Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Death

"The whole journalism thing didn't really pan out the way I hoped." -- Rory Gilmore

If I hadn't already been hating Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, that one line alone (in the final episode) would have made me hate it. "The whole journalism thing" -- you remember that, right? The passion for reporting that had consumed Rory, as we understood it, even before the series began. Her resolve to become the next Christiane Amanpour. Her accepting menial assignments at the Yale Daily News just to get her foot in the door, and her eventually rising to Editor-in-Chief. Her job offer from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, which she turned down in hopes of a prestigious fellowship at The New York Times. Her despair when not only the Times rejected her, but a host of other newspapers, and then her triumphant rise from the ashes when an online magazine asked her to cover Senator Barack Obama's nascent Presidential campaign. You remember all that, right?

Well, joke's on you. It turns out Rory's lifelong desire to be a journalist wasn't a passion. It wasn't a calling. It was just a "thing."

My biggest fear going into Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was that creators Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino would try to undo Season 7. The Palladinos had left the series after Season 6, and the final season was supervised by their co-executive producer David S. Rosenthal. Season 6 was a train-wreck that boasted just three great episodes; the Palladinos had written two of them, and Rosenthal the third, so the powers-that-be elevating him to showrunner was a smart move. And although there was much grumbling in the press at the time that the Palladinos were departing a show that "only they could write," Rosenthal -- after a bit of a rocky start -- brought the series to an immensely satisfying conclusion. But it clearly wasn't the conclusion the Palladinos had intended -- Amy had long told us of "four little words" with which she'd planned to end the series, and we (obviously) hadn't gotten those, and who knows how much else would need revising to get us to that point. So my biggest fear was that Season 7, a season I very much like, would be obliterated, simply because the Palladinos hadn't written it. Was this going to be their revenge on the studio that had refused their demands, and worse, on the writer who had graciously attempted to salvage the show in their wake, and who had done so not only respectfully, but often brilliantly?

Oh, it's so much worse. Forget about undoing Season 7. The Palladinos pretty much undid everything we'd come to believe about Rory Gilmore. Rory, you see, wasn't the bright, capable, determined and grounded young woman we'd loved for seven seasons; she was a dabbler, a lightweight, a perpetual and professional screw-up. And it's not just the final line ("I'm pregnant") that cemented that impression; I realized after the first episode of A Year in the Life that that's where the Palladinos were headed with her character -- and then I realized, with even greater shock, that that's how they'd seen her all along. Rory, to them, wasn't the miraculous offspring of a dysfunctional family -- the one who managed to stay focused on the future while three generations of Gilmore women were busy reliving ancient battles. Rory was, in fact, the continuation of that cycle.

Back in the fourth episode of the first season, when Rory had a meltdown during her first days at Chilton and mouthed off to a fellow student, and Lorelai defended her ("Rory doesn’t throw fits. She’s the most even-tempered person I know"), we took her at her word. We saw Rory as her adoring mother did. But to the Palladinos, the girl who melts down if things don't go her way was Rory. And once I understood that, so many aspects of the first six seasons that had seemed unconvincing and unpalatable came into focus. I understood why the Palladinos kept returning to the worst of Rory's behavior: why she kept waffling for so long between Dean and Jess (and once she'd made her choice, waffled back); why, after floundering her first year at college, she found comfort bedding a married man (and then dumping him a few episodes later); why a few unkind words from her boyfriend's father prompted her to commit larceny; why the fights between her and her mother grew more hostile every season -- that, to the Palladinos, was the true Rory Gilmore. (The aberrations were the accomplishments she managed despite being indecisive, easily distracted, and self-entitled.) And their endgame was a cruel bit of symmetry: Rory would end up unmarried and pregnant in Stars Hollow, like her mother had. She'd get knocked up by a man of privilege she could never have, while the decent guy she didn't want gazed at her longingly. The Palladinos were committed to the series coming full circle, and that meant Rory's ambition and accomplishments had to be wiped away, so we could end up with...this.

This was clearly the Palladinos' gameplan all along. It's not a gameplan I endorse, but regardless of what you make of it, it certainly wasn't designed for 2016 -- it was intended for 2008 or 2009. It was meant for whenever the original series wrapped: after Season 8 or 9, or whenever they decided to pull the plug. Rory would have graduated from college and floundered. She would have found the real world more daunting than she'd dreamed, and having nothing to fall back on, wound up returning to Stars Hollow, reliving her mother's life. That would have been bad enough had it happened when Rory was in her early Twenties, but maybe they could have sold it then. (I don't know that we would have felt any less cheated, but it might have felt less preposterous.) But the Palladinos, holding fast to their blueprint and their ending, applied them to characters who had aged a decade since they last wrote them. And suddenly nothing made sense. It's ten years later, but Stars Hollow is trapped in a time warp.

