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Revival TV has been a dead-end affair in 2016. The X-Files was far from extraordinary. Fuller House was half-assed. But the report I bring you from the quirky-idyllic, speed-banter land of Stars Hollow is that the return of Gilmore Girls is winsome and riotous. It’s a better, bolder, more fulfilling capper to a beloved series that finished just-okay back in 2007, produced without creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino. But they’re back for this “special event series.” Listening to the rhythm, lilt, and inspired language of their dialogue is music to the ears — and in one hilarious passage, expresses in the form of an actual musical. It provides a welcome dose of hilarious and humane escapism that satisfies like a nostalgia trip even while subverting it. It tells a story about grief and change, rootlessness and restlessness. The show is basically a reboot about the struggle of rebooting.
Inspired by the Sherlock approach of mini-movies and taking a cue from the Carole King-penned theme song, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life presents four super-sized, seasonally-themed installments: “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall.” I wouldn’t want to spoil much of the story even if I could: The Netflix spoiler guidelines are extensive and ridiculously severe. The surprising twists and turns of a meandering journey toward renewal are worth protecting and your discovery. I’d give a B+ to the collective whole, but I had distinct reactions to each installment:
The first episode, written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, reintroduces and resets Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) with a smartly staged sequence that allows the actors to yak their way back into their parts and find their legs. Literally. A conversation that begins at the gazebo in the town square turns into a long walk-and-talk, which allows Sherman-Palladino’s camera to roam and survey Stars Hollow with leisurely one-shot takes. The story is three-stage rocket blast. After 30 minutes of reorientation with Lorelai and Rory, “Winter” goes next-level with the arrival of Kelly Bishop — effortlessly reconnecting with Lorelai’s imperious mother Emily Gilmore — and then goes stratospheric when Liza Weil’s Paris shows up in the final act. She’s a firecracker. Sample line: “Don’t stand there shaking! Apologize to your parents. Tell them you’ll pay them back for the two semesters you spent studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s effect on the Feminist agenda!”
The fate of Richard Gilmore (Edward Herrmann, who died in 2014) catalyzes much of the plot. There’s a flashback sequence in “Winter” that’s quite poignant, and it also effectively recharges the testy, resentment-packed Emily-Lorelai relationship. The story honors Herrmann without sentimentalizing Richard, a complicated figure to Lorelai; a portrait of Richard that’s a beautiful gesture and hilarious sight gag symbolizes an attempt to do many things at once.
“Winter” finds Lorelai and true love Luke (Scott Patterson) — yep, still together — fighting losing battles with changing times and adapting to them, or not. The Dragonfly Inn is at a crossroads, and Lorelai resents it, but her resistance to make decisions about how to move forward is stressing out everyone, especially Michel (Yanic Truesdale). Over at the diner, Luke scraps with a new generation of customer: malingerers with laptops looking to mooch free Wi-Fi. He tries to chase them away with bogus, insulting passwords. And at home, Lorelai and Luke, binge TV watchers like the rest of us, find themselves unable to keep up with #PeakTV.
Rory might be the most difficult character to set up, per spoiler rules. She’s trying to build her career as a journalist, and she’s makes a risky choice to live rootless and with few attachments that complicates her pursuits of personal and professional happiness. She’s depicted as being extremely talented at what she does, yet weirdly unable to make a living at it given that talent. I can tell fans that Rory’s three major love interests all return (Jared Padalecki’s Dean, Milo Ventimiglia’s Jess, Matt Czuchry’s Logan), and that Rory’s situation with Logan, which the revival hits first, is unconventional and complex. Does he represent the future, or is he baggage from the past that must be dropped?
