Review: ‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ on Netflix

Maureen Ryan
Variety

People go to Luke’s Diner for reassuring takes on classics like grilled cheese, pie, and coffee, not for foodie creations that look and taste unfamiliar. Most of the viewers who dive into Netflix’s “new” incarnation of “Gilmore Girls” are probably operating from a similar impulse: They want their TV comfort food, and they want it now.

Breathe a sigh of relief: The “Gilmore Girls” we knew and loved is back, and at its best, it’s the equivalent of a platter of powdered donuts and extra-crispy french fries. Maybe it’s a little too much at times — and rapid consumption of the four 90-minute episodes Netflix commissioned is not advised — but when it relies on the notable strengths of its core ensemble, it is television at its most warm and reassuring.

The early sections of the first episode dwell heavily on cameos from returning characters and spend a lot of time recapturing the vibe in the small Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, where grumpy diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson) sighs at freeloaders who want his wifi password, and where the sweetly wayward Kirk (Sean Gunn) is excited about yet another preposterous money-making scheme. But for those who want a retreat from reality in order to spend time in this beautiful little Brigadoon of a town, where a scheme to install a new sewer system is one of the most pressing issues on the local agenda, these “Gilmore Girls” episodes will feel like a warm blanket on a cold winter night.

At times, the fan service threatens to take over the storytelling, and there are signs of the drift that afflicts other Netflix series: Sub-plots that would have gotten a scene or two in the WB version of the show receive extensive and sometimes indulgent amounts of room in the four installments of “A Year in the Life,” each of which depicts a season in Stars Hollow. It takes a while for various story threads to kick into gear, but “Gilmore Girls” was always more interested in spending time with its eccentric array of characters than in powering through various tightly disciplined plot points.

The good news is, despite some structural wobbles, its singular combination of screwball patter, self-aware whimsy and barbed WASP drama remains more or less intact, and 16 years after the show debuted on the WB, “Gilmore Girls” continues to owe a great deal of its success to Lauren Graham. She slips back into creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s rat-a-tat dialogue without missing a beat, and her nuanced performance as Lorelai Gilmore supplies the show’s beating heart. The “girls” in this narrative — Lorelai, Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Emily (Kelly Bishop) — can sometimes be monstrously selfish or annoyingly oblivious, and it’s not always clear that the show is aware of how grating the Gilmores can be at their most narcissistic or even cruel.

But Graham and Bishop in particular are masters of imbuing their evasive characters with layers of pain, yearning and compassion, and Graham’s chemistry with Bledel remains charming. For this program to work, the love these women have for each other must remain palpable, and it is, certainly in some scenes near the end that are likely to bring a tear to the eye.

As was often the case with the earlier incarnation of the show at its most potent, what gives “A Year in the Life” its spine is something thorny and painful. The three Gilmore women are mourning the loss of Emily’s husband, Richard, and given his importance to the clan, it’s entirely appropriate that the show spends this much time on the fallout from that death. The focus on grief is also a tribute to actor Edward Herrmann, who played the preppy Richard with such versatile bonhomie for so many years.

A death in any family kicks off a reshuffling of relationships and priorities that can be difficult to navigate in the best of circumstances, and given how prickly Emily and Lorelai’s relationship was to begin with, their post-Richard year is often an emotional minefield. But Bishop and Graham play their scenes of conflict and commiseration with such verbally dextrous facility that many of them are simply enthralling. There’s one Lorelai speech in the final episode — which is by far the strongest of the four — that easily matches Graham’s most memorable moments from the previous seven seasons.

Like Graham and Bishop, Patterson knocks his monologues out of the park. The terse Luke gets fewer big moments, but the way he has always lovingly and exasperatedly held his own with Lorelai has always been one of the show’s chief draws. Speaking of other men in the orbits of the Gilmore women, “A Year in the Life” might serve as something of a referendum among fans: How much Logan (Matt Czuchry) did anyone really want? That particular subplot tends to go in circles without acquiring much in the way of depth or texture. Czuchry’s performance is faultless, but the show goes to that well more than it should have.

“Gilmore Girls” was never in the business of supplying gritty realism — and hooray for that — but sometimes its so unrealistic that it intrudes on one’s enjoyment of the show. Rory is flailing in her early 30s, and her bank account is apparently on life support too, but during much of “A Year in the Life,” she goes on long, expensive flights without worrying too much about the cost. There’s also a Rory subplot involving a loopy British character that supplies few comic dividends.

In its previous seasons, fans got used to putting up with the show’s more tiresome excesses because the good stuff was so often worth waiting for, and that’s the case here. “Gilmore Girls” distracts viewers with fun, silly tangents (and the supporting cast is uniformly good at supplying those kinds of moments). But there is darkness at the heart of all those layers of eccentricity and surreal flights of fancy, and those tougher elements are as necessary as Sam Phillips’ lilting music, the hilarious intensity of Paris (Liza Weil) or the withering put-downs of Lorelai’s employee, Michel (Yanic Truesdale).

The hard kernel at the core of the series is that Lorelai usually feels rejected by Emily, who never understood her spirited daughter and who reacted badly when she became pregnant at 16 all those years ago. The very proper Emily, in turn, projects her fears on to Lorelai, and both women talk past each other in a lifelong battle to gain control of the family narrative. In this go-round, as she has always done, Rory tries to make peace between her elders as she attempts to carve out a place in the world that is not overly dominated by these two women, neither of whom likes coming out from behind her emotional defenses.

Everything “Gilmore Girls” tries to pack in — the wit, the whimsy, the pop-culture references, the family conflict, the perfectly calibrated insults, the set pieces that go on a bit too long — can feel pretty pummeling at a 90-minute running time. The show is sometimes too overstuffed for its own good.

So here’s a recipe for enjoying this new edition of “Gilmore Girls”: Get a blanket and a mug of cocoa, and watch 30 or maybe 40 minutes at a time. It’ll still be there, waiting for you, next time you need a distinctive and idiosyncratic blast from the past, one that makes the transition to the present fairly seamlessly.

In other words, don’t binge on this comfort food. In these difficult and uncertain times, why not make it last?

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