Character drama on television can be a difficult thing to accomplish, especially if you’re aiming for your target relatively free of concept. No genre or high-stakes elements that stand at the edge of the fray, constantly pulling your characters in different directions. Most often when this occurs, you’re left with comparatively low-stakes storytelling driven entirely by the internal cast.
In turn what this usually amounts to is some form of soap opera. After all, without those outside elements – be they conceptually driven (like superpowers) or outside-character driven (like serial killers) – then at some point a level of absurdity becomes part of the process in order to maintain conflict. You want to keep it within your core cast, and veering too far away from that may take the show away from where it’s intended.
Even many a series with the best of intent can fall into this trap: Friday Night Lights enjoyed a stellar first season, but then its successive year become bogged down by a hysterical and degrading murder plotline that was poor befitting the series. Character-driven dramas like Brothers and Sisters start out rather light on the soap opera side but eventually dive further into the pit as the writers struggle to keep stories afloat.
It’s with this particular perspective that Gilmore Girls earns enormous amounts of credit for its accomplishments – most of which can very much be attributed to show-creator and primary showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino. She had the tone for the series well-formed almost from the get-go, she kept the storylines intact largely within the main cast, and almost never did she fall back on soap opera tropes in order to fuel her storytelling.
It’s a series a bit out of the norm for what we regularly like to discuss here at TV Enthusiast, since the conceptually-driven side of things is undeniably an enticing element. But Gilmore Girls – years after its end – still remains in the upper echelons of what has graced our televisions over the last 20 years. And in light of Netflix adding the full series to its streaming services for the first time back in October, it’s well worth the time for any lover of television to consider watching, if they’ve never given it the chance.
For one thing, Gilmore Girls is first and foremost incredibly funny. And given the nature of the character drama at play, that could be a difficult thing to accomplish. Shows like M*A*S*H were the first to explore the idea of a dramedy on television – a show that manages to utilize and combine elements of both a comedy and drama. And Gilmore Girls is one of the greatest to take up the mantle.
When the show first began, it quickly drew comparisons to The West Wing, another fast-talking drama that had premiered itself only a year earlier. And just like Aaron Sorkin before her, Sherman-Palladino had a very strong voice in what she was looking to accomplish in a funny and dramatic series. She poured just the right amount of spunk, humor, and pathos into main characters Lorelai and Rory, and then capped it off by finding just the right actors in Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel. Going against so much of the norm when it comes to women often depicted in these roles, Lorelai carries the rare distinction of getting to be a female character that is often funnier and faster with the witty repartees than most the other characters around her. And watching any such scene where she and Rory verbally spar is a true delight.
Beyond that, the joy of having a female voice behind the scenes shines through, as our two main characters both follow and defy many conventions set for the female sex on television. They spend just as much time watching and mocking classic movies as they do shopping for clothes. They also love to eat enormous amounts of junk food, can drop a dozen pop culture references over the space of a minute, and rarely partake in anything classically domestic. Which is to say, they feel like regular human beings that do include some tropes classically associated with women, but don’t become bogged down by them.
On top of that, the series is also an immensely compelling character drama. And the ease with which it’s able to switch between humor and drama – often back and forth over the course of a single scene – is just one of its many accomplishments. Like the best of storytelling in whatever form, it depicts recognizable truths – it just does so in a heightened world where (almost) everyone is fast-talking and sarcastic.
The core of the series centers around an immensely complex relationship between Lorelai and her parents, with Rory brought into the fray by events put in place by the pilot. For the first time in years, after struggling so hard to maintain her independence to keep their meddling out of her life, Lorelai has to appease them for help. The result gives them a permanent in back into the lives of Lorelai and Rory.
The best part of the entire proceedings remains the fact that there are no “good” or “bad” guys in the equation – everyone is offered enormous amounts of complexity that justifies their own position and allows sympathy from the audience. It’s the kind of writing that can resonate with viewers, because these complex family relationships are so recognizable. We understand why Lorelai felt she had to leave, smothered by the control of her parents, and how having Rory becomes something of a saving grace for her. And at the same time, we understand why her parents are so hurt to have been carved out of her life. It’s a situation that almost seems unfixable, and from the very start of the series it’s made clear that enormous amounts of dramatic tension and growth can (and would) be accomplished. It’s a relationship that rarely becomes better or less complex – and because of it, always remains grounded and believable amidst the flurry of wisecracks and sarcasm.
It’s in this arena where the series really shines, as the writing is impeccably deft at earning each pivotal and emotional moment, making the accomplishment seem effortless. It’s further enhanced by the enormous cast that Sherman-Palladino surrounds Lorelai and Rory with, the likes of which include: the curmudgeon (and sometimes love interest) Luke, Rory’s classmate Paris, an intense and driven frenemy, and each of the different boys and men that come in and out of the lives of our two leading women.
(As a bonus, you can also see a pre-Supernatural Jared Padalecki, a pre-Heroes Milo Ventimiglia, a pre-The Good Wife Matt Czuchry, and a pre-Bridesmaids Melissa McCarthy. This show also really knew how to cast rising talent.)
Gilmore Girls is a far cry from a soap opera, and it even largely separates itself from relatively comparable series in The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy; trying to pin it down in just one way would be almost impossible. One thing does remain when all is said and done: it’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding of shows that television has ever seen, and well worth the time to take advantage of Netflix streaming now that it’s finally become available.