Gilmore Girls: The Complete First Season Review

Chances are if you live in the UK you will not have encountered the Gilmore Girls. Ignored by British broadcasters for the first few years the show eventually found its way onto Nickelodeon (home to gross out cartoons and sitcoms that anybody over the age of 16 would find painful to watch) where the first two seasons played out unnoticed. This brief run was followed to a move to Hallmark, which aired seasons three to five before giving up due to lack of ratings. To be honest it isn’t too hard to understand why this has happened. Gilmore Girls may have sat happily alongside the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and Smallville in the US but its transatlantic marketability is seriously hampered by both a family-friendly surface and a sickening theme tune, ensuring that Gilmore Girls remains not quite right for E4 and completely wrong for Sky One. It is for these reasons that the release of this set the UK comes as something of a surprise, giving many their first opportunity to sample the joys of life in Stars Hollow.

The Show
For the uninitiated Gilmore Girls centres around the life of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her teenage daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), who she gave birth to at the tender age of sixteen. The lives of the titular Gilmore girls were fairly stable until the pilot episode when Rory gets accepted into a prestigious but expensive private school and Lorelai is forced to ask her wealthy estranged parents Richard (Edward Herrmann) and Emily (Kelly Bishop) for assistance in paying for her daughter’s education. They agree but there is a price, Lorelai and Rory must join them for dinner every Friday night. From this basic description of the show it becomes evident how it wound up showing on Hallmark. It would certainly seem to blend in with the channel’s brand defining array of touching family dramas, usually involving events that if experienced by people you actually know would probably require the purchase of a greetings card of some form (well there’s got to be a reason why a card company would own a television channel). Indeed the idea of a show that has teenage pregnancy at the core of its back-story conjures up fears that this might be a show where characters spend their time tackling real life issues (then hugging) before condensing these issues into simplistic and heavy handed morals that can be preached to the audience in a not remotely discreet way. After all Gilmore Girls does come from the same network that produced 7th Heaven.

Thankfully though any fears that the show might turn out this way are laid to rest mere moments into the pilot. From the very first scene involving a passer by who tries to hit on both mother and daughter in quick succession, before being mortified to discover their relationship, it is clear that this is not going to be a depressingly serious take on the dangers of teen pregnancy. Rather this is a show that intends to have fun with its format. In fact it is surprising at times just how little Gilmore Girls comments on the dangers of teenage pregnancy. Whilst the idea that Lorelai ruined her life by getting pregnant at such a young age is often thrown around by other characters it is not an idea that she believes. It is always clear that she enjoys the life that she has ultimately built, that she is proud of her self-sufficiency under difficult circumstances, and that her relationship with Rory is more like that of a best friend than a daughter. At times it even seems that this is a show that almost celebrates teenage pregnancy by linking the close relationship Lorelai and Rory share (they share clothes, for a show like this that’s as close as two people can possibly be!) to the small age gap between them. That’s not to say that this is a show that actually encourages young girls to go out and get pregnant as soon as possible, certainly it demonstrates that Lorelai has had more than her fair share of struggles in her life, it just means that this is a show that paints a more nuanced picture of young motherhood than the reactionary message that we have come to expect from television drama.

That said Gilmore Girls is more than just a show that touches on a tricky issue in a surprising way. As I commented on earlier this is also a show that knows how to have fun with its format, delivering a tone that never once seems out of place amongst its peers on The WB. There’s a quick pace to the show and a rhythm to its witty banter that I personally find reminiscent to The West Wing in its Sorkin-era height and the constant stream of pop culture references, ranging from the obvious film links to more obscure literary ones, would make even the likes of Buffy and The OC jealous. But arguably the main strength comes from characterisation. Outside of the main mother-daughter pairing the show boasts a strong compliment of peripheral characters who add both to the drama and to the comedy. The cast is so large that it would be impossible for me to discuss every single character but the highlights are Rory’s Korean friend Lane (Keiko Agena) whose struggles against her insanely strict Christian mother provide a counterpoint to Rory and Lorelai’s relationship, Luke (Scott Patterson) the crotchety owner of the local diner who grows from a minor background character into Lorelai’s obligatory will they/won’t they love interest.

Often however the real stars of the show are Lorelai’s parents. Whilst originally established as stifling and not particularly likeable Richard and Emily remain the most interesting characters due in no small part to the fact that the viewer never quite knows how they’re going to react to any given situation. As this season goes on they become particularly versatile characters performing well as straight men to many of the show’s best comedic moments and as the source of enormous dramatic tension. Over the course of the 21 episodes presented in this set they go from clichéd smothering parents bitter that they could not control their daughter’s life, to actual human beings saddened that they cannot understand the reasons that their only child cut herself off from them. As this occurs we begin to understand more of how they view life and their firmly held belief that image and the responsibility of social status are more important than individual desires. Whilst they accept this aspect of wealthy society unquestioningly it is something that Lorelai resents. When they learned of Lorelai’s pregnancy they did what “procedure” demanded and placed pressure on her daughter to marry Rory’s father. When Lorelai chose to leave home it was more a rejection of the expectations of society than of her parents themselves, something that Richard and Emily never understood. None of this is to say they’re ever completely redeemed either in the eyes of their daughter or those of the audience. The cultural barrier in their relationship is never removed and Emily in particular is unable to forget the pain caused by Lorelai’s decisions. Of course if all these tensions were resolved there probably wouldn’t be a show any more.

