Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Farming your own field*: Gilmore Girls kvetching, part 2

Now I've watched the whole thing and read the commentary, so what follows will obviously contain spoilers.

The first thing to say, I think, is that the reboot completely fails as a story taking place 10 years after the original ending. They should have just picked up the story two or three years on, disregarding the chronological disparity involved and covering up the physical aging of the actors with makeup. (Not that hard, really, considering that all three of the female leads could nearly pass for their original ages still.) If, as a viewer, you will yourself to think of the reboot as taking place in 2009 or 2010, almost everything will seem a lot more reasonable - Rory's affair with Logan, her professional floundering, the Luke/Lorelai relationship impasse and its resolution, etc. If it's true that the writers intended all these outcomes in the original series, then it follows that they'd only make sense in 2010.

So let's imagine that this show depicts the Gilmore Girls circa 2010. Lorelai and Luke have been back together for three years but, given their checkered marriage histories, are not sure whether to finalize the deal. Rory used her one-year campaign blogging gig to get a foot in the door and freelance in a few impressive venues over the past two years and is now unsure which direction to go for a permanent job - staff writer? professional freelancer with royalty income from books? lower-level editor with freelancing on the side? These are legitimate questions a 25 year-old journalist could be anxious over without being a washout. Characteristically weak-willed Logan was unable to stick to his demand for marriage or nothing on graduation day, and she in turn was indecisive enough to accept his invitation to continue their relationship under the radar. Richard has just died. See how that all seems so much more plausible?

In this context, the main question that the reboot sets up to answer is, now that we have all grown up and more or less attained our youthful goals (the attainment of which was the subject of the original show: Rory getting into Harvard-then-Yale and becoming a writer, Lorelai opening her inn, the multi-generational Gilmore family re-establishing a loving, if fraught, relationship), how do we remain satisfied in the lives we worked so hard to create? How do we settle? Not for something, which implies lowering our expectations, but how do we settle into expectations we've met? Because once you've got what you thought you wanted, there is always the threat of discontent, the danger of restlessness and underutilized ambition, which always wants growth and expansion, new things and more of them, and is never satisfied with the attainment of anything, no matter how intensely it was longed for before it was attained. Let's call this problem the Adulthood Question.

The Adulthood Question is a big part of Lorelai's plot arc in the reboot. She's made the Dragonfly into exactly what she imagined, but Michel urges her to expand, and she begins to question her own satisfaction. (And in the background, Sookie has left out of an inability to accept that what she had was in fact what she really wanted, although we have to assume that was more the result of McCarthy's schedule than the writers' wishes.) Lorelai's finally got The Guy, but doesn't know whether that's all there is to it; by getting The Guy, you get a nice, reliable "roommate," as Emily calls him. Emily's widowhood is a down-the-road restatement of the Adulthood Question - how do we live when the passage of time takes away the life we've settled into and learned to love? Even Rory, though she hasn't yet decisively established herself, has already largely become the person we saw her aiming at in the original show, and now has to decide only what version of her goal to select, though she has yet to address the family question.

If you continue to indulge my re-imagining of the reboot as taking place in 2010, then Rory's unplanned pregnancy is a very fitting resolution to her problems. As I wrote of the original series, this is a show that celebrates motherhood and emphatically argues that unplanned pregnancies do not have to ruin your life. In the Gilmore Girls, unplanned pregnancies jump-start adulthood for all of the women who seem like they might never reach it without a major intervention.

This LA Review of Books review (via Will Baude, whose post has a good round-up of other reviews too) is interesting, but I think ultimately wrong to see unplanned pregnancy as a mark of failure or unmet expectations in the show. That's only how Richard and Emily viewed Lorelai's pregnancy, but one of the main points of the original series is that they were quite bad parents to Lorelai - not as bad as Lorelai made them out to be, but certainly far too uncompromising and concerned with appearances. But pre-pregnancy Lorelai was hardly a diligent little bookworm on the road to Phi Beta Kappa at Yale like Rory. Teen pregnancy turned out to be a way out of a life she hated and into one for which she was suited. The other unplanned pregnancies in the show (Sookie's, Lane's, Christopher's wife's) are much better-received than Lorelai's.

