Whew. That wasn’t terrible. That’s really the best we can hope for when it comes to a revival as endlessly promoted as Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which dropped its four 90-minute episodes on Netflix the Friday after Thanksgiving — catnip for the mothers and daughters who dutifully gathered round the TV set this weekend like pilgrims bowing before their shrine. In 2016, you don’t even have to get off your couch to journey to mecca.
Like Netflix’s 2013 reboot of Arrested Development, which initially aired on Fox, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is a walking illustration of the difference between network and Netflix. Now, Doose’s Market carries brand-name junk like Bagel Bites and Ben & Jerry’s; a boost in production quality makes the lights of Stars Hollow twinkle a little brighter. A relative lack of budget and time constraints means we see the characters in a wider variety of locations than ever before, and Rory no longer opts for club soda, but guzzles Scotch like a good WASP should.
Everything’s changed, and everything’s the same. Alexis Bledel delivers a slightly awkward, stilted performance, which she always did; Rory’s an entitled, spoiled brat, which she always was. It’s as if creator Amy Sherman-Palladino took the reunion as an opportunity not just to revisit the lives of the characters, but to take stock of the project as a whole — to reassess, in retrospect, the very premise of the show. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is at its best when it digs into what was unappealing about the Gilmore girls — Lorelai’s selfishness, Emily’s judgment, Rory’s conflict avoidance. That the final product is both completely satisfying and a little depressing feels totally appropriate.
In the years since Gilmore Girls went off the air in 2007, it’s been the butt end of not-unfair accusations that the show exists in a lily-white world of inherent privilege where the most nefarious threat is a coffee shortage. This critique is baked into A Year in the Life, which both reaffirms and calls into question the long-running CW series. That cute little small-town inn and that intrepid journalism career — how tenable are they, really?
A Year in the Life finds the three generations of Gilmore girls in a bit of a rut. They’re still grieving the death of the family patriarch, Richard (actor Edward Herrmann died in 2014), in particularl Emily (Kelly Bishop), who is utterly lost without her husband of 50 years. Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is still with Luke (Scott Patterson), but the two haven’t married, and she worries he’ll be forever unsatisfied since he never got to raise children of his own. Sookie (a mostly absent Melissa McCarthy) left the Dragonfly Inn for a six-month sabbatical that’s turned into a year, and it looks like Michel (Yanic Truesdale) might be the next to fly the coop.
Rory’s had a few articles published in glossy magazines, notably a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece that Luke has had printed on the back of his diner menus, but she’s still struggling to piece together a career in journalism. At the start of the new series, she’s left her Brooklyn apartment and committed herself to a rootless existence chasing assignments and sleeping with Logan (Matt Czuchry) when she’s in London — and when his Parisian fiancé is out of town. By the end of the series, she decides to write the story of her and her mother — titled, of course, The Gilmore Girls. (Lorelai suggests cutting “The.”)
Lorelai is facing pressure to add luxury amenities to the Dragonfly to attract A-list guests, and Rory — Chilton valedictorian, editor of the Yale Daily News, apple of every authority figure’s eye — is flailing. Like many journalists of her generation, she’s cobbling together a living on freelance magazine assignments, and beginning to doubt whether her dream career is viable.
Gilmore Girls was always a show about two well-off if unconventional white women, but it was also the rare series that took money seriously. It was always an issue: how to pay for Rory’s private school, the rotting porch, Lorelai’s inn. It was often the cause of conflicts, particularly but not only between Lorelai and her parents — remember when Lorelai asked Luke for a loan when she was getting her inn up and running? Or when Rory decided to accept her father’s offer to pay the rest of her Yale tuition? Yes, these are #firstworldproblems. But too many series depict affluent families with no real acknowledgment or explanation of where the money comes from, and where it goes.
Of course, that trademark Gilmore “who, me?” privilege is still at work in the revival. Despite Rory’s career struggles, how many working journalists have multiple people offering them empty mansions in which to write, as do both Logan and her grandmother? Lorelai’s middle-aged ennui is understandable but also, at this point, a little silly — everything’s fine — but the show seems aware of this, particularly when she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild-style, and meets a cadre of women who greet each other with, “Book or movie?” (One woman admits that, but for lack of air miles, she was going to “do” Eat Pray Love.)
But nostalgia, not privilege, is the real subject of A Year in the Life. The best thing about the revival is how thoroughly disillusioned the characters seem to be. Lorelai is happy-ish with Luke, and missing the early, golden days of the Dragonfly Inn; Paris (Liza Weil) is divorcing her college sweetheart with whom she has two children; Dean lives in Scranton; Emily’s life has been drained of purpose; Rory just wants to be 20 again.
That pervading sense of disappointment is, ironically, what makes the revival so satisfying. We can take perverse pleasure in the disappointment, because it feels like an implicit nod to the creeping suspicion that life in Stars Hollow was just too good to be true. It’s an acknowledgement of the way we build up our formative experiences until they’re walled off from reality completely, and of the deflated expectations that line the path to adulthood. You can grow up with the coolest mom ever and get a world-class education and still end up as a mistress to your college boyfriend, who’s engaged to a French heiress. You can achieve all your goals in life and still melt down in your high-school bathroom at the mere glimpse of a boy who never returned your feelings.
How disappointing that Rory didn’t end up writing intrepid foreign correspondence but a memoir about her bourgeois family! But maybe it’s perfectly fitting: In the end, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life circles back to the show’s origin story as Rory tells her mother that she’s pregnant — the father is most likely Logan, a prep-school rich kid just like her own dad, who’s about to marry another woman.
Maybe it’s appropriate that Gilmore Girls ate its own tail. The point of A Year in the Life isn’t a pair of fast-talking, blue-eyed coffee-guzzlers, but their captive audience, the viewers who have poured our hearts into these characters for the past 16 years. Our desire for a new and exciting chapter, a chance to revisit old haunts, coupled with the inevitable disappointment and recognition that not only are the best days behind you, but they maybe weren’t that great to begin with — that feeling is the engine driving any nostalgia-baiting revival. A Year in the Life shrewdly pops the hood.