The Fault in Stars Hollow

Bad news for Paul: Gilmore Girls, for all its charms, has never been terribly fond of outsiders.

Saeed Adyani / Netflix

This post reveals plot points about both the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls and the show’s original seasons.

In the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls, Rory, it turns out, has a long-term boyfriend. One who is not named Dean or Jess or Logan, but instead Jeffrey. Or maybe Alan. Or Billy? Wait—Pete. Pete, right? Which would actually be pretty appropriate, in a meta kind of way?

Welcome to one of the earliest of many running jokes in the show’s revival, which is that Rory has a boyfriend named Paul—his name, for the record, is Paul—and that nobody, including Lorelai and Luke, can remember his name or, indeed, anything about him. Paul is perfectly nice, if a bit obsequious; he visits Rory in Stars Hollow, and brings not only flowers for her, but also thoughtful gifts for her family. And his kindness is repaid by forgetfulness: Rory forgets that she invited him. She and her mother head out for breakfast at Luke’s without him, simply forgetting he is there. When Paul meets them at the diner, good-natured as ever, they manage to leave him there.

That the new Gilmore Girls would make so many jokes at the expense of kind, forgettable Paul isn’t, on the whole, terribly surprising. While Stars Hollow may embody some of the best aspects of life in a small town—the intimacy, the democracy, the sense of an “us” to be fought for—it can also, at times, embody the worst: the insularity. The exclusivity. The sense of a “them” to be fought against. The mingling of all of those things, in the seven original seasons of Gilmore Girls, led to a show that is deeply concerned with questions of belonging—about who may be counted as “one of us” and who, by implication, may not. The show’s Netflix revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, has only amplified those anxieties: The Stars Hollow of 2016 is place that, though it congratulates itself on its cosmopolitanism, remains deeply provincial. Paul, the outsider, found that out the hard way.

It’s by now a cliché to say that Stars Hollow, much like the New York of Sex and the City, is one of the main characters of Gilmore Girls. But it’s a cliché because Stars Hollow-centrism is something the show itself insists on, again and again. The song that closes out Gilmore Girls’s pilot episode is not the now-iconic one—“where you lead, I will follllllllow”—but rather one that may be even more revealing about the show’s guiding philosophy: Yo La Tengo’s “Welcome to My Little Corner of the World.” And the first scenes of the revival—as befits the circular logic that will drive the new episodes and culminate, finally, in the show’s vaunted “four final words”—find Lorelai and Rory Gilmore doing their traditional tour of the town, this time in winter, through the gazebo and past Luke’s, among twinkling lights and smiling people and freshly fallen snow. The camera swings in an almost dizzying arc as they walk, hinting that what was true in the first seven seasons will remain true in the new one: Stars Hollow is a place that is ruled by centripetal force.

Into all this comes Paul. Poor, sweet, Rory-doesn’t-deserve-you Paul. The show has, in the end, about as much pity for Paul as it has respect for him, which is to say pretty much none. He is there merely for the sake of exposition—it’s in part through him that we first learn of Rory’s recently peripatetic existence—and to serve, again and again, as a kind of human punchline.

All of that puts Paul in league with the many other characters who have tried, and failed, to be truly welcomed into Stars Hollow’s little corner of the world. Remember how, when Lorelai and Christopher got married, “the town” resisted him, and the marriage, on the grounds of his outsider status? Remember how Lorelai tried to enlist Jackson and other residents with TownClout to encourage others to accept her new husband? Christopher was Rory’s father, and thus would seem to have a pretty good in with Stars Hollow’s residents; even that, though, wasn’t enough.

Paul would learn the same lesson: He did nothing wrong except not belong. But that was enough to seal his fate.

So while the new Stars Hollow may have wifi and iPhones and a Kirk-led version of Uber—while its borders may be slightly more porous than they were before—the town, as before, remains definitionally insular. Still, its impulse is to conflate “newcomers” with “outsiders.” Take, in A Year in the Life, the collection of celebrity chefs—Roy Choi, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten in absentia—who are cooking at the Dragonfly and each of whom Lorelai unceremoniously dismisses from their roles. Their fireable offense? Their failure to be Sookie.

