Friday, April 29, 2011

Choices And Consequences: Gilmore Girls Hits Its Stride With A Close-Enough-To-Perfect "Third Season!"

The Good: Excellent acting, Humor, Heartfelt moments, Character development, Plots, What DVD bonuses there are
The Bad: Could always use more DVD bonus features!
The Basics: In its third season, Gilmore Girls hits a stride that makes character-driven dramedy a legitimate and powerful force to be reckoned with on DVD!

There are few shows that I watch, I see the direction they are going in, dislike that, yet end up surprised and thoroughly satisfied. Gilmore Girls became one such series in its third season. The show, in one aspect - Rory's romantic life - became something of a soap opera, as alluded to in the prior season's finale. Compelled to choose between Jess and Dean, Rory looks like she is about to make her choice - and one I wasn't wild about - when another character makes it for her. That surprise, along with several other events, makes Gilmore Girls - The Complete Third Season on DVD perhaps the essential season of the series.

For those not already invested in Gilmore Girls, this boxed set also represents an important opportunity for those looking for a fantastic dramedy to get in on the action and see what all of the fuss around this series is all about. Beginning at the beginning of Rory's Senior year of high school, the show sets up all of the essential relationships in its first episode and even though it makes strong allusions to past events - Max makes an appearance near the end of the season, for example, without any preamble to those who do not know the history between him and Lorelai - the series is assembled well enough such that those coming into this boxed set without the history of the show will be on fairly firm footing.

But more than any similar series - family dramas, dramedies that actually endured - Gilmore Girls has a richness to it that was often discounted because far too many people wrote it off as a chick flick, a girl's show that relied too heavily on witty dialogue and soap operatic turns of plot to last. The truth is, the fast-talking characters work because they have genuine character, the plots turn frequently because of how the characters treat one another (i.e. the characters move the plot, not vice versa), and while the strongest characters are women, there is nothing to define this as only worthwhile to women. This is The West Wing (reviewed here!) recast as a more obvious family story.

In this boxed set, Rory begins her Senior year of high school at Chilton, competing with Paris for the valedictorian spot. Flustered by Jess ignoring her, Rory tries to concentrate on Dean and it does not take long before Dean, frustrated by Rory's attentions to Jess, surprises one and all by leaving Rory! Rory begins to feel out a relationship with Jess and finds it quite different from her relationship with Dean. Meanwhile, Lane begins to pursue a relationship of her own with a guitarist who intrigues her and she must maneuver around her authoritative mother to spend time with.

On the Lorelai front, Lorelai finds herself occasionally in the middle of issues between newly-married Sookie and Jackson. After dodging advances by Kirk, she begins dating a businessman, finds herself advising her mother when Richard's mother - Lorelai the First - moves in, and shocked when Luke begins dating a lawyer. Juggling her feelings for Christopher - and often forced to deal with his new wife - Lorelai struggles to be there for Rory while being indebted to her parents. And late in the season, a cataclysmic event occurs which changes the dynamics for everyone in the Gilmore family!

Gilmore Girls - The Complete Third Season contains much to love on the plot front, not the least of which is a perfect episode. "Dear Emily And Richard" illustrates Sherry - Christopher's pregnant fiance - going into labor and when she finds herself with only Rory and Lorelai to rely on, Lorelai recalls her own experience giving birth to Rory and the flashbacks and contrasts play off one another perfectly to make an episode that is both sweet and wrenching. Considering the caliber of "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?" - with the all-night dance-a-thon which results in Dean getting his spine - and "The Big One" wherein Rory and Paris get their letters from Harvard, with Paris having one of her most incredible scenes of the series, that "Dear Emily And Richard" could further distinguish itself and be a truly perfect episode says much about the stride that the series hits in this boxed set.

This season is a wonderful balance of humor and big life events in the lives of the protagonists that makes for great television. More than the prior seasons, season three gives greater voices to the peripheral characters. Sean Gunn, who plays Kirk, is added as a regular cast member, and Emily and Richard Gilmore have plotlines that have little overlap with either Rory or Lorelai, giving a richer sense of who they are. Lane gets a much bigger role and the politics between Paris and Rory give Paris a chance to truly grow and surprise viewers. But most importantly, it becomes the characters who move and shape the major events of this season of Gilmore Girls and they endear themselves to the viewers in a way that makes it easy to see why she show would be popular and offer a real value to those thinking of buying the DVD.

To understand the show and where it is in this boxed set, it helps to know where the primary characters are this season. The principles include:

Lorelai Gilmore - Rory's mother and best friend, she drifts some from Luke as a result of her conflicts with him over how Jess insinuated himself in Rory's life in the prior season. She soon re-establishes her connection with him due to her need for his coffee and she manages the Independence Inn while helping Rory choose her college and dealing with her parents. When a sudden windfall allows her to buy her financial freedom from her parents, she changes the dynamic with them and she begins to date while doing her best to prepare for Rory's leaving and their last trip together,

Rory Gilmore - Lorelai's daughter, torn between her love for the loyal and good Dean and the bad boy Jess, who has returned to Stars Hollow. When Dean stands up for himself and dumps her, she explores a relationship with Jess while trying to survive fights with Paris, who becomes convinced that she revealed secrets Paris shared with her with a mutual rival. She begins to get her acceptance letters and while she gets into Harvard as she always planned, she soon finds herself questioning if that is where she actually wants to go and she makes a decision few would have guessed,