For starters, Luke and Lorelai reconciled in the spring of 2007, but still hadn't married. What had they been doing for ten years? Lorelai offered up a weak explanation to her shrink for why she and Luke had never tied the knot -- something like "I don't do things like my mother" -- but it was inconsistent with the Lorelai who broke down at the end of Season 6 because Luke couldn't commit to a wedding date. Luke had accepted her marriage proposal at the top of that season before she'd even finished popping the question; the second half of the season was all about Lorelai's desire -- turning into something more like desperation -- to be his wife. And then they wait ten years? Clearly the Palladinos intended Gilmore Girls to end with Luke and Lorelai's wedding, a year or two after they reunited them. But now it's 2016, and they're holding to that series-ending ceremony -- so they've got to posture that the pair would reasonably settle into a decade of "going steady." A Year in the Life didn't just rewrite Season 7; it started rewriting all over the place, just to serve up stories that were ten years overdue.

Similarly, it would be one thing for Rory to be stumbling so badly just out of college; if the Palladinos had returned to the series for a Season 8, they could have shown that Rory being on the road, following Barack Obama's Presidential bid, had proven too much for her -- that the reality of living the dream was overwhelming. But ten years later? The early moments of A Year in the Life enumerated Rory's accomplishments over the previous decade, but apparently she'd achieved them through divine intervention, which had mysteriously disappeared. Because suddenly, at 32, she doesn't know how to schmooze a client, or brainstorm at an interview, or even break up with a boyfriend. (The Palladinos didn't just make her indecisive, they made her deplorable: stringing along a guy she couldn't care less about for a solid year, while sleeping with a man who's engaged to another.) The show boasted about her accomplishments, but while she was achieving them, she seemed to have gained no life experience -- nor made one lasting professional connection. You were left, again, realizing that the Palladinos didn't adjust for the time jump. They gave us their 2008 ending in 2016. It reminded me of nothing more than the end of How I Met Your Mother, where Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had a vision at the start for how the series would end, but didn't realize that that vision was unworkable a decade later.

A Year in the Life felt not only misjudged and misguided, but self-absorbed. The Palladinos didn't wipe out Season 7, but they sure didn't give it its due either -- not even in the necessary ways. Rory departed on a press bus in 2007 to cover Barack Obama's election bid. If the 2008 election had gone a different way, that might've been an insignificant plot point; given Obama's victory, it became the proverbial elephant in the room. One of the first questions any fan had to wonder is: how long did she cover him? Both terms? If not, why did she leave? Why would she? But we get no answers. We get a list of other projects she's worked on since graduation, but not an accounting of the only one we knew or cared about.

The most gracious explanation is that the Palladinos imagined the publicity that accompanied their departure after Season 6 was so big that everyone knew about it -- and that viewers would understand that Season 7, to them, was just waiting to be unraveled at the earliest opportunity. Because otherwise, you're left with the theory that they simply didn't care if viewers were confused. And I have no doubt that plenty of viewers were confused: waiting for dots to be connected that never were. I know all the behind-the-scenes stuff -- I'm a geek; if you're a Gilmore Girls guru, you may well know it too. But most folks don't. And it's not just Rory's coverage of the Obama campaign that needed a mention. It's "when did Logan and his father reconcile, and him return to the family business? When did he leave San Francisco? When did he and Rory get back together?" -- and a half-dozen other inconsistencies. A couple lines would have sufficed. But by ignoring Season 7, they chose to baffle and potentially alienate their audience. Although critics continue to swoon over the Palladinos' every move, most viewers aren't aware that they left the show after Season 6 -- and weren't looking for them to "fix it."

Because the truth is, Gilmore Girls didn't need the Palladinos to "fix it"; David Rosenthal had actually been the one to fix their show. They'd left him a mess at the end of Season 6, and he'd cleaned it up. And he took the characters to places that -- we see now, in hindsight -- the Palladinos couldn't take them. To the Palladinos, their creations were deliberately, defiantly stuck in time. It fed into their image of Stars Hollow as a magical town where nothing changed. In my write-up of Season 7, I noted that, under the Palladinos, "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." The Palladinos were wedded to the notion of Gilmore Girls as a fable, to family dynamics that were set in stone, and (as we ultimately learned) to a symmetrical story-line for Rory waiting to be revealed at series' end.

