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What’s Most Dissatisfying About the Gilmore Girls’ Return Is Also What’s Most True

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In October, two hundred coffee shops across the United States and Canada were made into Luke’s Diner for a day to promote the new revival of Gilmore Girls. No special signings or souvenirs — just the regular drink in a commemorative sleeve, served by the usual barista in a branded apron, alongside a selfie-optimized cardboard cutout of Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) himself. Transforming independent cafés into even an imaginary multinational chain seems contrary to the show’s spirit. Yet it’s suggestive of the series’ appeal in the streaming age: You can hop on a bus tour of Carrie Bradshaw’s New York or drink at the Cheers bar in Boston, but the Stars Hollow of Gilmore Girls is an everytown, and by the grace of Netflix, it can be everywhere.

But the Gilmores themselves — single mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her bookish daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel) — were always both of and above their town. Throughout the series’ seven seasons, their peanut-gallery antics acted as a prophylactic against provincial quirk. Now, in Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, when Stars Hollow’s newspaper needs an editor, or its musical calls for advisers, the Gilmores can’t keep from stepping in as stewards of local lore, patronizing but also protective. A Year in the Life has unexpected clarity about this particular longing: a cousin to nostalgia that’s more stuck on a place than a period.

“Endings count in television,” Emily Nussbaum has observed, “maybe too much.” That might go double for Gilmore Girls, whose previous final season, in 2006–07, went out with a whimper and without creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Contract negotiations had failed: Single-season renewals, she complained, meant that she and her husband and co-writer, David Palladino, never knew when the Gilmores’ story might end. But she always knew how, down to the final four words her characters would speak. The announcement that Sherman-Palladino would run the 2016 revival had the air of a prophesied return: The once and future queen would set her realm to rights.

The first episode, “Winter,” opens with a wink at these obligations, as Rory visits home for a day from her jet-setting life as a journalist. “Should we skip the town tour?” Lorelai asks with a frozen smile. As if it were possible to refuse. The four episodes seem structured by an eagerness to please that’s touching, but also faintly embarrassing, in what it assumes the audience wants. Did we need a throwback to the picnic basket subplot from season three? Did all of Rory’s old flames, now longer-haired and stubbly, have to trudge through the miniseries just to retread old emotional beats? Heart-to-hearts with best friends and bad dads get shoehorned in; town rituals flash by in cheap cutaways. But it’s a losing battle: Every viewer will keep their own exacting census of who was overlooked.

The revival’s original sin is the problem of Stars Hollow: Its comforts confine. Yet A Year in the Life is also explicitly about how home can become a hiding place. Our heroines have grown root-bound. Possible futures elsewhere — the Pacific Crest Trail, an apartment in Queens — vanish. “Go back to your beloved town,” Lorelai’s mother, Emily, snarls in one especially vicious moment, “with its carnies and misfits.” By episode two, Rory has moved back in to her old bedroom and abandoned reportage for memoir.

Meanwhile, the miniseries forsakes story for musical sequences. “Summer” features an indefensibly long riff on Broadway subgenres that would’ve never made it to broadcast television. In the last episode, “Fall,” Rory’s college secret society of cut-rate Fitzgerald characters whisks her away, accompanied by “With a Little Help From My Friends.” (This was always where the show’s wish-fulfillment aspect fell apart for me: the fantasy that the Ivy League has more Nick Carraways than Tom Buchanans.)

Such rose-tinted reveries are bizarrely out of tune with the series’ essential dynamic: talk. The Gilmores had a screwball syncopation. With go-nowhere cultural references and nonsensical catchphrases, mother and daughter invented their own language, as private as it was theatrical: the David Mamets of forced buoyancy. Their chatter covered up vulnerability; it smothered the silence of loneliness. The new soundtrack betrays these characters first by shutting them up, then rendering their emotional breakthroughs through cheesy choreography.

Then again, this just might be the natural, accidentally parodic endpoint to the show’s central (and, for some viewers, unbearable) conceit: that Lorelai and Rory were the protagonists not only of their own lives but also of everyone else’s. They were the brainiest, most blue-eyed women around, filled with artless egotism and completely convinced of the innocence of their desires — french fries after the diner closed, sex with a married ex. The revival goes further than the series used to in calling out the misbehavior of these otherwise aspirational figures: “You never do anything unless it’s exactly what you want to,” Lorelai gets scolded. “You blow through life like a natural disaster, knocking down everything and everyone in your path.”

With her business comfortably in the black and her relationship with Luke rounding the corner of a decade, the elder Gilmore has settled down; the miniseries mostly has her burrow into the foundations of her stable middle-age existence, hunting for cracks and trying to build something better. Meanwhile, Rory is poised to make brand-new mistakes. Now in her early thirties, she’s running out of precocity’s borrowed currency. She flounders through her freelance writing career and blows a job interview with her arrogance; she hooks up with an affianced old boyfriend, strings along a servile new one, and indulges in a one-night stand with a source.

For the most part the miniseries keeps the mess discreetly offstage, more discussed than depicted. But it dings up her halo in other ways. The new episodes intensify a neuroticism once coded as cute. Now it means an impossible three-phone communication system and tap-dancing away the insomnia. Eccentricity has curdled into something else: not just unlikability — a putdown-turned-buzzword, post-Girls — but loserdom.

With its plot structured around the loss of the Gilmore patriarch, Richard (and actor Edward Herrmann, who died in 2014), the miniseries’ best surprise is drawing the widowed Emily more tightly into the leads’ orbit. She was the closest thing the show had to an antagonist: leveraging wealth to extract a relationship with her daughter; hating to be reminded of it. Amid Lorelai and Rory’s purely playful sparring, she brought a gun to a knife fight: passive-aggressive silence. Now we get a more forceful sense of her voice than ever before: “I can’t spend any more time on artifice and bullshit,” she declares. As it turns out, the Gilmore verbosity comes down the maternal line. What started as a two-hander about a dynamic duo making their way alone in the world becomes a portrait of how intergenerational patterns unspool into the future.

It’s Emily who ends up as a slantwise audience surrogate, rearranging her whole living room around an overlarge painting of her husband and haranguing the caretaker about the errors on his gravestone. Of course, it doesn’t matter if there’s a dash before “Longfellow” or double quote marks around the inscription. No casual passerby would worry over it. But pointless perfectionism can make its own meaning; narrow, stubborn obsession can be an expression of love. The show turns up something tender in that dissatisfaction. It’s a way of putting off goodbye.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life streams on Netflix.

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