And Rory's pregnancy at 25 (I insist!) occurs in a very different context than her mother's. Precisely because she gets along so well with her family, she isn't going to be raising a child on her own while scraping by as a hotel maid, but will have her mother and stepfather, grandmother, and we must assume the entire town of Stars Hollow, which still worships her, to help. Not only does her pregnancy not foreclose her writing career, but we're given reason to think it will focus and advance it. Given the timing, it's the pregnancy that finally motivates her to get serious and write her (probably slanderous, self-absorbed, Millenial stereotype-reinforcing) memoir. The fact that this pregnancy is not preceded by marriage like Lane's and Sookie's pregnancies were might give us pause, because what does it mean that you need a baby but not a husband in order to finally become an adult? But Rory is also her mother's daughter, and her independence from/inability to commit to men is an important continuity. (There is also the suggestion that Rory's future Luke will be Luke's own nephew, Jess - more continuity.)

So I disagree with Will and the LARB that the reboot is, or at least is supposed to be, dark. I don't think the point is that everyone will immediately celebrate Rory's pregnancy as though it were the most desirable event in the world, but the history of unplanned pregnancies in the show should give us good reason to believe that the characters will eventually be grateful for it. The Adulthood Question only has one broadly accessible answer, and that is children.** Children channel restlessness and underutilized ambition so that it doesn't leak out of you and ruin your life by making you perennially dissatisfied with everything you've worked for and always on the hunt for more and better. Children give you the novelty and open-endedness you desire, but in the form of someone else - a new person you bring into being, one whose future is still open, and who must be guided towards it by you. You have to stop worrying about your own ascent (is it high enough? is this as good as it gets? should we add a spa to the Dragonfly?) to launch theirs. So Rory's pregnancy actually solves apparently unresolved problems in the show by giving both Lorelai and Rory a new outlet for their ambitions (since apparently Lorelai won't have more kids of her own) while also helping to satisfy and anchor them in the lives they already live.

The Adulthood Question was actually set up in the original series by the problem of the Small Town Where Nothing Happens and Everyone Is Average. How can an intelligent, ambitious person be content in such a place? Most of the original show allowed us to assume that the children raised there were really destined for greater things: rock stardom (Lane), beat-revival poetry (Jess), Pulitzer prizes (Rory, obvs). But that assumption doesn't really work in the long run, or small towns would be unsustainable and everyone has only the choice between being a star elsewhere or a failure back home. There has to be some positive appeal of such a place, some reason to end up there instead of just beginning there and then moving on to greater things. I think the reboot does try to show that flipside by showing that no place can be big enough and exciting enough for the internally dissatisfied person who hasn't answered the Adulthood Question, while for the person who has, Stars Hollow's virtues will be clear.

The other triumph of the reboot was Emily, who solves her problems on her own, with only the help of her maid, while keeping a stiff upper lip and revealing vulnerability only rarely, and then only to her immediate family. Someone on the writing staff must be a great fan of midcentury WASPs.

All that said, significant problems remain. It was too much the parade of cameos, with most of the significant secondary characters from the original run appearing only in one episode and often only in one scene, giving us a quick update on what they've been up to, and then immediately disappearing again into the ether. The result is subplots of weirdly time-consuming but then eventually one-off things like the town musical, and a lot of loose ends. Does Paris go through with her divorce? Does Sookie realize what she's missing and return? Also, Rory's brilliant career idea to write a memoir is pretty lame. I completely support Lorelai's objections to it. A final important question: why didn't they use the old theme song until the closing credits? I loved that theme song as an opening. A definite minus in the reboot.

