‘It’s sunny and safe’: why Gilmore Girls is perfect comfort TV

The cult show is back. Its not just escapism it got me through the worst time of my life

It is autumn in Stars Hollow. There is a chill in the air and the gazebo in the towns central square is decorated with pumpkins, porcelain pigs and cockerels that nestle among haystacks and horns of plenty. On one side of the square stands the white clapboard steepled church; across the way is the traditional, red-brick school building. The bookshop, diner and grocers are framed by wrought iron gaslights, all adorned by golden leaf wreaths and decorative ears of corn.

This place, which has come to mean so much to me, is the epitome of festive New England. I may have grown up in suburban Manchester, England, but it feels like home. In my mind, Ive escaped here so many times, and now here I am, drinking in a town as picturesque as a film set which is exactly what it is, on the Warner Brothers studio lot in Burbank, Los Angeles. Stars Hollow, the fictional home of Gilmore Girls, the noughties TV series about a mother and daughter, is a quiet, eccentric town where nothing bad happens. Unlike the big television dramas of recent years (The Fall, The Bridge, The Missing) there are no murders; no one is kidnapped or abused. Instead the show follows the life of Lorelai Gilmore, who got pregnant at 16 and ran away from her wealthy, overbearing parents, and Rory, her daughter and closest friend, who is turning 16 as the story begins.

It is sunny and safe here. There is no dramatic music to make you uncomfortable, only the beat of a soft snare to signify oncoming drama. When a character is upset, it is usually because a town meeting, held in Miss Pattys dance studio, has not gone their way, or because someone they love failed to show up. When there are tears, they are warranted.

Its all grounded in the community of the town. Stars Hollow is to Gilmore Girls what New York is to Sex And The City just with more fairy lights and (much) less fellatio. The drama is played out in episodes that can feel surreal verging on the ridiculous (a town dance marathon, a cats wake, an all-night civil war re-enactment in the snow). Now, nine years after it ended, the show is back for four feature-length episodes and it still feels different from anything else on TV. Sure, we have the pastel-hued utopia that is The Great British Bake Off, and Strictly Come Dancing with its feel-good factor, but thats reality TV. Drama-wise, there is nothing quite like the comfort of Stars Hollow.

Madeleine
Madeleine Albright and Alexis Bledel. Photograph: Warner Br/Everett/REX/Shutterstock
I first watched Gilmore Girls around the same time I first saw my mum cry. I was 21, newly returned to Manchester after a year spent studying at an American university, and I was, as my mum would say, full of it: overflowing with excitement and not shutting up. She was driving and I was in the passenger seat; I had just picked up a set of photographs of the best year of my life, and was using them as visual prompts to enthuse about the friends I had made, the places I had been, the ludicrous frat parties I had gone to. Mum was silent for the most part, until she burst into tears. I was dumbstruck. There is nothing more terrifying than seeing the strongest person you know overcome by sadness. Eventually she said, I am just so jealous, words I could never have imagined she would say.

The last 12 months had been markedly different for her. My father, after a bumpy few years, had finally been diagnosed with Alzheimers that winter. I had cried confused, angry tears and swiftly gone into denial, easily achieved when you are living 5,000 miles away and readily distracted by weekends on the beach, southern Californian boys and jello shots. Mum, on the other hand, had been on the frontline, trying to cope as her husband of 25 years deteriorated into a frustrated, aggressive shadow of his former self. She was emotionally battered and I had failed to notice. We had always been so close and yet here we were, in a car on the way home from Snappy Snaps, canyons apart. I didnt know what to say and feared I never would. I was already losing my father; I couldnt cope with losing my mother, too.

To say Gilmore Girls was our salvation might sound nonsensical but, looking back, it was (especially when accompanied by crisps and wine). My mum was very different from Lorelai (she isnt 16 years older than me for a start). And if I was a bit like Rory, in the sense that I always cared a lot about school, my hair has never been that shiny. Our home in Cheadle, with its John Lewis and TGI Fridays, was no Stars Hollow, where every season is marked by some kind of elaborate festive jamboree (a hay maze for spring, a carnival for the end of summer). But the show spoke to us because of that deep bond between mother and daughter.

Amy Sherman-Palladino, Gilmore Girls creator and writer, thinks her show would never get commissioned today. Not in a million years. Wouldnt happen, she tells me. Not unless the mother and daughter could fly or solve crimes. She was a writer on Roseanne before she was asked to pitch her own show to the Warner Brothers network. I had come into this meeting with a bunch of hungry executives it was just before lunch with a lot of extensive, thought-out pitches that were making them yawn and think about their laundry. At the last minute, I said, Well, there is this thing I havent really worked out yet, but I always liked the concept of a mother and daughter being friends more than they are mother and daughter. And they said, Great, thats it, lets lunch. On the way out, she confessed to her manager that she hadnt really thought this through; he told her to go figure it out.

