Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Gilmore Girls in Aftermath


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Gilmore Girls in Aftermath

by Evan Hrobak

On October 25th, we were one month out. We would soon be celebrating the election of Hillary Clinton—childhood hero of Rory Gilmore—and watching Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, filling our hearts with the limited victories of progressivism while our eyes went bloodshot from binging. There'd be coffee, probably wine, and the political circumstances of the revival would border on the poetic. Hillary Clinton turned out far less heroic than she once seemed, but a woman was about to trounce a misogynist on the grandest public stage, and that would make watching a fast-talking mother daughter duo that much sweeter.

Then November 8th happened, and the election results forced us to realize that an enormous percentage of the American citizenry thinks with a grotesque illogic that crosses into monstrosity. This is not an expression of incredulity, but an honest assessment of my neighbors and my changed relationship to them.

But November 25th came, too, and I still had a Netflix account, and I still watched A Year in the Life. I had to realize, too, that I was still capable of pleasure, of even genuine joy. How was I supposed to experience joy in a time I knew was only the beginning of something ominous? Shit, how could I go back to just watching TV?  

Not many critics shared my love of the show, which made them seem more "in touch" and less ignorant. Our cultural commentators found editorial favor by railing against Rory's journalistic ineptitude, Lorelai's cultural insensitivity, the show's overwrought portrayal of its characters' all-too-WASPy problems. The revival might have been alright under a Clinton administration, but we didn't have time for an almost exclusively upper-middle class white feminism.

I agreed, and I didn't care. I might've cared at points, then returned to not caring. I'm still not sure if I should call it apathy. Apathy strikes me as a position, stemming either from the submission to defeat in the face of the unalterable, or an anarchic rage against that reason that turns out not to govern the world. Apathy is an extreme, and I'm too average for extremes, for remarkability. I'd go to work, come comfortably home, and switch on my Smart TV. Where apathy carries the traces of revolutionary spirit, I let my spirit be mollified by episodes on autoplay—a spirit still beaten but distracted into trance rather than defeated into submission.

Only a recent convert to Gilmore Girls, I had binged all seven seasons in the fall of 2014. I fell for book-loving Rory within a few hours, but more than that, I fell for Lauren Graham performing so effortlessly as the quick-witted ever-caring friend first and mom second. The mother-daughter dialogue showcased the driving aesthetic hallmark of the WB/UPN/CW networks: fast-paced witty banter loaded with pop-culture references and double entendres primed for literary analysis. Though planned and executed as a more family-friendly programming than the network(s)'s magnum opus Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls exhibited that same enthusiasm for language play and moral ambiguity that has sustained the CW as more than just a sexed-up version of the Disney Channel. Lorelai Gilmore dared to be more than the knowing uptight maternal figure conventional of family shows. A single mother who had become pregnant in her teenage years, Lorelai eschewed her parents' money to establish herself as a self-made innkeeper and an hip and in-touch confidant to her precocious daughter. Lorelai read both as a role model and as a human with genuine difficulties in the world.

Challenge was the show's charm; Lorelai and Rory both fucked up. Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show's writer-creator, subverted the familiar loss of virginity episode by having Rory sleep with the standard first boyfriend (the overly affectionate, small-town celebrant Dean), but only after he had married someone else. Lorelai started an ill-advised romantic affair with Rory's high school English teacher, and was woefully unprepared to support Rory through her college application process. Rory didn't finish her schooling on the regular schedule, dropping out in the middle of the four-year ordeal to re-enroll later. Sure, these are minor failures and ambiguities if you compare them to those of HBO's The Wire, but lauding and loving the greatest TV show of all time is easy. Gilmore Girls has a weirder appeal.

Weirdness matters. When we govern our lives with routine—this commute with those same songs on that same radio station, that workplace with coworkers XYZ and G for some reason, the gym playing the same other playlist that you didn't choose, this restaurant, that toothpaste; that which stands out often winds up being the most influential part of our day. In each off-kilter difference, we learn to re-examine our lives, to take a look a little more askew. Weirdness saves us from a drone's existence. Offbeat and quirky are aesthetic categories that allow streamers to seek out fresh perspectives.

A Year in the Life offered Rory's perspective 10 years out. Going through your 20's or 30's in the 21st century means more uncertainty about what constitutes adulthood than previous generations experienced—in no small part because previous generations royally fucked up adulthood. Rory—with her burgeoning but somewhat unstable career, hook-up based relationship with an old romance turned casual lover, and an actual boyfriend everybody kept forgetting—brought us the modern murkiness of new adulthood in her less-than-triumphant return home.

