FEATURE: The Universal Appeal of ‘Gilmore Girls’
Everyone’s talking about the return of Gilmore Girls. The show has amassed what could easily be described as a cult following, enjoying fan resurgence recently thanks to Netflix streaming all seven seasons and facilitating many hours of binge watching. I’ve come across Gilmore Girls fans of all genders, ages, shapes and sizes, and feel as though it’s worth considering the ‘formula’ that seems to make the show so relatable to so many differing types of people. How can a show still be as addictive, timeless and engaging, as it was when it was first broadcast sixteen years ago?
First, it’s worth considering how the show came into existence and the woman behind its conception…
A STROKE OF HUMUNGUS LUCK, AND MINIMAL STUDIO INTERFERENCE
It’s a sad fact: TV studio executives think that we are all stupid. They think that all audiences want to see when they switch on their idiot box at the end of a hard day’s work is dumbed-down, easy to digest, predictable and unimaginative trash, preferably shows that feature stupid or deplorable people that will make them feel slightly better about their own miserable lives. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to see anything new or interesting or cleverly written. We just want to be able to switch our brains to ‘standby’ mode as we bathe on our sofas in the hallowed glow of the TV screen, kill a few hours before we crawl into bed and weep ourselves to sleep in the dark.
Okay, so this may be slightly less applicable to televisual output in the last decade or so, during which more intelligent writing has found its way our screens (largely thanks to services such as Netflix and Amazon-funded original series). But things were different when Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched Gilmore Girls to The WB in the late 90s, and by her own admission, she got lucky. During the meeting with the studio’s executives, after several of her other carefully-prepared pitches had failed to capture their attention, she threw out one last, half-formed idea: a show about a mother and daughter’s friendship. To her amazement, they snapped it up. She hadn’t yet conceived any of the characters, had no setting and had not written a single word of the pilot’s script. After enlisting the help of her husband, Daniel Palladino, to write the scripts, and getting inspiration for the show’s locale from a holiday in Connecticut, everything ‘fell into place’. And, perhaps most lucky of all, the studio’s interference with the writing process was minimal; they trusted Palladino to produce something that viewers would love, and relate to. And she did; the show ended up being one of the network’s biggest successes.
Palladino’s dialogue and style of writing is uniquely her. It’s hard to imagine something like Gilmore Girls, something so unlike anything else, making it to air now, or even making it past the pitching stage. The fortuitous circumstances of the show’s production allowed Palladino’s voice and vision to remain un-tampered with; her mega-scripts (which were twice the length of a normal TV episode script) packed with surplus dialogue actually making it to screen uncut. The climate of fear in the TV (and movie) studio board room, fear that audiences might not ‘get it’ or that the show’s witty repartee might alienate ‘the precious 18-24 demographic’, would be enough to stop it in its tracks today.
You would think that a show called ‘Gilmore Girls’, with its female-focused relationships and overtly feminine DVD covers, would neglect to explore its male characters as acutely as it does its leading ladies. Indeed, I think it’s what turns a lot of men off the show, as it is easy to assume that Gilmore Girls should be classified alongside Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives (shudder) as just another ‘chick-show’ pandering to stereotypes and painting men as lesser beings. But as any man or woman who has watched it will attest, Gilmore Girls is more about ‘people’ than it is about ‘girls’. Its lead males are as strong, quirky, intelligent, oddball, career-focused, relationship-focused, romantic, unromantic, troubled, immature, baggage-laden, financially prosperous, broke, and generally as well-rounded as its females. The show’s characters have been devised by someone who knows and writes people, not someone who set out to make some grand feminist statement or regurgitate lazy stereotypes when forging character bios (as countless TV comedy writers so often fall into the trap of doing). By making, say, the town mechanic a female, or having a male character (who is heterosexual) be more fashion-obsessed and body-conscious than the women he is working alongside, Palladino not only subverts our expectations but also creates an environment where a character’s action cannot be easily predicted, at least not based solely on their gender.
