With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
It’s the perfect time for this particular TV Club 10, and not just because Gilmore Girls debuted 20 years ago, on October 5, 2000. The series, set in an unconventional small town in New England, has one of the most autumnal aesthetics in TV history; it’s difficult to picture Lorelai and Rory Gilmore not encased in scarves and fluffy sweaters amid brilliant foliage. Inspired by a chatty inn manager at a Colonial getaway years before, series creator and former Roseanne writer Amy Sherman-Palladino (helped by her husband, Daniel Palladino) crafted the tale of the witty, talkative Lorelai (Lauren Graham), who has a child, Rory (Alexis Bledel), when she’s still in high school, derailing the loftier plans set up by her blue-blood parents (Kelly Bishop as Emily and Edward Herrmann as Richard). She leaves her home in Hartford to raise Rory in the hamlet of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, where she finds a community of like-minded oddballs and makes a family of her own. But as the series begins, Lorelai is forced to reunite with her estranged parents when Rory gets accepted to an expensive prep school; her parents front the tuition at the cost of a weekly Friday night family dinner.
Season one set Lorelai and Rory at the center of the Stars Hollow community, introducing an unforgettable tapestry of engaging characters, like Lorelai’s best friend, clumsy chef Sookie (Melissa McCarthy); Rory’s own BFF, Lane (Keiko Agena); diner owner and love interest Luke (Scott Patterson); the frequently annoying town administrator, Taylor (Michael Winters); Lorelai’s surly assistant, Michel (Yanic Truesdale); former performer and dance studio owner Miss Patty (Liz Torres); and the girls’ next-door neighbor, Babette (sitcom legend Sally Struthers doing some sort of Ruth Gordon impression). Season two introduced into the equation Luke’s bad boy nephew Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), creating a seemingly endless love triangle between him, Rory, and her boyfriend, Dean (Jared Padalecki), while Lorelai weighed a prospective return to Rory’s dad, Christopher (David Sutcliffe).
The series peaked in season three, with an unforgettable dance marathon, the culmination of Rory’s love triangle, and a new business venture for Lorelai. But the first few seasons mainly highlighted the series’ intergenerational charm, the Palladinos’ fast-and-furious pop culture references inherent to Lorelai’s near-constant snappy patter as she and Rory juggled love interests alongside Stars Hollow events like a neighbor’s pet’s funeral or an ice sculpture contest. Lorelai gave adults someone to watch in the youth-filled WB lineup, and Gilmore Girls became fledgling network The CW’s third-most-watched series.
Things got a little rougher in the latter half of Gilmore Girls’ run. In season four, Rory went off to Yale, and the series struggled to keep the girls in each others’ orbits now that they were no longer living together. But it did end with Luke and Lorelai’s will-they/won’t-they finally tumbling onto the “they will” side (though Rory wound up busting up Dean’s marriage). Season five saw the advent of five words that still make some GG fans tremble: The Life And Death Brigade, Rory’s new boyfriend Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry)’s privileged pack of rich kids, an alliance that leads to (but not directly causes) Rory to drop out of Yale. That unfortunate plot twist resulted in the girls being estranged for the first eight episodes of season six.
Meanwhile, the Palladinos themselves were in the process of becoming estranged from the show. In 2006, the WB merged with UPN to create The CW, and Gilmore Girls was one of the seven series selected to help kick it off. But the original creators left the show at the end of season six after a breakdown of contract negotiations, leaving hell fires like Luke’s newly discovered daughter, April (Vanessa Marano), in their wake. Season seven was almost an improvement, with a new showrunner, series writer David S. Rosenthal, who at least still seemed invested in the series. But the damage had been done, and Gilmore Girls limped along to its finale on May 15, 2007.
Considering the unceremonious way the Palladinos left their breakthrough series, their Gilmore Girls revitalization for Netflix in 2015 wasn’t much of a surprise; the four episodes that made up A Year In The Life mostly pleased longtime fans. After Amy Sherman-Palladino and Lamar Damon’s similarly charming small-town-set Bunheads, the Palladinos finally landed all those Emmys they’d been chasing—for their Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alexis Bledel moved on to prestige series like Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, while Lauren Graham wrote and published three books when she wasn’t appearing in the long-running NBC drama Parenthood. But since Gilmore Girls’ cancellation, the show has become a cult classic (helped by syndication runs at ABC Family, Soap Opera Network, and elsewhere), with an annual Gilmore Girls Fan Fest in Connecticut, pop-up Luke’s Diners, a Gilmore Girls cookbook, and the popular podcast Gilmore Guys.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, we’re returning to the place where it all started, with 10 episodes that highlight the unparalleled quirky charm of Stars Hollow and its inhabitants, featuring folksy events, countless pop culture wisecracks, and a few long-awaited kisses. If you’re new to the Gilmore universe, these episodes are a great place to start; if you’re already a GG fan, enjoy this rewatch as the perfect way to kick off the actual most wonderful time of the year (the entire original series is available on Netflix).
