Sunday, October 5, 2014

‘Gilmore Girls’

The dramedy Gilmore Girls (2000-07), which debuted on the late W.B. Television Network 14 years ago today, was a favorite show of mine.  I watched it loyally from its second season (I got hooked by its lead-in to Smallville) until its series finale five years later.  Ten years ago, I even bought the first three seasons on DVD, but I ended up not watching them as often as I thought I would.  I knew that Gilmore Girls developed a devoted following, but I was unprepared for the Internet’s explosion of excitement when the series was made available for streaming on Netflix at the beginning of this month. 

Thanks to this welcome cyberspace hullabaloo, I was inspired to watch my Gilmore Girls DVDs for the first time in a long while.  And I was pleasantly reminded of why I like the show so much: its cozy ambience, its superb cast, its witty rapid-fire dialogue, its fully realized characters.  I’m now happy to be reacquainted with the series.  It feels a bit like catching up with a good friend after a long absence. 

Lauren Graham as Lorelai (left)
and Alexis Bledel as Rory
For those who don’t know, Gilmore Girls follows the day-to-day travails and triumphs of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), an inn manager in the (fictional) town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut.  Lorelai’s wealthy mother and father, Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann), live very well in Hartford’s high society.  Years ago, they groomed Lorelai to be a part of that world, but she was too much of a free spirit to belong in such a conformist, repressive environment.  When she was 16, Lorelai became pregnant, and after the birth of her daughter — also named Lorelai but who goes by the nickname Rory — she ran away from home to get away from her controlling parents.  As the series begins, Rory (Alexis Bledel) is now 16 herself (making Lorelai a very youthful 32) and an excellent student accepted to the prestigious (and very expensive) Chilton private preparatory school.  Unable to afford Chilton on her own, Lorelai goes cap in hand to her parents.  To get their estranged daughter and grandchild back into their lives, they loan Lorelai the money on the condition that she and Rory have dinner with them every Friday.  These dinners become the locus of most of the story-driving tensions from episode to episode. 

Lorelai’s life in the quirky town of Stars Hollow includes her managing job at the Independence Inn and her occasional romantic relationships, especially her will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with hunky local diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson, who also played the “spongeworthy” guy in that episode of Seinfeld).  Meanwhile, Gilmore Girls also chronicles Rory’s days in the equally repressive and controlling environment of Chilton (and after she graduates, Yale University), particularly her ambivalent association with her frenemy Paris Geller (Liza Weil).  Another story line concerns Rory’s on-again/off-again relationships with town good boy Dean Forrester (Jared Padalecki) and city bad boy Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia). Gilmore Girls’s hook is the wisecracking, pop-culture-referencing rapport between the whimsical Lorelai and the more down-to-earth Rory, a relationship more like sisters than mother-daughter.  When selling the series, creator Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched a show where a mother and her daughter were best friends.

Because Gilmore Girls is decidedly woman-centered (a number of commentaries credit it for passing the Bechdel test with flying colors), I’m not surprised that — as in the days of the show’s first airings — its following is mostly female.  In the years when the show was on the tube, I would surf the Web for Gilmore Girls discussion groups.  In all cases, the cyber communities were overwhelmingly populated by fans with XX chromosomes.  This was fine, but their on-line discussions tended to be limited to the romantic relationships on the show (the favorites among the fans were Lorelai-Luke and Rory-Jess), which didn’t leave much room for discussion of the show’s other merits.  If I had first heard of Gilmore Girls through these discussion boards, I would have thought that the series in question was nothing more than a soap opera.  Also, popular culture at the time (e.g., Saturday Night Live sketches) seemed to harbor the idea that male viewers of Gilmore Girls were mostly gay and equally fixated on Lorelai’s and Rory’s love lives. 

I thought that Gilmore Girls’s reputation as a show with an almost exclusively female and gay-male audience was a huge disservice to such a well-crafted and searingly insightful show.  Despite Gilmore Girls being undeniably estrogen-powered, there was no reason, I thought, why my fellow heterosexual men couldn’t be equally spellbound by the series and rid it of its undeserved reputation as a “mere” chick show, as a show primarily about romantic relationships, tugging heavily and blatantly on the heartstrings.  With its fully fleshed-out characters and its keen, nuanced glimpses into the machinations of social hierarchy, among other elements, Gilmore Girls was so much more than that.  (Obviously, it’s a statistical probability that the series must have had many other straight male viewers, but we seemed to be M.I.A. whenever the show was discussed by the media.)  So, on one of the Gilmore Girls discussion boards, I posted a satirical piece about straight men being excessively stigmatized for liking the show.  I titled what I wrote (drawing upon Gore Vidal’s neologism for heterosexuals) “Grims for Gilmore Girls,” which I’d love to repost, but the discussion board has vanished from the Internet, and I can’t find a copy of the piece anywhere nearby. 

