Gilmore Girls – A Nostalgic Liar or a Compelling Comeback?

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Revivals are a funny thing. One on hand, if a show has been mothballed long enough – and, perhaps more importantly, enjoyed an alarmingly devoted fanbase both during and after its run – then it will automatically be greeted and received with feverish enthusiasm. We will gawk at how that character is now bald and slightly more rotund around the middle. We’ll gawp at how the lead character hasn’t changed one iota, sans for a more nimble nose. We will find the same feelings of sympathy and satisfaction we had when we watched it in our salad days.

That’s all a given. Even a franchise as fraternised as American Pie flushed us with feelings of love and awe when they released their reunion movie. One could even argue (though would probably be forced to leave the room or, fittingly, hide in a toilet cubicle sucking one’s thumb) that Dumb and Dumber To, for all its lack of progression and ‘90s anachronism of a script, gave the audience, for the first fifteen minutes at least, a sugar rush of delight that characters we align so close to halcyon happiness were back frolicking on screen.

But let’s nip this in bud – nostalgia is a pretty liar. You know it, I know it and the makers of these products bloody well know it. It’s the girl you used to have sex with back in sixth form, the one that gave you the thrill and thrust your ex-wife never could. You’re naturally going to be glad to see them when you bump into them at that local bar. It’s the boy who gave you your first dance before jetting off to spend his father’s trust fund, leaving you to ponder what might have been. Nostalgia injects us with a giddy sense of wistful wonder and joy, but when the drug wears off, all these things must be judged on the ‘now’ and not the ‘then’.

The latest fodder to be thrown into the comeback canon was Gilmore Girls. It may have added the extra A Year in the Life, to propose feelings of freshness as opposed to a mere ‘Kirk is back and being goofy’ session, but all in all it was hard to ignore that warm feeling of homeliness that spewed forth. When Rory and Lorelai, the quick-witted, coffee-quaffing duo that demonstrated a solid independence and intelligence that was so endearing, walked together in snowy Stars Hallow, it was like someone had lit a Yankee candle in a room silenced by darkness. All of a sudden, that homely, heartfelt pang rushed through your body and the world felt alright again.

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And as the show has gone through the different seasons, it has certainly been a hoot to see what the characters have been up to. Lest we forget, Gilmore Girls was as much about the town as the Gilmores themselves, a goldfish bowl that always teetered on the right side of Blue Velvet-esque distortion. It was a thrill to find Kirk was still as loveably eccentric as ever (his Oober racket just about worked without being too annoying), it was great to see Digger Styles, seemingly unchanged, drag up his off-centre banter at a funeral, and Babette and Morey were still a queasily approachable couple who you never knew where the line was towed.

However, once dust of nostalgic delight had been swept away, judging A Year in the Life on its merits reveals some flaws that you just wish would go the way of Taylor’s septic tanks. The main issue is the characterisation of Rory. Of course, the whole idea of nostalgia is that we want our characters to have been frozen in amber – we wanted Paul Finch on American Pie to be the same snobby intellectual he was at school. We wanted Mulder and Scully to share the same detached, wry outlook on their work. And, with Gilmore Girls, we wanted Rory to be the same sprightly, sympathetic girl she was in the show’s salad days.

That’s where the danger of nostalgia comes in – Rory has changed and grown up, which is obviously good; too much of the mild, inquisitive teenager of old might have not worked on a 32-year-old woman. However, at the same time, the Rory many viewers envisioned as a grown-up probably didn’t coagulate correctly onscreen. In this revival, Rory seems deflated, downbeat and, in some cases, even arrogant – there was always a defiance and determination within the youngest Gilmore, which is what made her character so endearing and influential. Here, though, it seems wrapped up in self-satisfaction – she shrugs off a website chasing her signature and, when she finally realises she could do with a steady income, decides in an “it’s a living” lurch that it’s the job for her. But it gets worse – she botches the interview after doing zero research or planning, and seems aggrieved when the CEO, however annoying she may be, isn’t won over. For the first time watching Rory, I wasn’t rooting for her.

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Maybe that’s the point? That we needed to see Rory experience a downfall or two (in the second episode, ‘Spring’, a lot of her walls come crashing down) in order to show the brutal realism of adult life. But it would be more compelling if it was Rory questioning the karmic alignments of life (why is the girl who did everything right being given such a raw deal?), but in actuality it’s of her own doing – her faith in a sketchy feminist drunkard is slightly blind, as is her seemingly unshakeable faith that her portfolio alone will secure her work on a whim.

This is before we’ve explored the deeper issues. A particularly frustrating scene, and one that is thrown away as a comedic sidebar, is when Rory tells Lorelai she had a one-night stand with someone dressed as a Wookie. It’s brushed under the carpet using the standard Gilmore banter boilerplate, but is this what Rory has become? There’s nothing wrong with the odd dalliance in the bedroom, of course, and this is the modern world. She’s a modern journalist. But this is the girl who, at the tender age of 16, couldn’t tell Dean she loved him because she wasn’t sure she meant it. While she admits it was out-of-character, it feels way too dissimilar to Rory to ring true – no matter how tanked Rory gets, the idea of a girl so aligned to responsibility knocking boots with a Trekkie just feels a mighty stretch.

