Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino
Now streaming on Netflix
In its heart of hearts, Gilmore Girls is a frustrated musical. There certainly have been theatrical flourishes throughout—as Maddy Myers points out in her essay from The Mary Sue, aiding my only-casual knowledge of the initial seven seasons, original showrunners Daniel and Amy-Sherman Palladino erected several shows-within-shows, powered with the energy of “embarrassingly genuine community theatre.” Last year, Sherman-Palladino—a ballet dancer and Cats hopeful in her youth—announced her penning of a book for a yet-to-be-released musical. According to trusted source Buzzfeed, of the hundreds of films referenced among the show’s rhythmic motormouth chatter, Willy Wonka, Grease, The Wizard of Oz, and Mary Poppins rank among the most frequent (by the way, Shoah and Footloose are tied at three). Let’s also not forget the exploits of Hep Alien, led by fanatic audiophile Lane Kim and featuring former Phantom of the Opera Sebastian Bach. Joel Gion, the tambourine-playing accessory to the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s many on-stage meltdowns in the incredible documentary Dig!, helped Lane’s band melt on their own. Then, of course, the revised Carol King intro and “la-la”-heavy incidental music prompting their own singalongs from the audience. And so forth.
But with all the heightened melodrama surging throughout its original broadcast, and into the latest Netflix revival, be it from the numerous heartbreaks or parental disappointments or nervous ambition, it’s a little surprising but overall impressive that the Gilmores never burst out into song all on their own. The cast hasn’t been incapable; Lauren Graham (Lorelei) costarred in the 2009 Broadway revival of Guys & Dolls, and Kelly Bishop (Emily) won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award in 1976 for A Chorus Line. Maybe they were intimidated by former channel-mate Buffy the Vampire Slayer and their legendary bonanza episode “Once More, With Feeling.” Who knows (somebody, probably). But in A Year in the Life, these yearnings haven’t vanished, only emboldened. Logan calls Rory’s struggle “the Gentile Fiddler on the Roof.” “A Spoonful of Sugar” is mentioned in Rory’s Conde Nast interview. Lorelei suggests, sarcastically, “Let’s put on a show!” And those are just in the dialogue.
The new four-season season (each of the ninety-minute episodes are split into “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall”) compresses the original series’s musicality, even going so far as to fill out time with mayonnaise-rock Greek choruses, a Hep Alien reunion, some ballet, a tango featuring (heavy sigh) the Life and Death Brigade, a cab-ride serenade from Kirk, and a ten-minute long community theatre nightmare called “Stars Hollow: The Musical,” penned by local buzzkill Taylor. Yet within the drama itself, they’re always just on the cusp, never fully indulging. Same with Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman. During pre-production for Punch Drunk Love, composer Jon Brion finally realized that the project should “feel like a musical but nobody breaks into song,” much to the delight of director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has received no shortage of nudges from the Palladinos. The Palladinos have streamlined a far safer version of what these filmmakers have done, but that they sensed the potential and chose restraint is intriguing.
(Sidebar: they also—hear me out, I’m not the first to think so—hint at the works of David Lynch, what with his penchant for song-and-dance. Lynch is referenced throughout the show’s run, and especially here—Kirk has beehive grey curls before a screening of Eraserhead, for God’s sake. Then there’s the weird dreams Lorelei has about Paul Anka [the human, not the dog]. Never a show to go for absolutes, the original series finale “Bon Voyage” saw Rory insist “It’s not goodbye, more like see you later,” which may as well be the WB’s version of Twin Peaks’s “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years.” Plus, there’s a creepiness to Stars Hollow, where the sterile suburbia feels familiar, but everyone looks the same as they did before, creating a palpable off-ness. Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise, shows up. Also, lots of damn good coffee.)
In a show that gets most of its cred from endless chatter, it’s the moments of quiet that hit strongest. Tension is soluble, awakenings endured, and romantic confusion persists, all of which lends itself to bursts of singing—but no. Instead, the Palladinos hire externally: see the wordless funeral sequence against Tom Waits’s “Time” (which begins with a solemn shot resembling the three brothers in flashback from The Darjeeling Limited). Emily, finally finding happiness, blasts Gypsy from her stereo. When Lorelei takes her trip based on Wild (the book, dammit, not the movie), she finds an epiphany not on the trail, but in a vast open range winding up to the mountains. But just before the hills come alive with the sound of Gilmore, Amy Sherman-Palladino instead chooses quiet, letting a wordless long take veer into a tearful reconciliation with Emily.
I first started to write this piece based upon how Gilmore Girls treats cinema, now that it’s shot in widescreen for the first time, but a particular sequence changed the course. After an embarrassed Rory stomps away from a botched millennial blog interview, we see Lorelei in the comforting glow of the television. But unlike her many binges, there’s a sadness in her face, unchanged by Rory’s sudden return and announcement of moving back in. As these final moments of “Spring” close out, Ginger Rogers’ words from Swing Time amplify: “For when my chin is on the ground /I pick myself up/Dust myself off/Start all over again.” Were it sung, it could be by any of the three Gilmore women, albeit here with a weary tone. Rory started the season with the carefree and rootless motives of Fred Astaire, seeing where life takes her. She even tap-dances her anxieties away in the kitchen, but that only works for so long.
One of the biggest gripes I’ve heard in criticizing A Year in the Life is retconning Rory’s dabblings in musical composition, which were never once heard of or seen in the original series. Its introduction is clunky and overall inconsequential to the narrative. But if we’re talking musicals, the absence of music from Rory’s creativity, especially when she’s directionless, adds extra sadness. Too bad, too; Taylor really could’ve used her ear for Stars Hollow: The Musical, a show only a town that wishes for better but settles for mediocre could love. They are, after all, a town still floating in the space of the mid-2000s, where monied privilege, tokenism and broad gay caricatures persist. On the Film Comment podcast’s most recent episode, on tearjerkers and musicals, guest Shonni Enelow suggested that movie musicals require the audience to suspend awareness of film’s ideology, in order to enjoy the sheer emotional force of its delivery. That’s very true with A Year in the Life, for its ideology is frustrating. In Stars Hollow, everything is fine.