In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. The subject of 5 To Watch’s first installment: Gilmore Girls, which debuts on Netflix October 1.
Gilmore Girls comes pre-loaded with seemingly high barriers to entry—prospective viewers should be well-versed in pop-culture arcana, tolerant of twee, and ready to parse rapid-fire dialogue—but it’s also one of the most effortlessly enjoyable TV shows of the 2000s. The best of the series to come out of The WB’s post-Dawson’s Creek small-town-drama boom, Gilmore Girls took a lighter, friendlier tone than Dawson’s or One Tree Hill, highlighted the keen, distinctive voice of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Alongside husband Daniel Palladino, Sherman-Palladino guided the story of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel), a mother and daughter whose closeness in age (Lorelai was a teenage mother, much to the chagrin of her WASPy parents, played by Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) gives them a unique, friend-like bond. The main setting of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, surrounded Lorelai and Rory with kooky supporting players, with a surrogate family—best friends/co-conspirators like Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy) and Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) as well as sparring partners/romantic interests Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia), and Dean Forester (Jared Padalecki)—making Stars Hollow a home-away-from-mansion for the Gilmores. The cast sports one of the deepest benches in recent TV history (and that’s without mention of Rory’s school chums, especially Liza Weil as indispensable frenemy Paris Geller), but it all comes back to the solid core of Lorelai, Rory, Emily (Bishop) and Richard (Herrmann), the Friday-night dinner crew who make the following five episodes worth watching for Gilmore Girls newbies and experts alike.
Erik’s pick: “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” (season three, episode seven)
If ever there was a better visual match for Gilmore Girls’ kinetic dialogue, I’ve must’ve missed it—I was probably too busy re-watching the residents of Stars Hollow jitterbug their way toward local bragging rights. Dance-marathon fever sweeps the town in this third-season installment, scripted by Sherman-Palladino and directed with fluid, old-school-musical flair by Dirty Dancing choreographer Kenny Ortega. Lorelai’s boogaloo rivalry with eccentric jack-of-no-trades/reigning marathon champ Kirk (Sean Gunn, most recently seen in Guardians Of The Galaxy) is the Gilmores’ primary reason for entering the contest, but the proceedings form the perfect backdrop for Rory’s ongoing romantic woes. The love triangle of Rory, Jess, and Dean is one of TV’s most divisive (the order in which I list those names betrays my personal loyalties), and it comes to a head in this appropriately high-stakes setting, among twirling partners and stacked egg-salad sandwiches (containing no egg). This one runs the emotional gamut, from the thrill of hoofing victory to several agonies of defeat, and it concludes with a simply heartbreaking shot that proves Lorelai and Rory need no fancy trophies—they just need each other.
It’s easy to dismiss it. This wasn’t the series finale that Amy Sherman-Palladino—who left the show at the end of season six—had planned. It wasn’t even planned as a final episode: “Bon Voyage” was shot before The CW made a final decision on the series’ future, forcing season-seven showrunner David S. Rosenthal to design an episode that could function as a series finale if necessary. And like the rest of season seven, Rosenthal’s best efforts to replicate Sherman-Palladino’s signature dialogue were always a little—and sometimes a lot—off, the banter pushing us away when it used to draw us in. But here’s the thing: “Bon Voyage” still makes me tear up. As Rory’s sudden job on the campaign trail with Barack Obama speeds up her departure, the episode goes meta and becomes about the existential panic of saying goodbye sooner than you expected, and with no idea of what comes next. The result may not be Gilmore Girls at its absolute best, but Rosenthal gets it right by focusing on the relationships that really mattered: Luke and Lorelai may be reunited, but it is Lorelai’s relationships with her daughter and her parents that are the heart of this series, and which offer the strongest moments here. Even if you dismiss season seven as non-canonical, I contend “Bon Voyage” to be about as perfect as a replacement showrunner’s tentatively written series finale could ever hope to be, and worth sticking out the weak later seasons to experience.
