Gilmore Girls Is Better As a Drama Than a Comedy

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Unhappy Gilmores. Photo: Warner Brothers

When we look back on what made the original Gilmore Girls such a dearly beloved TV property, the pervasive vision is often about its warmth, its humanity, and its otherworldly, almost surrealist fantasy of Northeastern small-town life. The central idea of the series is about love and hopefulness. There are bumps along the road, of course, but the core of the series is a fundamentally cheerful, optimistic perspective of how the world works. That optimism is buoyed by a resiliently comic sensibility. So while we remember that there are rough patches between our characters, we also remember the full range of the show’s humor. It is broadly funny, particularly when Taylor frets about silly traditions and Sookie continues her Amelia Bedelia tendencies in the kitchen. It’s acerbically funny, especially where it relates to Paris Geller, Emily Gilmore, or Mrs. Kim. It is goofy, even daffy, in an unhinged-from-reality sort of way – Colin and Finn’s Life and Death Brigade exploits, any of Kirk’s many ill-conceived careers, Stars Hollows’ increasingly absurd holidays, Jackson sleeping with his vegetables. We remember it for what it was: a comedy.

It’s even easier to pigeonhole the series that way when you think about it in the context of its TV cohort. While the so-called Golden Age of TV narrative was coalescing around a male-centric handful of real downers (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Mad Men, etc., etc.), there was Gilmore Girls, happily bopping along with three female leads, a Carole King theme song, and a wardrobe-closet full of bedazzled jean jackets, baby-girl T-shirts, leather skirts, and Emily’s impeccable Chanel suits. Of course it’s a comedy. There is no violence. There are no conspiracies. The fate of the free world does not teeter in the balance. It’s about women. (Just in case you hadn’t picked up my implication here — it’s about women! Of course it wasn’t serious, or important.)

That understanding of this show and its legacy is not wholly wrong, but it is incomplete. Over the course of its seven seasons, Gilmore Girls follows its characters through major crises, through huge life changes, through enormous stress and sadness. A lot of these are romantic, so it’s not hard to dismiss them as ultimately unimportant — although that framing immediately betrays a particular bias toward the stories we value. Whatever your feeling about the various Gilmore love interests, though, there’s no denying that they bring as much pain as they do joy. Every adorable Rory and Dean kiss, every meaningful jokey interaction between Lorelai and Luke, every thrilling brush up against Jess’s sexy, intellectual bad-boy leather jacket, is matched by sequences of deep sadness. When Lorelai and Luke break up, Lorelai falls into a depression unlike any the series had depicted before. She is really broken. When Rory and Dean sleep together even though Dean’s married, it not only destroys Rory, it also opens up a massive canyon between her and her mother.

Some of the series’ most dramatic moments are also its most frustrating. Few Gilmore fans look on Rory’s yacht-stealing, Yale-ditching arc with fondness. But at the same time, the very best, most beloved Gilmore moments, especially those that feature dizzying heights of silliness and humor, are also the ones grounded with real conflict and anguish. That’s true even in the earlier years, when much of the Gilmore quality is sweetness and light. The season-two finale is a classic of this type — it’s Sookie’s wedding, Rory and Paris are involved in a typically Paris-style campaign to govern the student body, and the show is always remarkable at putting on special events. Patty and Miss Babette ogle Dean in a suit, Lorelai and Chris sleep together and seem to be on the verge of a surprisingly happy, welcome reunion. And then in the last moments, everything comes crashing down in disastrous and inevitable ways. Jess kisses Rory, forcing her to reconsider her feelings about Dean. Christopher abandons Lorelai after learning that he’s going to be a father again. In the final scene of the episode, Lorelai and Rory walk down the aisle as bridesmaids, both of them stricken and upset. The last “joke” of the season is the accompanying processional music, which Lorelai mocked Sookie for selecting earlier in the episode — stunned and hurt for separate reasons, Lorelai and Rory march through the beautiful ceremony to the tune of Ella Fitzgerald sadly crooning “I Can’t Get Started.” It is perfect, archetypal Gilmore Girls, a well of grief and injury overlaid with a colorful exterior and a wry, throbbing sense of humor.

The show is always at its best when its comedy is a veneer, more delivery mechanism than end in and of itself. It’s the entire basis and success of Emily Gilmore, a character whose acerbity and bone-dry humor is always a cover for her anxiety and wounded feelings. It’s the reason Lorelai, for her surreal, impossible fantasy-world mindset, isn’t universally loathed — she’s hurt, and she struggles with money, and has real ambitions for her career. And the Gilmore aesthetic of comedy as a thin cover for real drama is at the center of the show’s highest points. In the best episode, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?,” Rory stands in the middle of a high-school gym weeping, distraught that Dean’s broken up with her and she doesn’t know how to feel about Jess. Lorelai hugs her, astonished and unsure of what happened. At that very moment, the theme song to Rocky kicks in, and town jester Kirk begins running victory laps around the circumference of the gym, pumping his fist while he holds up the dance-marathon trophy. It’s not just an amazing moment of TV; it’s also a perfect analogy for what makes Gilmore Girls work. Silliness and fantasy run joyfully around the outside, but the core is straight drama.  

There are moments from the new season that replicate the series’ winning structure — A Year In the Life is strongest when it delves into things like the emotional realities of Emily’s life without Richard and Rory’s real conflict over her romantic relationships. But where it falters, it does so in places where the comedy is unmoored from those bigger dramatic arcs. Throwaway jokes about Stars Hollow are fun, but don’t get knit together with the more meaningful stories about human feeling in quite the same indelible way in the new season. There are gestures. Jokes about the Dragonfly’s kitchen staff are made with hand-wavy references to Lorelai’s feelings about Sookie. A running gag about Stars Hollows’ failed millennials moving back home is meant to be tangled up with Rory’s anxiety over her fraught career trajectory.

But too often in the new season, there’s just too much space between those elements, too much breathing room between the silly and the sad. It underserves them both, making the silly bits feel like trivial flights of fancy, and depriving the real emotional moments of the crucial, humorous self-awareness that allows them to feel tragic rather than just self-pitying. If anything, A Year in the Life makes it easier to look back at the original series and appreciate the show’s highlights for the glorious, messy heaps of emotional heterogeneity they really were. Rory’s broken arm and Kirk’s independent film; Lorelai’s fallout with Max at the same time as Babette’s garden gnome disappears; classic Mrs. Kim meltdowns at the same time Emily considers leaving Richard. These are the collisions and complexities that Gilmore Girls did better than anyone else, and they’re what the new season needed, and lacks, the most.