But that approach, by Season 6, had grown enervating. It's a common ailment in Hollywood: writers fall so in love with their own creations that they refuse to let them grow. (It's not just Hollywood: look at the calcified creatures of Downton Abbey.) It took other writers to demonstrate that the characters could move forward without sacrificing what made them special. Rosenthal masterminded a forward push in Emily and Lorelai's relationship, a softening of Paris, and a humanizing of April. And the Palladinos undid it all. They even staged one last reminder that nothing changes in "their" Stars Hollow, resetting Lorelai and Emily's relationship to where it all began, as Lorelai -- as in the very first episode -- had to hit up her mother for a loan, and it came at the cost of having to spend time with her. Rosenthal had intimated, in the Season 7 closer, that Lorelai might continue to spend time with her mother simply because she herself wanted to, but the Palladinos maintained that no growth is preferable to even subtle growth. (And as they re-reconceived April, she was such an oddball that no one -- not Lorelai, not Rory, not even her own father -- could carry on a conversation with her. In a bizarre bit of counter-logic that came to be emblematic of A Year in the Life, the Palladinos seemed to be proudly insisting, "She was never meant to be more than a plot device!")

As the years went by, the Palladinos ran out of legitimate reasons for their characters to squabble, so they increasingly relied on forced fights. And that unfortunate trend only intensified here. Lorelai -- asked to say a few words about her father following his funeral -- freezes, and lets loose with a sputtering set of anecdotes that show him as neglectful and abusive. As you watch, you're thinking, "Really -- you can't think of one nice memory? I've watched your show, and I can think of half a dozen." But Lorelai has to have full-scale amnesia so they can put her and Emily through their annual fight. (Emily stops speaking to her for months.) And then, three (long) episodes later, Lorelai calls her mother: she's finally remembered a nice story about her father. And it's a beautiful one. Lauren Graham is incandescent telling it, and Kelly Bishop is heart-rending hearing it. But here's the thing. Putting your characters through manufactured fights just to give them moving reconciliations is the laziest kind of writing. And the miniseries was full of moments like that. Lorelai and Rory had their own pointless altercation, over Rory's intent to write a book about their lives. Lorelai and Luke had another, over two innocent appointments neither told the other about.

A Year in the Life rarely felt character-driven; mostly it felt like the Palladinos were stacking the deck against Lorelai and Rory, for maximum effect. How many things have to go wrong for Rory so that she ends up back in Stars Hollow, jobless and homeless? How many characters have to clash with Lorelai, one after another, before she decides to embark on a spiritual retreat?

In perhaps the strangest sequence, Stars Hollow stages a musical in celebration of its long history, and Lorelai, who's serving on the advisory committee, attends a read-through and bashes it. Bashes everything about it. Even though it's completely in line with every nutty thing we've seen this town do, from Revolutionary War re-enactments to its Festival of Living Art to a children's production of Fiddler on the Roof starring Kirk as Tevye. The Stars Hollow Musical is exactly what this town would come up with -- in fact, it's far better than anything we could have expected them to come up with: it's performed by Sutton Foster and Christian Borle, brilliantly. At any other time, Lorelai would have reveled in the anachronisms, bad rhymes and puns, severe lapses of taste, self-referentialism, and quirky spirit. But because the episode depended on her returning to the scene of the crime an hour later, to hear a new song that had just been written, and having a dramatic change of heart, she had to hate the initial read-through.

Few of the big moments in A Year in the Life felt earned; the build-ups -- mostly altercations -- seemed confusing and arbitrary. You recognized they were scripted that way because there was a pay-off coming. Thirty minutes into the first episode, I realized that the Palladinos were plotting backwards from the next meltdown or epiphany. There was hardly a moment that wasn't foreshadowed -- and clumsily.

Ultimately, A Year in the Life revealed how little we all understood about Gilmore Girls: about how the Palladinos saw their characters. It's not so much that it undermined Season 7; it undermined us as well. By 2016, the viewers didn't count; the Palladinos had gotten so caught up in their own PR that they wrote the Netflix specials for themselves. (They even insisted on directing them, although -- heaven knows -- more accomplished helmers would have improved them immeasurably.) "Here's another character of ours you love," they announced, as they paraded some of their weakest creations. It didn't matter if we loved them; they did. They celebrated the deadly duo of Colin and Finn in the final episode, as if they'd been an important fixture in Rory's life. They hadn't: they'd mostly been an irritant and a foil, and they were at the root of some of Rory's most painful memories. (They typically brought out the worst in Logan, and when that happened, he often inspired the worst in Rory.) They're "needed" in the last episode so that Logan can whisk Rory away for a holiday, where she can get pregnant, but once they've served their purpose, my God: let them go. Quickly. When Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote them off with an extended Wizard of Oz homage that managed to be both thudding and precious, I cringed. Oh yah, they're as iconic as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. Someday they'll be writing musicals based on your work -- oh, wait, you already did that.

