hefty dose of nostalgia nudging — around every corner, a “Hey, look, it’s that character again!” lurks, waiting to wink at you with an insidery joke and a plucky guitar riff.
But “Winter” also has some of the season’s strongest material, especially in relation to Richard Gilmore’s death (and the instigating death of Ed Herrmann, who played him). The entire lengthy flashback sequence, beginning with Richard’s funeral and continuing through Lorelai’s disastrous story at the wake, is Gilmore through-and-through, with the ever-fraught relationship between Lorelai and Emily at the forefront. The follow-through is equally effective, with Emily wearing jeans and trying to Marie Kondo her mansion. It’s one of the new season’s best examples of replicating what made the original series work so well — a silly, wryly humorous veneer laid over real human feelings.
Plus, “Winter” has the season’s best winking meta-critical joke – after years of fans and critics complaining about Rory’s boyfriend, “Winter” gives us Paul, the Ann Veal of Rory’s love life.
“Fall” is not perfect. First, the last line — it’s such a swerve from what comes before that it should be considered a separate issue from the episode’s other strengths and weaknesses. In its defense, I do want to note that there’s a strong tradition of gut punches at the end of Gilmore seasons, going back to Christopher deciding to go back to Sherry at the end of season two and Richard and Emily’s separation at the end of season four. This is different, clearly. But like it or not, it is in keeping with the Gilmore way of operating. So what makes the rest of the episode strong enough to be ranked at the top?
The three Gilmore women are largely on their own, which works really well for Rory and Emily, and is slightly less successful for Lorelai. Rory’s Life and Death Brigade adventure is pure, unmarred fantasy in a way that feels more unmoored from emotional consequence than the original series ever was. But this show does fantasy really well, and Logan and Rory’s relationship comes off as the most natural and believable chemistry of any other romantic interaction in the season. Emily’s continuing quest to find herself after Richard’s death finally leads her to cast off the shackles of the DAR in a glorious, merciless smackdown reminiscent of a similar rant aimed at Shira Huntzberger from the original series. And I just cannot tell you how much I love Emily Gilmore, Whaling Museum docent. Those children have no idea what they’re in for.
Lorelai’s search for herself is not terrible, although the repeated jokes about Wild didn’t necessarily land for me. What it mostly is, like too much of this season, is just too long. So much packing of backpacks. So many false starts. She needed to find that epiphany just a little bit faster. Once she does, though, the episode picks up and things fall into place. The season ends with some overt, schmaltzy Gilmore sentimentalism, complete with Lorelai’s blessing of Rory’s memoiristic manuscript, Sookie’s return, and the fairy-land wedding. It’s unquestionably saccharine. But it hits all the right emotional notes, and there’s some solid ragging on Steely Dan.