Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Gilmore Girls and the Domino Effect

The Gilmore Girls is not what it used to be. Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have left The Gilmore Girls at the end of the last season. Together, they created the show, wrote about 75 percent of it, and directed quite a few episodes.

Unfortunately for the writers left behind, the Palladinos’ dialogue has always outshined the others, being smarter, funnier, faster, and better at both comedy and drama than anyone else who had written for the show. Amy did better with the drama, and microscopically better on anything regarding mother-daughter relationships, while Daniel went for more comedy zingers. Unfortunately for them, the wheels began to fall off the wagon a year and a half before they left. This column is about what they did right and what they did wrong.

Together, they had created a show that centers on two main themes. The first and most palpable theme in The Gilmore Girls is the mother-daughter relationship, as portrayed through: controlling Emily and her daughter Lorelai (who got pregnant at 16, had a child, and ran away from home); Lorelai and her daughter Rory (the dream-relationship between mother and daughter); Emily and her own mother-in-law, who does to Emily what Emily does to Lorelai; Lane, Rory’s teenage friend, and her mother Mrs. Kim (who does her best to control every aspect of her daughter’s life); Mrs. Kim and her mother (who did her best to control her daughter’s life).

At the same time, The Gilmore Girls is also about the false virtues of quaintness. Stars Hollow, the quaint Connecticut town, seems all sweetness and light at first glance. But everything that seems sweet at first sight stops being so upon closer examination.

One town event had an original barbershop band come to sing all the way from New York. Their song, Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer, provided a good backdrop to the event. The problem was that it was the only song they knew, and they sang it for hours. And that song sticks in your head. As Lorelai said, “I figured out how to get the Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer out of our heads. You have to sing the Small World song over and over again for the next 48 hours.”

Another time, the town rebuilt the church’s bells to commemorate the passing of a beloved townsman. At first, when the bells rang, everything stopped, and everyone looked at the church in reverence. However, as quaint as they were, when bells ring every half hour, it is bound to eventually drive the town insane.

The parties, the banners, the balloons, the bands, the events, the costumes – everything grows old and perhaps wasn’t that nice to begin with. And The Gilmore Girls was all about that, too.

This perfect, old-fashioned little town has as many oddballs as there are people living in it. A quick recap of the unforgettable characters the Palladinos have left behind:

First and foremost, the ultra-bizarre Kirk (once, after asking Lorelai out, he left, saying, “By the way, I think you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen... Outside of a, you know, really filthy magazine.”);

Then there’s the intransigent Korean Mrs. Kim (when showing a door knocker in her antique store: “Good price, seeing as how it may have belonged to James Madison. It was commonly known that James Madison liked big knockers.”);

The insufferable snob, Michel (to whom one day Lorelai actually had to say, “Stop comparing your dogs to my kid”);

The highly libidinous Miss Patty (observe how she hit on Rory’s father the first time she saw him: “You know, Christopher, we’re all like Rory’s parents around here, and I’m one of her mothers. And since you’re her father, that would make us... a couple.”);

The anal-retentive, bureaucracy-loving Taylor (“Wait till you see the banner I ordered. It’s going to make every other banner we’ve ever had look downright embarrassing.”);

Babette the busy-body (Sally Struthers does a magnificent Archie Bunker as Babette. Once she tried to decide who she likes more, Kirk or cats: “I love cats, but I love Kirk, too. It’s pretty much fifty-fifty, and that’s a high compliment, my friend.”);

The tough old broad, Lorelai the First, Richard’s mother (“Gilmores don’t have headaches. Our heads are perfect.”);

Sookie and Jackson who are able to fight about vegetables like nobody’s business;

And last and best: Paris Geller, whose personality, like Kirk’s, is a bottomless well of appalling, comic surprises (suffice it to say that she is capable of shouting at strangers: “You have no right to be repulsed by my sex life!” and talks politics in her sleep, as she tosses and turns: “Woodward... Bernstein... I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski”).

Although the humor was great, the thing that made their writing good was actually the drama. A few key moments come to mind:

Lorelai and her mother waiting for sixteen-year-old Rory who went out with Dean and didn’t get home all night. Lorelai defends Rory, practically in tears, while Emily says Rory is doing to Lorelai what Lorelai did to Emily. But once Emily is gone and Rory returns, Lorelai lashes out at Rory the way Emily does.

