If you come to my apartment (and please, stop on by) you’ll quickly figure out that I love the television program Gilmore Girls. Its first six seasons are prominently stacked underneath my TV (we can talk about the seventh season some other time). I’ve watched the damn thing through several times, encouraged my friends and family to watch, and have found that there is no more divisive show in the history of television. That may be an overstatement, but it honestly doesn’t feel like one. To be fanatical about Gilmore Girls isn’t even strange—it’s routine. That’s the typical reaction if you like the show. Why the hell is that?
I’m American but I lived in London from the age of 9 until the end of college—I didn’t have The WB and first watched Gilmore Girls (as I discussed in this article) on Nickelodeon at 6 p.m. and was immediately entranced. Probably because it was airing after Kenan And Kel and Sabrina The Teenage Witch repeats—more power to those shows, which certainly sustained me as a young teen, but Gilmore Girls was next-level stuff, with insane screwball comedy banter, wacky small-town antics, and remarkably insightful character insights somehow all co-existing together on Nickelodeon UK at 6 p.m.
I’ve been through my truly fanatic phase. The unfortunate seventh season (which did not feature the talents of show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino or her husband Daniel Palladino) left me needing a little space. Now everyone’s moved on—ASP finally has another show on the air in Bunheads (which also stars Kelly Bishop), Lauren Graham’s on Parenthood, Melissa McCarthy is an Oscar-nominated superstar, Rory’s various boyfriends are all pursuing busy TV lives, Alexis Bledel is seducing Pete Campbell on Mad Men with her crazy eyes. It’s just the right time for me to dive back into Stars Hollow. There’s so much to explore, I’ll be doing it two episodes a week, for as long as The A.V. Club lets me. Please try to comment and discuss and link as much as you can—I know there’s a thriving group of fanatics like me out there.
“Pilot” (season one, episode one, originally aired 10/5/2000)
Like just about every show on TV that isn’t an action-packed thriller, Gilmore Girls is a slow starter. The first two episodes set everything out very nicely: Lorelai and Rory’s relationship, their backstory, their distance from Lorelai’s parents Emily and Richard, the wacky small Connecticut town where they live, and their propensity for quick-fire dialogue. Some characters who will later dominate on the show, like Luke, don’t have much to do; others, like Paris, seem one-dimensional. That’s all ordinary stuff in the development of any long-running show.
Rewatching the pilot, I feel a little bad that when I sell people on the show. I tell them to give it a few episodes, that it doesn’t really start cooking until around “Cinnamon’s Wake.” But the pilot episode is a pretty strong piece of television. A weird little fact is that it was the first show to air with the help of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a group of advertisers seeking to promote broad, generational shows that the whole family can sit down and watch together. That sounds almost malevolent, but their script development program has actually helped a lot of awesome shows get on TV (like Friday Night Lights, Chuck, and Everybody Hates Chris) and the Gilmore Girls pilot does not shy away from advertising its central premise.
Lorelai, a child of considerable means with stuffy, blue-blooded Connecticut parents, was a wild teenager who got pregnant at 16, fled home to escape the prospect of a shotgun wedding with her same-age boyfriend, and raised the kid (and herself) in a kooky, supportive small town where she worked at the local inn and was promoted up to running the place. There’s no whiff of judgment in the writing—even the still-disapproving Emily’s complaint is just that Lorelai didn’t marry and settle down. It’d be easy for Lorelai’s parents to come across as monstrous in the pilot and they don’t at all. They’re frosty and awkward, yes, but the strongest feeling they give off is sympathy, since they didn’t (and still don’t) really understand what happened and how much of it was their fault.
What drives everything in the pilot is that Rory, Lorelai’s bright star of a daughter, has gotten into fancy private school Chilton, which everyone views as a necessary step on the way to her ultimate goal, attending Harvard and becoming a foreign correspondent. The public school-bashing on display is unfortunate (we get a brief glimpse of Stars Hollow High, which is filled with apathetic jerks) but undoubtedly Sherman-Palladino needed to make the stakes for Rory high enough that Lorelai has to swallow her pride and ask her parents for tuition money.
In return, Emily extracts a promise from Lorelai: dinner, every Friday night, so they can get more involved in Rory’s life. This is a pretty low-concept show, and that’s the biggest piece of it—Lorelai and Rory have to have dinner with Richard and Emily every week. The drama of the episode comes mostly from Lorelai’s throwdown with her mother at dinner, prompted by Richard’s praise of Rory’s absent father Christopher, where we begin to understand just how deep the resentment goes on both sides. Rory, too—we don’t know as much about her relationship with the grandparents, but it’s clear she rarely sees them and overhearing the fight is as much a moment of revelation for her as it is for us (Richard, the instigator, sleeps through it).