Luke Danes - Finding parenting Jess more of a handful than he expected, Luke turns to Lorelai when he needs to understand how to do his parenting job better. When Taylor creates a scheme to open an ice cream and candy shop next door, Luke finds himself dealing with an attractive lawyer who he forms a deep bond with,

Sookie - Married now to Jackson, she discovers to her horror that Jackson wants a lot of children and quick. As she and Lorelai prepare to open their own inn, the Dragonfly Inn, she becomes more assertive about her talents being put to good use and when needed she becomes able to stand up to the sometimes overbearing Lorelai,

Dean - Sensing that Rory is more preoccupied with Jess than with him, he takes back his manhood and dumps her. Almost instantly regretting the action, he takes solace in continuing his friendship with Lorelai and eventually reconnects as a friend with Rory. He takes even more interest in a fellow student, Lindsay, and by the end of the season, it is clear he is over Rory,

Jess - Despite sucking serious face with a local girl who doesn't seem to have much going for her other than her body, Jess seeks out Rory's intellectualism and makes an effort at a relationship with her. After hiding his secret job at Wal-Mart, he finds himself at odds with Stars Hollow High and despite his innate intelligence, he faces serious issues with graduating,

Lane - Mostly abandoned by Rory, she forms a band with herself as the drummer and a cute boy she is interested in as the lead singer. Lane and her boyfriend concoct a plan to spend time together wherein he plays hymns for Mrs. Kim and soon she is figuring out her way through her first romance,

Paris - The intensely competitive Chilton student relies on Rory when she meets a boy over the summer spent in Washington, D.C. with Rory. Paris and Jamie soon take leaps in their relationship that Rory has not and Paris's feelings of guilt over having sex send her into a funk which threatens her ability to reach her goals for the future,

Kirk - Goes through even more jobs this season as a postal worker and cosmetic salesman. As well, he asks Lorelai out and participates in Taylor's usual schemes,

Emily Gilmore - Frustrated by Richard leaving her alone after he begins his new business, she is given a DVD player by Lorelai and is frustrated when Richard's mother moves in. She tries to get to know Jess and is appalled by the implications of Lorelai's ability to pay off her debt to her,

Richard Gilmore - Working now on his new business venture, he fawns over his mother when she is around and surprises Lorelai with news of an investment he made on her behalf when she was born, an investment that now pays off. He organizes a meeting for Rory at his alma mater, Yale,

and Michel - The facetious day manager at the Independence Inn, he feels threatened by the night manager, especially when Lorelai's birthday comes around.

The characters are well-presented and in this season, there seems to be a certain sense of comfort with the actors all around. Indeed, even the recurring guest performers give wonderful performances. Emily Bergl is wonderfully convincing in her brief role as the conniving Francie who serves as a wedge between Rory and Paris. Bergl, who plays the good girl on Men In Trees is deliciously evil in this role and she pulls it off with the same panache and ability that she plays her other characters. Adam Brody has an auspicious outing as Dave, Lane's love interest and Madchen Amick, who is known for her role prominent as Shelly in Twin Peaks recurs as Sherry - Christopher's pregnant fiance - in a couple of scene-stealing performances. Even Arielle Kebbel, who might be most recognizable from the terrible John Tucker Must Die provides an extraordinary performance in her bit role as Lindsay near the end of this season.

And the regulars do a phenomenal job, this season playing off one another with amazing ability. Edward Hermann makes the most out of every scene he is in, just as Keiko Agena sells herself wonderfully as Lane now that she is given a more meaty role. Similarly, Melissa McCarthy and Jared Padalecki rise to the occasion with their expanded roles. Milo Ventimiglia has a chance to add some humor to the stoic Jess and he makes it work, selling the entire Wal-Mart clerk twist on his performance.

It is Liza Weil who bowls the viewer over in this season with her performance. Paris has previously been written as a fairly monolithic villain for Rory and in this season she grows into a very human, very damaged and somewhat flawed character. Weil is presented with the acting challenge of reconciling the high-strung overachiever with the emotionally fragile girl who would fall for Francie's machinations. Weil does it. One wishes there were more to say about how, but at the end of the day, Weil simply presents the facets and performs them with a humanizing quality that makes the transformations utterly convincing.

The series stars, Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, play off one another wonderfully. Graham and Bledel have an exceptional ability to deliver fast-paced dialogue that works and they create two memorable characters. Graham has the ability to play flighty and emotionally stunted with a perfect foil to Bledel's ability to play eerily mature.

On DVD, Gilmore Girls - The Complete Third Season is fairly light on bonus features. There are three deleted (unaired) scenes, none of which rock the world and three featurettes. One discusses behind-the-scenes development of season three, another has clips of the romantic moments from the season and the final one is a terrible bit featuring the actors talking about dancing - with Yanic Truesdale doing some awesome '80's moves. I would have loved some commentary tracks on the key episodes, but they are not to be found.

Still, it is not enough to not recommend this great set. The featured program is smart, funny and surprisingly poignant at all of the right moments. Of course, those who get hooked on this season first might be compelled to go after the full series boxed set (reviewed here!) and then they might feel weird about having to dump this season set. It's a risk those not indoctrinated in Gilmore Girls ought to take. This is certainly the season to knock new viewers over with!

For other third seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Frasier The Complete Third Season
The X-Files - Season 3
Weeds - Season 3


For other television boxed set and episode reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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