It’s premiere season, and so by all rights I should be watching all of the new programming. You know, Mike and Molly and The Event and Chase and Blue Bloods. Instead, I’ve been watching Gilmore Girls. It’s not as though I haven’t seen Gilmore Girls before, or that I haven’t seen it enough that I could probably recite entire three-minute-long reference-laden exchanges. In fact, it’s a show I have a hard time even being critical about – like Dorothy Sayers, Weezer and the complete mythology of Star Wars, it feels too deeply embedded to think about as something outside of myself. I feel apologetic for rather than distaining of its obvious low points (ooh, seventh season…), its WASPy wonderland backstory that barely pretends to have endured hardship and independence, its absurd reliance on dialogue that runs two hundred words a minute, its pitifully poor representation of non-white characters (the hilariously, inhumanly strict Kim family, the snobbish and prissy French concierge), its unbelievably cheesy credit sequence – these things are mere blips on my critical radar.
Which is why this blog post is not a “wasn’t Gilmore Girls ridiculous?!” post, but rather a “allow me to appreciate a single episode of Gilmore Girls at length” post. Because on re-watching, I feel moved to express the complete, utter brilliance of the Gilmore Girls dance marathon episode.
The premise of “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” is a twenty-four hour forties-themed dance marathon, exactly the type of bizarre, anachronistic, weirdly intense community event perfectly suited to showcase the singular strangeness of Stars Hollow. It’s an impressively well-constructed forty three minutes of television, beginning with the small-scale tension of Lorelai’s determination to finally beat Kirk in the marathon and ratcheting all the way up to a full on, life changing public breakdown. Unlike some episodes where the wacky hijinks seem to be a mismatch for the seriousness of the events, or the relationship drama overwhelms everything else, or the Stars Hollow spirit becomes obnoxiously twee, the dance marathon episode is one of the best examples of the show reaching a well-balanced tone. It’s funny and sad and has just enough Dave Rygalski to also be adorable. We get plenty of the older members of the town, and Taylor Doose’s sleepy reminiscences of his one-time career goal (magician) give the character some much-needed dimension. (Okay, not a whole lot, but tender childhood memories are actually quite a step forward for him). There’s a tiff between Jackson and Sookie that is both plausible and easily fixed, Mrs. Kim’s hilariously awful eggless egg salad sandwiches provide a foundation for Lane and Dave’s burgeoning relationship, and all of it serves to establish the backdrop for one of the show’s most traumatic and contentious relationship plot points – Dean breaks up with Rory, and Rory connects with Jess.
Whatever one’s opinion on Dean vs. Jess, the circumstances created in the episode which lead up to the big breakdown are really, really well done. Rather than build some stunning betrayal or overwrought confession of love, Jess just sits in the bleachers while Rory and Dean dance. Rory, whose character in the show’s early years often borders on tooth-achingly sweet, gets a chance to make a mistake for once, and goes on and on about how annoying, how provoking, how disgusting and silly Jess is behaving. Understandably, Dean finally gives up, and walks away from his relationship with a girlfriend clearly obsessed with another guy. Despite the cliché of a love triangle plot, the scene in the dance marathon is unusual in its ability to make the break-up everyone’s fault, and it ends on a note of misery rather than a much more cloying scenario with Rory running into Jess’s arms as Dean glowers in a corner. There really is nothing else like that final scene, as Lorelai and Rory embrace in the center of the gym while Rory weeps and Kirk, victorious, does laps around them to the sounds of the Rocky theme song. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show at its best. We’re left with the two protagonists coping with their latest emotional crisis as Gilmore Girls’ own special brand of crazy literally encircles them, and an entire, weary town dressed in vintage forties clothing looks on.
There’s something crucial about this episode inside the larger arc of the series, which is why I’m so appreciative that this episode is successful. Rory has several other relationships after Dean – there’s Jess, and Logan, and Dean again, and Logan again, and even though those initial connections and subsequent break-ups are exciting and upsetting, none of them have the same force as this first collapse. It makes sense. The first relationship is perfect (even if it isn’t, really), and unprecedented, and after Dean leaves, it’s just not possible to imbue each new guy with the same promise of soul-matey idealism. When she moves away from Dean and into her relationship with Jess, Rory begins to shed her admittedly somewhat obnoxious preciousness, but with it goes her unusual, endearing innocence.
I’ve been referring to Stars Hollow as wacky, crazy and strange, but really, its underlying characteristic, and the force of its appeal, is something much more like innocence. Sure, you can point to the overt, often mocked nostalgia of Taylor Doose’s desire for old-fashioned ice cream parlor, but the whole town is markedly free from cynicism. The pinnacle of that quality is Luke Danes, whose curmudgeonly demeanor seems to promise the absent dose of real-world pragmatism, but time and again, his gruffness turns out to be an act and he faux-reluctantly takes part in the Winter Carnival, Film Festival, or in this case, Dance Marathon. The real pragmatism and brusque sarcasm comes from the outside, either through Richard and Emily Gilmore, or Chilton, or later, Yale.
It’s easy enough to point to Rory’s graduation from high school and moving away to college as the point when Gilmore Girls takes a turn, but for my money, it’s this episode. I don’t mean to suggest that after this point I think the show begins to fail, or even that some of its best moments don’t come after this point – the end of the third season is stellar, and I think the show is really on form all the way up through the fourth season. Eventually, though, the special Stars Hollow breed of insular, cheerful naïveté begins to parody itself. It doesn’t happen until much later, and there are many intervening events that contribute to the decline, but this episode feels like the first storm cloud in the lovely, unsustainable Edenic landscape. It is a fabulous, entertaining, effective storm cloud, and at the end, you get Kirk, jogging around the gym with his trophy held high.