Gwen’s pick: “Haunted Leg” (season three, episode two)
Like Myles, Gilmore family ties are the highlight of my pick as well: “Haunted Leg” is a classic, utilitarian Gilmore Girls episode from season three (the show’s strongest), with Emily and Lorelai sparring, Rory and Jess bicker-flirting, Paris-and-Rory-at-Chilton politics, and an engaging subplot with a Stars Hollow resident (Kirk asks Lorelai out on a date). In between all this activity, the episode offers some lovely scenes with the titular girls: On her last first day of high school, Rory receives a bill from Lorelai itemizing the costs of her care and feeding; they eat a breakfast of marshmallow and Rice Krispies out of a communal bowl; the two pipe up with several references to Lorelai being the immature one and Rory the opposite, Freaky Friday-style. All is relatively well in the Gilmore world, especially when the episode’s second Friday-night dinner involves some unusual hilarity when Emily is forced not to chastise her obviously incompetent new maid. Then Rory’s dad Christopher (ugh) bursts in to confront Lorelai for ditching their prospective re-relationship after finding out his girlfriend, Sherry, is pregnant, and Gilmore Girls proves that it is much more than just a curio case of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s shimmering punchlines. In the Lorelai-Christopher showdown, emotions boil over into a weighted verbal bout, until Lorelai is rescued by Emily, of all people (“You know, you need a mask and a horse when you do that”). In spite of all of Emily’s meddling and Lorelai’s wisecracks, “Haunted Leg” shows that the base of the Gilmore bond is always rock-solid, with family remaining the most important part of the show.
Becca’s pick: “Teach Me Tonight” (season two, episode 19)
Like Erik, my loyalties lie with Jess. At the peak of my Gilmore Girls obsession, I was about 16, catching the show on ABC Family after school, and when Jess hit the Stars Hollow scene in season two I was never late getting home. (Yes, maybe I did skip first period—it was gym, probably—to catch the 10 a.m. airing instead of waiting until 4 p.m. for the cliffhanger to be resolved.) Jess was just the character to challenge not only Rory’s wit, but also her sense of adventure—or lack thereof. Until Jess arrived, it’s possible Rory had never truly broken any sort of rules, which is a rite of passage for every teenager. Romantic chemistry is another thing no teenager should be robbed of (ahem, Dean). Leave it to Luke to unwittingly pair Jess and Rory together as study buddies, providing both mischief and a sexual tension so thick it could be cut with a knife by the time Rory says, “Turn right,” and an innocent-enough ice cream run solidifies that Jess’ crush isn’t unrequited. Thus begins a real maturation for Rory, as she discovers what it’s like to navigate a relationship where she’s not always in the driver’s seat.
It’s not a surprise that strong family episodes abound on this list, as no matter what flight of fancy Amy Sherman-Palladino explored around the edges of Stars Hollow, Gilmore Girls was never better than when it was addressing the up-and-down relationships among Lorelei, Rory, Richard, and Emily. Season six has its issues (best exemplified by the sudden, awkward addition of Luke’s daughter, April, who occupies one of the B-plots of this episode), but “Friday Night’s Alright For Fighting” addresses the biggest one head on: the fracture of the Gilmore family in the wake of Rory’s arrest at the end of season five. Until the final act, the episode is a decent-if-typical installment of the show, with Lorelei dealing with the decision to postpone her wedding to Luke and Rory dealing with Paris’ inability to run the Yale newspaper. This all changes when Lorelei and Rory return to the Gilmore mansion for Friday-night dinner, and all of the long-simmering tensions explode in a tense and hilarious sequence that blows the roof off of the show’s established visual landscape. Like “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” this episode is written by Amy Sherman-Palladino and directed by Kenny Ortega as almost a cross between a stage play and an experimental film, switching between static shots and kinetic handheld camera work as the Gilmores fight and laugh, and then laugh and fight some more. It’s essentially a microcosm of their entire familial relationship in one sequence, and a stunning series highlight.