* "Farm your own field, don't try to farm the fields of others" is my husband's summary of the moral of Herodotus' History, which he repeats to me when I suggest undertaking some massive project completely outside my wheelhouse instead of focusing on all the projects within it that presently remain half-done. In Herodotus, this point is made by Cyrus in the final paragraph, when the Persians suggest to him, "Let us move from this land of ours - for it is little and rocky, too - and take something better than it. There are many lands next to us and many further off, and if we take one of these we shall be more admired for more things." But he tells them that their pursuit of something ever-better than what they have (which is what has already made them great at this point) will only result in their conquest by others.
** Another answer is the kind of superstar career where you go from one important and all-consuming project to the next, and so always have a newer and bigger thing on the horizon. But that kind of life is not open to most or even many people, including most Yale graduates, however enthusiastically they might believe otherwise while they're at Yale.


Alex said...

Oh, goodness. I can totally see in the next revival, 5 years from now, it turns out Rory has abandoned the child to Lorelei, who is happy because now she and Luke have a baby, while Rory continues to be a jerk in different cities around the world.

Jess has aged very well!

Julia said...

I think it would be great if children really were the universal answer to the Adulthood Question. (Well, it would be great for those who are able to have them. Is everyone else just screwed?) But I think your answer is way too simple: people are too variable for there to be just be two pathways to satisfaction, superstar career or kids. If nothing else, how do you account for all the people who have kids/superstar careers and are still dissatisfied? (There seem to be tons of them.) Or are we just talking best case scenarios here? As it is, I see nothing wrong with adding a spa to the Dragonfly. I think ambition is a virtue.

Alex said...

In this construct, does everyone necessarily suffer from the adulthood question or only restless/ambitious people? The show has lots of examples of people who have found non-child things that settle them into their life- Luke has his diner, Kirk has his piggy, Taylor has his meddling.

Miss Self-Important said...

Julia: Children are not a universal answer, just a broadly accessible one. Many more people can acquire a child than a Yale diploma, or a college diploma, or a Pulitzer prize, etc. There are more than two pathways, and none are automatic, except maybe superstardom, because then you never have to face up to the insatiability of your ambitions since you can just keep pursuing them wherever they lead. But most people can't do that without eventually destroying their lives. Ambition is (sort of) a virtue, but not the unlimited pursuit of it.

Lorelai could probably find a better guy than Luke if she kept looking, or if she accepted Luke for now but kept an eye out for Luke 2.0. But that's probably not a good approach to marriage. Rory could always go to law school when journalism doesn't get her sufficient acclaim, and then med school after that, and then... You could add a spa to the Dragonfly, and then a petting zoo for the kids, and then skydiving lessons, and then franchise it and move to Manhattan... Or, at some point, you have to figure out how to be satisfied, no?

Alex: Yes, Rory is definitely on a downward moral trajectory, so that is possible. About ambition, there are also non-ambitious people. Luke would be an example. Kirk is just a weirdo, but Taylor has endless schemes for improving the town and is always angry, so he probably hasn't solved the Adulthood Problem. But I think in the show, it's mainly an issue for the main characters. Paris is obviously also an enormously ambitious person, but she's kind of a caricature, and so making her into a content person would just destroy her character.

Julia said...

No, I don't think you have to figure out how to be satisfied. I don't think you should go around flitting from one thing to another, discarding husbands and careers and projects as you go, either. I just think that complacency is accepted as an unqualified virtue and ambition gets short schrift. Ideally, you'd want some of both qualities but not too much of either. And this may explain why Paris is by far my favorite character in the show.

Miss Self-Important said...

You think complacency is accepted as a virtue by whom - the show? the Bubble People Elites who watch the show? America as a whole?

Paris is also my favorite character, but she's clearly not a model for emulation.

Alex said...

I don't think Rory's problem is restless ambition and finding a productive outlet in adulthood for it. I think she is performing badly at what she does, fine with living off of other people's money and connections, and self-absorbed. She grew up with everyone worshipping her and tripping over themselves to tell her how great she is. This combination of characteristics and experiences tend to work out badly in adulthood, although her family's gobs of money prevent any real suffering. She is not trying to select a version of her goal to pursue her wild ambition- she is trying and failing to get a job.

