I remember the impact Gilmore Girls had when it debuted in October of 2000. Within a few weeks, it seemed like mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and the denizens of Stars Hollow had captured the hearts of everyone I knew. Family members. Friends. Professional acquaintances. I was doing odd jobs a few weeks after the series premiere and met up with someone who programmed piano rolls for a living. I couldn't imagine that we'd have anything to talk about, but we got on the subject of television, and he said, "But the best show on TV right now is something called Gilmore Girls." And in retrospect, I think he was right: certainly, there was nothing else like it on the air, and the first half of the first season -- the assuredness with which the Palladinos forged a family and a community -- was dazzling.
The Palladinos were sensational storytellers, but they weren't infallible; even their best seasons suffered from the occasional curious choice or error in judgment. And when a season missed the mark, it really missed the mark. Their first bad season -- Season 4 -- didn't recover until two-thirds of the way through; their worst season -- Season 6, by far -- started ghastly and never recovered. During those troubling times, they would hold firm to terrible ideas that weren't working; they would defend them till season's end and argue that they needed those plotlines to get where they wanted to go. They needed Rory to accomplish almost nothing in Season 4 so that her feelings of isolation would lead her to sleep with (her married ex-boyfriend) Dean in the season closer -- but they didn't get that we, the viewer, had to sit through those event-free episodes. (Who can forget the debacle of Rory searching for a "study tree"?) As writers, they could justify their bad plots, provided they paid off, but could we forgive them as viewers? Apparently we could, because even when all of Season 6 turned into a shambles (the first half hijacked by Rory and Lorelai's endless estrangement, the second half by the most hackneyed plotting the show had ever witnessed: Lorelai's fiancé Luke suddenly finding himself the father of a teenage girl he never knew he had); even when the wildly out-of-character writing for both Luke and Lorelai (him: distant; her: spineless) led to an unconvincing season-end break-up; even when nothing in Season 6 ultimately paid off -- still we mourned the Palladinos' departure from the show, moaning "no one can replace them."
On a clearer day, I can reassess; to my surprise, I now find that Season 7 -- the David S. Rosenthal season -- is the one of the two I most enjoy rewatching. The first five episodes are solid if unspectacular; the next four are uniformly uneven. But the back thirteen are as good as the series got, and the best run of episodes since early in Season 1.
The Palladinos invented marvelous characters. Forward motion was not always their friend. Every year, Lorelai and her mother Emily would start to grow closer, then something increasingly pointless would happen to drive a wedge between the two and reset the relationship. Lorelai and Emily's inability to let go of the past made for a complex mother-daughter dynamic, but it also made for a static one. Rosenthal gets that these two women, with decades of baggage, are never going to let go of all the pain and mistrust, but that doesn't mean they can't move forward. In the first great episode of Season 7, the tenth, Emily, seeing her daughter sabotaging her new marriage, offers her advice; at first, it's as caustic as we'd expect from Emily ("Marriage is not about always being happy, and often it's about not being happy at all. It's about compromise, which is not your strong suit. Marriage is not about winning an argument, which may make you sad, because that's what you love."), but curtness quickly yields to caring ("But I don't want to see you ruin this. Marriage is serious business, Lorelai, and if you don't take this very seriously, then this whole thing could fall apart faster than you could possibly imagine. And he'll be gone, and you'll be alone again. A ring is no guarantee.") -- and Lorelai finds herself strangely calmed by her mother's concern. That's the beginning of a wonderful late-series arc for Lorelai and Emily. Five episodes later, with Lorelai's marriage at an end, she and Emily -- over a computer lesson and a few drinks -- share their most tender exchange in the show's seven-year history; seven episodes after that, Lorelai has grown so comfortable with her mother's presence in her life that she offers to continue weekly dinners with her parents (that tradition she'd been dreading and lamenting for years) even though Rory -- who's always been the impetus for the dinners -- is going off on her own. The evolution of Lorelai and Emily's relationship is one of the marvels of Season 7.