The more interesting element is Lorelai and Rory’s tension through the latter half of the episode, which is presented as a much rarer occurrence and much more seismic. The episode starts off with jokes about Rory’s lack of sexuality (Lorelai mocks her giant formless sweater, asking, “You couldn’t find one made out of metal in case anyone has X-ray eyes?”) but it’s clear that with Lorelai’s history, Rory growing up is going to be an uncomfortable topic for her mother. Rory wavers on attending Chilton after meeting professional cutie pie Dean (Jared Padalecki, billed as a guest star for now) at Stars Hollow High and briefly considering whether academia is really all that worthwhile.
It’s a brief fight, and of course Rory resolves to go to Chilton and makes up with her mother (who asks if he’s “dreamy,” to which Rory responds, “Ugh, that’s so Nick At Nite”) but the show’s done well to tip its hand. There’s going to be plenty of jokes from its spark-plug leads and plenty of bizarre antics from the Stars Hollow townsfolk (we meet Miss Patty and Mrs. Kim, the mother of Rory’s best friend Lane, in the pilot) but this is also a show about family relationships and how similarly intense and frustrating they can be when you’re ultra-distant, like Lorelai and her parents, or super-close, as she is with her daughter.
Plus, you know, pop-culture references, and gentle pop songs, and a rather unique, pleasantly obnoxious “la la la” score, and a crazy chef and a mean Frenchman and a cute diner owner. The pilot just gives us the basics, but this heady poultice is already brewing away.
“The Lorelais’ First Day At Chilton” (season one, episode two, originally aired 10/12/2000)
Of all the early season-one episodes that see Gilmore Girls finding its groove, this is definitely the weakest—and I have a lot less to say about it. It’s all about setting up the environment of Chilton and it goes way over the top. Every teacher seems like they were plucked out of a Dickens novel, the principal basically tells Rory he doesn’t think she’ll succeed, and she’s quasi-bullied by a couple of stock characters—know-it-all Paris (Liza Weil) and smooth, sexy jerk Tristan (Chad Michael Murray).
The whole fish-out-of-water joke with Lorelai showing up to school in a tie-dye T-shirt and jean cutoffs is another example of the episode hammering in a point we already understand. I love seeing Lorelai, looking fantastic and businesslike at the Independence Inn, complaining that this was the impression she wanted to give, and standing up to her mother about buying Rory lots of fancy Chilton stuff, but everything else feels a little hokey.
Don’t get me wrong—I love Paris Geller. She’s arguably my favorite Gilmore Girls character. But if I remember correctly, Weil was cast for a three-episode arc just as an initial obstacle for Rory, and that’s why she just comes across as this big mean bully, basically telling Rory to stay out of her way. But there is room for her character to grow, since she’s kind of an unconventional bully—a nerdy one who assures Rory she’s going to be the newspaper editor and valedictorian. It makes sense for brainiac Rory to have a similarly driven rival at this fancy school, but so many teen movies before and since would go the more obvious route, emphasizing class difference, or the cool kids versus the nerds.
Tristan is a little more along those lines, a super-preppy kid aggressively flirting with Rory and deriding her as “Mary” behind her back (an insult so old-fashioned that Lorelai can’t help but be tickled by it). I’ve seen this show through a half-dozen times and I honestly forgot Chad Michael Murray was in it but here he is, towering over everyone and looking like he just fell out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
We also meet a couple important recurring cast members here—there’s Jackson the produce man (Jackson Douglas), having the first of many arguments with Independence Inn chef Sookie over the quality of his wares. There’s Babette (Sally Struthers), Lorelai’s shrill neighbor married to an ultra-smooth jazz man. There’s Kirk (Sean Gunn), called “Mick” here, an odd-job man around town who builds up quite an elaborate backstory over the years.
And there’s the first real suggestion of flirtation between Lorelai and coffee-hating diner-owner Luke (Scott Paterson), who quietly approves when she decides not to date a besuited jerk-man Chilton parent who hits on her a couple times. As anyone who’s watched this show will know, the Lorelai-Luke thing becomes the third crux of the show, along with the grandparents and Rory’s love life. But it’s all baby steps right now.
- This is one of the most quotable shows on television, so it’s going to be tough to keep this category from getting too stuffed every week.
- Important to note Alex Borstein (coincidentally, she’s Jackson Douglas’ wife) as harpist Drella in these early episodes. She was the original Sookie and the pilot was filmed with her in it, but I think her part on MADtv kept her from taking the role. Weird to imagine the more aggressive, sarcastic Sookie that would have produced.
- Rory instantly knows her mom’s mood. “You’re happy.” “Yep.” “Did you do something slutty?” “I’m not that happy.”
- Rory’s less good at flirting with Dean, however. “They make really good cakes here. They’re very… round.”
- Lorelai sleeps through her unconventional alarm. “I had the fuzzy clock and it didn’t purr on time!”
- Headmaster Charleston says Rory has no after-school activities. “I was in the German club for a while, but there were only three of us and two left after seeing Schindler’s List.”
- Michel (Yanic Truesdale) just hovers in the background of these two episodes being a hilarious French meanie. “There’s a phone call for you and if I’m to fetch you like a dog I’d like a cookie and a rrrrraise.”