Saturday, April 2, 2011

Beginning With A Golden Season: Gilmore Girls - The Complete First Season!

The Good: Good acting, Interesting characters, Great dialogue
The Bad: Could use more DVD bonus features, Some fairly obvious plots
The Basics: Beginning strong, Gilmore Girls Season One introduces Rory and Lorelei Gilmore, their fast-talking world and their growth and heartbreaks as Rory spends a year at a private school!

Every now and then there comes an opportunity for me to review something and I come to view my review as merely a supplement, a further attempt to add details and convince readers to purchase something else. As I recently finished the Star Trek episodes, the whole purpose was to offer an alternative to the entire season DVD sets, but it also was an attempt to do something a little more detailed for those who visited my DVD boxed set review. In the DVD boxed set, my job is to encapsulate an entire season without getting so specific as to give everything away and simply rehash every plot. With Gilmore Girls, I've reviewed the entire series (see the link at the bottom) and anyone who loves Gilmore Girls ought to go ahead and purchase that. Those who have not yet encountered Gilmore Girls and want to be convinced, my season by season reviews are intended to enlighten and give greater details and truth be told, the larger purpose will be to convince readers that the entire series has a consistent quality to it that makes it worth investing in the entire series as opposed to individual boxed sets. But if one were likely to purchase one set before making that level of commitment, Gilmore Girls - The Complete First Season would be a natural and reasonable one to make that leap with.

When Rory Gilmore is accepted to the prestigious Chilton prep school, her mother Lorelai, is knocked over by the bill and swallows decades of pride and enlists the financial aid of her estranged parents to help Rory follow her dreams. Lorelai's mother, Emily, has a catch attached to the funds, though: Rory and Lorelai must join Emily and Richard Gilmore at their home in Hartford every Friday night for dinner.

What follows is the story of Lorelai Gilmore, single mother who is more a best friend to Rory than she is a parent. Lorelai embarrasses herself and Rory on Rory's first day by appearing at the formal school in clothes she has just barely thrown on (including cutoff shorts!), has a romantic relationship with Rory's English teacher, gets innumerable cups of coffee from Luke, and suffers through dinners with her mother and father. Along the way, Rory's father pops back up prompting an even worse dinner than usual and Rory begins her first romantic relationship with Dean, a new boy in Stars Hollow. Throughout she and Lorelai navigate Rory growing up and the weird denizens of their home in Stars Hollow, Connecticut.

As a side note, it absolutely infuriates me that a television program that is so well written and so very smart features a town whose name makes no sense. "Star's Hollow" makes sense, "Stars Hollow" does not work as an English construction. "Hollow Stars" would work if that was the intent, but here we have the name of a town that is a short sentence that makes little sense. It's a strange pet peeve, but I cannot think of a place name in the United States that has an object acting!

This type of attention to words might seem like a ridiculous departure within a review of Gilmore Girls, but actually it serves my purpose well. What separates Gilmore Girls from virtually every other family drama or boxed set DVD program that you could pick up? The dialogue, the attention to words. Gilmore Girls has the fast paced dialogue of The West Wing (reviewed here!) and the cultural references of Family Guy (It's A Trap! is reviewed here!). If there were a live-action family drama that could combine those two elements, that could not be executed better or more truly than Gilmore Girls. It truly is The West Wing with the politics replaced with family drama and references to books, music and movies from pop culture (most consistently the 1980s).

And it works.

Gilmore Girls is funny, poignant and smart. In its first season, Gilmore Girls establishes a wonderful setting, a clear purpose of plot and a strong set of characters who captivate the viewer for hour after hour of entertainment and drama. Because of the speed of the dialogue, this is a wonderful series for DVD and with its first season, references are tossed out with such frequency that it's nice to have a guide to some of the references in the DVD.

Despite its grammatically problematic name, Stars Hollow is a wonderful place, a small Connecticut town near Hartford that has a very wholesome appearance and a remarkably odd population. There is a very down-home America feel to the middle class community that thrives on tourism and . . . well, it's not truly clear what the majority of people in Stars Hollow do for money, though virtually everyone is seen working in each episode: Lorelai runs the Independence Inn, Luke has converted his father's hardware store into a diner where he constantly serves coffee, Taylor runs the grocery store, Dean is a bag boy there, Miss Patty is the local dance and yoga instructor, Miss Kim owns an antique shop, Michel mans the desk at the Inn, Sookie is the cook there, and Jackson is her vegetable supplier. Only Lane, Rory and Paris seem to get by without jobs; they are all students (though Dean is as well).

Evidence of Stars Hollow's weirdness comes up as the people interact with universal bluntness, self-awareness or ego in a way that establishes a community. So, for example, Taylor approaches Rory when she is in his grocery store and becomes suspicious of her and lays out the characteristics she shares with typical shoplifters. The community has to deal with the death of an ancient cat and the town troubadour suffering as a result of a competing troubadour showing up. Yeah, the unquestioned presence of a town troubadour ought to pretty clearly establish just what kind of slightly abnormal place Stars Hollow is.

The general plot is semi-serialized. Over the course of the first season, the show explores Rory's first year at Chilton, as a sophomore. Events compound in the relationships between Lorelai and her parents, Luke and his ex, Rory and Dean, Lorelai and Max and Sookie and Jackson. As a result, despite the fact that some episodes only continue the character elements of a prior episode, most of the stories are an event per episode and how the characters act in it is determined by what came before. So, for example, there is an episode that involves Rory going to a dance or Lorelai and Rory going to a concert where The Bangles are performing. The latter story involves Rory taking along some acquaintances from Chilton and Paris's accompanying Rory only makes sense because of the events of parent's day, two episodes prior. The character elements build and determine how the plots develop, but the basic goals of the series are established here: Rory wants to go to Harvard and Lorelai would like to own her own bed and breakfast at some point.