DIALOGUE, DIALOGUE, AND MORE DIALOGUE
I’ll be the first to admit it: roughly half of the pop culture references in Gilmore Girls are lost on me. When I picture the inside of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s mind, I picture a vast and unending encyclopaedia of movies, books, TV shows, and random factoids. However, rather than just being written as a vehicle for Palladino to vent the clutter of clever jokes and information that must form her psyche, each character has been lovingly crafted to have a unique voice of their own (although it’s probably fair to say that Lorelai is Palladino’s closest match, in dialogue and in style). Characters are not just defined by one trait, and are as flawed and multi-faceted as you or me, so their dialogue is believable despite the fact that it is full of complexities and references to obscure movies. Each line spoken by a Gilmore Girls character is non-transferrable and is never there just to serve an expository function, or move along the plot. As mentioned by Palladino and cast members in interviews, the plot is not the focus of the show. In fact, if you go back and watch the pilot episode (as admitted by Palladino and Graham), ‘nothing happens for the first 25 minutes!’ The small moments are what define Gilmore Girls, and the dialogue is a huge part of building up the larger picture, giving the show its identity.
THE CHERRY-PICKED CAST
For a show like Gilmore Girls to work, the right casting is an imperative factor, part of the glue that holds everything together. This is most true of Lorelai Gilmore, who probably has the most screen time, as well as double the dialogue of every other character (and is required to deliver it at twice the speed). And it really feels as though Lauren Graham is Lorelai; in her performance we get to witness that rare and wonderful thing, where an actor and character blur into one in such a way that we forget we are watching an actor playing a role. Lorelai is the purest manifestation of Palladino’s voice, and it is impossible to imagine any other actress bringing the same level of spirit and commitment to the role or identifying with Lorelai so discernibly.
Alexis Bledel’s performance as Rory Gilmore is given space to flourish as the actress, and character, comes of age and finds her path in the world. Bledel was a model when hired for the role (Gilmore Girls was her first acting job), and this lack of experience is something that really helps to shape the character of Rory from the pilot episode. While directing her carefully-picked cast, Palladino had the sense to allow Bledel’s vulnerability to shine through and make Rory an enigmatic on-screen presence, juxtaposed perfectly with Lorelai’s sass and worldliness. Rory is an introvert, she likes to read and study and is not there to steal the limelight, and this set-up for her character fits in perfectly against the backdrop of Stars Hollow and its many resident extroverts and oddballs.
The Stars Hollow inhabitants all bring something unique to the show, something that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann, who play Lorelai’s disapproving upper-class parents, are a force to be reckoned with. And it’s also worth mentioning the many men who play the Gilmore Girls’ various love interests, characters that are all written to match whatever stage of life or state of mind Rory and Lorelai are in. They are men that resonate with realism; the too-perfect first boyfriend; the guy you go out with just to piss of your parents; the troubled bad-boy in a leather jacket; the one you can always rely on in the end. Palladino has said that she often cast actors she ‘fell for’ to be featured in Gilmore Girls before she had even written characters for them, and this really shows by how naturally every actor seems to fit into their role, and into the universe of the show. Each performance is suffused with love and care and deeper understanding, which is one of the main reasons the show is so compulsively watchable. It’s fun to watch people who are clearly having a lot of fun acting their parts.
AND FINALLY…A SIMPLE PREMISE
I think a large part of the show’s success, and people’s relatability to it, is its core premise and Palladino’s dedication to her original vision. There is nothing else like it on TV – and although it can’t easily be classified, it appeals to almost anyone thanks to its explorations of universally ‘human’ themes: family; relationships; career; friendship; academia; food; coffee, coffee, and coffee! Its plot and writing is never formulaic, and Palladino has obviously put a large part of herself and her own life experience into its creation (as all great writers do, whether they are writing TV shows or books or blog entries). And everyone has their own personal reasons for connecting to it; I used to watch the show every day with my mum, and so when I watch it now, I’m reminded of the closeness of our mother-daughter bond, tied in so deeply with Lorelai and Rory’s. Within the wealth of themes and sub-plots and character experiences that the show explores, viewers can recognize their own life experiences; and this universality is what is central to the success of Gilmore Girls, and the love expressed by its legions of fans.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will be premiering on Netflix on 25th November!