Sure, the pilot sets up all the Gilmore family conflict, but it also gets bogged down in an extremely rare fight between Lorelai and Rory about Dean, who frankly isn’t worth the screen time. But the next episode, featuring Rory’s first day at her fancy new school, sets everything up rather nicely, establishing Lorelai as the less responsible one in the pair, as she can’t get up on time to get Rory to Chilton. When her cute fuzzy clock fails, Lorelai is stuck wearing the pink T-shirt/cutoffs outfit we will spy in the credits until the end of the series, getting off on the wrong foot in front of Rory’s new headmaster, with her disapproving mother in attendance, naturally. We’re also introduced to Paris (Liza Weil), the mean girl who will make Rory’s life hell until they inevitably become best friends, as well as Chad Michael Murray’s bad boy Tristan. The episode also stokes the fire between Luke and Lorelai, as Luke shows obvious relief that Lorelai decides not to date a dad at Rory’s new school.
This season-two stunner has multiple highlights, as Lorelai tries to get back on the dating scene months after her broken engagement to Rory’s teacher Max. Gilmore Girls was always effective at merging its disparate worlds, and here the Chilton crowd invades Stars Hollow (specifically, Miss Patty’s dance studio) to rehearse their Romeo And Juliet school assignment. Paris as a cutthroat stage director is breathtaking to witness, while Rory (as Juliet) tries futilely to reach Tristan (who’s playing Romeo), who’s fallen in with an even worse crowd than usual. (Even then, he’s still a lot more attractive than sullen Dean, who’s just around to glower at everyone.) But the episode’s high point is when Lorelai’s date, Paul, also shows up at Luke’s, with his parents—and appears to be years younger than the cute guy we spy Lorelai flirting with at business class. An amused Rory gets in a few excellent digs: “He should have been holding a yo-yo and a lollipop and wearing a beanie with a propeller on it.”
Part of Stars Hollow’s charm lies in its adherence to long-standing traditions, even when those happen to be steeped in antiquated sexist standards: young men bidding on picnic baskets to get to have lunch with the lady of their choice, for example. In the annual basket auction, helmed by Taylor, both Lorelai and Rory are the subject of highly contested bids: Dean goes off to sulk again when Jess outbids him for Rory’s basket, while Lorelai drafts Luke to save her from some suitors that Patty has lined up for her. The result is two cute, chemistry-filled lunches; as a bonus, we get to see Sookie and her beau, Jackson (Jackson Douglas), take a step forward in their relationship as well. Then Lorelai and Rory get ensnared in a rare tiff when Lorelai can see the writing on the wall: Rory’s inevitable feelings for Jess.
Naturally the Gilmore Girls are so popular that they receive four invitations to Thanksgiving dinner: Luke’s, Lane’s, Sookie’s, and Emily and Richard’s in Hartford. This makes “Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” a delightful offering that shows different facets of the girls’ lives, all in the same episode. Rory and Jess try to get their relationship off the ground as the town looks on; Dave Rygalski (Adam Brody) proves that he’s Lane’s best-ever boyfriend by posing as a Bible-studying guitar player in an attempt to win over Mrs. Kim; Melissa McCarthy shows that drunk Sookie is the best Sookie. But it wouldn’t be a Gilmore holiday without some family drama, and Lorelai gets steamed at the Connecticut part of the evening’s festivities when she finds out that Rory has applied to Yale as well as Harvard. It’s a ridiculous blowup that indicates the kind of privilege Gilmore Girls showed that could turn some viewers off: If your biggest beef is that your kid is applying to a different Ivy League school than the one you like, get some real problems.
“A Tale Of Poes And Fire” is the ultimate ode to Stars Hollow: First, the town hosts a whimsical gathering of an Edgar Allan Poe society, with Lorelai and Rory riffing on “The Raven”—a double performance that displays the girls’ banter at its best. Then there’s a fire at the Independence Inn, and the whole town naturally steps up to house Lorelai’s displaced hotel guests; Sookie takes over Luke’s Diner to feed them, and Michel is forced to work with Babette and Patty when he sets up a new office in the dance studio. Some guests even stick around because the impromptu slumber parties seem like so much fun, and you can’t really blame them; the episode captures the immediate camaraderie that can stem from states of emergency. It’s all so eventful that Rory’s choice of college almost gets lost in the shuffle, but even in the midst of crisis, Lorelai finds a way to honor her daughter’s decision in a thoroughly Stars Hollow manner.
