Gilmore girls: A Year in the Life (2016)

I’ve watched every episode of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore girls at least once; the program is a kind of pop comfort food, reassuring if never really good. That might surprise someone new to the series, given the level of anticipation for the Netflix 4-episode revival, which debuted the day after Thanksgiving.

The original show revolved around single mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her bland, Harvard-bound daughter Rory (sweetly marble-mouthed Alexis Bledel). Revolved is a good word – over 153 long episodes, the characters stayed pretty much the same, maddening for those who like character development, new settings and storylines. Palladino set the series in a fictional town-that-time-forgot, Stars Hollow, populated by sitcom-worthy nutballs who were rarely allowed to be more than just quirks.

I know all of that makes it seem that I don’t like the show, a dangerous assertion in my house. It’s like Happy Days, Air Supply, or a John Grisham novel – I can enjoy those even if, and sometimes because, they’re predictable and cliché. I love the chemistry between Graham and Bledel, although Graham usually did the heavy lifting performance-wise. Sherman-Palladino peppered her scripts with pop-culture references that rarely led to anything beyond “how many of those did you catch?” (Although I enjoy pop-culture references, I like them better when they’re layered into actual jokes, which Dan Harmon did better than anyone with Community.) Still, and it must be said, Lauren Graham nailed the delivery of monologue after rapid-fire monologue – she’s enough to hold interest, and keeps me coming back.

So how did I approach A Year in the Life, four new episodes filmed and set nine years after the original series ended? With the same anticipation as a fan; perhaps, as only a moderate fan, more likely to be pleasantly surprised. The big news, of course, is the return of Amy Sherman-Palladino, after 22 season 7 episodes without her. According to legend, Palladino always knew the “last four words” of the series, which she promised to reveal in the Netflix revival. The timing was a stroke of marketing brilliance – all of the new episodes released at once, on a blacker than usual Black Friday, perfect for a day- or weekend-long binge.

I was looking forward to a bigger budget, and better cinematography. The original series was pre-HD, and had been reframed when Netflix picked it up in 2014 – that resulted in the original image being reduced, cut off at the bottom and top, while being shown on bigger and sharper screens. Because the town of Stars Hollow is arguably a character itself, I looked forward to seeing it in crisp high definition. I also hoped, frankly, for a certain amount of what’s derisively called “fan service” – giving the people what they want. (True, I’d applauded Netflix’s Arrested Development revival for NOT appeasing fans, which yielded a strange masterpiece; I don’t think Sherman-Palladino has the creative chops to pull off that kind of thing.)

And so we watched, consuming the show as Netflix intended, in a great day-after binge, pausing only for the bathroom and to refresh our plates of leftovers. My hat is off to Netflix, which streamed without a hitch to our house, at least. (I was a subscriber when the company was a DVD mail-delivery rental service, and remember being mystified at how a movie could possibly stream in almost real-time over the Internet. The year Netflix introduced streaming was, coincidentally, the same year Gilmore girls finished its initial run.)

Here’s the bottom line: The first 90 minutes (Winter), written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino, aren’t promising on most counts. Even the cinematography tends to keep the performers dark against too-bright backgrounds. The big exception is Liza Weil’s Paris Geller: the actress has become a great AS-P interpreter, perfectly spinning every line and nailing the rhythms like never before. The middle segments (Spring and Summer), written and directed by Daniel Palladino, are much stronger than I expected. These feature two whacked-out set pieces, a short film and a stage musical, both unapologetically weird and satisfying, that rank among the best moments in the series. The final 100 minutes (Fall), again written and directed by AS-P, is best, managing sublime fan service and (surprisingly) moving the characters forward at last. I thought the Last Four Words were perfect closure.

Gilmore girls can sometimes be surprisingly tone-deaf. In one scene from A Year in the Life, the town discusses holding a Pride parade, but scraps the idea because they don’t have have enough gays. The labored joke of the scene is that everyone expects Town Selectman Taylor Doose to admit he’s gay, but the bit peters out with his obliviousness. A more interesting approach would have been to hold the parade anyway. Also, there are several misjudged fat jokes, delivered by the always-hungry, always eating, and always skinny Lorelai and Rory. All of these are lazy even by network sitcom standards. Finally, until the very last episode, Kelly Bishop’s Emily Gilmore has been obligated to play a watered-down version of Jessica Walters’ Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development – cluelessly racist and classist, except not funny. A Year in the Life stubbornly persists in mistreating the character (and her servants, who end up moving in with her because she doesn’t understand their language – not remotely as funny as the Palladinos seem to think it is) before finally allowing her a few moments of grace in the end.

I don’t think A Year in the Life will impress anyone unfamiliar with Gilmore girls. Although it delivers a few great set pieces, and more than a few good monologues, most of it rests on what’s gone before. The return and immediate disappearance of many characters adds no meaning to the new episodes, even if they’re welcome cameos to fans. (My favorite was Lauren Graham’s boyfriend and Parenthood co-star Peter Krause, in a clever pop-culture meta reference; Mae Whitman also has a fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-her moment.) Sub-plots are developed and forgotten, and the 370 minutes could have easily been 120 tight minutes, leading to those Last Four Words.

On the other hand, some of the satire is quite good – I liked the bit about Lorelei “doing Wild,” with the repeated distinction “book or movie.” The 30-something group of college graduates who live in their parents’ basements is a fun recurring gag, perfectly capped by the parental support group that gets together to drink and proofread their kids’ cover letters. When Rory tries to write a story about people who wait forever in lines, Lorelai inadvertently scores every product without joining the lines at all. (The button on the scene, about a line for nothing at all, is undersold but still lands.)

153 episodes is a big commitment just for these last four episodes, although that will probably yield the greatest satisfaction. Season one’s 21 episodes set the template for every season: repeated mini-arcs of inconsequential conflict and reconciliation. (Lorelai and Emily finally attend a therapist together during A Year in the Life, which should have been a rich comedic setup but goes nowhere.) It might be worth the effort to watch everything, especially for Graham’s consistent brilliance and for the occasional gag that rises above the general level to surprise. (Sometimes, the opposite is true – composer and singer Carole King appeared in the original series and in A Year in the Life, always to curious lack of effect. In the revival, King plays an “unreleased song” to unimpressed town members – I Feel the Earth Move. Surely there’s a better use for Carole King in this pop reference-dropping universe than to be cruelly dismissed after performing one of the biggest singles ever recorded?)

For an abbreviated tour of Stars Hollow, check out the following ten episodes, all on Netflix: Pilot (S1/E1); Rory’s Birthday Parties (S1/E6); Love and War and Snow (S1/E8); Forgiveness and Stuff (S1/E10); That Damn Donna Reed (S1/E14); Emily in Wonderland (S1/E19); Love, Daisies and Troubadours (S1/E21); Lorelai’s Graduation Day (S2/E21); They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They? (S3/E7); A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving (S3/E9). The faces change, and these don’t cover all of the ones that show up in A Year in the Life (Rory’s college boyfriend Logan, played by Matt Czuchry, is a favorite in my house.) Still, a decent overview.

* Addendum: The women in my house point out that I have egregiously omitted the episode You Jump, I Jump, Jack (S5/E7) from the above list, and that I might have chosen a number greater than ten as guideline. While we’re at it, I might also have included Teach Me Tonight (S2/E19), because it features Kirk’s first film, worth seeing for that reason alone. Finally, Sarah asked me which of ALL the GG episodes is my favorite, including A Year in the Life. In my opinion, Fall (S8/E4) is best, the most satisfying expression of the series.