The nostalgic TV revival is a genre still in search of a purpose: Too often, shows like Arrested Development, Full House, and The X-Files have returned for no reason other than to gin up easy viewership, to appeal to those seeking to remember better days. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is the first such TV sequel that really uses the long-delayed circumstances of its existence to its advantage. There’s a smart self-awareness to the show (available on Netflix starting Friday) that goes beyond sly winks to the camera about how long it’s been since its titular mother-daughter team have appeared onscreen. Considering it could merely exist as a cheap cash-in, that A Year in the Life feels so emotionally resonant is somewhat miraculous.

Perhaps it isn’t too surprising, though, given that A Year in the Life represents a redemptive moment for the show. Gilmore Girls saw its original run end rather abruptly in 2007, after an unsatisfying seventh season that aired without its major creative voice, Amy Sherman-Palladino. She created Gilmore Girls but wasn’t able to end it, due to botched negotiations with its network; A Year in the Life was her chance to reclaim her show and finish it on her own terms. Happily, it’s more than that. Over the course of four feature-length episodes (each about 90 minutes long), the show renews the witty spirit that has helped it endure since it went off the air. But the series is also unafraid to grapple with how much time has passed—and the inertia that needed to be overcome to recapture the magic.

A Year in the Life is set nine years after the last episode of Gilmore Girls, but its setting, the fictional Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, has always existed in a quirky bubble. The original show, which mostly aired during the George W. Bush administration, has always existed as a sort of fuzzy security blanket, one only tenuously in touch with the scarier real world around it. The stakes in A Year in the Life remain personal, but in the intervening years, the world has grown a little larger around the mother-daughter unit Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and, as Sherman-Palladino cleverly shows, that world is a little tougher to get ahead in.

During the show’s original run, Rory (Alexis Bledel) was something of a child prodigy, a voracious reader with an intellect beyond her teenage years. She was blessed with the gumption of her mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham) but without quite the rebellious spirit that led to Lorelai getting pregnant at the age of 16. With the help of Lorelai, the friendly townspeople of Stars Hollow, and her blue-blooded grandparents Richard (Edward Herrmann) and Emily (Kelly Bishop), Rory thrived. She went to Yale and embarked on a promising journalistic career at the end of the show, getting ready to follow the presidential candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail for an up-and-coming blog.

What a difference nine years makes. Rory is now 32, and her journalistic career still seems on the verge of true success; she’s had freelance pieces in The New Yorker, Slate, and this very publication, and she spends most of her time in London. But there’s a sense that she’s running to stand still—that her life, both personal and professional, has been trapped in amber for nine years. From a plot perspective, her stasis is the only way to plausibly have her hanging out in Stars Hollow all the time (and revisiting all of her former flames). But it seems Sherman-Palladino wants to complicate the show’s return for viewers—A Year in the Life is still a bit of comforting escapism, but one where having things stay the same comes at a cost.

That self-awareness helps the first episode feel natural, even as it’s clear the cast is shaking off the cobwebs. There are old rhythms to slip back into, and plenty of exposition that needs to be delivered as organically as possible. Every member of the show’s cast, regular and recurring, pops back up for at least a scene or two, and Stars Hollow remains essentially the same as it ever was, even if everyone’s added a few wrinkles in the intervening decade. Lorelai is still running her Dragonfly Inn, is still living in the same house, and has settled down with her long-time love interest Luke (Scott Patterson). She, like her daughter, seems plagued with an indefinable malaise, perhaps possessed of the thought that after nine years things should look more dramatically different.

There is one major change, of course—the loss of Richard, who was always a comic and dramatic standout. (Herrmann died of brain cancer in 2014.) Rather than glossing over such a massive loss for the show, Sherman-Palladino makes Richard’s death the narrative spine of the series, with Lorelai, Rory, and Emily each struggling to cope in her own way. More broadly, the long runtimes of these new episodes (each named after a season) make it easier for the show to unfold without much attention to plot. There’s room for silly digressions, for long town meetings featuring the hilariously tyrannical Taylor Doose (Michael Winters), even for set-pieces that bring in actors from other shows (Graham gets to meet a few of her Parenthood co-stars, and there are cameos from several stars of Sherman-Palladino’s TV show Bunheads).

The narrative looseness is forgivable; after all, this is Gilmore Girls, which was always more interested in rat-a-tat witty dialogue than in detailed story arcs. If you grew up fond of the show, or recently discovered it in Netflix’s archives, it’s hard to imagine that the new season will miss a beat. A Year in the Life won’t necessarily convert new viewers—like any revival, it’s making a play for a loyal fanbase, which should be more than enough to justify Netflix’s investment in the show. But as a salvage attempt after Gilmore Girls’ original bittersweet ending, it feels wholly justified.