Drive eight miles off Connecticut’s Route 202 into the Litchfield hills, follow hairpin turns past fields of award-winning pumpkins and sedate dairy cows, and you’ll reach Washington Depot, population 3,500 or so. It has a hardware store; a tiny, well-stocked food market; an independent bookstore that rivals any on the East Coast; and a smattering of civic offices, gift shops, and cafés. One of the most well-trafficked eateries is Marty’s, with its cheerful awning and the promise of coffee and WiFi—crucial in a town where most cell phones don’t work.
Up the road, there’s an imposing private school called The Gunnery, along with The Mayflower Grace, a sprawling inn with a nightly rate that’s way out of my price range. It’s here that Amy Sherman-Palladino—writer, producer, and co-creator of the long-running WB series Gilmore Girls—hatched her plan for a show about Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (played by Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel), a mother and daughter who are best friends and live in a close-knit Connecticut town full of loveable, nosy, weirdos. The show ran for seven seasons, limping through its last 22 episodes without the guiding voice of Sherman-Palladino after the network declined to renew her contract. On November 25th, Gilmore Girls returned to Netflix with four, 90-minute episodes—all written by Sherman-Palladino—after an almost decade-long hiatus.
I arrive in Washington Depot when the soaring white tents in front of the Town Hall are still empty and the late October skies threaten rain. My cell phone is useless, but I’ve beaten more than 1,200 other fans here for the first-ever Gilmore Girls festival and have time to scope things out. The program promises a Knit-A-Thon, a town troubadour performance, and a dance recital with commentary from Liz Torres, who plays Stars Hollow’s resident maneater and Broadway showboat, Miss Patty. The festival itself reminds me of one of Stars Hollow’s many effusive seasonal pageants, like the Founder’s Day Firelight Festival or the Festival of Living Pictures (another event on the docket). A panel of crew members and series writers will eventually reveal that, unlike fall in Washington Depot, autumn in Stars Hollow is a careful fiction; crew members picked leaves off trees on the WB lot in Burbank, only to replace them, by hand, with the correct color foliage.
Over the course of the weekend, I meet Washington Depot residents who fret that their town doesn’t look enough like Stars Hollow and that fans will be disappointed. On the one hand, they’re right; Washington doesn’t have a central green or gazebo like neighboring New Milford, or bustling streets of colorful local businesses. But it does have business owners who are willing to play along for the sake of visiting fans. Jay Combs, co-owner of Washington Supply Co., decided to watch the show for the first time when he heard about the festival. Once he realized Luke’s Diner was, in fact, an old hardware store (an homage to Luke’s deceased father), Combs fashioned a set out of a diner table and chairs, ketchup and mustard bottles, pastel coffee mugs, and a faux Luke’s menu advertising “pine shavings with a hint of garlic.” Fans excited to strike a pose in the window could also pick up a memento—or an umbrella to stave off Saturday’s day-long rainstorm—in Combs’ store.
Gilmore Girls is a theater piece that dramatizes and simplifies small-town living—universal enough for viewers to project themselves into the drama, but specific enough to charm and entice.
In the face of such unbridled enthusiasm, I hesitated to bring up a quote from the late Edward Herrmann, who played Rory’s beloved grandfather, Richard Gilmore. “Washington Depot is absolutely nothing like Stars Hollow; it is a weekend haven for New Yorkers,” Herrmann told A.S. Berman, author of The Gilmore Girls Companion. More than once residents told me there were plenty of vacation homes in the area. Like the imaginary Stars Hollow, wealth is proximate in Washington Depot—nearby but not always visible, unless you count rolling farmland. (Washington Depot residents do. “We like our acreage,” more than one person told me.) And more than 1,200 women, many of whom donned Hunter rain boots and Burberry scarves, paid at least $175 a person to be here, in the town that inspired one of their favorite fictional places.
When I ask podcast hosts Kevin T. Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe, aka The Gilmore Guys, what it is fans love so much about Stars Hollow, they both point out that the town itself refuses to conform to reality.
