“Are we fundamentally melancholy people?” I ask my husband on the kitchen floor, after our six-hour binge of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
“Yes, I’ve always thought that.”
“How do melancholy people deal with the world?”
Not the kind of conversation you’d expect after, of all things, a Gilmore Girls binge, but this is where we found ourselves last night: sitting on the kitchen floor, eating leftovers, drinking wine, and trying to process why a Gilmore Girls binge could throw us into a joint existential crisis.
Why the kitchen floor, you ask? The proximity to the fridge, of course, in true Gilmore fashion.
[What follows contains some spoilers, so be wary. But, purist that I am, I’m not so brazen as to betray the final four words…]
* * *
Like other “gillies,” I have been counting down the days to the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls, which premiered on November 25th. My excitement was so palpable that B.J. couldn’t help but join in, watching most of the six-hour miniseries by my side. It was a binge if ever there was one, something I’ve never really done and don’t plan on doing ever (ever) again. But I suppose it’s unsurprising that my first, true Netflix-binge was with Gilmore Girls, a show I remember watching from start to finish throughout high school and college. In fact, I have a distinct memory of watching the series finale with my college roommate. I can even recall our final remarks about that last scene:
“Well, I guess that’s it,” my roommate said after the credits.
“Huh. I guess it is. (Pause.) I like Barack Obama.” I replied, referencing Rory Gilmore’s post-college job as a reporter on Obama’s campaign trail, and then I went back to reading.
That’s all we had to say.
Despite my lackluster assessment of the show’s conclusion, I felt great sadness over the end of this series. At the time of the finale, I was a southern transplant living in a very big (and cold) city. For me, the comfort of Stars Hollow was its insistence on rootedness, something I knew I was missing as a vagabond college student. This was a town where people were known and respected for the role each played in making Stars Hollow a home. Even people like Kirk.
Later in college, I learned that a philosophy (even a theology) of “placedness” offered some explanation for why Stars Hollow was so attractive to me. For instance, listen to Wendell Berry’s words on the meaning of community in The Long-Legged House (1969), his very first collection of essays:
A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. (The Long-Legged House, p. 71)
The grand appeal of Stars Hollow for fans of Gilmore Girls was that this town was enough—enough for our characters to explore what felt like the full range of human emotion even within a carefully defined space. In this way, Sherman-Palladino’s universe is similar to Jane Austen’s, one that finds incredible drama among a few country families.
Like all of Austen’s novels, though, that “final” season I watched in my freshman dorm ended in much the way you would expect. (Spoiler Warning.) Rory graduated from Yale, turned down a marriage proposal, and found a job that required her to move away. Likewise, Lorelai finally connected with Luke after a few tumultuous seasons, which included a case of Zima, a broken off engagement, a plot-smashing surprise daughter, and one very large tent. Despite the fact that the Palladino’s were no longer involved in the writing process, the writers who took over the show ended things as neatly as possible. Even without an obligatory marriage at the end, it still smacked of the neatness of a marriage plot.
After more than a few years of studying and teaching literature, I now realize that this (initial) ending followed the rules of comedy in a classical sense. Order is restored at the story’s conclusion, but only after a long and winding deferral. Since Gilmore Girls occupied the genre of “feel-good TV” for so long, it makes sense that this was our ending. So long as the WB-turned-CW marketed the show in this particular way, it was always going to have a “comic” ending.
But it strikes me that Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino never wanted the show to occupy this feel-good genre. After watching A Year in the Life, I’m suddenly curious as to whether or not this is a comedy at all.
Certainly, the show possesses the amorphous qualities of “dramedy,” our modern term for tragicomedy. Tragicomedy, though, still requires a final restoration of order, since its basic structure demands that tragic circumstances ultimately give way to comedy. To demonstrate this, consider how, when we watch a dramedy, we take comfort that a dramatic cliffhanger will always be resolved when a new season begins. We continue to watch because the genre itself demands restorative satisfaction. As narrative structures go, comedy and tragicomedy are remarkably safe.
Yet, in A Year in the Life, order is never really restored in Stars Hollow, especially when we learn the coveted “final four words” that Sherman-Palladino planned (and kept secret) since the show’s inception. Truthfully, those final four-words are ultimately disruptive. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell you what they are!) They defy the usual conclusion of comedy or tragicomedy, and instead remind us that there is no such thing as a “neat” narrative of life. Instead of ending in marriage, A Year in the Life ends with “marriage, and…” In doing so, it abruptly rejects the marriage plot, and, perhaps more importantly, it rejects the neatness of a story that adheres to the politics of satisfaction.
For all of its quirk and whimsy, viewers must also confront that Stars Hollow is an occasionally melancholy world. The revival’s brief subplot of “Stars Hollow: The Musical,” announces this melancholy profoundly in its campy chronicle of (in Taylor Doose’s mind) the town’s inevitable downfall. And whereas the original series had something of a painterly veneer over its characters and even its cinematography, the Netflix revival can’t hide the fact that these actors have aged (although they try: i.e., Scott Patterson’s hair).
