Almost no one realized it at the time, but Gilmore Girls was one of the most brilliant shows on the air. Set in the picturesque New England setting of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, the show followed a mother-daughter pair who were best friends first and mother and daughter second. It was a charming story, made all the richer by its Aaron Sorkin, West Wing-style dialogue, replete with pop culture references and all. Contemporaneously with being on air, the show was well regarded, but it never captured the popular imagination in the way shows like Game of Thrones do today. That would come later. At the time, there was a prejudice against shows on minor networks, and having two female leads did not help either.
Unfortunately, Gilmore Girls had an ignominious end. At the end of the sixth season, series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left the show after a contract dispute. Much like The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin, the show declined in quality and the remaining writers were simply unable to replicate the show’s idiosyncratic style of dialogue. Sherman-Palladino famously wanted to end the series with four words. With her gone, they were left unheard. The promise of those four legendary words left fans yearning for more.
Since ending its original run in 2007, Gilmore Girls gained a second life in reruns and especially on Netflix. The eminently bingeable show became increasingly popular while the Gilmore Guys podcast broke down the series’ gender skew. With an unfinished story providing a strong impetus, all the ingredients for a successful continuation were there. After years of flirtation with the concept, the Netflix revival became official in October 2015. Details started to leak out. The revival would be structured as miniseries with four 90-minute episodes, each one representing a season. Almost all of the original cast would return. It would be titled Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. And we would finally hear those last four words.
Four Seasons and Three Generations of Gilmore
A Year in the Life picks up in “Winter” as the eponymous Gilmore girls, Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Lorelai (Lauren Graham) reunite. Rory returns to Stars Hollow, and Lorelai immediately whisks her away on a town tour. Time has passed, but Stars Hollow feels charmingly stuck in time. Selectman Taylor Doose (Michael Winters) is still campaigning for the latest town improvement, Miss Patty (Liz Torres) is still teaching dance at her school which doubles as a town hall, and Kirk (Sean Gunn) still performs every odd job known to man. Lorelai is still running the Dragonfly Inn with Michel (Yanic Truesdale), who is as grumpy and sour as ever. Even Lorelai’s complicated relationship with Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) is in stasis, with neither of them mentioning marriage or children despite living with each other all these years.
It takes the four seasons of A Year in the Life to bring a world of change.
The complexity that started to emerge in the later seasons of the original series comes into full bloom by “Spring.” Part of that complexity is the culmination of the ongoing, slow-motion character assassination of Rory. At the beginning of the original series, Rory is portrayed as Stars Hollows’ golden child. Despite coming from humble roots, having been raised by a single teenage mother in Lorelai, she is admitted to Chilton, a prestigious prep school. Her most notable quality is her love of books, and she later graduates as class valedictorian.
That perfect façade had to come crumbling down at some point, and the trouble starts after she heads off to Yale, her grandfather’s alma mater. In part catalyzed by her relationship with the wealthy Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry), her bratty and entitled side comes through. Among other misdeeds, she steals a yacht with Logan, loses her virginity to her married ex-boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki), and quits Yale in a tantrum when Logan’s father says that she does not have what it takes to become a journalist. Still, she ends up pulling it all together by the end of the original series, graduating with honors from Yale and getting a job covering President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
In “Winter,” we find out that Rory’s career has stalled. At age 32, she lives a vagabond existence as a freelance journalist whose crowning achievement is a short New Yorker article. Without stable employment or a real home, she begins a book project with the eccentric Naomi Shropshire (Alex Kingston) in London while staying at Logan’s apartment there. She also attempts to reschedule a perpetually delayed meeting with Condé Nast to no avail.
By “Spring,” she hits rock bottom. We learn that Logan, whom she is sleeping with, is engaged to another woman. With her book project falling apart, she ends up calling in a favor from Logan’s father to get the Condé Nast meeting. Nothing definitive comes of it, but she is given a potential story idea that she pursues. She falls asleep while interviewing a source and ends up sleeping with another who happens to be dressed in a Wookie costume. In short, she is a terrible journalist. Left with few remaining options, she swallows her pride and interviews with SandeeSays, a Millennials-focused startup (think BuzzFeed) that she thinks is below her. To her humiliation, she fails to get the job when she is unable to name a single story idea during her interview.
Many fans have complained about Rory’s slow descent into an unlikeable character, but her development makes sense in the grand scheme of Sherman-Palladino’s universe. Sherman-Palladino demands a degree of realism in her characters—a fact that becomes crystal clear by the end of “Fall”; the perfect edifice of Rory’s early years simply could not last. Moreover, Rory’s arc has unique resonance for her generation. Like many Millennials, Rory ends up moving back home. During the hazy days of “Summer,” she wanders aimlessly while taking over the Stars Hollow Gazette for no pay to keep it alive.
For those who find Rory’s arc unfulfilling, Lorelai completes hers in a more traditional way. Over the four seasons, she grapples with the question of expanding her successful but tiny inn. She explores the possibility of having children with Luke, which leads to hilarious encounters with the ever-intense Paris Geller (Liza Weil), who now runs a fertility clinic. Once she closes that possibility, she has something of a mid-life crisis in “Summer,” deciding to take a few weeks to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite her hatred of nature. When she actually attempts to do so, she is delayed and then derailed, eventually reaching an epiphany about where she wants to take her life.
