Why is Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life so… disappointing?

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I joined the Gilmore Girls fan club late; while many of my middle- and high- school friends were watching the show back when it was, you know, actually on television, I discovered it on Netflix during my first week of college, when I was too wound up to sleep. I had just arrived in Massachusetts, neighbor to the Gilmores’ native Connecticut, and I was awestruck by prep schools, WASPs, and preppy style, none of which really existed in my home state of Oregon. You’ve heard it before: like so many bookish, ambitious, brown-haired girls, I saw myself in Rory. And at the same time, I didn’t see myself in Rory: no one I’d grown up with had coming out parties; I never had a high school romance; and while I liked my mom, she wasn’t my closest confidante. Nonetheless, I watched season after season, a first by myself, and later with my roommate and best friend. We railed against Rory’s lingering feelings for Dean, rooted for Paris through her tyrannical reign at the Yale Daily News, waited for Lorelai to see that Luke was truly the one, and scorned Rory’s pseudo-Skull-and-Bones escapades with rich-kid Logan. When Rory stole a boat, we still loved her.

Yet, in spite of my love for the show, I managed to put off watching the Netflix reboot Gilmore Girls: A Year For The Life for almost a full year after its release date. First, I was going to wait to watch it with a friend; then, I read the first batch of bad reviews and decided to put it off a little further. But this week, holed up in my new London apartment with a nasty cold, I watched all four movie-length episodes. If I hadn’t known from the reviews, I knew from the first half hour of “Winter” that it was a disappointment. And yet I kept watching, hoping that it would turn a corner. It didn’t.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about A Year in the Life that doesn’t work. It has all the ingredients: the banter, the coffee, the small-town charm, the mother-daughter closeness, the side-kicks and best friends, backdrop of New England privilege and WASP-y elitism, all certified by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Even Rory’s failing journalism career and quarter-life crisis aren’t without precedent—in the final season, we saw her anxious about her life after graduation—but somehow the pieces don’t quite come together.

I won’t be the first viewer to write that Rory and Lorelai have not grown up much in the last ten years—if anything, they’ve grown less likable. But I think part of the trouble with the Netflix special is its medium. Gilmore Girls, the tv series, had hour-long episodes with individual story arcs, building towards season-long arcs that were usually oriented around Rory and Lorelai’s love stories and Rory’s education. Gilmore Girls was never a strict adherent of the Chekov’s gun rule—and indeed, its propensity to clutter the story with quirky tangents was always part of its charm—but A Year in the Life takes this too far. There are too many guns and almost no gunshots; it’s obvious that all of the characters, including Rory and Lorelai, are only here to make long-time fans smile. We wanted to see Paris, so she’s running a fertility clinic that Lorelai visits; we wanted to see Dean, so Rory bumps into him in the grocery store; we wanted to see Jess, so he resurfaces in the diner; Sookie appears for a single scene (presumably Melissa McCarthy has bigger fish to fry these days); similarly, Logan’s college contingent of posh boys from Yale appear more or less out of nowhere. Yet none of these characters feel necessary to the plot. This may be because there isn’t really much plot to be had.

Gilmore Girls was always built around “will-they-won’t-they” suspense: Will Rory get into Harvard? Will Emily and Lorelai reconcile? Will Lorelai and Luke ever get together? Which boyfriend will Rory end up with for good? What about Rory’s education and career? A Year in the Life is sort of driven by the latter two questions, but it’s also sort of driven by vague questions about loss and grief: Rory’s career and love life are both foundering badly; Emily has lost her husband; Lorelai has lost her father and is worried about her relationship with Luke. These could all be perfectly good plot points—we’ve seen the Gilmores in crisis before (see stolen boat above). Yet stretched out over movie-length episodes, A Year in the Life begins to meander and loses the “will-they-won’t they” suspense that made the season-long plot arcs of Gilmore Girls work. I didn’t believe for a minute that Lorelai would break up with Luke, that Logan would leave his fiancée for Rory, or that Rory wouldn’t figure something out career-wise. Instead, we get bogged down in the tangents, jokes, and cameos, and the plot fizzles.

Rewatching “Girls”

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This spring, I watched from my couch in Queens as Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) said goodbye to the city and moved upstate to an utterly unrealistic teaching job. Then, I opened my laptop and began reading the approximately 1,000 think pieces on the show’s final season.

I thought back to April 2012, when Girls had first premiered. At the time, I was a high school senior, one academic year behind Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Six months later, I started watching the show because everyone at my women’s college seemed to talking about it: the nudity and cringe-worthy sex scenes, the cast’s problematic lack of diversity, and the gentrifying Brooklyn that it portrayed. The show was fresh and new and flawed but, true to the spirit of millennial hipster culture, no one was sure if it was deeply contrived or deeply honest.

There is probably little I can say about Girls that has not been said before. To rehash some of the key points: The show is at times good and at times terrible, and it is always messy. Like its obvious predecessor, Sex & The City, it features four white, single women living in New York, and it’s frank about sex and dating and love and friendship in ways that often felt groundbreaking. In both shows, characters who are “broke” can mysteriously live in their own spacious apartments. Sex & The City is sometimes described in aspirational terms, with  “I’m a Carrie” and “I’m a Samantha” comparisons, but no one really wants be one a character in Girls. I’ve never heard someone self-identify as “a Hannah,” “a Marnie,” “a Jessa,” or “a Shoshanna.”

This week, I’ve started re-watching Girls, and though I almost always rewatch shows from beginning to end, I found myself watching out-of-order. I skipped most of the season where Hannah is working as a teacher because her lack of boundaries with students frustrates me too much.  I watched Marnie’s (Allison Williams) wedding, and then skipped ahead to the aftermath of her divorce. I watched the season 6 episode where Shoshanna stages a friend-breakup in the bathroom of her engagement party, and the episodes in which Hanna’s father comes out as gay and her parents decide to divorce.

Girls doesn’t go as far as Master of None in exploring the potential of tv episodes that function as short films, but many of the best episodes of Girls can be watched as stand-alone stories. Marnie’s night walking through Manhattan with her ex, Shoshanna’s business trip to Japan, Hannah’s visit home to see her dying grandmother, and her interview with a manipulative and famous male writer are all slightly disconnected from the show’s central narrative.

As I zig-zagged through six seasons of a show that is, for better or worse, a voice of a generation, I wondered if this could be where a certain type of tv is headed: 25 minute mini-films that can be watched together or apart, in or out of sequence, neither pure comedy nor pure drama.

What I’ve Been Reading This Week: Ants Among Elephants, Harry Potter & Orphan Stories, & Literary Adaptations on TV

I just finished reading this excerpt of Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India featured in the Boston Review. I’m adding the book to my reading list–what I’ve read so far is a fascinating and beautifully written story that touches literature and politics through the lens of family history.

“The Threat Within: Harry Potter and the Cultural Baggage of Orphan Stories” by Kristen Martin Martin reflects on the trope of orphans in literature about children and teens, her own experience losing her parents at a young age, and the absence of honest depictions of grief in “orphan stories.” For me, her essay also brought to mind the debate over Netflix’s recent adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which spends more time exploring the impact of Anne’s childhood traumas than original novel or the 1985 TV mini-series.

And speaking of TV adaptations, check out Lisa Rosman’s “Have You Seen What TV Has Been Doing to Books Lately?” on the recent trend of prestige TV shows adapted from literary novels.

I also just learned that Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties will be debuting in October 2017! I first stumbled across Machado’s work as an intern at AGNI and have been a fan of her writing ever since, so I’m eager to read the book when it comes out!