Far from just “comfort TV” in dark times, Gilmore Girls reminds us that pop culture isn’t stupid

“Do you remember in The Way We Were, how Katie and Hubbell broke up?”

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By pure coincidence, the most politically tumultuous month in decades is also the month that sees the release of the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has seen a rekindling of the old dismissive that Gilmore Girls is “comfort TV”: the perfect thing to watch when the real world is getting you down.

“Bad day? Bad 2016?” asked the BBC. “Gilmore Girls might be the comfort you need.” In a moving personal essay for the Guardian, Abigail Radnor wrote that Gilmore Girls is “perfect comfort TV”, as “sunny and safe” Stars Hollow (the fictional town where it’s set) saw her and her mother through some of the hardest moments of their lives. In the Observer Sarah Hughes argued, “this is a time for blanket-hugging comfort” that shows like Gilmore Girls can offer.

All these pieces are positive, even adoring, in their thoughts on Gilmore Girls. I agree with them all. But “comforting” can also be a loaded term. Allusions to “comfort food” suggest mindless binge-watching, an unhealthy retreat from the real world. Descriptions of TV as “comforting” or “safe” can imply that the product is twee, naive, and, in taking no artistic risks, has no genuine artistic value. The word “comforting” can suggest that something is nice, but ultimately, kind of stupid. Gilmore Girls rejects this premise.

The fifth season episode “Say Something” comes just after Lorelai and Luke, the show’s will-they-won’t-they couple, have a very painful, very public argument. It happens at Lorelai’s parents’ renewal of their vows – a ridiculously lavish affair that leaves Luke self-conscious about his crumpled trousers. Lorelai’s mother Emily has made it clear that, in her eyes, Luke is not good enough, not proper enough, for Lorelai: “He owns a diner, he’s a divorcee, he’s uneducated.” She pushes Lorelai’s ex, and the father of her child, Christopher, towards her instead: he, in contrast, has “good breeding”. It results in a shouting match between the two men and Lorelai. Luke leaves, ostracised and humiliated.

Lorelai goes after him. Not finding Luke at the diner he owns, she wanders around their shared small town, searching for him. She finds him at the movie theatre. It’s not much of a cinema – it’s a bookstore called Black-White-Read kitted out with an odd collection of assorted chairs, a big red sofa (nicknamed “Big Red”) and a whirring analogue projector.

Slipping in next to him, she asks, “What are you watching?”

“Something stupid,” he replies.

What’s actually playing is My Man Godfrey, a 1936 film often considered to be the definitive screwball comedy. It stars Carole Lombard as Irene, a sheltered, foolish socialite, and William Powell as Godfrey, the homeless man she persuades to come with her to the Waldorf-Ritz hotel so she might win a scavenger hunt. Godfrey is made to stand on a podium, where he is verbally and physically accosted by the glamorous guests so they might determine his “authenticity”. 

Luke and Lorelai are watching the scene that follows. Lombard is apologetically pleading with Powell. “I'd never have brought you here if I thought they were going to humiliate you,” she blusters. “I’m terribly grateful. This is the first time I’ve ever beaten Cornelia at anything and you helped me do it.”

“Man, they sure talked fast in these things,” Lorelai interrupts. It’s a meta comment that brings us outside the fictional world of the show for a moment: all viewers know that Gilmore Girls is notorious for the extremely fast pace of its dialogue.

Of course, My Man Godfrey is not such a stupid film to be playing at this precise moment in the series arc. Yes, it’s a lighthearted comedy with a farcical and absurd plotline, but its scenes of a working-class man deliberately shamed in spaces of great splendour could hardly be more relevant to the events of the evening.

Later, Lorelai dreams that she’s in her house, looking for Luke. As she walks into her kitchen, she finds that big old film projector, whirring away. Luke is sitting on Big Red, his back to her. Suddenly, they’re back in Black-White-Read’s theatre. Again, she sits beside him and asks him what he’s watching. Again he replies: “Something stupid.”

This time, they’re watching a black and white film of themselves, re-enacting their first date, except now it’s happening in Lorelai’s kitchen, with candles perched on the surrounding countertops as they drink their champagne. 

“This isn’t stupid,” Lorelai says, smiling.

Finding a version of yourself on screen is an experience only rivalled by those moments in which real life feels so grand, so pathetic, so beautiful that they take on a cinematic quality. Gilmore Girls knows this. That mile-a-minute dialogue showcases pop culture references that come at you thick and fast: so much so that there are dozens of listicles and even entire websites devoted to cataloguing them all.

But whether it’s Rory and Jess flirting through annotations in a copy of Howl, Lane locating her sense of self in her extensive CD collection, or Rory and Lorelai’s uncomfortable moment of recognition while watching Grey Gardens, the show’s cultural references are more than just quirky conversational flair. Like Annie Baker’s play The FlickGilmore Girls sees cultural phenomena as tools that help its characters to understand themselves and each other. 

One film that gets more than its fair share of air time on Gilmore Girls is The Way We Were, the 1973 romance starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. In season one’s “Kiss and Tell”, Lorelai and Rory try to guess the “embarrassing secrets” of Rory’s new boyfriend, Dean. “The theme from Ice Castles makes you cry,” shoots Rory, before Lorelai jumps in with, “at the end of The Way We Were, you wanted Robert Redford to dump his wife and kid for Barbra Streisand.” In season five, Lorelai says of Rory, “She was so serious. You know how she gets really serious, like when she saw The Way We Were, and she couldn't believe that Hubbell was going to leave Katie after she had the baby?”

It’s obviously a film that has stuck with Lorelai, and in her moment of crisis with Luke, she turns to it again. At the end of “Say Something”, when Luke dumps her after the embarrassment and shame he feels at her parents’ party, Lorelai is a wreck, and calls him, sobbing.

“Hey, Luke, it’s me. I know I’m not supposed to be calling, but I am not doing really great right now, and... I was just wondering, if – do you remember in The Way We Were, how Katie and Hubbell broke up? Because his friends were joking and laughing, and the president had just died, and she yelled at them and he was mad and he was going out to Hollywood, and... I mean, which she hated, and... And he broke up with her and she was really – upset. And she called him and asked him if he would come over and sit with her because he was her best friend and she needed her best friend, and he did. And... and they talked all night, and they went out to Hollywood – which was a disaster, but it was good at first, with the boat, and uh... and the putting the books away? I’ve seen this movie a lot, so if you don’t remember the putting the books away scene, don’t feel stupid or anything, I was just sitting here thinking about it, because I, um... I’m in my house, and I was just, uh. [She sobs.] Could – please come over, I – please – really need to see you, and talk to you and please come over.”

Gilmore Girls understands the way people make big and small connections with each other, and themselves, through popular culture, and the ways we can lean on theatrical, technicolour explorations of emotion when struggling to comprehend or process our own. It reminds us that, in dark times, finding comfort in pop culture isn’t stupid at all. 

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Now listen to the Gilmore Girls special of the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.