Gilmore Girls has a wealth of supporting and minor players, and the episodes use all of them very well, though not all at once, and not all the time. “Winter” dotes on Kirk (Sean Gunn) and Taylor (Michael Winters) in particular. (Get ready for Kirk’s latest nutty scheme: a car service called “Ooober.” I’ll let him explain how it’s different from Uber.) And as usual, there’s an abundance of entertaining references and sly pop commentary in the writing. Here’s Lorelai on one of Rory’s friends: “He’s like a superhero, but his power is that you can’t remember him no matter how much time you spend with him, kind of like every Marvel movie ever.” “Winter” grade: B+
Written and directed by Daniel Palladino, “Spring” is perhaps the least of the four. Lorelai and Emily begin seeing a therapist together – a storyline that produces some fun individual moments but doesn’t add up to much. It’s most entertaining when Rory and Paris make a return visit to their elite high school, Chilton Preparatory Academy. A scene in which Paris melts down in a bathroom is one of the highlights of the entire series. One flaw of each 90-minute (or so) installment: a tendency to let scenes go on too long. Still, many choices pay off with marvelously zany set pieces. In “Spring,” Stars Hollow gathers to watch Kirk’s second film, a hilariously bad, pretentiously arty, self-indulgent mess that pays homage to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a cult classic considered by some to be a masterpiece and considered by others to be… well, a hilariously bad, pretentiously art, self-indulgent mess.
“Spring” also pushes the revival’s least successful satirical gambit, skewering those damn millennials and their phones, media, and entitled, touchy attitudes. Rory is used to reflect and judge her generation, to mixed results. She makes a choice at the end of “Spring” that serves the drama, as it keeps her in Stars Hollow, but I’m not sure it makes sense for her character. In general, I think the revival could have been smarter about dramatizing her life stage issues and the travails of the 21st century thirty-something. “Spring” grade: B
This is the one with the musical, and it’s a showstopper in two ways: it’s hilarious; and it goes on for awhile. I was massively entertained, but it turns the characters into spectators, and it struggles to integrate Lorelai’s negative reaction to the production, which I didn’t buy. This episode escalates what you might call a midlife crisis for Lorelai, a wrestle with identity I found credible but not all that compelling. What I loved about this “Summer” — and the musical nurtures this — is how every character, every location, and every little detail contributes to a vivid sense of place; in truth, Stars Hollow might be the revival’s best character, and I love the effort to explore every nook and cranny of it, from a scene involving an after-hours secret to a sequence in which Lorelai and Rory deliver newspapers. More #PeakTV shout-outs in this episode: The Returned, Halt and Catch Fire. And the moment when Carole King, who plays Sophie Bloom, launches into “I Feel The Earth Move” — and no one recognizes the tune — left me giggling and alarmed. Does Carole King not exist in the GilmoreGirlsVerse? I never realized that. This is terrible! “Summer” grade: B+
Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, “Fall” is the episode that I enjoyed the least while watching but admired the most in retrospect. The first half sends Lorelai and Rory on separate solo adventures to address crucial issues that are nagging at them. The tales are offbeat (one of them is inspired by the Cheryl Strayed book/Reese Witherspoon movie Wild and involves multiple, somewhat distracting star cameos) and the storytelling is slightly surreal. One of them might even be a dream sequence. But once the story settles back into Stars Hollow, the episode begins gathering power toward satisfying conclusions that feel totally correct for everyone. It gives you an eagerly anticipated character moment in a sweet scene that affirms the incredible talent of [SPOILER DELETED]. And you get the legendary final four words. They might inspire want for another set of episodes ASAP, but as I imagined what that story might be, I found myself content with letting that story be just that: something that unspools only in our imagination. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life feels like a summary statement about the characters and their relationship to each other, even as it ends on a note that says nothing ever ends or fully resolves, not really. Life goes on, circumstances will change (or won’t), and we all have to figure out how to keep loving each other better, no matter what happens next. I don’t need another Year in the Life to know if the Gilmore girls and the good people of Stars Hollow will rise to that challenge. But if Sherman-Palladino leads with more, I will follow. “Fall” grade: B
Series grade: B+