So I’ve Been Watching Gilmore Girls

I suppose it was inevitable.  I watched this show when it was airing on the WB way back when, and I found it oddly compelling in my high school years, so why shouldn’t I look into actually finishing it now that it’s on Netflix?

Thoughts follow.

Gilmore girls title screen.jpg

For all the problems I have with the show now, the theme song never gets old. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

It’s really weird going back and rewatching TV series from back when I was a teenager, particularly now that my high school years are a decade and a half in the past.  That much distance goes a long way in helping show how certain things are so definitively of an era.  It also really screws with the nostalgia glasses (though I suspect that might be a product more of spending the last ten years of my life learning how to look at stories critically and examine the assumptions that pop up in those stories) so that you wonder what it was about something that was appealing when you were young.

Gilmore Girls evokes all of those reactions for me.  I never realized it when I was living it, but there’s totally a look and feel to the ’00s that just kind of sneaked by unnoticed (is this how older people who came of age in earlier decades felt when they realized that there was a concept like “the ’70s” or “the ’80s”?), and now I look at this show and I think, “Oh yeah, that’s what the ’00s looked like.”  I also realize that there are a lot of problems with the relationships depicted on the show, besides some really weird storytelling conventions that more recent television seems to have abandoned (not just the hyper-speed conversations that are rife with cultural allusions that could pull from pretty much any decade, ever, which was at least a stylistic decision for the show’s reality, but things like the fact that Lorelai and Rory can invariably do way more in a given period of time than any real person ever could) in favor of either highly stylized fictional universe rules (think of all the absurd things that happen in Parks and Recreation that blatantly defy the laws of physics or current technology for the sake of a good joke) or a more grounded pseudo-reality that tries to sell the audience on the real-world plausibility of a universe instead of just owning the fact that it’s a fiction.  Gilmore Girls seems to exist in an in-between space where it doesn’t hide that it’s a facade (seriously, Stars Hollow exists as only one block where everything in town happens, and no one bats an eye at this super-compact city planning) but it seems to expect the audience to just buy into the convention of the small set for the sake of engaging with the story.

Then there’s the relationships.

It never occurred to me in the past (and honestly it didn’t really occur to me until I heard it being discussed on the podcast Gilmore Guys, a podcast by a couple of guys who are watching the series and discussing it episode by episode) but Lorelai and Rory’s relationship really is a sort of fantasy of mother-daughter relationships; the two of them get along a little too well, given the kind of pressures that they have on their lives.  I don’t think this depiction is necessarily problematic, but it’s worth pointing out that it has more of an aspirational tone than any attempt at realistically depicting a particular relationship.

Other relationships are far more worthy of comment, simply because they’re treated as so unremarkable.

First off, there’s Dean, Rory’s first boyfriend.  I’m only halfway through season 3 at this point in rewatching, but I’m so over having Dean around.  The first couple of seasons he’s vaguely creepy with his stalking Rory before asking her out, stealing a kiss from her while he’s on the clock at his job, and just being a petulant boyfriend (the Donna Reed episode was horrifying in how completely uncritical it was of Rory’s embracing the housekeeper role in order to please Dean).  As the relationship progresses and Dean starts displaying more and more aggressive signs of jealousy at Rory’s varied interests, I just kept getting more and more uncomfortable with them being together.  I remembered that they broke up eventually, but I couldn’t remember exactly when it happened (needless to say, when I hit the dance marathon episode, I was relieved, kind of).  The problem with Dean is that he does all this crap to try to control his and Rory’s relationship, and everyone in town seems to think nothing but the best of him because he’s supposed to be the good boyfriend (at least Rory’s grandfather Richard takes an immediate dislike to him; it’s just unfortunate that the animosity between them doesn’t have anything to do with Richard seeing that Dean’s clearly going to grow up to be abusive; in fact, Richard’s dislike for Dean gets played as villainous whenever it comes up, which is partly justified because he’s still motivated by controlling Rory’s future, but at least he’s someone who has the sense to say that Dean’s not a good long-term boyfriend).  Rory’s second boyfriend, Jess, honestly isn’t much better (he still does creepy obsessive stalker-type things during the long, slow death spiral that is Rory and Dean’s relationship in season 2 and early season 3), but at least he’s depicted as someone who connects with Rory on an intellectual level (and because he’s the town misfit, his bad behavior gets regularly criticized by everyone else; the unfortunate implication is that as long as you’re well-liked by your peers, anything you do which is harmful to other people can be overlooked).  The contrast between these two guys really hits home in the middle of season 3 (which is where I’m currently caught up to) when Dean starts to hatch his villainous plan to make Jess’s life miserable and actually engage in a nice guy gambit (you know, like in that one xkcd comic) to win Rory back (Rory is oblivious to this contention, and Lorelai, upon hearing that Rory’s friends with Dean while dating Jess gives a knowing look as she gets all wistful over the fact that Rory has no idea she’s caught in the middle of a penis war).

The short version of a long story is that the teenage guys on this show suck, even the ones that I like (I admit that I enjoy watching Jess, even when I can see that he’s being pretty creepy too; it probably helps that he actually gets to be funny).

Not to be outdone by Dean’s uncanny ability to engage in all kinds of abusive behavior without any form of criticism, we also have Mrs. Kim.  Let’s lay this out without any frills: Mrs. Kim is outright abusive to her daughter Lane, using absurdly harsh punishments for the kind of minor rebellions that teenagers engage in all the time, and hiding behind a smokescreen of conservative Christianity.  Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with depicting this kind of relationship, but there’s absolutely no criticism offered.  The rest of the town treats Mrs. Kim’s parenting like it’s kind of quirky, but a perfectly legitimate approach, completely glossing over the extreme lengths that Lane goes to in order to have some semblance of a normal teenage life and hide this aspect of herself from her mother.  It’s disturbing to see a portrayal of conservative Christian parenting taken to this extreme and then played for laughs.

None of this criticism is to say that I’m not enjoying the show.  I wouldn’t keep watching it if I thought it were irredeemable (it’s not).  If anything, I’m enjoying looking at Gilmore Girls now with a more mature (and progressive) outlook and picking apart what I think it does well and what it does poorly.  I’ll definitely keep watching it; I’m just going to cringe every time Mrs. Kim or Dean show up.

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