‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ Review: Let it Snow in ‘Winter’

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Yahoo TV
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel (Credit: Netflix)
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel (Credit: Netflix)

Today is the day Netflix unveils all four new episodes of Gilmore Girls, collectively known as Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. I’ve already written a spoiler-free, overall review of the quartet of Stars Hollow specials, but beginning today I will write one review a day, for the next four days, of each individual episode. Today’s review is of “Winter.” You are hereby and loudly warned: WALL-TO-WALL SPOILERS OF GILMORE GIRLS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE FOLLOW. Grab a mug of coffee and some Tater Tots.

Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed this episode, knows how to transport us back to the Gilmore Girls circa 2005-06, aka the Last Real Gilmore Girls Era. Before, that is, the well-intentioned but generally misconceived Sherman-Palladino-less seventh season. And the way to do that immediate transportation in the Netflix series is via the lovely “la-la-la”s of Sam Phillips on the soundtrack, as a camera pans across the town square of Stars Hollow to settle on Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore, bundled against the cold, coffee in her mittened hands. She’s soon joined by Alexis Bledel’s Rory, who, now at age 32, is leading the wastrel freelancer’s life and finds it difficult to pick up cellphone reception in Stars Hollow — “the town we constructed in a giant snow globe,” says Lorelai, in what I’ll assume doubles as a Sherman-Palladino reference to the finale of St. Elsewhere.

Indeed, the pop-culture references fly fast and furiously, with Lorelai and Rory getting off a rapid-fire set of them upon first hugging hello, just so we can relax and be confident that Graham and Bledel still have the chops to handle Sherman-Palladino’s unique mixture of His Girl Friday-meets-Gwyneth Paltrow frame of reference. (Early on, one of those compulsive name-droppings takes on unexpected added poignance when a joke is made about Lane’s husband, Zack, resembling “a young Leonard Cohen.”)

Related: Ken Tucker Reviews ‘Gilmore Girls’ Episode 2, ‘Spring’

And so it zings along. Lena Dunham, Gail Collins, John McPhee, Ben Affleck, and The Sopranos go into the Gilmore blender along with scores more; the air is thick with snow and the Zeitgeist. In the initial seasons of Gilmore Girls, it was a constant surprise to hear so many real-life names, historical events, and brand-name foods stuffed into any given hour — a happy surprise for fans, and a puzzlement for anyone benighted enough to be able to resist the show’s methodology.

The “Winter” episode takes full advantage of its 90-minute length to reestablish certain core elements. Luke (Scott Patterson) is still backward-baseball-cap-wearing Luke, still cranky in his café. (He has the added crank of contending with layabout customers nursing half a cup of java while bleating at him for his Wi-Fi password, which he invents willy-nilly, just to thwart them.) The small town is still dense with familiar eccentrics, and this episode shines a particular spotlight on Sean Gunn’s Kirk, whose latest crack-brained business idea is his own variation on Uber called (I’m trying to reproduce this phonetically here) Ooooooh-ber, which consists of you calling Kirk’s mom, who’ll then call him, and he’ll pick you up in whatever vehicle is at hand in the moment. It’s ridiculous; it’s sublime.

Gilmore Girls is not Gilmore Girls, however, without a certain amount of tension, and Amy S-P provides three crackling electric eels to jolt our beloved mother and daughter. First is Rory’s current life status: Single, unemployed, and not doing all that well in either of these categories. She had a “Talk of the Town” piece published in The New Yorker — my guess is that it was at least a year or two earlier — and she’s been trying to ride that impressive surge in professional recognition into regular employment of some sort: more assignments, or a book project, or a staff job somewhere. Gotta say I feel for Rory, that she’s spent the years we’ve been Gilmore-less trying to get further along; given what a golden academic life she led, we ought to think that her current situation must be depressing for her. Especially since everyone in Stars Hollow keeps talking about that damn “Talk of the Town” piece! Luke’s even laminated it onto the back of the cafe menu! I firmly believe that Lorelai would have/should have talked him out of this — she, of all people, would know how heavily this must weigh upon Rory.

Related:
Gilmore Girls: A Journey Through Lorelai’s Love Life

Speaking of Lorelai and Luke: They’re living together, and Lorelai is wondering whether she and Luke should have a child — via surrogacy (Stars Hollow is a magical place, but it can’t perform ovarian miracles). This subplot reintroduces Liza Weil and Paris, as sleek as though she’d just stepped off the How to Get Away With Murder soundstage, which she probably did, with Paris now the boss of a high-profile surrogacy clinic in Manhattan.

This is not the profession I’d have pegged Paris to pursue, but I’ll go with it, especially because it enables Amy S-P to write many funny jokes about “breeders” and elicits some of Scott Patterson’s best comic acting when he’s confused about whether or not he’s supposed to have one-on-one sex with each surrogate.

Finally: Emily Gilmore. The entire quartet of new episodes is heavy with the memory of the late Richard Gilmore, who was played by the late Edward Herrmann. The new Gilmores play this death for everything it deserves, which is a lot. Herrmann’s performance was an anchor for the series, and not because he was the strongest — most rooted; most comfortable in his own skin — male figure that Amy S-P created. Certainly Kelly Bishop’s Emily matched Richard when it came to strength of character and will.

But this show went all-in on the perhaps now-unfashionable idea that daughters can relate to their fathers in a different way than they do with their mothers. In this case, Richard was quicker to forgive and more overtly eager to reestablish regular contact with Lorelai when the series first began. (Emily was too, but she held onto her reservations/grudges more stubbornly and kept that particular yearning for mother-daughter kinship pushed down, in the great WASP tradition.) His death left a huge hole in the lives of Emily and Lorelai in particular. (Rory, having always enjoyed an unconflicted relationship with her grandfather, passed through the stages of grief with more serenity.) And that hole will not be entirely filled — even by the gigantic portrait of Richard commissioned by Emily that inspires one of this episode’s best testy exchanges. The Richard-less Emily is at once adrift and in flux; numb with sadness, unmoored in what has always been a balanced life, she tries to find some solace in changing her immediate surroundings. She falls for the fad of “de-cluttering” her house, an impeccable setup for the moment in which Amy S-P takes full advantage of being on Netflix: the sight of prim Emily in jeans and a T-shirt, an outfit so shockingly unthinkable that Lorelai reacts with a barely suppressed, “Holy s***!”

“Winter” takes us back four months, to Richard’s funeral, and explores the different ways people express grief. Emily is able to keep up a brave front while breaking inside; Lorelai is cracking, self-medicating with booze, and she (as Richard would put it) lets down the side by telling an awfully inappropriate — in part because it is so uncharacteristically banal for her — anecdote at the funeral reception that tears open the wound between mother and daughter yet again.

That the episode ends with Emily deciding she’ll see a therapist, and tricking Lorelai into coming along, sends A Year in the Life aloft with the best sort of beginning.

Extra Gilmore Gifts:

  • Ray Wise appearing as Richard’s old pal from Yale made me wonder momentarily whether Sherman-Palladino was setting up a Twin Peaks joke.
  • Revelation of the episode: Emily has never met Kirk before now!!!
  • Lane, Zack, and the band Hep Alien execute a killer cover of Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” in a show that exalts women above all.
  • Best insult: Emily referring to Stars Hollow as being composed of “carnies and misfits.”
  • Best line-reading: Lauren Graham biting down hard on the words, “You’re horrible!”

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is streaming now on Netflix.