The third Gilmore girl:
Kelly Bishop as Emily
Anyway, one of Gilmore Girls’s most perceptive elements was how it portrayed upper-middle class life as downright Machiavellian: the rich (i.e., the world of Richard and Emily Gilmore) were always manipulating someone in order to acquire or preserve whatever piece of turf was at stake.  One episode that emphasized this was “Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom!,” in which the otherwise amiable Richard cold-bloodedly screws over his business partner in order to save himself from bankruptcy. In fact, the premise of the entire series (a recalcitrant Lorelai compelled to have weekly dinners with her frosty parents) was an effort by the elder Gilmores to manipulate their estranged daughter back into their lives.  I wanted to write something on this aspect of the show, but someone beat me to it, and did a very nice job.  In New York magazine, Lilly Loofbourow has written an article titled “What Gilmore Girls Gets Right About Money and Love,” in which she insightfully details the characters’ intertwining of economics and affection: “Money is rarely [only] about money in Gilmore Girls; it’s about coercion, its about power, but it’s also about creating financial channels for love where other methods have failed.”  The piece is a refreshing change from the ubiquitous fan-authored Internet odes about how Lorelai and Luke should get married, or about how dreamy bad-boy Jess is, and I enthusiastically recommend it. 

Michael Winters as Taylor Doose
Thinking of the show also reminded me of the number of times during its production that I bumped into cast member Michael Winters, who played Stars Hollow busybody Taylor Doose, at my local diner and made small talk with him.  The weekend after the first broadcast of the episode “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?,” I ran into him at a local restaurant, and we had a brief conversation about the episode.  He spoke highly of its director, Kenny Ortega

At the same diner on another day, I also ended up sitting at a table next to Alexis Bledel.  She munched on a salad and never took her eyes off her laptop, which she viewed with an increasingly consternated look on her face.  It appeared as though she were reading bad news on the display.  Had she looked more relaxed, I might have gone up to her and told her how much I enjoyed Gilmore Girls.  But since she didn’t look happy, I gave her space.  

On the other hand, I have no amusing anecdotes about the time I saw cast member Keiko Agena — who played Lane Kim, Rory’s best friend — at my local Fatburger.  Other than I get to say “Fatburger,” which is a funny word.  

The ‘almost’ Sookie: Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan
on ‘MadTV’
However, Gilmore Girls came within a hair’s breadth of making me never want to watch it.  The role of Sookie St. James, Lorelai’s best friend and eventual business partner, was played to bubbly perfection by Melissa McCarthy, who has since gone on to become the closest thing Hollywood has had to a plus-size female movie star in decades, thanks to her scene-stealing success in the big-screen comedy Bridesmaids (2011).  Fans of Gilmore Girls who love McCarthy’s work on the show wonder why it took the rest of the movie-going world so long to catch on to the actress’s charismatic dexterity with both comedy and drama.  But even though any other actress is now unthinkable in the role, McCarthy wasn’t Sherman-Palladino’s first choice to play Sookie.  That distinction goes to Alex Borstein, the comedian who made her name on the comedy-sketch series MadTV (1995-2009), most infamously as the recurring character of Ms. Swan (formerly Ms. Kwan), a stereotypical, English-mutilating Asian manicurist that Borstein played in yellowface.  Borstein’s unironically rehashing shopworn Asian stereotypes was bad enough, but she and the creators of MadTV went an extra step: when complaints about the character came pouring into the show from irked Asian American viewers, Borstein and the creators went out of their way to deny that Ms. Swan was ever meant to be Asian, making credibility-crushing arguments in the process.  As a result, ever since her debut as Ms. Swan (a character that I never found in the least bit funny), I have detested Borstein’s on-screen presence.  Since MadTV wouldn’t let Borstein out of her contract, she wasn’t able to accept the role of Sookie, so as a consolation, Sherman-Palladino cast her in a handful of supporting roles throught Gilmore Girls’s run.  I can bear Borstein’s appearances in these small roles, but had she been cast in the major role of Sookie, I don’t think that I could have watched Gilmore Girls at all.  So, I’m glad that the casting of Sookie worked out the way it did.

Bledel and Graham reunited in 2010 for an ‘Entertainment Weekly’ photo shoot

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls.  It’s been too long.  And I’m glad to see that a TV show with crackling dialogue and such well-drawn female characters is still so fondly remembered and can generate such enthusiasm and excitement. 

A haiku that I wrote in response to the most incredulity-inducing aspect of ‘Gilmore Girls’: Every week, Lorelai and Rory would be shown continually chowing down on cheeseburgers, pizza, tater tots, and assorted sweets without exercising, but they would still look svelte in each episode.  I suppose that cathode-tube fantasy is the female equivalent of James Bond bedding virtually every woman he meets.  

Gilmore Girls, Interrupted:  Since so many viewers were disappointed by the show’s seventh, and last, season (the only season without Sherman-Palladino), especially its awkwardly retrofitted series finale, the aether has swarmed with rumors of a Gilmore Girls feature film that would conclude the saga of Lorelai and Rory in a more polished manner, closer to the way envisioned by its creator.  After luxuriating in all of the buzz about Gilmore Girls’s new availability for streaming on Netflix, I hope the Powers That Be in Hollywood copper-boom and such a movie soon sees the light of day. 

Update, December 31, 2014: I’m sorry to report that if a Gilmore Girls movie is ever made, its cast will not include Edward Herrmann, who died today after a struggle with brain cancer.  I — and certainly many others — will always fondly remember his seven seasons as Richard Gilmore, as well as his definitive portrayals of President Franklin Roosevelt in the TV movies Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and its sequel, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).  Rest in peace, Mr. Herrmann.

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