I should say something nice about A Year in the Life; it's simply hard to look past the anger it instilled in me to recall the things I actually enjoyed. It was lovely hearing Lorelai and Rory speak again in Amy Sherman-Palladino's voice; it was wonderful having the town of Stars Hollow sound as only Daniel Palladino could script them. David Rosenthal, wisely, hadn't tried to imitate the Palladinos' rat-tat-tat, pop-culture infused style -- he knew only they could pull it off effortlessly (none of the other staff writers could during their six-year tenure), so he focused instead on deepening the characters and advancing the story-lines. It was a fine trade-off, but nonetheless, it was grand to hear the Gilmore Girls sound like "themselves" again. I adored what they did with Jess. It was plot-dictated, of course; he had to turn into his uncle -- grounded, dependable, someone to ignite yet withstand Rory's ball of fire -- so that the story could get passed down to the next generation. But as calculated as it was, it still felt like character growth, something that was (by design, we now see) sorely lacking. I was delighted by the way they used Melissa McCarthy (after early-episode explanations of why she was missing threatened to turn her character into a joke). I knew she'd be returning for only one scene, and that scene turned out to be perfect. A roomful of wedding cakes was one of the miniseries' indelible images, both overblown and magical: a combination that only the Palladinos could pull off. And I can't fault any of the performances -- there wasn't one actor who didn't seem on his or her game, and the three Gilmore Girls themselves have rarely been more radiant.

But none of that disguised the sourness at its core. The end of Season 7, the series finale -- that thing that I shall always consider the series finale, no matter how many Netflix specials they do -- felt like a moment so filled with promise. Season 7 didn't tack on arbitrary "happy endings," but it did leave the characters in a hopeful place, where you were pleased to imagine the directions in which their lives were heading. And as the years went by, the thought of Rory covering Barack Obama seemed fitting and fortuitous: the positive, embracing spirit of Stars Hollow seemed somehow tied to the optimism that defined Obama's Presidency. The Season 7 finale -- which aired just as Obama's star was in the ascendant, eighteen months before he won the 2008 election -- became inextricably linked to the Obama Administration: where dreams are worth pursuing, and good work is possible, and lives are improved because people fundamentally care about the welfare of others. ("If you need me to be with you, I will follow where you lead.")

Season 7 was a perfect lead up to the Obama era; A Year in the Life, which premiered two weeks after the 2016 Presidential election, proved eerily prescient in its own way. It captured a world where celebrity triumphs over substance, where the past is there to be rewritten, where history is something to be ignored and forward movement is fleeting. Just as real-life lawmakers, emboldened by their election victory, were already vowing to undo all that Obama had achieved, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life began dismantling its fictional world just as cruelly and completely. At its worst, it too seemed an obliteration of all that was good, carried out by egotists and enabled by acolytes. In its insistence that progress is short-lived, and that history is doomed to repeat itself, it served as a cynical, apt epitaph for 2016.

During the darkest days of the early 21st century -- as terrorists struck on U.S. soil, or as we fought a war based on a lie -- we could lose ourselves, as we always have, in beloved works of fiction. Gilmore Girls became one of those. However fearful the world outside became, within the cozy confines of our living room Lorelai and Luke were doing their mating dance, or Rory was pursuing her journalistic dreams. Young ballerinas were forever twirling at Miss Patty's, and Saturday was always karaoke night at Casey's. But now, Stars Hollow as an unchanging world isn't tied to something warm and nostalgic; it's tied to something harsh and fundamentally sad. And that's what we're left with. The world as we know it may be ending, but Stars Hollow is always there. And now, even that's no comfort.

2 comments:

  1. I've never seem GG but my wife loves it and she had very mixed feelings after watching the first of these specials (she hasn't watched the other three yet). This explains why this may be the case. In-depth and insightful as always!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If your wife ends up finishing the miniseries, invite her to take a look at my post -- I'll be curious to know if our thoughts match up. I definitely went into it with an open mind, but the more time I spent watching, the more I rebelled at the sourness -- and the hopelessness -- at its core. Still, I honestly didn't know I was going to pen such a critical piece until I started writing it, but this is what flowed out of me. As I'm sure is true for you as well, sometimes you don't digest your thoughts fully until you speak about them, or put "pen to paper." And the more I wrote, the more distraught and sad I realized I was. Anyway, thanks, as always, for reading!

      Delete