Lauren
Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore and Alexis Bledel as her daughter, Rory, who is just 16 years her junior, in an episode from season two in 2002. Photograph: Photo:The WB/Ron Batzdorff

That weekend, Sherman-Palladino happened to be visiting Connecticut with her husband (and collaborator), Dan. They had never been before, and were thoroughly charmed. It was autumn, and there were pumpkin patches and beautiful people who were driving by asking, Excuse me, which way to the hayride? And we were like, Are you kidding me? Who lives like this? She figured that this was exactly the sort of place a smart 16-year-old deciding to raise a child on her own would settle some place safe, where everyone is going to keep an eye on me and my kid. By the end of the weekend, the show had fallen into place.

Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000 and managed to hold its own in the same time slot as that little-known sitcom, Friends. As the series progressed, it became a hit, attracting fans such as George Lucas, who was somewhat starstruck when he visited the set with his daughter He sat there for like two hours talking about how great it feels to be in Stars Hollow, Dan Palladino tells me. But it never really took off in the UK in the same way when I mention it now, people often think I am banging on about The Golden Girls; it wasnt until 2006 that I sat down to watch a box set of the first season with my mum.

We were enchanted. Here were two quick-witted women who spoke a mile a minute the show is famous for its fast-paced dialogue, which is all Sherman-Palladino (at one point, there was a rumour circulating on the internet that she was Aaron Sorkin, writing under a pseudonym, because a woman couldnt possibly be that sharp). The Gilmores loved books, films, magazines, fashion and making each other laugh. Their verbal sparring was littered with cultural references from high (Lorelai points out that the cold makes people do odd things: Hey, did anyone ever think that Sylvia Plath wasnt crazy, she was just cold?) to low (Rory on her mothers turn in a charity fashion show: My moms a model. Maybe youll get to date Leonardo DiCaprio now). Sherman-Palladino kept the schmaltz, or what she calls treacle matter, to a minimum: We dont want a lot of I love you or hugging because I feel the love was shown through the way people treated each other.

Rory, played by a fresh-faced Alexis Bledel in her first acting gig, was a smart, funny, serious teenager. I had never seen a character so concerned about homework not cast as the typical nerd before. I realised Rory was different 10 minutes into the pilot. She is sitting in class, quietly working on an essay about Huckleberry Finn, seemingly unaware of the cool girls mocking her for getting on with her assignment while they paint their nails. The camera zooms in on her, she looks up briefly and smiles to herself, unperturbed. Here was a character who got off on doing well in school and hanging out with her mum. My schooldays were well behind me, but I could definitely relate.

Over the next two years, my mum and I watched all seven seasons together. Dan Palladino tells me we are far from the only mother and daughter to connect with Gilmore Girls in this way. We got tons telling us they watched it together, sometimes because they are really close, but also those who didnt have much in common and found they both liked it. Nor were we the only ones who used it as a means of escape. You wouldnt believe how many times weve heard from people whose mothers were going through something like cancer, and the daughter would bring the shows over to watch, he says.

This is how it was for us. When things got tough, one of us would ask, Shall we do a Lorelai? and pop an episode on. My dad would recognise the Warner Brothers music, familiar to him from his West Wing-watching days, and get confused when he heard the Carole King Where You Lead theme tune, as opposed to the stirring drum roll of The West Wing. Hed take himself off to another part of the house to sit by himself and stare into space. After helplessly watching him leave the room, Mum and I would spend 45 minutes in Stars Hollow and everything would feel a little better; it was the televisual equivalent of a large glass of wine after a hard day. I didnt know how to protect my mother, and we didnt know how to discuss emotions because wed never really had to: we had always been so happy. All we could do was sit and watch a TV programme about a rock-solid relationship and hope that the same applied to us.

When it first aired, Gilmore Girls was refreshing television. While Sherman-Palladino didnt set out to break ground, exactly, she was aware of the climate in which she was writing. Women at the time, in TV, were split into two groups: there was the popular pretty girl, or the angry girl who wore combat boots. As the cries of make women stronger came out, all they did was take the same pretty woman and put a gun in her hand and have her run around in heels. The concept of strong women is still, and was especially then, a terrifying concept to a lot of the networks, because they were afraid that thats not how people want to see women. But it is how women wanted to see women.