The show is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is as it was originally broadcast. As Gilmore Girls is a fairly recent show I’m sure that widescreen version exists somewhere. Then again I suspect that much like with Buffy this is the creators’ intended format. The picture quality is unfortunately mixed. Watching the pilot I was instantly struck by how sharp the picture was compared to any other versions I’ve seen, unfortunately either the quality or my perception of it deteriorates for the rest of the season as the picture seems less sharp and grain becomes more and more noticeable. I have a theory that this is in some way intentional. Observing the sepia tones used for the credits and the aforementioned choice of aspect ratio there’s a sense that the cinematography aims to provide a feeling of warmth and comfort. From this point of view there may have been a conscious decision not to make the picture too sharp in order to achieve this effect.

The sound is in Dolby Digital 2.0 and includes English, French and Italian tracks. As you would expect from a dialogue driven show the audio track does nothing particularly impressive although it does its job as well as you could hope throughout.

Like many of the best DVDs there’s something of a less is more approach going on here with a few choice selections rather than a massive list of extras that are largely superficial and uninformative. It would have been nice if they had included commentaries too but what we do have is largely good stuff.

Welcome to the “Gilmore Girls”
Easily the main attraction, this is the typical making of documentary you get on a first season set talking the viewer through the genesis of the show, the casting process, etc. It’s a solid feature revealing lots of interesting information about the show’s origins and the creative and casting decisions that took place; for instance the fact that Luke’s character was originally written as a girl but the network were worried that there were not enough men on the show.

Gilmore Goodies and Gossip – Rory’s Dance On Screen Factoids
Remember that VH-1 show Pop Up Video where pop videos would be played with all sorts of random facts appearing (usually meaning you could never watch the video again without thinking about them)? This is that idea stretched over the ‘Rory’s Dance’ episode displaying random facts at the bottom of the screen. To be honest I didn’t enjoy this feature as much as I hoped I would. The supposedly exciting facts were a bit hit-and-miss, pointing out obvious movie references before mentioning random trivia that has nothing to do with the episode. It turns out the concept works better for a three-minute pop video than it does on a 45-minute television programme. Unfortunately the execution is also rather poor and instead of adding an option to branch these factoids into the episodes Warner Bros took the rather odd route of reproducing the entire episode on disc six with the trivia burned into the picture. The idea itself isn’t necessarily a bad one but I think it would have been better implemented in the style of Spaced’s ‘Homage-O-Meter’ with player-generated subtitles explaining the numerous pop-culture references consistently throughout every episode.

Additional Scenes
Three deleted scenes. These are presented as a single feature on disc six with no option to view them separately. The first from the episode ‘Love and War and Snow’ is a short scene between Lorelai and love interest Max (Scott Cohen), the second is taken from ‘Forgiveness and Stuff’ and features Lorelai and Emily, and the third has Rory and Emily and was originally part of ‘Emily in Wonderland’. Each is a vaguely touching character moment and it’s easy to understand why it would have hurt the producers to have to lose the scenes but to be honest none of them would have added anything significant so it’s easy to see why they were cut.

This is nothing more than a montage of clips showing off some of the show’s trademark verbal flair. Frankly it is easily the least worthwhile feature on the set as most of what you see is better viewed within the context of the episodes they originally inhabited. For the region one release this feature was accompanied by a "Gilmore-isms" booklet that explained many of the more obscure references, for some reason this hasn't been included in the UK release.

Given the fact that Gilmore Girls has never found a home on mainstream British television the very existence of a region two set comes as something of a surprise. It’s an odd move on Warner Bros’ part but a welcome one, and with seasons two and three already out its very possible that we’ll catch up with the US before season seven is released next year. However the very fact that this season has been out on region one for around two years begs the question of who is really going to buy this set, as many of the show’s UK fans will have taken the plunge and bought the American version already. That said this is a show that is well worth a look for anybody who has either never seen it or not yet bought the region one release. As long as you’re willing to see beyond the surface features and accept the possibility that Gilmore Girls might be more than the stupid chick show it appears to be then you’ll be rewarded with one of the funniest and most entertaining programmes of recent years, with the added benefit that it’s lack of UK success means that it will never be introduced by Vernon Kay.

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