I suppose having a baby is one potential resolution, in that she will have to do the heavy lifting in getting over herself to care for an infant, but there were other avenues to this- not letting her act like an heiress straight out of college might have helped. Having to pay for your own NYC rent and weekly flights to London from your salary is pretty grounding.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, when she meets w/ her old headmaster, he mentions that she's been freelancing for a bunch of magazines in addition to the New Yorker - Slate, the Atlantic. So I think we're supposed to believe she has an ongoing income from that, or has had one until recently. If we follow my advice and view this reboot as really taking place when she's 24 or 25 instead of 32, then that's pretty good, and she's not failing at journalism or at getting a full-time job, she just isn't sure what to do next. Write the book about the crazy English lady? Try to become a staff writer somewhere? Editor at that hideous website? You can't do all these things, and doing some closes doors to others. But she turns out to be totally unable to make such a decision, and so bombs at all these efforts.

I don't really buy the criticisms of her behaving like an heiress. Do they ever say she's living off an inheritance from her grandfather? It's true that if you tried to calculate in reality how much all those flights to London and the apartment in Brooklyn would cost, a freelancing income wouldn't cover it. But this is TV. Everyone's life is much nicer than what they could afford if they were real people. This problem appears in the show from the beginning - could Lorelai realistically afford that huge house and all the nice stuff in it, their shopping and takeout habits (they do not eat a single meal at home!), and all the incidental costs of life for two on her salary as the manager of a small-town inn? They make some efforts to show her scrimping, and that's supposed to convey that they're under constraints despite all other appearances to the contrary. I think the Rory plot in the reboot is about the same - we have to imagine that freelancing pays way more than it does, and the fact that she had to give up her apartment and move back home indicates that she's out of money.

I do think the show does intend to convey that she's self-absorbed and callous, but not that she's rolling in money.

Alex said...

I disagree. Gilmore Girls has always been concerned with class and money, and the potentially perilous effects of accepting other people's (even family) money, although of course their lives were nicer than Lorelei could have realistically afforded. Even in this mini-series, Lorelei wonders how Luke will afford to send April on her singular trip to Europe, and there is a disagreement about whether they should share this cost.

So to expect the viewers to accept that semi-weekly last minute (!) trips to London would not strain even an i-banker's salary is bizarre. Maybe not her grandmother, but Logan is paying for them, without even a five second moral quibble about it from Rory. Also, having unoccupied mansions to fall back on as your quiet living and reflecting space makes you an heiress.

I get that everything about the show makes much more sense set about 8 years ago. But even then, Rory is not doing well- she falls asleep during an interview, sleeps with a source, is horribly unprepared for a job interview, and then is a huge b*tch about it afterward. I am not seeing signs of indecision about wild ambition.

Honestly though, I don't think the writers put as much thought into it as we are. This re-boot was mostly nonsensical, so there will be holes in any argument.

Personally, I hate narratives about flailing young people who throw around gobs of money in their attempts to find themselves, so I did not enjoy this mini-series.

Miss Self-Important said...

But are we supposed to believe that she's been taking Logan's money since graduation? I agree that in the action of the reboot, Logan is paying for things and she's accepting it (and his father's help too, another recapitulation of Rory Mistakes form the original). But I thought we're supposed to see her acceptance of Logan's favors as part of the current career crisis, not something she's been doing all along. She had a real story to write in London before the show starts, about that crazy lady. So presumably the New Yorker paid her travel expenses then, and we're supposed to assume that, although she is having an affair with Logan, she's not financially dependent on him.

She then gives up her (unrealistic, but I think intended to be understood as) financial independence in her career crisis. And screws up all her job interviews and sabotages her story, which she only decided to do in a fit of frustration over her book project collapsing, not b/c she likes the topic. But I think we're supposed to imagine that she was not like this pre-crisis, or the headmaster and Conde Nast wouldn't have praised her earlier work.

So yes, I agree that the taking money and favors from Logan is supposed to look like a bad decision, and is lazy writing in a way since we've already seen this plot and its consequences in the original series. But I don't think we're supposed to see her as having behaved this way since college, but only in light of her crisis of indecision.

