From Bedford Falls of "It's a Wonderful Life" to Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show," the idyllic small town has always held a special place in American pop culture, providing fictional refuge in times of real-life turmoil.
On Friday, anyone exhausted by the effort of avoiding political conversations with that one uncle should consider a visit to Stars Hollow, Conn., the impossibly quaint and harmonious community at the center of "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Nearly a decade after "Gilmore Girls" concluded its seven-season network run, the whimsical dramedy about quick-witted single mother Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), her overachieving daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) and WASPy mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) returns in a much-anticipated Netflix revival.
Consisting of four movie-length episodes written and directed by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Daniel Palladino, "A Year in the Life" finds each of the Gilmore women at a crossroads months after the sudden death of family patriarch Richard (actor Edward Herrmann, who died in 2014).
"Gilmore Girls" was never a major ratings hit or awards darling, but it earned a devoted base of fans, few of whom were pleased with the final, Sherman-Palladino-free season. Since its cancellation, "Gilmore Girls" has only grown in popularity, thanks to its availability on Netflix and the enduring appeal of its core mother-daughter relationships.
The "Gilmore" DNA lives on in the likes of "Jane the Virgin," another cleverly written show following multiple generations of tightly knit women. But even in the era of Peak TV, entertainment that's sharp, funny and relatively family-friendly remains a scarce commodity.
"A Year in the Life" is a perfectly timed, if imperfect, slice of holiday escapism that retains the original series' signature mix of fast-paced banter, intimate family drama and small-town eccentricity.
Fans will be delighted, and newbies will be able to follow along with minimal assistance from Wikipedia. Many will even find themselves eager to go back and consume the whole series from the beginning. (Lo, the binge-watching circle of life continues.)
Stars Hollow appears to be "constructed inside a snow globe," as Lorelai knowingly puts it early in the new season. It's a place untouched by the culture wars that have cleaved the country in two, where everyone seems to have enough money even when they don't have jobs and the most divisive issue is the town sewer system.
The locals are quirky in an endearing, non-threatening way and, for better or worse, nearly all of them are back, including deluded entrepreneur Kirk (Sean Gunn) and snooty hotel clerk Michel (Yanic Truesdale). At the same time, the people of Stars Hollow — especially Lorelai — are anything but rubes.
Residents name-check celebrity chefs and New York Times columnists and could hold their own at dinner parties in Park Slope or Silver Lake. "Gilmore Girls" is Norman Rockwell by way of the New Yorker, a salty-sweet confection that balances out its "snow globe" quality with cultural savvy.
This seemingly contradictory blend of old-fashioned and modern, of wholesome and worldly, makes "Gilmore Girls" seem essential at this particular moment.
As ever, the series will be especially rewarding to pop culture connoisseurs who will understand Lorelai's references to the steam-room scene in "Eastern Promises" or Omar Little's burners in "The Wire." But even those less well-versed in the oeuvres of David Cronenberg and David Simon will find something to relate to in Stars Hollow. The series conveys the universal through the highly specific dynamics of the Gilmore family.
Rory and Lorelai were always flawed, deeply human characters and they remain so in "A Year in the Life." The revival is clear-eyed about Lorelai's shortcomings, revealing how her abrasive wit is a defense mechanism that keeps grief and other painful emotions at bay, often at the expense of those closest to her — especially her grieving mother, Emily, and endlessly patient partner, Luke (Scott Patterson).
Rory is subjected to less scrutiny, though, truthfully, she probably deserves more. The youngest Gilmore is now 32, roughly the same age as Lorelai was when "Gilmore Girls" began, but is caught in a state of protracted adolescence.
Her once-promising journalism career has reached a plateau, and her love life is even more of a mess. Though we're meant to sympathize with her millennial angst, Rory comes off too often as an entitled globe-trotter prone to selfish dithering and poorly justified romantic choices.
Sherman-Palladino rivals Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino in her talent for densely allusive, rat-a-tat dialogue, and some performers are more naturally suited to her manically loquacious style. Graham seems born to deliver highly caffeinated rants about things like flying on planes "surrounded by people with consumption, diphtheria, scabies." Likewise, Bishop inhabits the Scotch-swilling, silver-tongued grand dame Emily like a second skin.
But at the risk of offending "Gilmore" superfans, I've never found Bledel quite as convincing; Rory has always sounded, to me, like a girl impersonating her mother. This awkwardness made sense when the character was a teenager, but she's now a grown woman without a voice of her own.
The four-episode format provides a neat timeline for the overall story, but at roughly 90 minutes each, the installments sometimes drag. There are a few superfluous subplots involving supporting characters you probably forgot about long ago. (The thing about reunions, whether on TV or at your high school, is that you don't really want to see everyone, do you?)
Your enjoyment of "Gilmore Girls" will depend on your tolerance for quirk, which is as pervasive in scenic Stars Hollow as disembowelments are in the zombie wasteland of "The Walking Dead." Anyone who grows queasy at the thought of, say, wacky small-town musicals or adorable pet pigs should probably steer clear.
The rest of us are happy to pour another cup of coffee and indulge.
'Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life'
When: Any time, Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)
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