Time for another Stars Hollow event: in this case, the annual Firelight Festival, which hapless town mainstay Kirk (Sean Gunn) is put in charge of, resulting in predictable and hilarious mayhem and a lot of walkie-talkie usage. Rory comes home for the event just as Jess returns to town briefly to pick up a car, resulting in a series of near-meetings. There’s also the introduction of Luke’s sister (and Jess’ mom), Liz (Kathleen Wilhoite), with her new boyfriend, T.J. (Michael DeLuise), leading to some awkward Danes family gatherings. But none more awkward than Emily and Richard desperately trying to fill a table at a lavish fundraiser, forcing Lorelai and Jason (Chris Eigeman), who are secretly dating, to act like they’re a couple, showing off the greatest chemistry their romance ever had.
Making a will-they/won’t-they pay off after 80-some episodes of buildup seems like an impossible task, but Gilmore Girls’ season-four finale sticks the landing. Lorelai’s new Dragonfly Inn is finally ready to open, and she invites all her Stars Hollow friends—and even her parents—for a trial run. The evening is complicated by the appearance of Lorelai’s recent ex Jason, and the fact that Emily and Richard are barely speaking. But the main event is Luke finally coming forward with the feelings he’s been harboring for years, which have only increased over the past few episodes. Lorelai reciprocates, resulting in a passionate embrace for the ages. Unfortunately, her brief moment of bliss is derailed almost immediately by the revelation that Rory has just lost her virginity to Dean—who’s married to someone else. The episode is one of the best examples of Gilmore Girls comedy/drama balancing act; the season ends with an arguing Rory and Lorelai, then a crumpled Rory realizing what she’s done, and a shot of Lorelai walking up to her, to be there for her daughter yet again, no matter what.
We get so few scenes of Luke and Lorelai’s coupled happiness over the course of the series that we have to cling to these moments while they last, including L&L’s first official date in “Written In The Stars.” The pair was one of the rare TV couples whose chemistry remained intact even after they were together—evident in their cute diner banter in this episode—which makes it all the more frustrating that they were pulled apart almost immediately. Luke’s confession that he’s carried around the horoscope that Lorelai gave him ever since their first meeting eight years ago reveals how “all in” he is. Rory goes back to Yale for her sophomore year this episode, Emily and Richard bicker, and Paris is mourning the death of her college professor boyfriend, but “Written In The Stars” is ultimately all about Luke and Lorelai, and the appreciation of one of TV’s greatest romances.
Romance and family issues come to blows in this standout episode, when Emily’s calculations to have Christopher break up Lorelai and Luke backfire spectacularly at her own vow renewal party. The sweetness of Emily and Richard’s official reconciliation is soon overwhelmed by the unwelcome appearance of a drunk Christopher, distraught over watching Luke and Lorelai together. Luke storms out, leading Lorelai to end the episode with a comment to her mother so cold that Emily actually flinches: “You and me… we’re done.” Because one Gilmore girl usually has to be in turmoil while the other is not, Rory and Logan finally kiss, only to be caught by Lorelai, which leads to one of Alexis Bledel’s best-ever line deliveries: “Grandma wants pictures,” Lorelai says. Rory: “Of this?”
Even in the dregs of season seven, we have time for one final Stars Hollow event, when Taylor blows the entire Spring Fling budget on a confusing hay bale maze that mucks up the whole town. Rory brings Logan home with her for the festivities, where he is quickly won over by that signature Stars Hollow charm while he simultaneously tries to win over his girlfriend’s suspicious mother. But the maze actually works some magic by trapping Luke and Lorelai in the same place for their first real conversation since they broke up, so that they can finally say sorry for all the wrongdoing during their split (Lorelai apologizing for sleeping with Christopher is a huge first step), paving the way for their inevitable reconciliation.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Cinnamon’s Wake” (season one, episode five); “The Bracebridge Dinner” (season two, episode 10); “Teach Me Tonight” (season two, episode 19); “Lorelai’s Graduation Day” (season two, episode 21); “Haunted Leg” (season three, episode two); “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” (season three, episode seven); “You Jump, I Jump, Jack” (season five, episode seven); “Let Me Hear Your Balalaikas Ringing Out” (season six, episode eight; “Friday Night’s Alright For Fighting” (season six, episode 13); “Bon Voyage” (season seven, episode 22)