This hiking diversion is a bit cliché, and given Lorelai’s character, a bit strange as well. Nonetheless, it works and drives the plot forward. In “Fall,” she patches up her troubled relationship with her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop), finally marries Luke, and decides to expand the Dragonfly to keep the overqualified and restless Michel onboard. Despite the sunshine and daisies, Lorelai’s ending just feels right rather than too picture-perfect. Her long journey filled with years of turbulence with Luke, her parents, and even occasionally Rory means that her ultimate satisfaction in life is well-deserved. The contrast with Rory’s character development could have been jarring, but the juxtaposition serves Sherman-Palladino’s aim of realism. Someone, but not everyone, has to get a happy ending.
While A Year in the Life’s portrayal of Rory is controversial and its portrayal of Lorelai perhaps uneven, Sherman-Palladino writes Emily particularly well. Indeed, her character development is deeply satisfying as she struggles with the passing of her husband Richard (Edward Hermann, who has passed since the airing of the original series). The original series occasionally forgot that the term “Gilmore girls” is inclusive of all three generations of Gilmore, sometimes resulting in Emily lacking the depth and development she deserved.
A Year in the Life more than rectifies this oversight while honoring Richard’s (and Hermann’s) memory. It deftly weaves Emily’s story into Lorelai’s, and consequently Rory’s. In “Winter,” Friday night dinner returns, except Emily and Lorelai’s relationship has chilled on account of Lorelai’s unintentional misbehavior at Richard’s wake. Years of resentment come bubbling to the surface. In “Spring,” Emily and Lorelai end up in therapy, which is of course useless, together. Emily is still grieving over Richard’s death in “Summer.” Meanwhile, Rory’s ex-boyfriend Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) tells her to write a book about her relationship with Lorelai. Lorelai initially resists this idea, leading to a rare but vicious fight between the two best friends, but eventually accedes. In a last tribute to Richard, Rory begins writing the book in his study during “Fall,” which is also when everything begins to come full circle.
Emily finally reconciles with Lorelai, who tells her a touching story of spending her thirteenth birthday with her father. (Emily asked her for a fond anecdote of Richard at the wake, and Lorelai then babbled something insulting and incoherent.) Then, Emily flames out of the Daughters of the American Revolution in a spectacular fashion. She trades a comically large portrait of Richard for a more reasonably sized version. Then, she moves to Nantucket, finally moving past Richard’s death and their Hartford home. Before she leaves, she lends Lorelai money to expand her inn in exchange for her visiting Nantucket, harkening back to the series’ pilot.
With Luke and Lorelai wed, Emily and Lorelai having repaired their relationship, and Rory pushing forward with her memoir, we hear the last four words: a conversation between Rory and Lorelai.
A Year in the Life was one of 2016’s most anticipated television series. Sequels, continuations, and revivals are more and more common in the age of Netflix, but they often underwhelm, offering little more than nostalgia. A Year in the Life defies expectations in more than one way—and it delivers. Be forewarned, however. Netflix’s promotional materials would have you believe that A Year in the Life would be all comedy and no drama. Their tone is uniformly cheerful and bright. While the revival will certainly surprise and delight, there is plenty of room for shocking revelations and tears as well.
In between “Spring” and “Summer,” the plot meanders, but the pieces fall into place by the end. How I Met Your Mother famously shoehorned an outdated ending onto its nine season run, polarizing fans. A Year in the Life does not make the same mistake, despite keeping four words, conceived so long ago, as the ending. Regarding those last four words, they are completely shocking, but they are not out of place. With the depth of character development in the revival, the implications of those four words have changed. As such, they do not feel mismatched with the times.
Of course, A Year in the Life is filled with callbacks to the original series. All of the quirky Stars Hollow characters return, as does the Life and Death Brigade in a spectacular scene. Lorelai and Rory still eat unreal amounts of food, yet manage to stay thin. The show’s characteristic banter and humor remain omnipresent. Even in genuinely bizarre asides such as the Stars Hollow musical, the revival keeps its charm. Of course, those who have seen the original series and are already emotionally invested in the characters will best be able to appreciate the revival. Nevertheless, the richness of the plot and characters offers plenty for everyone.
A Year in the Life, with its smart development and completion of the character arcs of the three generation of Gilmores, is certainly well done. The storytelling is brilliant, the cinematography is beautiful, the acting is wonderful, the direction is on-point, and the soundtrack fits the mood as always. It built upon the foundation of original series and become more than it ever could have been. Sherman-Palladino’s vision for A Year in the Life was not the one she had for the ending of the original series, but it proves to be the right one.
Many fans are hoping that the story of A Year in the Life continues, owing to the cliffhanger of the last four words and Rory’s unresolved romantic entanglements. While there may be perfunctory plot and story remaining, the Gilmores’ character arcs have completed and, indeed, come full circle, as A Year in the Life likes to point out. The page is not yet written, but it does not matter what it will read. Perhaps being left to imagine is the best ending of all.