Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gilmore Girls Say Good-Bye After Seven Years

The final episodes of classic television series too often leave a bad taste in viewers' mouths. For every funny-touching group hug/nose blowing at the end of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," it seems like there are many more huge misses, like Jerry and his friends being arrested and put on trial in "Seinfeld," or "Hawkeye" being carted off to a mental hospital in "M*A*S*H." In trying to do too much, the show runners sometimes forget what made their shows great.

When the CW announced two weeks ago that "Gilmore Girls" would not return for an eighth season next year, I was convinced that the series finale would more likely be off-key than a tribute to the show's great run.

Executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, who departed after the sixth season, had created an array of quirky, interesting characters, hired some of the best actors on television to play them, and given them sharp, witty words to say. A lot of words. Like, twice as many words as the average show. The dialogue flew around the set like pinballs careening off of the walls, challenging viewers to keep up or duck behind a bumper for cover. You were equally responsible for getting references to literary greats and 1980s pop bands.

Centered on the relationship between Lorelai Gilmore (the criminally underrated Lauren Graham) and her daughter/best friend, Rory (Alexis Bledel), and featuring a supporting cast of relatives, like Lorelai's wealthy, conservative, strong-willed (think G. Gordon Liddy) parents, Richard and Emily (Edward Hermann and Kelly Bishop), and an array of quirky-but-somehow-still-human folks in Stars Hollow, Conn., including Lorelai's soul mate, diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson), "Gilmore Girls" was unlike any show on television.

But, after Sherman-Palladino left the show after the sixth season, the writing took a nosedive. Under new executive producer David Rosenthal, the scripts took on the tics of the show, but the heart and soul of the characters were lost. Simply repeating a random word back and forth is no more a piece of "Gilmore Girls" dialogue than spilling a can of paint on a canvas makes a Jackson Pollack painting. The show became a parody of itself. Quirk for the sake of quirk. And, worst of all, it often felt like the writers had never seen the show before. Characters did things that any fan of the show would know they would never do.

Yeah, the second half of the season got better, once Lorelai's short-lived wedding to Rory's father, the flaky, man-child Christopher (David Sutcliffe), was put out of its (and our) misery. But, Rosenthal had not shown enough to convince me that he could handle wrapping up Sherman-Palladino's creation in a satisfying way. Not to mention, the ill-conceived Christopher plotline left only a handful of episodes for Lorelai to reconcile with Luke, a result that was inevitable. Throw in that the official decision to cancel the show only came two weeks ago, and the recipe was in place for a disastrous finale. (Lorelai and Rory join a convent together? Paul Anka, Lorelai's sweet-but-crazy dog, gets a hold of a bad can of dog food and goes crazy, chewing Lorelai and Rory to death? Or, even worse, Christopher comes back and remarries Lorelai?) I assumed nothing good could come of this combination of factors.

As Felix Unger once noted to the court in the classic ticket scalping episode of "The Odd Couple," when you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." And, I certainly am looking donkey-like right now. The "Gilmore Girls" finale was pitch-perfect.

If you have TiVoed the show and not watched it yet, I'd advise you to stop reading for a paragraph or eight.

The pilot set up the central conflict of the show: Lorelai makes a deal with the devil (a.k.a. her mother), under which Emily will pay for Rory to go to the prestigious prep school Chilton, but Lorelai and Rory have to join her for dinner every Friday. Lorelai, who would rather eat a salad for dinner than spend time with her mother (for you non-Gilmore aficionados, Lorelai and Rory eat like truckers on a cross-country haul), makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Rory can go to Chilton and have a chance to get into Harvard (she ended up at Yale, but the point is the same) and have a successful career. As silly and immature as Lorelai could be, she was completely devoted to her daughter.

So, any finale had to let us see that Lorelai's sacrifice was worth it. And, Rosenthal recognized this and paid off our expectations in a realistic and satisfying way. In the next-to-last episode, Rory graduated from Yale, but while her longtime friend/rival Paris got into Harvard Medical School (and every other place she applied), Rory didn't get the New York Times internship she had been dreaming about. But, in the final episode, she gets a job covering the Obama campaign for the website she had been freelancing for. Not the Times, but not too shabby. It was an appropriate and satisfying resolution. The cherry on the sundae was that Rory even got to meet her oft-talked about idol, Christiane Amanpour. What the cameo lacked in believability, it more than made up for it in nodding to the show's history.

