A Self-Conscious, Self-Aware Return To Stars Hollow

‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ remains persistently aware of the underlying question of mortality presented by its return from the dead

After a decade-long hiatus, the highly anticipated Netflix revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life opens with mother-and-daughter team Lorelai and Rory Gilmore meeting at the Stars Hollow gazebo to share food and conversation. It all seems so familiar that it’s too familiar, and the torrent of references jumping from scabies to Les Misérables to Goop to Yonah Schimmel finally culminates in a breathlessly self-conscious gasp from Rory, from actress Alexis Bledel, and presumably from the entire cast and crew of the new season of Gilmore Girls: “Oh wow, winded.” Lorelai (Lauren Graham) doesn’t quite wink in response, but the show can’t resist one more acknowledgment of its own return: “Haven’t done that for a while.” Welcome back to Stars Hollow, and welcome to the new world of revival TV.

Gilmore Girls isn’t the first beloved television series to be revived by the streaming wars based on the strength of a rabid fan base, but Gilmore Girls is different from The X-Files or even Full House in that the original series was a serial drama that documented little more than time passing in the lives of its cast of small-town characters. The first season of Gilmore Girls premiered at the dawn of the new golden age of television — just one year after The Sopranos and two after Sex and the City—and however simple the results, the Gilmore Girls formula has proven resistant to imitation or franchise.

Gilmore Girls showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino is rarely mentioned alongside the giants of modern television — the Chases, the Milches, the Weiners, the Gilligans, the Sorkins — but her show was the chatty Austen to prestige television’s plotty Dickens, as singular an artistic vision of what television could accomplish as any of its masculine counterparts. Gilmore Girls was an hour-long domestic drama that often played like a comedy, an evening aperitif lacking foundation in genre that also didn’t bother much with the heaviness of a cause-and-effect narrative. The lives of Emily, Lorelai, and Rory Gilmore were undramatic, unbothered by the usual constraints of hero’s journeys or season-long character arcs, and despite the show’s famously dense dialogue, the pace of the series mimicked the pace of real life. Underlying resentments might bubble under the surface for two or three seasons before anyone thought to say anything, years might pass before characters who were meant to be together got together, and the larger contexts of class and gender that underpin the Gilmores’ behavior were sometimes discussed but never altered. Meanwhile, episodes themselves would float by in a cloud of banter, the characters communicating more about their favorite ’80s girl groups than they did about their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their lives.

For people who never watched Gilmore Girls, the devotion it inspires from its audience can be baffling — is this not a cult of white women who just love to hear themselves talk? But for fans of the series, its combination of conversational creativity and slow dramatic turnover makes the show feel like a benevolent extension of the world we already inhabit. If series like The Sopranos invested the structure of soap operas with thematic heft and complexity, Gilmore Girls hewed closer to that other marvel of small-town oddities, Twin Peaks, in its devotion to tone, rhythm, and mood. And like Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls ceased to function once it started to behave as a more recognizable soap. Despite Sherman-Palladino’s public ousting by the then-nascent CW network, the derided final season of Gilmore Girls was just as full of banter and quirky bit players as its beloved early seasons. Instead, the mistake was in treating Gilmore Girls as a soap built to accommodate long-lost love children or surprise marriages. The resentment over those misguided final episodes has lasted with the series even as new fans came to the show through streaming or over the course of its successful period of syndication with ABC Family. So with the new season offered by Netflix, showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino has been given the opportunity to return to her show on her own terms, and in watching, fans of the Gilmores are gifted one last chitchat.

But even for the most optimistic fan of the original series, it would be hard not to worry that the platonic dream of a return will be failed by the constrictions of reality. Those looking homeward after time has passed often find that you can’t go home again ... so what happens when you try to go to Stars Hollow after nearly a decade’s absence? In truth, there is a kind of uncanny pall cast over Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life — like in a zombie movie, the spirit of the dead can’t quite return to the body without leaving something behind in the transition. For as much as Gilmore Girls was known for its dialogue, the visual language of the original series is thrown into sharp focus with the repeated shocks of watching new angles on familiar sets, new cutting patterns for familiar conversations, and new (older) faces on familiar characters. The visual style of the original series is self-consciously mimicked by a new crew with new lighting setups and new digital cameras. The colors seem off — was the original show really sepia-toned, or is it just the way my memory has preserved it?

To its credit, however, if the series isn’t quite the same as it was before, Sherman-Palladino’s writing at least acknowledges the gap. In some ways, the focus Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life puts on time is a narrative necessity born from the death of Edward Herrmann, the actor known for playing Richard Gilmore — the show’s closest reminder of a patriarch. But even beyond the death of a beloved co-star, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life remains persistently aware of the underlying question of mortality presented by its return from the dead. Sherman-Palladino wisely centers both beginnings and endings in the new series, and the strongest material comes from its direct attempts to grapple with what is lost and what is gained with the passage of time. Each episode of the show is devoted to a new season — “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall” — and if the four 90-minute installments threaten to burn by with the adrenaline of a defibrillator charge, there are enough moments of quiet troubadour strumming to remind you of the calm that the original series had to offer. If it’s not really possible to recreate an experience once the moment has passed, there’s at least comfort in knowing that someone else saw what you did the first time and loved it enough to try to preserve it.