Comfort Me, Gilmore Girls

These stressful times demand your small-town, screwball dramedy. Welcome back.

By Shannon Rupp 25 Nov 2016 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be in Stars Hollow.

Until the American election happened, I wasn’t planning to visit the beloved fantasy world in which all wishes come true and all Americans are decent. But suddenly the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life, arriving Nov. 25, seems to make cultural sense. The series is like the modern answer to the screwball comedies that Hollywood churned out by the dozens in the 1930s and ‘40s.

When Gilmore Girls ran from 2000 to 2007 it was a cult hit, with an audience of about 5 million, and it fell into a category of shows I’d dubbed “Gazebo TV.” (With a bit of a sneer.) That’s because these gentle dramadies all seemed to be shot on the Warner Brothers backlot, which was the template for a small town America of everyone’s dreams. That particular gazebo was like a warning sign for silly sentimental shows, including Hart of Dixie and Ghost Whisperer.

It showed up so often that I threatened to write a paper on “Gazebo Semiotics: The True Meaning of the Band Box.” At the Sign of the Gazebo, you would find shows that were soothing. They comforted viewers with a sunny, unrealistic view that in America everything was all right.

But the Gilmore Girls’ rapid-fire dialogue punctuated with pop culture jokes made them a cut above the usual Gazebo TV fare, despite the show’s warm-hearted charm. Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino named her production house “Dorothy Parker Drank Here,” which is a clue to her own fondness for screwball comedies and quick-witted dames of another era.

Particularly in its early seasons, Gilmore Girls felt like a hybrid of old Hollywood’s fantasy films. Flicks like It’s a Wonderful Life, which featured an emotionally satisfying take on small town decency. Or Bringing Up Baby, which starred a fast-talking Katharine Hepburn, who wrangles a leopard across Connecticut for reasons too complicated to explain.

The backstory of the lead, Lorelai Gilmore, is that she was a teen mom who ran away from her mega-rich family and found a job as a chambermaid in a charming Connecticut inn. Through hard work and pluck she rose to be the manager, all the while buying a house and raising a brilliant, beautiful and remarkably polite daughter, Rory. The child is so special that she gains admission to one of those prep schools designed to groom the upper classes.

When the show first aired I kept wondering how Lorelai could have afforded childcare and health insurance in those early days. Were maids in charming inns paid so well? But I decided that suspending disbelief isn’t just crucial when it comes to Gazebo TV — it’s the whole point. It’s where you go when you’re weary of reality.

When the show kicks off, the crisis driving the plot is how Lorelai will fund Rory’s pricey private school. She applies to her estranged parents for a loan, and they respond as any good family would: with blackmail. Lorelai’s mother Emily will pony up the tuition fees in exchange for a weekly dinner, at which they can all be politely and hilariously dysfunctional amidst the posh décor.

Mother and grandmother can barely stand each other (because they’re so alike, as we will learn) and their verbal sparring is great television. For audiences, it’s the best of all rescue fantasies: we know nothing bad can happen to the Gilmores because they are backstopped by barely-imagined wealth. And yet we, like Lorelai, can take shots at her (undoubtedly) Republican parents.

The grandparents are amusingly obnoxious. Emily’s inability to keep a maid, because she is so critical, becomes a series-long joke. But at least they’re not hypocrites. Unlike Lorelai, woman of the people, who lives proudly on plebeian takeout food like pizza without once noticing that she too has servants who provide all her meals.

I’ve long suspected that the secret of the Gilmore Girls appeal is that it features a roster of unapologetically opinionated women who behave badly and are beloved because of it. Not in spite of it: but because of it.

Lorelai, Emily, and Rory all launch zingers as if they’ve been studying Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films, and they never hesitate to give voice to those judgmental things they’re thinking. The only difference between the mother and grandmother is that while Emily quips to reinforce the social order, Lorelai pokes fun at the pompous.

Both characters have a low tolerance for fashionable nonsense, and on its Netflix debut the show earned much tut-tutting among the pearl-clutchers for quips that offended delicate sensibilities.

But that’s why we like them: these women don’t apologize for being themselves. And neither does anyone else in Stars Hollow.

There’s something comforting about a place that shrugs off differences of all sorts — ethnicity, politics, manners — and let’s people live their lives, no matter how strange they find them.

Miss Patty, the town dance teacher, is often glimpsed in the background mounting elaborate kiddie pageants where her dreams of Broadway glamour meet the realities of the local ballet school. Community theatre is always a rich source of comedy, but some of what makes Stars Hollow so funny is the respectful way in which Miss Patty’s parade of bizarre productions are embraced. It’s a place where culture thrives (but we’re not sure that’s a good thing).

The town is constantly immersed in holiday celebrations or activities like marathon dancing and knit-a-thons. They go to town meetings to debate silly bylaws. They have revolutionary war re-enactors. They have a town troubadour, who strolls the streets with a guitar and punctuates many of the scenes.

It’s the weirdness and the respectful way they all treat odd behaviour that is so reassuring. Most of the recurring characters are eccentrics and no one seems to mind. By the time we meet Michel, Lorelai’s assistant manager at the inn, it’s clear there’s no one these people won’t tolerate. Michel is French, but not in that charming film star way. The character is the embodiment of every American cliché about the rude and arrogant French. Half the gag, as he delivers his supercilious lines in a fake French accent, is wondering how long it will take some anti-defamation group to protest his very existence.

As many critics pointed out when it first ran, the show is charming, but terribly flawed. And after seeing the previews for the new series, most critics agree that not much has changed in Stars Hollow. It’s likely the reboot will delight fans but mystify the unconverted.

TV critic John Doyle sniffed that the show was never important, just a minor hit that had an unusually rabid fanbase.

Gilmore Girls was and is ersatz drama of a very middling grade,” Doyle writes, adding that he doesn’t begrudge fans getting more of their favourite thing, but he thinks it’s overrated. “The revival was fanned by social media and, like a lot of things on social media, the reality isn’t that important at all.”

I might have agreed with him a year ago. But I think he’s misreading why there’s such a longing for Stars Hollow and wacky characters.

Gilmore Girls doesn’t just have the style of a screwball comedy; it has the purpose of one. Those films were popular in an era when the real world was sliding into darkness, and they were welcomed partly because they offered escapism. I don’t think I can stand reading one more story about the rise of Nazis and I bet my grandparents couldn’t either. And while the show may be a “middling” kind of drama, as Doyle says, it’s also a hopeful one. We tell ourselves cheerful tales on the theory that if we can imagine a happier world, we can build it.

So I’m done with grim reality for the next week or so, while I spend time in a town where they like difficult women. The series has been divided into seasons and the first episode is Winter, which means that gazebo will probably be covered in snow and twinkle lights. Pretty!  [Tyee]

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