Similarly, Rosenthal reinvents Rory's high-school foil and sometimes-nemesis Paris; as original conceived by the Palladinos, she'd pretty much outlived her usefulness -- her histrionics had grown tiresome and repetitive. Rosenthal drops the arbitrary battles that the Palladinos put Rory and Paris through every year -- he knew he could let them develop as friends and still mine the humor and the friction. Midway through the season, Paris unexpectedly defends Rory to a classmate who's been freezing her out ("In case you don't know it, Rory is a great person, and she does not deserve to be treated this way. Anyone should feel lucky to call her a friend; I know I do"), and from that point, the two forge a bond that had never been explored. By graduation day, when Paris gives Rory an emotional hug and predicts, "You're going to do great things, Rory Gilmore" (and Rory, for her part, promises, "We're going to be friends for a long time"), we suddenly understand why Rory has put up with Paris since high school -- why she chose to room with her in college, which always seemed motivated more by plot than by character. Paris is the kind of driven person you want in your life; she expects as much of you as she demands of herself, and that's not such a bad thing.
Rosenthal gets so much right, it's alarming to look back and see how mistrustful we were in 2006. But we wanted Luke and Lorelai back together, and we didn't know where Rosenthal stood. So when he paired Lorelai with Rory's father Christopher instead (marginalizing Luke into stories with his new daughter April), then went so far as to marry off Lorelai and Christopher, we figured that was his endgame -- and loathed him for it. But that was Lorelai's endgame, not Rosenthal's -- how embarrassing that, despite a lifetime of TV viewing, we couldn't distinguish the character's motives from the writer's? Christopher, as Robert Bianco once noted in USA Today, was always Lorelai's Ashley Wilkes -- that romantic fantasy that she couldn't quite get past. Rosenthal realized that Lorelai couldn't move forward with Luke until she got Christopher out of her system: until she committed to him and it failed. And so he fast-tracked that relationship, and dummies that we were, we couldn't see that failure was the endgame. (Rosenthal's biggest mistake that season: overestimating his audience. Lorelai and Christopher elope in Paris: we hear "Paris" and presume it's supposed to be romantic. But Lauren Graham is careful not to play it as romance: she seems grateful for the proposal, relieved, uncertain, anxious to let go of the past, and occasionally like a deer caught in headlights -- anything but romantic. But still I know some bloggers who despise the season precisely because of how they continue to misread that episode.) As for Luke, Rosenthal realized that he had some life-lessons of his own to learn, and what better way to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood than to take on the raising of a child? He transformed April from a lamentable plot-device into an endearing teenager who could teach her father about sharing, commitment, taking risks, moving forward.
If the first nine episodes are scrappy and a little ham-fisted: well, the Palladinos had left debris in their wake. It takes Rosenthal nine episodes just to clean up the mess, then you see his vision for the season come to life, in a remarkably assured and satisfying pre-Christmas episode called "Merry Fisticuffs." It's the first episode to make it clear that Lorelai and Christopher's marriage won't last, so at that point we relax, and it's a good thing, too, because from there, every episode is a winner: in fact, a lot of them pay homage to episodes from earlier seasons, and reinvent them -- or top them. In Season 1, Lorelai's father Richard suffered a bout of angina, which prompted an underwhelming standalone episode; in Season 7, he undergoes heart surgery, and it's momentous: it's the catalyst that drives Lorelai and Christopher apart and, as Richard recuperates over a half-dozen episodes, draws Lorelai and Emily together. Late in Season 3, Rory's mailbox was flooded with college acceptance letters, but Paris's dreams of attending Harvard were dashed; four years later, on the eve of college graduation, Rosenthal flips the script -- he lets Rory pin all her hopes on one prospect, an internship at The New York Times, then pulls the rug out from under her -- and it's heartrending. (And Rory's meltdown, which lasts a weekend, seems reasonable, as opposed to her downward spiral in Seasons 5 and 6 that dragged on for six endless months.) Meanwhile, Emily's brief meeting in Season 2 with Mia, the woman who took in Lorelai when she was pregnant with Rory, becomes a whole (wonderful) road trip for Mia's wedding ("Gilmore Girls Only"), during which Lorelai finally understands the impact her running off at age 16 had on her mother -- it allows Lorelai and Emily to bond over the effect Rory's graduation will have on them both. The final thirteen episodes of Season 7 are mostly written by Rosenthal, co-executive producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner, co-producer Jennie Snyder and consulting producer David Babcock; they write these characters like they'd been writing them forever.