Another time, Lorelai spends the night with Chris, Rory’s father. The two are deathly attracted to each other, but the timing has never been right. Years ago, Chris was ready to marry Lorelai, his pregnant teenage girlfriend, but Lorelai wasn’t; then Lorelai had settled down, and Chris continued to be a bad, irresponsible boy. Now the timing seems right and they are starting to imagine a future together. But after a phone call, Chris has to tell Lorelai that the girlfriend that had left him is now pregnant. He has to go back to her and raise the child the way he didn’t raise Rory. (Later on, Luke will comment on this, “It’s tough when the universe is against you. It’s like taking on the Manhattan garbage union.”)

In another episode, months later, Chris storms in, demanding that Lorelai, who had shut him out of her life, talk to him. She just can’t deal with him, and since he doesn’t go away, she just stands there and takes it, trying to make him understand.

With Rory off to college and Lorelai busy with the building of her new inn, the two haven’t been able to even speak for each other for a week. Both their worlds collapse and both women melt down. Rory finds comfort in Dean, her married ex-boyfriend, and Lorelai melts down on Luke’s big chest.

And then there was the time Rory lost her virginity to Dean, her still-married ex-boyfriend. He was always in love with her, and she knew it. Wanting to get him back, forgetting herself in the moment, she sleeps with him. But when Lorelai finds the two together, Rory’s ‘perfect moment’ is ruined, as Lorelai points out that Dean is still married, that he hasn’t left his wife, and that Dean is not “her Dean” at all.

In their last year and a half, though, the Palladinos have pushed the overall plot of the series to a place that may sound good in planning, but makes absolutely no sense.

The first illogical plot: To fit a cliffhanger and a plot-point Rory suddenly abandoned her mother, left the college she’d dreamt of, and went to live with her grandparents. It was fast, illogical, out-of-character, and led to half a season of good writers trying to justify situations that made no sense for the characters. And once Rory came back, it was as if it had never been.

The second illogical plot came after Lorelai’s huge blow-out with Emily. Emily had gone one step too far, breaking up Luke and Lorelai, causing Lorelai to finally be free of the manipulation of her mother. This was the logical peak of everything that had come before in the series. However, the writers brought the two of them back, and now they were stuck with a relationship that can go nowhere, because it had already peaked and ended with a dud.

There was a way to bring back Emily and Lorelai. But it was the real way, the way it would have happened in real life, which meant that Lorelai would continue to be free of Emily and that their relationship would develop on honesty and not control. They chose not to do that.

Once you take your characters to a place they can’t actually go, once you work hard at trying to justify scenes that will take you to Impossible-Land, other things that don’t make sense start cropping up as well and the wheels fall off the wagon. It’s like a domino train, because it is impossible to keep the lack of logic to one place. The writers lose control and don’t know why. In The Gilmore Girls plot-lines suddenly appeared that were all about delayed confrontations and had characters keeping secrets for many episodes. That was new to The Gilmore Girls.

That is the reason talented writers and directors in Hollywood look so bad so often, while not being able to put the finger on the cause. A talented writer writes a professional plot and professional dialogue in a professional way. He looks back, and does not understand why it doesn’t work. The mistake was made in agreeing to write a plot that was under certain constraint of illogic. Everything the writer writes after that is part of the domino chain. In the same way, everything a good director directs after that is also part of the domino chain. The Palladinos made two big mistakes, two bad choices, and the wheels came off the wagon.

Let us hope they take a year or so off and then come back with a new series, unbound by old constraints.


The27thGilmore said...

You suggest some very good points here. But I have to disagree with you on the so-called "illogical plot" where Rory drops out of Yale and avoids Lorelai. Granted, she did seem out-of-character, but that was the point. Rory had started acting out of character, first when sleeping with a married Dean, again when casually dating Logan, and once more when stealing the yacht. Rory was left feeling like her life was a complete waste after Mitchum told her that she didn't the journalistic "it". Being out-of-character at the time, it was natural that she did an out-of-character thing by quitting Yale.
Anyways, other than that, I like your blog entry and I agree with you on every other point.

Janus said...

For me, the first a wheel came loose at sex with Dean. I stopped watching. Hard to have two characters violate character with each other. That, and all the mistakes seemed immediately obvious. So... why did such great writers, make such obvious mistakes? These were a complementary pair who had previously balanced and corrected for each other.
Any idea?

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