“Stars Hollow just feels like this place out of time to me,” said Adejuyigbe. “Everything about it is designed to be warm and loving. It’s like if you could live at Disneyland.”
Porter picks up on this element, too. “In a way, Gilmore Girls is a total fantasy show,” he said. “The idea of Stars Hollow, that it’s a safe place and a place where you can make your own family, is wish-fulfillment.”
But Porter is an avid fan of the show’s “fairy-tale” approach to small-town living. “So much of Gilmore is theatrical. To me, the kind of transparent artifice of the back lot lends to the credibility and the overall aesthetic of the show.” That is, Gilmore Girls is itself a theater piece that dramatizes and simplifies small-town living—along with mother-daughter and romantic relationships. The show is universal enough for viewers to project themselves into the drama, but specific enough to charm and entice. Other fans mentioned that Stars Hollow felt “safe” or “supportive,” a place where you actually talked to your neighbors and were more aware of the people around you. Some even expressed sadness that their current suburban or city lives didn’t foster this kind of connection.
If Stars Hollow is a kind of fairy tale that glosses over cultural tensions in majority-white towns, or middle- and working-class towns, it’s still a fairy tale that international fans—even fans who didn’t grow up in the continental United States—respond to. In Hickory Stick Bookshop, I speak with Aida Hadzić and Ema Tanović, a mother-daughter duo from Bosnia dressed in matching blue and black plaid. Ema, who grew up in Sarajevo, is a grad student at Yale and said that the “concept of a town” like Stars Hollow was “unlike anything” she was familiar with in Bosnia. When Ema enrolled in Wesleyan College for her undergrad degree, her mother Aida said she “went looking for Stars Hollow” on her first-ever visit to the States.
For Celeste Suris-Rosselli, who grew up loving and watching the show in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Gilmore Girls was a chance to get a glimpse of a Latina—Liz Torres as Miss Patty—on television. “I’m American, but I didn’t have the quintessential white-picket-fence experience,” said Suris-Rosselli. “To see Miss Patty as a Latina or Rose Abdoo as a Middle Eastern woman in this small town meant a lot to me.”
The landscape of television has changed so much in the decade since Gilmore Girls aired that to speak of the show’s attempts at diversity is challenging for most fans. Diverse representation is not a metric Gilmore Girls was ever really held to, unlike shows that have emerged in a post-ShondaLand media landscape. Now, “it’s weird if you’re not diverse,” said Porter. “You’re going to stick out more.” While it’s certainly true that new shows like Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat offer antidotes to all-white family sitcoms, few hour-long family dramas center on people of color in the way that Gilmore Girls examined white, female, middle-class mobility. Jane the Virgin, the CW’s underrated and inventive riff on the telenovela that tells a multigenerational story of Latinas in Miami, is the closest show on offer. Like Gilmore Girls, Jane the Virgin also depicts single motherhood, parental conflict, class politics, and a brainy, bookish beauty on her way up—but it doesn’t shy away from weightier topics like illegal immigration, either.
Whether new episodes of Gilmore rise to the occasion of “the golden age of television” or, like so many other nostalgic reboots, stick to their original mold, remains under wraps. Netflix requested reporters to refrain from asking cast members attending the festival about the new show, although recently released trailers hint at a shared existential drama. And if ever there was a town built to support two Gilmore girls in the midst of a who-am-I-now crisis, it’s Stars Hollow, where all the snow-covered magic flows in the direction of Lorelai and Rory. Still, it’s hard to be cynical when confronted with the real-life devotion of 1,200 die-hard fans—mothers and daughters and aunts and nieces and college roommates. Not to mention the small town residents who welcomed this coffee-fueled invasion with an extreme generosity of spirit. These women came to Washington Depot with families, friends, and partners (and, less often, husbands or boyfriends) because their shared love of Gilmore—a smart, fast-talking, woman-centered show—brought them closer together. And in this politically contentious fall, one in which women have been pitted against ugly realities that seek to divide and conquer, this fierce love of a fictional, female space retains its own kind of magic. ♦
Photos by Kristin Evans