Need a reminder of how solid Sookie and Jackson's relationship is? You get it in "It's Just Like Riding a Bike." Need a reminder of how sweet and supportive Lane and Zack's relationship has become? You get it in "Lorelai? Lorelai?" (The latter episode also contains probably the show's single most memorable scene: Lorelai's tipsy karaoke valentine to Luke.) Rosenthal makes you care again for characters who'd been making you cringe for years (Taylor, Luke's sister Liz, her husband T.J.). He gives them purpose. The ones who are irredeemable -- like Colin and Finn -- he simply omits (thank God), but he pretty much finds the value in everyone else.
With one key exception. The Palladinos had introduced Rory's boyfriend Logan back in Season 5, but they'd never really defined him. Was he a heartthrob or a heart-breaker? A snake or a charmer? He wasn't multi-dimensional; he was convenient -- episode by episode, he behaved however the Palladinos needed him to for the purposes of the plot. Rosenthal has the final word on Logan Huntzberger, and it's not a kind one -- but it is consistent with everything we'd seen. Every time Logan screwed Rory over, he'd sweep her off her feet with his wealth and privileged background and make it right. Rory begs him to stop with the grand gestures in "Gilmore Girls Only," but still he comes back, just four episodes later, with the ultimate in grand gestures: at her graduation party, in front of friends and family, that's when he chooses to propose -- with a horse and carriage, no less, waiting outside. Logan comes from a world of entitlement; he expects to get his way. When Rory turns down his proposal, he bolts -- that's pure Logan, and that's the last we see of him. Matt Czuchry is such a handsome and charismatic actor, of course you want to like the character -- you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Logan fans cried foul at seeing their favorite written off in such a cavalier fashion -- they scoured through three years' worth of episodes for all the signs that Logan had matured, changed, become a person worthy of Rory -- but Rosenthal knew that the Huntzbergers of the world don't change. He was never going to be Rory's knight in shining armor -- and besides, why did Rory need one?
There are so many highlights in the last thirteen episodes of Season 7 that I haven't even listed some of my favorites. There's the long master shot of Lorelai and Sookie trekking through Stars Hollow in "To Whom It May Concern," when Sookie discovers she's pregnant and, through the course of the walk, her anger and terror turn to giddy anticipation. There's Stars Hollow's magical "Hay Bale Maze," during which, surrounded by hundreds of revelers, Luke and Lorelai make their overdue apologies to each other. (As an aside, I've seen some odd readings of "Hay Bale Maze" that propose the maze represents some season-long confusion on Lorelai's part. For me, what "Hay Bale Maze" is "about" -- what it understands -- is that the most private confessions often happen in the most public places.) And there's every moment of that glorious finale, "Bon Voyage," in which Rosenthal ties up his story-lines delicately, yet leaves open dozens of wonderful possibilities. It's not one of those "everyone-gets-a-happy-ending" finales that started flooding the airwaves in the early '80s and continues gratingly to this day. It's just another sublimely understated chapter in the lives of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and I don't see how it could be better. I don't see how much of Season 7 could be better, but still the myth persists that the season's a bummer. Of all the online posts I've seen, only the passionate, insightful John Bierly seems to understand and defend the Rosenthal master plan.
There was some talk in the media a while back about a potential Gilmore Girls movie, and I saw several fans cheering, "Yes, yes, at last we'll get the final season done right." The final season was done right -- but even the press can't seem to accept that. They're still dangling before us four little words Amy Sherman-Palladino intended to end the series with. If a movie happens, I'll be the first one cheering it on, but if not, I'm OK never knowing Amy's Four Little Words. The series ended, and it ended perfectly. Let's move on; Rosenthal, happily, did so. Following his year as showrunner on Gilmore Girls, a year in which he was roundly roasted by critics and viewers alike, Rosenthal wound up as producer-writer on The Middle, one of TV's best sitcoms, and he's now ensconced on the Golden Globe-nominated Jane the Virgin. There is some justice in the world of entertainment after all.
December 2016 update: Well, we didn't get a Gilmore Girls movie, but we did get a Netflix miniseries. I wrote it up at length -- in an essay that's part pop culture, part politics -- here. And if you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, delve into WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, serve up shorter takes on Bewitched Season 2 and Rhoda Season 3, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.