Don's Soapbox

Learning to Love the Gilmores

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I’m not Gilmore Girls‘ target audience. I’m a 25 year old man who is discovering the show in 2014 rather than when it premiered in 2000. Our society doesn’t make it easy for men to enjoy fiction that is more traditionally marketed to girls/women. I’m not saying that it makes it easier for women (it doesn’t, and women have their own endless slew of societal pressures to deal with), but you’re much more likely to hear a girl say she likes… say Game of Thrones than you are to hear a man say he loves Grey’s Anatomy (which was great for two seasons before it imploded). And while my love of musical theater and appreciation of cheesy dance pop says that I do my best to work past what I’m expected to enjoy as an American man, I still struggle with what it ease I think I’m allowed to like and what I think I can admit to loving in public.

I’m not Gilmore Girls‘ target audience. I’ll say it again. The average American man would claim it bizarre that a grown man would decide to watch a 14 year old series about a woman and her teenage daughter with a primarily female cast ran by a female showrunner with no action or “genre” trappings which is their excuse for loving Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is basically Gilmore Girls minus the fantasy elements). So when I say I’m not Gilmore Girls‘ target audience, I’m saying I’m not its traditional marketed demographic. But I can’t think of any other show that hits more of my pop culture sweet spots than Amy Sherman-Palladino’s under-rated family drama. And I couldn’t be more proud to say that, in that regards, I am absolutely within Gilmore Girls‘s target audience.

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I should get something out of the way before I continue this post. I only just finished Season 1 tonight. I don’t know how the rest of the series goes (minus some spoilers here and there), and I understand that there is a major drop in quality once Amy Sherman-Palladino is dropped on the show runner for the final season. So, there is plenty of time for Gilmore Girls to disappoint me or to at least not live up to the absurdly high standards that its first season sets, but twenty one episodes in, I can say that it has been a long time that I have fallen in love so intensely with a show in such a short period of time.

Before I go into what makes the series special to me, I suppose it’s imperative that I discuss what Gilmore Girls is “about” though I’m also hard-pressed to name a show that is more low-concept than this (yet it earns your love despite all that). After having her daughter Rory (Alexis Bliedel) at the age of 16, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) moved out of the home of her wealthy parents (the always excellent Kelly Bishop and Edward Hermann) in Hartford, Conn. to go to the small town of Stars Hollow. Sixteen years later, Lorelei manages a Star Hollow inn (where she started out as a maid), and her now teenaged daughter dreams of an ivy-league education.

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And Rory is smart enough to get into the Chilton Academy, one of the most prestigious (and fictional) prep schools in the country, but Lorelai, who is in college part time to get a business degree and actually own her own inn one day, can’t afford the tuition. And, so Lorelai has to ask her wealthy parents for help even though they are on icy terms at best. And, so the controlling Emily and distant Richard agree to pay Rory’s tuition on the condition that Lorelai and Rory come to their home in Hartford once a week for a family dinner so that they can see their granddaughter who they barely know.

And that is the basis of Gilmore Girls. There’s so much more, but there’s no… easy hook to draw viewers in. That synopsis misses the well-executed “will they, won’t they” between Lorelai and the handsome and friendly proprietor of a local diner, Luke. It misses the flourishes of Rory’s first love with a boy who shows up at her high school just as she’s leaving for Chilton (though the less said about Dean [Supernatural‘s Jared Padalecki], the better). It misses the very complex relationship that each of the Gilmore women (Rory, Lorelai, and Emily) have with one another. It misses the eccentric denizens of Stars Hollow. It misses Rory’s best friend, the rock-loving Lane, and her controlling mother. It misses so much.

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And, if there’s a legitimate reason why people might be shy about investing their time into Gilmore Girls, it’s that the show seems like a tough sell on the surface if you aren’t interested in low-key family dramas. The stumbling block to you watching this show shouldn’t be “I’m a man, and I don’t want to watch a show about women.” If that’s your objection to Gilmore Girls (and on some subconscious level, I’m sure that was my objection for years despite hearing how critically acclaimed the show was), you need to re-examine your priorities in life, although if you’re that kind of person, I doubt you made it this far into this post.