The empty mansion is by chance, since her grandmother is in Nantucket, otherwise it would be an occupied mansion. I thought it was pretty clear from that scene where she comes in and has all the flashbacks of her adolescence, and then goes straight to her grandfather's study and doesn't even bother to turn on the lights that the point of writing there was not that it's a convenient empty mansion (since she turns down the empty mansion in Maine that Logan offers, as part of cutting off his favor-giving, yet again), but that it's her grandfather's room, in the house her mother grew up, and where she also spent a lot of her childhood, so it is the most appropriate setting to write her (horrible) memoir. That's just a sentimental touch, not a statement about her wealth. It just happens that her sentimental nostalgia place is a mansion.

One of the things about the original show that I thought might not survive the reboot was that it was not anti-rich people. It aired all the usual suspicions of rich people, but there were clearly good and bad rich people. Paris - good rich person. Logan - basically bad rich person. Richard and Emily - good and bad by turns. So the show does not conclude that it's always wrong to take money from rich people. It was good that Lorelai borrowed money for Rory's high school, then Rory borrowed for college. In the last season, when she moves into her grandparents' poolhouse and lives it up with Logan's friends - that was bad money-taking, but not because she used rich people's money, but because she lost her own purpose in using it. But there were a lot of other moments in the original series when rich people gave Rory and Lorelai frivolous stuff they didn't really want or ask for, like when Richard and Emily gave Rory a car, or donated a building to Yale in her name. And I think when the show originally aired, it was easier to find these moments amusing, whereas now, we are so touchy about wealth and "privilege," that we can't just let these sorts of things go as jokes about the pomposity of the grandparents, and instead believe that being the recipient of such outrageous demonstrations of privilege must somehow make Rory a worse person unless she dramatically renounces it all. But I'm not sure the show thinks that.

I have no problem believing that the writers of GG are subpar, but art - even bad art - sometimes makes more sense than its creators intended it to.

Alex said...

Yes, the original show had more complex things to say about money and class and accepting money from others. It was not always bad, but it was always complicated and delicate and had repercussions as well as benefits.

I don't think the reboot is anti-rich people. Emily, as well as Rory's secret society pranksters are all having a good time in a non-harmful way, from the show's perspective. I think you're right that we are touchier now, at least I am. I did not find the fever sequence about brigade inter-state fun tour to be amusing- the buying of clubs and hotels was irritating. But the original show was never that over the top.

Are you saying that authorial intent is irrelevant? I don't always disagree, but I think I'm surprised that you think that. Still it's a hopeful thought for the humanities. My favorite part of the reboot was Paris's Emerson quote at Chilton- there should have been more conversations like that. I wish we could have seen Paris's classroom talk- Rory's was LAME.

miss self-important said...

No, I don't think the reboot is anti-rich people, I think WE are now more anti-rich and less willing to casually accept expenditures of money that the show wants us to casually accept. If the original were on today, way more people would be outraged by the episode where they buy a building in Rory's name, whereas probably no one was in 2006. But for this reason, I also think we're not supposed to dwell on the money-spending (e.g., how much are Rory's flights to London?) in the way that many people are, unless the show itself raises the question. It does do that at a couple points- Rory saying she has no credit, giving up her apartment, accepting and then rejecting Logan's offer to subsidize her book writing, etc. I did think the discussion about paying for Annoying April's trip was more to show that Luke and Lorelei ARE sort of just roommates with benefits b/c they pay for things separately, unlike a married couple, and not so much about showing that they're under financial constraints.

No, I think authorial intent is relevant, but sometimes the authors are better than they think they are, or even try to be. We know that the writers already had a coherent ending planned out for the original show, and they had to adapt it to this 10 years later situation when most of the cast had scheduling difficulties, so I think that accounts for a lot of the holes, but that there is still coherence to the plot arc if you work (admittedly really hard) to look past the holes. I subscribe to the theory of authorial intent in Plato's "Ion"-- art is made in the grip of divine inspiration, which is why people can write amazing stuff but then sound like complete cavemen when interviewed about what they made and why. There is intent behind what they do, but sometimes the fulfillment of their conscious intention is even better than what they intended it to be. (Btw, Plato probably didn't believe in the divine part either, but still noticed the troubling gap between the greatness of poetry and the mediocrity of the poets who wrote it.)