Then you get to the other men in her life. The idea of one of her three suitors occupying a romantic position feels right – otherwise it would just be a trio of shoehorned cameos that linger on past love (i.e. Jess). And it makes begrudging sense that it would be Logan, the man who was born into money and thus can offer Rory a plush pad. But in Rory’s role as ‘the other woman’, a role she seems to happily accept, is that destroying her character further? The old Rory surely wouldn’t be satisfied in being a dirty secret, someone who can watch on happily as a man cheats on his fiancée? Her conscience wouldn’t allow it. And yet here she uses Logan as a pillow as well as a sex-chum, and doesn’t really seem to care that he’s hitched. Sure, she slept with Dean when he was married, but there was a beautiful naivety to her first time. Here it just feels like pointless fucking.

Rory’s story arc rings the least true, simply because it feels like it has too much of an agenda – Rory is built up and knocked down, her previous innocence tarnished in a sea of freelance jobs (surely no journalist these days can afford to fly from London to the USA so frequently?), pointless trysts and an unplanned pregnancy. Gilmore Girls was a delightful reunion that tugged at the heartstrings and gave us the same sense of comfort it did before, but like all things comforting, it can be bad for you in the long run.

 

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Duff Love – How Homer and Marge’s Marriage Turned from Sweet to Sad

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Homer may be dumb, lazy and fat, but he’s always been refreshingly realistic when it comes to his marriage with Marge. He understands and appreciates the fact he’s lucky to have such an intelligent, articulate and caring person as his spouse, and in turn has sacrificed his own lazy, loveable man-child existence in order to care for her and the kids. As such, their relationship has been one of television’s most endearing and enamoring kinships. So why does it now permanently pang with sadness?

Maybe it was the lack of new, cutting-edge plots. Maybe it was to put a spotlight on the stagnant existence of many of America’s long-term couples. Or maybe they merely regretted the fact it was painted so perfect; after all, no marriage is seamless, and no turkeys behind the bed can hide that fact. But as The Simpsons has trundled on, one of the show’s more frequent forays has been into the ‘troubled’ side of Homer and Marge’s relationship – it has been examined and exorcised so many times now that the heart-warming scenes of Homer and Marge bike riding into the sunset feels like a Keats daydream.

Even during the show’s prime, there were troubles that threatened to topple their seemingly solid simpatico – in the very first season, Marge was abhorred by Homer’s bowling ball present and fell for the French fancy that was Jacques, leaving Homer concerned and troubled by his wife’s weekly visits to the bowling alley. In turn, Homer tried, and failed, to resist the allure of Mindy Simmons, a sexy slob that appealed to all of Homer’s avaricious appetites. But from these two crises came winning solutions – both realised, and not before time, they were meant to be together. Homer may be childish and churlish, but his love of Marge was unwavering, while Marge knew that for all of Homer’s faults he was a kind, decent man who worked a depressing job to keep her and the kids happy.

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But while in the past these two, on the surface, negative factors produced a heartfelt positive, as the show has descended it has been used for depressing dejection. Cracks were beginning to show during ‘The Cartridge Family’ in Season Nine, where Homer’s obsession with his gun saw the family move out. It took Homer a longer time than usual to come around, and even then you sensed he’d rather be holding his barrel than his wife at night.

Other blemishes include the infamous ‘Co-Dependent’s Day’, where Homer’s ramped-up alcoholism infects Marge’s abstinence, causing the two to become a permanently plastered fixture at Moe’s. In the past, it would be Marge’s cordiality and cleverness that would win the day, but here Homer’s horrendous vices are instead gleamed onto Marge, showing them both to be fractured, damaged and unhappy individuals that are only happy when they’re drinking. Even worse, Homer frames Marge for drink-driving, allowing her to sweat in self-disgust and sadness. “This is a new low for me,” Homer comments at one point, but that fleeting self-awareness is soon as quickly dashed as he is from the crime scene.

Compare all of this to another episode focused around drink and the impact thereof, ‘Duffless’, and the beer goggles produce a much sweeter taste. After a month of not drinking, Homer’s anxious to annihilate his liver, but Marge’s kindness and insistence makes Homer realise there is much more to life than sitting in a dank bar every night.

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Even worse, the writers became strangely obsessed with rewriting, and subsequently ruining, the honeyed backstory of Homer and Marge’s first flushes of romance. ‘The Way We Was’ and ‘I Married Marge’ were bittersweet, brilliant flashbacks of their burgeoning romance, where the weight of the real world was attempting to crush Homer’s homeliness and, in turn, Marge’s magnificence, but their mutual love and companionship provided heart-warming finales. Homer was head-over-heels for Marge from the very outset, while Marge was understandably reticent.