Let me be clear: this is not a criticism. I’m glad that we return to a beloved town that seems to be occupied by real human beings who, wonder of wonders, actually age. Even Stars Hollow, the snow globe town itself, is prone to human frailty, as it should be. Throughout A Year in the Life, Lorelai references her anxiety about her own “mortality,” a point underscored by the looming presence of Richard Gilmore’s death (a role originally played by the now-deceased Edward Hermann). Despite her profound placedness and her rooted sense of identity in Stars Hollow, nothing can protect her from the passage of time. Indeed, nothing (other than a well-preserved Warner Brothers lot) can protect the town itself from the passage of time.
Which brings me back to me and my husband’s melancholic conversation on the kitchen floor.
* * *
B.J. and I recently moved—by virtue of professional necessity and a good dose of curiosity—to an actual Stars Hollow, where I took an Assistant Professor job at a small college surrounded by veritable small-town glory. We bought a historic home two blocks from campus in one direction and two blocks from the town square in the other. Ever since watching my own college professors walk back and forth from their homes to campus, I longed to live in a town where I could feel a palpable sense of Wendell Berry’s placedness. There seemed to be incredible personal returns on such a choice, as well as poetic ones. As a Romantic, I wanted those returns. I wanted to claim a place for myself.
Placedness is not the same as nostalgia, although they are easily confused. (My great fear for A Year in the Life is that it will be evaluated by its adherence to nostalgic standards.) Placedness is a commitment to a location, one that accompanies a commitment to the community that resides in that location. Seamus Heaney beautifully articulates the poetic power of placedness in his poem “Antaeus” when he says “my elevation, my fall.” As soon as the demigod Antaeus no longer has his feet planted on the earth, he loses his incredible strength. Likewise, when Heaney attempts to write from a position beyond his local environs, the poetry loses its impact.
There is power in place, but a commitment to place must be accompanied by vulnerability. A friend from Waco, our last home, once described the city (also a college town) as a town full of “leavers.” He considered himself a “stayer.” In the midst of our new move, we are confronting the reality that we are now on track to being stayers, too. It’s scary to be a stayer.
With rootedness, we are vulnerable to the melancholy that comes with watching things change from a single vantage point. We feel that we become static figures, despite the fact that our minds tell us (rightfully) that we are dynamic creatures. To choose placedness, like Lorelai Gilmore, is to open oneself up to the possibility of disappointment. Things will change. People will move on. Nothing is ever fully preservable.
With incredible irony, Rory announces in A Year in the Life that “this is my time to be rootless,” while standing in her childhood bedroom, a space completely unchanged since 2007. It’s ironic, but it’s also a little melancholic. Rory can’t recognize her own fundamental placedness, and, when others do, she rejects them. Throughout the “Summer” installment, when people shout, “Welcome back, Rory,” she replies, “I’m not back!”
But she is back. And the revival ends with a sense that she will be back for a good long while.
* * *
This morning, B.J. and I drove thirty minutes to another (bigger) town in order to deposit a check, since the bank we use doesn’t have a branch in our town. During the drive, we talked about how to deal with this new danger we saw in small town living: the inevitable melancholy of rootedness.
“I think you have to be like Jess,” B.J. argued.
Jess Mariano, the infamous “second boyfriend” of Rory Gilmore, was a disruptive force in the early seasons of Gilmore Girls. He dethroned Dean, the first boyfriend, and generally frustrated Lorelai’s attempts to keep Rory on the straight-and-narrow.
But what’s wonderful about this character is that, even in the original seven seasons, he turned out to be a really good guy. His disruptions revealed the prejudices of the town and of Lorelai herself. He forced Rory to confront her own individuality once she set out for college, and he ultimately calls her out when she leaves Yale for a season, challenging her to return to her true self.
In the car today, we decided that Jess is a “disruptive conservationist.” While he disrupts his world, he is also a conservationist at heart. He’s the character who loves books so much he eventually writes one and works for a small press—that’s a conservationist. Jess found an unlikely home in Stars Hollow, and an even more unlikely family with Luke. And so its no surprise that he has a soft spot for the town. It’s also no surprise that, in A Year in the Life, he is the one who prompts Rory to do the ultimate work of conservation: writing a memoir.
The disruptive conservationist isn’t afraid to assert his identity within a sometimes static town, but he’s also not afraid to preserve its better qualities. And, to boot, he has a keen sense of what those better qualities are. To be “like Jess” in a Stars Hollow town is to love the old and the occasionally static without conflating one’s identity with those two things.
Nowhere is this posture summed up better than in the “Fall” installment, when Jess tears the wifi port out of the Luke’s Diner storage closet and tosses the console to Luke, thereby restoring the diner to its tech-resistant beginnings. It’s a disruptive act, but also a restorative one.
“Merry Christmas,” he says as he leaves.