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Unlike so many of the remakes, reboots and revivals that are meant to deliver a syringe of diluted nostalgia into the needle-marked veins of regressive entertainment junkies, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life feels like it has a reason to exist.
Back in 2006, after six seasons, Gilmore Girls was forcibly separated from creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Fans had to watch the seventh season ever conscious that Lorelai and Rory Gilmore no longer talked the way they used to, no longer related with the same affection and intellectual crackle. When the show ended after that spotty season — not awful so much as disassociated and uninvolving — fans had to accept an alleged ending that wasn’t Sherman-Palladino’s ending, closing words that weren’t Sherman-Palladino’s oft-teased “last four words.”
Air date: Nov 25, 2016
Although it is plagued with structural problems and a questionable relationship to the passage of time, A Year in the Life is better than the season that fans were previously stuck with and Netflix was wise to send all four installments to critics, because the fourth episode is easily the strongest as Sherman-Palladino is able to dispense with wheel-spinning and steer the series to the emotional landing she always intended.
A Year in the Life is segmented into four movie-length episodes corresponding to seasons, starting with “Winter.” Sherman-Palladino wrote and directed the first and fourth, with husband and regular collaborator Daniel Palladino handling those duties on the middle two. (Fans have always had a mixed response to Daniel, crediting him with a reasonable approximation of Amy’s impossibly paced dialogue and slow-detonating emotion, but still the Hydrox to her Oreos. It’s a comparison that still applies, but only if you ignore that Hydrox came first or if you give Hydrox extra credit because they’re kosher. In a blind taste test, most reasonable people can tell the difference and state a preference. I feel like Lorelai and Rory would appreciate this analogy, but Amy and Daniel might not.)
Especially in the early “seasons,” A Year in the Life is warring with itself, as Sherman-Palladino wants to be picking up right where she left off, to act like there wasn’t a seventh season and there wasn’t a cancellation and like it isn’t 2016, leaving the miniseries stuck halfway between stagnation and needing to over-explain that the sand has continued through the hourglass. Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is cohabiting with Luke (Scott Patterson) and running the Dragonfly, but that may be a rut, rather than just continuity. Rory (Alexis Bledel) is a jet-setting writer and she has a man in her life, but those changes may mask a personal and professional rut. Emily (Kelly Bishop), sadly, is in a different kind of rut, struggling with the still recent death of Richard (the late Edward Herrmann, whose legacy and memory weigh heavily on the entire miniseries, as of course they should).
I don’t think that spoils anything that Netflix didn’t want spoiled and it certainly leaves dozens upon dozens of characters’ fates to be discovered as A Year in the Life often feels like just a cavalcade of familiar faces returning so that fans can clap and cheer. My notes for the first installment are basically “Cameo! Cameo! Cameo! Cameo!” Several beloved characters get to fill in the gaps from those missing years, and a handful of really random characters get to make curtain calls, but with most we’re just supposed to assume that Stars Hollow, Connecticut, is a town outside of time.
Time has passed in the world of the show, but you can tell Sherman-Palladino wishes it hadn’t. It’s better if you pretend that Rory is still in her mid-20s, that you assume that each and every character dynamic is intact and consistent, that you don’t dwell on which pop-culture references are current and which have been in Sherman-Palladino’s back pocket for years. (And, time-wise, don’t get me started on asking viewers to pretend that Paul Anka, the Gilmore dog, is both the same dog-character and the same dog-actor as when we left off. That’s probably the nadir of the miniseries’ chrono-denying. UPDATE: Per a Lauren Graham tweet, Paul Anka is played by the same now-14-year-old dog, which makes him the embodiment or personification of Sherman-Palladino’s time evasion, but not evidence of it.) “Autumn” has a slightly amber filter, “Winter” has a scattering of fake snow and “Summer” puts the characters by an unseen swimming pool for a couple seconds, but with this need to exaggerate every season, the show’s block on the Warner Bros. lot has never looked less authentically like a New England town. Episodes also don’t seem to have been conceived with much by way of season-based thematic underpinnings or with much consciousness of in-episode arcing. The first half of the miniseries is all setup and the payoffs are so concentrated in the last 100 minutes that A Year in the Life doesn’t feel like eight episodes arbitrarily glued together or like a four-part miniseries but rather a six-hour movie that never bothers to breathe. With the seasonal conceit, A Year in the Life calls very direct attention to the manner in which Sherman-Palladino opted to revisit these characters and I’d say that the approach offers only distractions and adds little, if anything.
One thing the passing of time hasn’t done and can’t do is hinder the core chemistry between the three lead actresses, especially now that Lorelai, Rory and Emily are back to sounding like Sherman-Palladino and therefore sounding like themselves. The wordy patter, the crackling repetition, the “We assume the audience is collectively in on every joke” references are back, as is the pervasive sense of simpatico they represent. The internal comfort level of Gilmore Girls has always stemmed from the understanding these characters have that they speak a language born of shared history and shared experience, a family language. And because viewers both recognize the uniqueness of the cadences and rhetorical devices, we’re part of the family as well. The specificity was lost in the zombie season, but it’s back now and with it the warm fuzzies and occasional tears.
The tears are plentiful, because the grief at Herrmann’s death has inspired the writers and elevated the actors. Graham and Bishop are particularly excellent when they get to butt heads over honoring Richard’s legacy, both Emmy-snubbed actresses bucking for recognition now that Gilmore Girls will find itself in the movie/miniseries awards category. Graham has to make the most of her scenes with Bishop and Bledel, because the Lorelai-Luke relationship is mostly limp, albeit partially intentionally. Similarly, Bledel is hamstrung by the arrested development the writers built into Rory’s college tenure. It made sense that Rory regressed into rebellion in later seasons after beginning as wise-beyond-her-years, but it also was frustrating and it’s even more frustrating now, all these years later. Bledel plays what she’s given well. She also can’t help that Sherman-Palladino, and fans as well I suppose, is hung up on the same guys (Matt Czuchry’s Logan and Milo Ventimiglia’s Jess play prominent roles here) as in the series, without any hint of moving on. I guess if you’re a fan hung up on the idea of Rory and Logan or Rory and Jess, this will play for you, but as a viewer who thought all of the men in Rory’s lives were phases she needed to move through and that none of them ever felt like an “answer,” it’s annoying to find this unchanged.
Outside of the three main actresses, there’s little time for anybody else to really shine. Sean Gunn’s Kirk has adopted a pig as a new affectation and that gives him extra screen time. Liza Weil digs in and makes sure that Paris’ brief appearance is memorable. And then there are the myriad cameos by Sherman-Palladino’s former Bunheads charges, led by Sutton Foster, whose appearance is part of a subplot that is both a lot of fun and also turns Gilmore Girls into a completely different show for the better part of an episode. I know it’s sacrilegious to say I might have preferred a Bunheads revival to a Gilmore Girls revival, but one of those two shows had a legitimate chance to live previously, while the other was killed hastily because it didn’t pair well with Pretty Little Liars.
As for Sherman-Palladino’s “final four words,” only a monster would spoil them and Twitter will probably be full of monsters skipping ahead on Black Friday, so be careful. I’ll simply say that I get it. Those words let the show end on its own terms, something it didn’t get to do on The CW. Back then, Gilmore Girls deserved better and even if A Year in the Life has problems, it’s absolutely better.
Cast: Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Kelly Bishop, Scott Patterson
Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Showrunner: Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote and directed “Winter” and “Fall”; Daniel Palladino wrote and directed “Spring” and “Summer.”
Premieres: Friday, Nov. 25 (Netflix)
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