But Gilmore Girls is one of the most expertly crafted and sincerely realized shows I’ve ever seen, and I watch more than my fair share of television. The show is famous for its lightning-fast, pop-culture fueled dialogue that would make a Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks screwball comedy proud, and that is undeniable part of the show’s appeal. I’m a sucker for great dialogue, and Gilmore Girls seems effortless in that regard in a way that is increasingly rare today minus whatever new Quentin Tarantino/Kevin Smith passion project has just been released. When characters talk in Gilmore Girls, it has the cadence and rhythms of actual conversation, and if you can keep up with the show’s endless pool of references, you’re in for an intellectually refreshing game.

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But, what even that praise of the show leaves out is that I can only name one (maybe two) other TV program that matches Gilmore Girls insight into the human condition insofar as we are social creatures and love and feel and form meaningful friendships and relationships with other human beings. No figure in Gilmore Girls is flat or one-dimensional. Everyone that you hate at first reveals deeper and deeper layers, and it is ultimately the shows least immediately likeable figures that prove to be its most rewarding. I loathed the manipulative and overbearing Emily at first as well as the High School Alpha Queen Bee Paris (Liza Weil), but they’ve become easily the most interesting and complex characters on the show, and my sister says Paris’s real character development doesn’t even begin until the next season.

The show understands that relationships don’t always end because someone cheats or turns out to be a villain. They end because of timing or hangups or the simple fact that feelings aren’t always reciprocated the way we wish they would be. Not every relationship ends because somebody has to be the bad guy. It understands that although we can be good people, that doesn’t mean we’re flawless. Rory and Lorelai can be pathologically self-involved. They aren’t always there for their more loyal friends. It understands that just because we’re good to some people, it doesn’t mean that we’re good to everyone else. Lorelai is an amazing mother, but she’s… not the best daughter. Emily can be a horrendous mother, but she’s a phenomenal grandmother. Our empathy and compassion is capable of varying depending on who we deal with.

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And the performances are (mostly) as spectacular as the characterization. Although Alexis Bliedel is young and still seems like she needs some time to mature into the role of Rory (and Dean has been the weakest part of the series thus far), Lauren Graham, Liza Weil and Kelly Bishop are truly something special. Kelly Bishop makes Emily, a character who could be far too one-note and shrewish in any other hands, into a character that is strong but wounded, confident but lonely, and caring while also harsh. Although Paris captures the aggression of that girl at every high school who must absolutely be the best, there is such an infinite well of sadness hiding inside of her, waiting to escape, that it can be painful to watch. And Lauren Graham reminds you at every turn that though Lorelai is the mother her daughter needs, she is often only keeping her own life together by strings.

Gilmore Girls is living proof that a show can be both great and accessible. It can be great and not have to be anything more than an examination of the lives of the characters it focuses on. The world doesn’t need to be at risk. Millions of dollars don’t have to be at stake. Soap opera melodramatics don’t need to be employed. A show can be serious and funny. A great show can be fun without sacrificing its insight. A great show can be so confident in its characters and premise that subplots and major supporting characters can disappear for weeks at a time if they’d distract from the current conversation.

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And Gilmore Girls is surely a great show. My father, who is far less likely to enjoy “traditionally” female television/interests than I am, was a fan of the show years before I ever watched it (if only because my sister made him watch it with her as she was growing up). If you like great characters, there simply isn’t an excuse to not watch Gilmore Girls, especially now that it’s made its debut on Netflix. It’s better written than 90% of the fare on TV today, and it has charm and warmth to spare. In an age where so much prestige TV is desperately cynical, something that manages to be both this full of knowledge of The Way We Live Now (or at least, how we lived in 2000) and of hope and empathy can’t be missed. Fall in love with the Gilmore Girls. I know I have.

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