But it is the fast-talking characters of Gilmore Girls that makes the series worth watching. While Lorelai and Rory speaking at a lightening pace makes absolute sense given their coffee consumption, that everyone else is able to keep up is just a mystery. Maybe it's something in the water at Stars Hollow! Here are the principle characters (including three that are recurring characters that do not appear in the credits, nor every episode) in the first season:

Lorelai Gilmore - Single mother to Rory, daughter to Emily and Richard, she is the coffee addicted manager of the Independence Inn in Stars Hollow. Having left home at sixteen when she got pregnant with Rory, Lorelai has difficulty dealing with her parents and their machinations, preferring to avoid them usually. Mother and best friend to Rory, their life together becomes complicated when Lorelai begins to bend her own rules and starts dating Max, Rory's English teacher,

Rory Gilmore - Actually Lorelai the Second, "Rory" is her nickname and preferred moniker. Rory wants to go to Harvard and become a journalist and as a result, she often butts heads with Paris, who wants to run the school newspaper. Rory develops feelings for Dean, who she meets on her last day at Stars Hollow High, is best friends with Lane, and tormented by Tristan, one of the snotty kids at Chilton,

Lane Kim - Rory's best friend, an audiophile with a very traditional mother who wants her to marry a Korean doctor and have many children. Lane lives vicariously through Rory - though their relationship becomes strained when Rory begins dating Dean on top of no longer going to school with her - and suffers through her mother's matchmaking,

Sookie St. James - Lorelai's best friend outside Rory, she is the cook at the Inn, who has been without love for quite some time. She decides to take a risk on Jackson, who is always delivering her vegetables and fruit and a relationship begins to blossom,

Luke Danes - Owner of the diner, he cares about Lorelai and Rory and hooks them up with their coffee. His ex-girlfriend makes an abrupt appearance, prompting Luke to become even more skittish and bitter about everyone and everything. A classic curmudgeon with a heart of gold,

Emily Gilmore - The meddling mother of Lorelai, she wants to make things better with her daughter, but does not know how and as a result of her attention to etiquette, they often find themselves at odds,

Richard Gilmore - The somewhat reserved father of Lorelai, husband of Emily, he is an accountant involved in international finance who is disdainful of younger people at his job. He has a heart attack that scares everyone,

Dean - The new kid in town, the bag boy at Taylor's market, he is a generically good looking kid,

Paris - The determined, ambitious foil to Rory. Where Rory is kind, Paris is short and quick-tempered, though she often has good reason to be upset,

Max - Rory's English teacher, he is instantly attracted to Lorelai and her fighting spirit and he tries to navigate the complications that come with starting a relationship with the mother of one of his students,

and Michel Gerard - The desk clerk at the Inn, he is deeply sarcastic and rude. Most of the best punchlines come from him.

All of the characters are well-presented by their actors, most notably Scott Patterson as Luke, Melissa McCarthy as Sookie, and Kelly Bishop as Emily. I love Edward Hermann, but in many ways his performance is reminiscent of his recurring role on The Practice as a mentor character there. In other words, this season we aren't privileged to see him truly expand his acting repertoire. It is only through the bonus features wherein actor Yanic Truesdale is seen smiling, laughing and speaking American English that we come to realize just how impressive a performer he is!

But the show rests on the talents of Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham. It's easy to look at the cover of the boxed set of Gilmore Girls - The Complete First Season and write it off as chick-flick fare that might seem like a puff piece, especially when one gets a look at Alexis Bledel, the bright-eyed, stick-thin, perfect skin, Hollywood straight-hair young talent that plays Rory. Under the "looks can be deceiving" category, Bledel proves her worth almost every episode by portraying a girl becoming a young woman and playing the wide range of emotions that come with that.

Lauren Graham is the real star of the series and she is energetic, passionate, and able to express the deep hurt that Lorelai carries around with her in a way that is the very model of quality acting. She has the ability to say so much with just her eyes and subtle movements of her facial muscles. That she wasn't rocking the award shows is just neglect on the part of those who nominate performers for such things.

On DVD, Gilmore Girls - The Complete First Season offers depressingly little. On disc six of the six-disc set, there is a replay of "Rory's Dance" with pop-up text commentary that is mediocre at best. Some (but not all!) of the cultural references are explored and there are a few behind-the-scenes facts that are interesting (like that Melissa McCarthy is Jenny McCarthy's cousin!), but it's pretty much a "one viewing does it" bonus feature. So, too are the "Gilmorisms" (a collection of clips of characters making allusions to other things) and the featurette on how the series was begun and how creator Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched the idea and developed the show. There are only about four deleted scenes and it's unfortunate that on the DVD presentation they were not reintegrated into the program instead of keeping the occasional "previously on Gilmore Girls" opening.

Ultimately, this boxed set is slightly above average and what finally pushed me up in my rating was part of the content: There comes a moment when Lorelai and Rory are having a heart-to-heart and Lorelai says "I would hate to think I had raised a daughter who couldn't say 'I love you.'" and the way Graham presents it and the impact of the line at the time, still (after about five viewings!) gets me! There's not enough stuff like that on television.

Fortunately, it's right here on DVD.

For further information on Gilmore Girls, (including links to my reviews of other seasons!) please check out my review of Gilmore Girls: The Complete Series" available here!

For other television coming of age stories, please check out my reviews of:
Veronica Mars
Freaks And Geeks


For other television reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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