‘The Way We Weren’t’ betrayed this by showing Homer and Marge in fact met at a summer camp, where Homer, albeit inadvertently, broke Marge’s heart. Even worse is ‘Three Gays of the Condo’, where a flashback shows Homer’s idea of a perfect date is taking Marge to Moe’s while he plays nachos with his buddies. The ending of the episode is supposed to be emotionally swelling, as Marge stands by a young Homer while he’s treated for alcohol poisoning, but it lands like a depressing jolt of acceptance rather than a dizzy appreciation of love – it also pretty much hammers home the fact Marge only stayed with Homer because of Bart, and even though that was probably always true, it feels particularly sad here. Also, think back to Homer’s initial date with Marge, where he ordered a limo, bought a horrid suit and promised her the best night of her life…surely that feeling wouldn’t have evaporated so quickly?

Other episodes such as ‘Dangerous Curves’ showed their relationship as one that was young and troubled, fueled by arguments and ill feeling, while even the seemingly throwaway opening in ‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song’ showed the complete opposite – two idealistic young adults with nothing but each other. By the time you’ve watched Homer pout and pack his bags on ‘Mobile Homer’ and Marge be tempted by a marine biologist in ‘Bonfire of the Manatees’, you really begin to wish this marriage would just break apart for good, for it’s doing neither party any favours – Homer is a loutish alcoholic who treats his wife and family with disinterest, while Marge is a spineless enabler.

When once their relationship had so many sweet moments (one favourite is when Homer, nervous about his NASA flight, calls Marge on a remote payphone), and while there was always a tragic sting to their young, foolish love, as time has progressed Marge and Homer’s relationship has merely become one that has been trampled upon more times than George Bush’s flowerbed. Poor vous, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song’ – The Simpsons at its Most Real

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When we think of classic episodes of The Simpsons, our minds tend to drift towards the big guest stars, the bombastic plots and the most biting of satires. For me, though, I enjoy the episodes where they’re brutally realistic. For example, an episode consisting of Homer lending money from Patty and Selma may seem instantly throwaway, but upon watching it’s grounded in low-key brilliance.

A prime contender for the most underrated episode is, fittingly, its 100th outing. Upon watching this episode for the first time in donkey’s years, I was shocked at just how real and emotionally restrained the script is; there is an abundance of pauses, awkward silence, shy mutterings…for an animation, it’s brave to concoct over 20 minutes of material to such a bare subject, but it works brilliantly because, as real-life people (we are that, I think), we invest so heavily in such a real-life situation.

The plot is great because it’s handled in such a mannered way. The main issue with The Simpsons from, say, Season Ten, is that the characters are all ‘Flanderised’ – Mr Burns and Smithers are joined at the hip, Moe is perpetually suicidal, Lenny and Carl are embroiled in some subconscious asexual pact. No more so is Skinner, who is essentially a spineless middle-aged man who apparently sleeps in a cot. Here, though, he is still Skinner at his purest – he cares about the school, though is permanently stressed over budgets, low test scores and Superintendent Chalmers (and another thing, does Chalmers only work at Springfield Elementary these days?! He’s always there).

It’s when the plot’s main premise kicks in do we get a fascinating overview into a secondary character’s life. After he is fired by Chalmers, Skinner is rudderless, though cocoons himself in chipper optimism, a sad reflection on something a lot of us do when we’re let go from a job we enjoy. The scenes of Skinner going about his daily routine – choosing detergents at the laundromat, shopping at the Kwik-E-Mart and faux conducting in his bourgeois bedroom – are really intriguing. It might surprise writers of modern day Simpsons, but the inquisitive nature of us viewers relishes the chance to see a character of authority go about his life, without explosions or over-the-top embellishment.

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Some episodes of The Simpsons usually balance a fearlessly real plot with something a bit more outlandish (see ‘Lisa’s Rival’, for example). Here, though, added to the scenes of Skinner peddling his wares is his new acquaintanceship with Bart, which invokes a large of amount of awkward badinage, murmurings and forced conversation. It works not just because Bart befriends Skinner out of guilt, but because outside of their school roles, they obviously need each other. In particular, the scene of Bart and Skinner gawkily exchanging pleasantries as he does his laundry is wonderful, and mirrors a real-life conversation beat for beat.

As their friendship grows, it works really well, particularly the scene where Skinner is barbequing in his back garden. The writing flows really nicely and naturalistically, and you really invest in the situation, especially Skinner eagerly hoping that the school is struggling without him (we all want to know this about a place that’s fired us, surely?).

The episode ends as it should, with Skinner returning as Principal (we do, before this though, get a moving shot of Skinner mournfully walking past the school, which is handled with just the right amount of pathos) and Bart being reinstated as his nemesis. But for the whole episode, the show shows deft amounts of restraint; there are no outlandish side-plots, no Homer being a jerk or ramped-up action sequences. Instead, we’re treated to an almost voyeuristic view into a humdrum life. It’s almost like a Noah Baumbach movie.

For having the gall to make their 100th episode such a low-key affair, and using one of their sweeter, understated plots, the writers deserve a lot of praise. Would The Simpsons of modern day even contemplate doing an episode like this? And, furthermore, what show of any kind can get genuine emotion out of the line “we’ll always have the Laundromat”?