Even more importantly, the ending didn't try and suddenly make Emily into a warm, fuzzy mother. Let's face it, she did things to Lorelai that would have caused me never to speak with her again if she was my mother. Emily actively tried to break up her daughter's relationship with Luke, and betrayed Lorelai when Rory dropped out of Yale. If Emily and Lorelai had some kind of kiss-and-make-up moment in the finale, it would have been too false for words. At heart, Emily has always wanted to be closer to Lorelai, and her Friday night dinners were the only way she knew how to get what she wanted. So it was perfect how Emily spent the episode trying to get Lorelai to put a spa into her inn, and when Lorelai figures out what is behind it (another loan, another Friday night dinner commitment), Lorelai lets her off the hook and agrees to continue the Friday night dinner tradition. The relationship had a small, reasonable amount of development. It was also true to the characters that when Lorelai made the gesture, Emily had a moment of relief, followed immediately by a put down of Lorelai (telling her not to wear jeans).

Finally, as I mentioned, the biggest pitfall was Lorelai and Luke. Two episodes earlier, Luke had walked into a bar as Lorelai was singing "I Will Always Love You" to Rory, only to have Lorelai lock eyes with him, leading the whole town to talk about the moment. Everyone (including Luke and Lorelai) figured that it was the beginning of their reconciliation. (As an aside, the kind of little thing that makes this show great is Rory noting to her best friend, Lane, during the song that Lorelai was channeling Dolly, not Whitney.)

But, as happens with these star-crossed lovers, miscommunications left both Luke and Lorelai feeling like the moment was meaningless, and they would be nothing more than friends. And, that feeling prevailed until 45 minutes into the finale, when Lorelai learns that Luke was the one behind Rory's surprise send-off by the town.

At the end of the fifth season, Lorelai proposed to Luke after watching him passionately go on about how they were going to stop Rory from dropping out of Yale and living with her grandparents. It was Luke being there for Lorelai and her daughter, over and over again, for years and years, that was at the heart of Lorelai's feelings for him. So, it was only fitting that Luke's herculean efforts to pull together a proper good-bye for Rory would be the thing that pushed Lorelai to break through their static and rekindle their relationship.

But, in a move that was more Sherman-Palladino than Rosenthal, Lorelai kisses Luke, but we only see it for a couple of seconds before the camera moves off to Rory's party in the town square. We never see them talk. We never see Luke give Lorelai the necklace he had planned to give her after the karaoke incident. Instead, we just see Luke open the diner early so Lorelai and Rory can have breakfast on her last day in town, and he is close by but not in the way. And, of course, Lorelai is wearing the necklace.

The vast majority of the posters to the "Gilmore Girls" boards on were up in arms that we were not shown much of the Luke and Lorelai reunion. But, to me, the decision was dead on. It was subtle and, more importantly, true to the characters. It wasn't showy, but, again, finales get into trouble trying to do too much. For this show, the understated reunion was perfectly in character.

It has long been an easy saw to bash television networks for putting crap on the air. But, the truth is, for the last few years, they have actually done a good job of developing quality programming. You can easily make the argument that television has passed the movies in making innovative fiction as Hollywood intensified its pursuit of tent-pole projects. The problem is, most of the quality programming has been restricted to essentially three genres: crime procedurals, serialized action and medical dramas. Comedy is practically gone, and quirky, smart, character-based lighter dramas like "Gilmore Girls" are nonexistent That is why the death of "Gilmore Girls" is so sad to me. If you like "Law and Order," yeah, you would have been sorry to see it go, but it's not like you had to look far to find another police procedural (or, even, one named "Law and Order").

However, with "Gilmore Girls," there is nothing else like it on television. We will find out tomorrow if Sherman-Palladino's new sitcom made Fox's schedule for next year. But, based on the output of the creators of "Friends," even Sherman-Palladino's show is no sure thing (it's hard to believe that the same people who did "Friends" brought us "Veronica's Closet," or that Sherman-Palladino was a writer on "Veronica's Closet" before creating "Gilmore Girls").

For seven years, Tuesday nights have meant watching "Gilmore Girls." I'll miss my weekly visits to Stars Hollow. I guess I should look on the bright side: I no longer have to defend being a "Gilmore Girls" fan. But it was a battle worth fighting. No doubt about it.