Somehow we learn to care about and care for fictional characters, not simply as if they were people, but precisely in their aesthetic separateness from our very real subjectivity. Rory, Lorelai, Luke, and Sookie are not people we love but artistic objects that have the experience of subjectivity so we might love more specifically, for a more specific moment. We care for, and through, Rory's indeterminate adulthood because she exists only aesthetically, so we might experience both her possibility and her permanence. More than being able to relate to a character, experiencing affectionately that character as an aesthetic object allows us to explore our own humanity. When I brought up some of the revival's criticisms to a friend over coffee, she stopped me to say "Yeah, I saw those. And I didn't even read them. It's like, can't you just let me have this?" Her tone wasn't despondent but annoyed, as if the critics were unduly focusing on minor interpretative avenues without experiencing the wholeness of the show—they might have a point, but they were watching improperly. She wanted people to understand the full force of emotion and feeling rather than hone in on some particular piece for some diagnosis of internal inconsistency. She wanted an erotics of watching, rather than a hermeneutics.

That erotics gets meta when we feel the offbeat ever-presence of television watching through A Year in the Life's references to binging. In a sense, Gilmore Girls wasn't revived. When we can watch any episode in one click, when new audiences discover the show every day, when people routinely rewatch a series over multiple years, when a show inspires podcasts that feature affectionate analyses of each episode, that show leaves its particular moment of creation and moves into a weird recursive presence. Gilmore Girls doesn't belong to 2000-2007, but to the now. Further, without commercial breaks or a more than 18 second delay between episodes, every character arc, storyline, and minor piece of art direction intensifies.  

On several occasions, A Year in the Life goes so far as to make direct reference to this new and peculiar mode of watching. The show's dialogue at least twice refers to Buffy, a show that, like Gilmore Girls, exists in this strange state of being Netflix binge-able, heavily analyzed, and highly loved. In one scene, Lorelai asks how Rory is, and Rory replies "five by five." When Lorelai asks the phrase's meaning, Rory admits that she doesn't really know but had recently been marathoning Buffy. Of course, "five by five" is slayer Faith's ambiguous-in-origin slang phrase for something like "A-OK." In another episode, the always over the top Paris Gellar, now some sort of fertility company executive, berates her intern assistant and flings an insult about the college student wasting money on courses that explore Buffy the Vampire Slayer's influence on feminism. In these instances, the characters partake in the same conversations as their audiences. As Netflix would suggest both under "TV Dramas Featuring a Strong Female Lead," the contemporary audiences of both shows likely intersect. Then in some meta magnificence, characters from Gilmore Girls participate in that intersection. Tongues are deep in cheeks.

For the nerdier podcast fans, A Year in the Life offers multiple nods to their analyses of the show. When Rory decides to give up on her book project profiling the obnoxious author Naomi Shropshire, she enters a conversation with the writer's lawyer, played by Jason Mantzoukas. To the casual viewer, the actor's appearance is nothing special. At best it's an "oh that guy from that thing" kind of moment. But Mantzoukas is a star on the comedy podcast circuit, one who has repeatedly voiced his love of the show and his desire to have a role in the revival. On the Gilmore Guys podcast, fans even petitioned for Mantzoukas to play Al of Al's Pancake World, the multiethnic takeout favorite of Rory and Lorelai. Though his part is brief, Mantzoukas' appearance further demonstrates the show's commitment to the loving weirdness of watching.

Later in the revival, Rory finally finds a book project for which she has passion. At the urging of Jess (everyone's favorite boyfriend), Rory writes the story of her relationship with Lorelai. When Rory presents the book to Lorelai, the emotional force of the show turns on Lorelai's disapproval of having her personal story presented to the public. Given Lorelai's enduring coolness, the understandable reaction still manages to shock and sadden. But when Lorelai finally accepts Rory's manuscript, titled The Gilmore Girls, Lorelai has only one note: "Drop the 'the.'" In a move both subtle and sweet, the dialogue nods to everyone who has ever corrected the common mistake of adding the definite article to the show's title.

Still, there's the problem of distraction, of amusement, of not devoting attention to the imminent problems of the world. If the Trump administration is barring journalists from the White House, should we really be focusing our analytical efforts on television shows? I'd like to say yes. I'd like to defend podcast nerds and affectionate analyzers and make some sort of argument about training one's intellectual muscle through low-stakes workouts so that a more intelligent populace can pound through the pressing issues. I'd really fucking like to. Part of me believes that sort of thing, but part of me believes that isn't enough. I'm both inclined to think that analyzing TV shows is somehow good in its own right and that we ought to be more civically minded. Surely if we don't experience joy, we won't have cause for living. Surely if we don't fight our oppressors, we won't have occasion for living. Being a polemicist would be nice, but ours is an age of uncertainty.

On March 8th, I started up with a new therapist to deal with some of this uncertainty, and some biochemical problems, and some other issues. I knew that March 8th was International Women's Day, that many women were striking, that the mental health professionals in the office I was going to probably wouldn't, that we were to wear red in solidarity. I didn't know if a white guy donning a red flannel shirt could mean anything. But on the off chance that it did, I wore the shirt to the practice. When I walked in, there was no other red in the rural Pennsylvania mental health facility. Then a physician's assistant walked into reception in a red sweater. We locked eyes. Maybe she noticed, maybe she didn't. The gesture certainly wasn't grand. Hopefully it was an erotics of art.