Gilmore Girls being available on Netflix wasn’t a world altering announcement for a formerly huge fan of the show, who still owns several seasons on DVD. While I loved the show at the time, it was one thing I didn’t necessarily want to relive or rewatch. Yet I found myself settling in at my friend’s place on Friday night to watch a few episodes with her. She was already in the second season, which she claimed was better than the first.
But when I went back to watch some first season episodes on my own this weekend, starting with “That Damn Donna Reed”, I remembered how this string of episodes in the first season (beginning with TDDR and ending with “Emily in Wonderland”) really encapsulates and lays out the heart of the show.
For a little background, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) comes from a well to do family in Connecticut. At sixteen, she had a top spot in her class at a private school and a boyfriend who was bound for Princeton. Then she got pregnant. Instead of agreeing to her parents’ plan of marrying said boyfriend, she left her parents’ house and ran away to the nearby small town of Stars Hollow. Rather than accepting her parents’ help, monetarily or otherwise, she started working as a maid in the inn and raised her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) on her own.
When Rory, herself now nearly 16 when the show begins, gets into prestigious private school, Chilton, Lorelai has to come up with a way to pay for her daughter’s tuition. Since she has a blue collar job–compared to her blue blood family–managing the local inn, she must face the harsh reality of asking her parents for money.
There has been little relationship between Lorelai and her parents since she left at 16 and showing up on their doorstep to ask for money is a blow to the self-sufficient lifestyle Lorelai has worked hard to sustain.
Compared to more recent family dramas like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, which provide naturalistic dialogue, complex family relationships, and much higher stakes than most of Gilmore Girls‘ plot lines, it was difficult upon rewatch to see if Gilmore was capable of standing the test of television time. Is it watchable or relatable 14 years down the road?
When the show originally aired, the blue blooded world of Richard and Emily Gilmore was already old school. Although the Northeastern part of the country is still stereotyped as rich, liberal, and educated, as being chock full of families who have legacies at Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale, the majority of the country (now the 99%) would probably find that world, and thus the Gilmore world, unrelatable.
But the entire set up of the show–the magical Stars Hollow, the fast dialogue reminiscent of old Hollywood screwball comedies, even how much junk food the girls eat without any weight gain–is all fantastical. A cute, quirky, quaint fantasy come to life, but nevertheless, a fantasy. What makes the show rooted in reality is the family relationships, the romantic relationships, and the personal struggles between pride, self-sufficiency, and money.
When Lorelai shows up on her parents’ doorstep to ask for money to send Rory to Chilton, it’s the first step towards repairing a relationship that has been fractured for 16 years. Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop) is often painted as being emotionally manipulative by her daughter, but while Emily may be conniving one minute, the next you can see the emotional toll of missing out on 16 years with her daughter and granddaughter on her face.
Lorelai does not disdain her parents’ money, but the power it affords them. While the audience is meant to be sympathetic towards Lorelai, upon rewatching, she is quite stubborn in her opinions about her parents. She’s blind to the fact that Emily, although she has a strange way of showing it, simply wants to be involved in their lives. But Lorelai is firm in her belief that her parents will never understand the decision she made at 16 and the years of hard work which made her into who she was. And maybe on some level, she’s right. Could her parents ever really understand her struggle of someone who has worked, sacrificed, and saved?
In the episode “Christopher Returns”, the wounds and hurts from 16 years ago are opened again at a Gilmore Friday night dinner. The episode reveals that perhaps Emily and Richard can understand Lorelai’s choice because she was doing it all for her daughter. They were doing everything for their daughter, too. (Although they did it without taking Lorelai’s preference into consideration.) They might not personally approve of her forfeiture of their money and status, they will defend her decision to anyone who has a negative word to say about it. And while Lorelai’s pregnancy was unexpected and in some ways unwanted, as it derailed her plans to finish high school and attend an Ivy League college, the person who was the result of a teenage pregnancy, Rory, is always assured, by both her grandparents and Lorelai, that she is in no way to blame for any of these old family wounds.
A step towards understanding gets fractured, begins to mend, and then gets broken again. Thus is the dance of family drama in Gilmore Girls.