Take, too, the many patrons of Luke’s whom Luke lies to about his diner’s wifi passwords; had those customers belonged in Stars Hollow, after all, they’d know that Luke’s is not the kind of place you go to check Facebook. They should have known. Had they been insiders, they would have.

And then there’s Odette, Logan’s fiancée, about whom viewers know extremely little except that her soon-to-be husband has been cheating on her, for a long time, with his ex—a pretty sad situation for you to be in even if you happen to be a French heiress. But the show pays Odette, as a character and as a human, very little regard. It treats her, in the end, in much the same way that it treated Lindsay, Dean’s girlfriend-turned-wife, during Gilmore Girls’s primary seasons: as a complication in the main story, which is Rory’s relationship with Dean. As, thus, a catalyst for Rory’s confusion. Lindsay and Odette—and also Jamie, Paris’s Paul-foreshadowing college boyfriend; and also Max, Lorelai’s season 1 fiancé—have existed, in Gilmore Girls’s universe, almost entirely to help the eponymous women to reach important realizations about their own lives.

Which is, as a matter of sitcomic cosmology, a common approach: Gilmore Girls is just one of many series to take for granted that the only characters worthy of empathy are the ones who are primary in a show’s own, arbitrary universe. Ross, in Friends, treated Emily—the woman who had the misfortune of meeting Ross after he broke up with Rachel—horribly, and the horribleness only began when he said another woman’s name at the altar. The show never acknowledged that, though: Friends assumed instead that only the six primary pals deserved consideration and generosity, and made its narrative decisions accordingly. The “happiness” of the ending of How I Met Your Mother was similarly premised on the notion that the mother in question had been, all along, an interloper. Many shows—most shows—operate according to an “insider”/“outsider” logic; that is, for the most part, how storytelling works. It’s just that some shows extend that logic to a kind of cheerful xenophobia.

Gilmore Girls, to its credit, seems mostly aware of those pitfalls; it seems to understand, better than many of its fellow series, that Stars Hollow presents an implicit panoramic challenge: How do you create a town that is insular in the best ways without being, also, insular in the worst? How do you make a place that is more in the spirit of Capeside, Massachusetts or Cicely, Alaska or Pawnee, Indiana or Springfield, [redacted], than in that of, say, Gopher Prairie, Minnesota? How do you create a place that manages to be small of size but not also small of mind?

The show has successfully solved the riddle it set out for itself mostly through a kind of cultural doubling: Life in Stars Hollow has been heavily mediated, in Gilmore Girls, through music and books and movies and magazines and other products of a broader American culture. The show has met its geographical smallness with cultural bigness, and in that has found, for the most part, a happy balance. “I live in two worlds,” Rory said, as she delivered her Chilton graduation speech. “One is a world of books. I’ve been a resident of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, hunted the white whale aboard the Pequod, fought alongside Napoleon, sailed a raft with Huck and Jim, committed absurdities with Ignatius J. Reilly, rode a sad train with Anna Karenina and strolled down Swann’s Way.” The second world, though, is Stars Hollow and its residents and the immediate family the town represents: It is geography and it is humanity, combined into one.

The show’s revival, too, offers a dance between the worlds of fiction and non-, between very of-the-moment references to Lena Dunham and David Carr and trigger warnings and the timelessly soft swirls of a life-sized snow globe. A Year in the Life tries, so hard, to be both expansive and selective in its empathies. Often, though, the revival falls directly into a trap of its own making. So aware of the bigness beyond Stars Hollow’s borders, the new episodes stretch until they lose their balance. They succumb to their own dizzy circularity. The revival finds characters, in a town meeting, acknowledging that “there just aren’t enough gays in Stars Hollow”—and then debating, extensively, how to get more. It finds Taylor organizing an international food festival, in which, of the 195 countries meant to be represented, only 15 show up. It finds Stars Hollow trying to be cosmopolitan; it finds it, too, falling back into provincialism. Again and again, this storybook town tries to be more capacious than it is; again and again, it fails. Paul, who is briefly in Stars Hollow but won’t ever be of it, never stood a chance.