Of course there are love interests and heartache, but they are never front and centre. Rorys dream is to go to Harvard and work for a major daily newspaper (Its amazing how many women tell me they wanted to go to an Ivy League college because of the show, says Bledel, whose eyes are as ludicrously blue in real life as they are on screen). She hero-worships CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, who makes a cameo appearance, as do Madeleine Albright, Norman Mailer, Sonic Youth and Carole King (as Sophie, who owns the music shop). Lorelai dreams of opening her own inn with her best friend, played by the then little-known Melissa McCarthy, and (spoiler alert) ends up doing exactly that.

Gilmore
Graham and Bledel in the new series: Its a quiet show. Its about these two women and how they belong to each other. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

A friend who is as obsessed as me points out that if you do an inverse Bechdel test on Gilmore Girls, looking at how many times men get together to talk about something other than the female characters, you might find it very lacking. But in Lorelai, Sherman-Palladino simply wrote a woman she liked: She was pretty tough, made her own money, but she also liked men. She wasnt demonising them. Her problems did not stem from men. They stemmed from her upbringing, mistakes she made and miscommunications with her mother. The real places that problems stem from.

Since this months revival was announced last October, there has been endless speculation as to who Lorelai and Rory will end up with. Its an irritating framing of the shows return; personally, Im more interested to know which newspaper Rory ends up writing for (in the series finale, we left her covering Barack Obamas campaign trail for an online magazine). The boys are sort of incidental, agrees Lauren Graham, who plays Lorelai, as we chat under the towns gazebo while my inner fan girl does a jig. Its more about their relationship, their work its just a piece of their life. When she says this, Ive never wanted to go for a martini with her more. (That is what Lorelai drinks to get through dinners with her parents. Its also how I came to be that 22-year-old tosser who ordered martinis wherever I could.)

Fans didnt get the ending they wanted when Gilmore Girls wound up in 2007, as the Palladinos, who had failed to reach an agreement on contracts and staff with the network, left before the final season was written. The show missed their voice, and played out without the finale Amy Sherman-Palladino had in mind; later this month, we will get to see it.

Over the last couple of years, the Gilmores have found a fresh teenage audience. In 2014, Netflix put all seven seasons on air again in the US (and, this summer, in the UK). Graham explains why she thinks it has struck a new chord: I just think it is a really welcoming world. My boyfriend has a 14-year-old and Im like, Get your face out of your phone! and I wonder if this is almost like a period piece. And its true: already the show feels dated, a world of flip phones, where the only filters are those used for coffee. Sherman-Palladino thinks the timing is key for the revival: Its a place to go in between watching Donald Trump trying to take the world down into the fourth rung of hell.

Inspired by the Sherlock format, Sherman-Palladino has written the series in the form of four 90-minute films. The first trailer, released in July, features updated cultural references for instance, the leads debating whether Amy Schumer would like Lorelai (answer: no, because of the comedians love of water sports the Gilmores do not do sport).

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life

I ask Sherman-Palladino to pick an episode that best sums up the show for anyone unfamiliar with it. She chooses Road Trip To Harvard from the second season: Lorelai has called off an engagement and suggests a trip to Harvard to Rory, as a cover for running away. Then she sees that in a couple of years her whole life is going to change, because her daughter is going to be gone in this wonderful place. Its a quiet episode, but its about these two women and how they belong to each other.

In autumn 2010, my mother and I set out on a road trip to find Stars Hollow. My dad was living in a care home and my brother was living in New York. We flew to Boston in November, and my brother drove up to meet us. We knew it was the wrong state, but one afternoon we asked him to drive us out of the city in an attempt to find a little town that might be like the set of Gilmore Girls. He was bemused but obliging. We ended up in Salem, which was just creepy, and asked my brother to drive us back to the city so we could make the free wine and cheese hour at the hotel. I sense Lorelai and Rory would have done the same.

Recently, I asked my mum why she enjoyed Gilmore Girls so much. I loved the relationship between Lorelai and Rory, and hoped that our relationship was similar, she said. I saw the parallel between you and Rory determined, sensible, ambitious, with journalistic hopes, but not too nerdy. Thanks, Mum. I dont think Im like Lorelai, she continued, though I did work behind the bar at a Berni Inn in 1976. Then she turned serious. I think I saw how the relationship flourished despite the lack of a permanent father figure in Rorys life, at the same time as we were losing our own male lead. And with that, we popped a Lorelai on.

<a href=”https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80109415″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life is released on Netflix on 25 November

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/nov/05/sunny-safe-gilmore-girls-comfort-tv

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