Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Gilmore Girls" Greatest Hits - The Top 20 Episodes, Part 3: #11 - #15 and the best of Seasons 3 and 4

So here’s something you may not know about me: There are few things I love on this good earth as much as Gilmore Girls. And with the A Year in the Life ‘reunion’ season debuting on Netflix this Friday, I’ll be spending the week sharing my thoughts on my Top 20 favorite episodes of the series. Why Top 20? Because when I tried to list just 10 I came up with so many more. Gilmore Girls was a qualitatively consistent show – most episodes are at least very good, and few, even during the show’s rougher patches, are obvious outliers one way or another. Normally, I would try ‘ranking’ a list like this, but I quickly found that to be a foolhardy task. I cannot name my favorite episode among these 20, nor can I easily say any of them are better or worse than one another. So instead, we’ll be revisiting these episodes chronologically, from the very beginning to the very end, in four articles, posting Monday through Thursday, featuring 5 episodes apiece. You can read Part 1 here, covering #1 – 5, and Part 2 here, covering #6 – 10.

So without further ado, let us continue our journey with Part 3 of the Gilmore Girls Top 20 after the jump…

The Big One (Season 3 Episode 16)
Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino; Directed by Jamie Babbit

As someone who graduated from high school and college relatively recently, and who followed the same AP/Honors tracks as the main characters on Gilmore Girls, I can confidently say that A) if Paris Gellar strikes you as cartoonish, I’d argue she’s honestly one of the more realistic and recognizable character types for me across this whole series, and B) Liza Weil’s Paris is several magnitudes more likable than these people are in real life.

In short, Paris is one of my favorite characters on the series, and although “The Big One” has an awful lot to like about it – given that it ends with Rory getting all her college acceptance letters, it’s a pretty spectacular piece of emotional pay-off at this point in the series – the episode is on this list primarily because it’s my favorite Paris-centric hour the show ever created. Having Paris get rejected from Harvard (both her and Rory’s dream school until the following episode) is exactly what Sherman-Palladino needed to do to bring out the creative best in this character, and Paris’ meltdown (which coincides with losing her virginity to boyfriend Jamie, something she reveals to Rory in one of many great intimate moments throughout this episode) is spectacular to behold. It starts with her railing against everyone and everything in sight at a prestigious speech she and Rory were to deliver together – a great piece of comedy that shows how committed Liza Weil was to the absurdities of this character – and effortlessly modulates into Paris baring her soul to Rory in one of both Weil’s and Alexis Bledel’s best moments in the series. Gilmore Girls always enjoyed the cartoonish side of the academic competition it portrayed, but here, it went a step further to let Paris – the character most emblematic of all that material – speak for the horrible pressure kids like this are unfortunately put under. It’s a spectacularly funny hour, but also a very real and raw and emotional one, easily one of my all-time favorites.

Those Are Strings, Pinocchio (Season 3 Episode 22)
Written by Daniel Palladino; Directed by Jamie Babbit

Gilmore Girls season finales tended to be some of the series’ rougher installments – if you look at the ends of Seasons 2, 5, or 6, for example, there’s a lot of contrivances in play to set up cliffhangers or bring characters to shifting points – but the end of Season 3, and the end of Rory’s high-school years, was just about perfect. It features great moments from nearly every member of the cast, from Rory’s graduation speech, to Lorelai and Sookie’s reactions to the speech, to the wry humor of Luke and Jackson casually discussing the Chilton building logistics, to Emily and Richard buying Rory a car, to Paris being cheered on by her Nanny’s family rather than her biological one, etc. Everybody gets time to shine here, and every minute of it is the kind of great, satisfying pay-off where one can easily imagine this being a perfect series finale, if that’s how the chips had fallen. The final scene, where Lorelai tries to convince Rory to carve their initials into a Chilton bannister, is just an insanely lovely note to end on, a fitting send-off to one era of the series, with a lot of changegs just around the corner. 

The Lorelais’ First Day at Yale (Season 4 Episode 2)
Written by Daniel Palladino; Directed by Chris Long

This is another episode that would definitely be at or near the top of a ranked Gilmore Girls list for me. I love the way the story progresses, with Rory’s move-in day at Yale starting out simple and becoming increasingly eventful, mostly because neither mother nor daughter wants to say goodbye. It’s initially Lorelai who seems to have the most trouble sending her daughter to school, but Rory is the one who ultimately freaks out and calls Lorelai back to the dormitory. This leads to a wonderfully unexpected and sweet plot-turn, as having Lorelai around for her first night at college doesn’t make Rory seem lame or needy to her peers, but instead reveals to everyone that she has the cool Mom, who organizes this awesome first night takeout party for the entire floor, ostensibly to test out all the nearby restaurants, but really to make everyone – Rory, the other students, and even herself – feel better about the situation. It’s an extremely observant piece of writing about the early College experience (that plenty of people are more anxious than they will ever let on), and feels like the truest possible way to write this moment for these characters. Throw in a parade of exquisite running gags – including Lorelai trying to figure out what to do with the dorm mattress and borrowing Luke’s truck (and help) many, many times – and you have what is easily one of the standout hours of the series, sweet and funny and creative and everything this series excelled at rolled into one.

Oh, and this is also the hour where we get to meet Rory’s offbeat prodigy roommate Tanna, perhaps my favorite minor guest character in the history of the series, and one who I wish got to stick around longer than the few episodes in season four where she appeared. Oh well. We take what we can get.

The Incredible Sinking Lorelais (Season 4 Episode 14)
Written by Daniel Palladino & Amy Sherman-Palladino; Directed by Stephen Clancy

I’ll talk about my general disappointment in the show’s sixth season in tomorrow’s installment, but suffice it to say, I think that season fumbled the idea of separating Lorelai and Rory from one another in a way that felt artificial, robbing the series of its key source of chemistry and, in the process, a lot of its heart. The thing is, I don’t think it had to be that way, as this episode, from two seasons earlier, proves. Rory and Lorelai don’t share a single conversation in this hour, and yet their relationship still forms the core of what the story is about. The Palladino-penned script takes the idea of Rory and Lorelai being too busy and stressed to communicate and runs with it, making one of the series’ most emotionally rich episodes by divorcing us from the relationship that usually makes the story sing. That Rory and Lorelai are both going through experiences where they desperately need to talk to one another, but are ultimately unable to, puts both characters’ emotions under the microscope in new and unexpected ways. Lauren Graham in particular knocks this one out of the park, as she finds herself out of money and at her lowest point as she tries to finish construction on the Dragonfly, and while planning to invite Luke to a fancy dinner to ask him for a loan instead breaks down in his company. It’s a stunningly raw piece of acting, perfectly complemented by Scott Patterson’s slightly befuddled, completely sincere reaction. This is just an all-around powerful episode, creative and thoughtful in how its breaks apart and dissects the show’s central relationship – and only renders the next attempt the show would make at the same idea seem all the more anemic.

Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin' The Twist (Season 4 Episode 17)
Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino; Directed by Jamie Babbit

Here is an episode I’m including almost entirely for entertainment value, as the main story, of Rory and Paris going on an impromptu Spring Break vacation, is an outstanding testament to Sherman-Palladino’s voice and humor. She wrings every bit of comedy she can out of this fish-out-of-water scenario, all of it true to these characters and their unlikely friendship. One of the things the show did well in the College years was presenting a parade of offbeat, funny background characters to populate Rory’s social circles, and the Spring Break trip not only indulges in a lot of good material in that vein, but also bringing back two supporting characters from the show’s Chilton days. And as purely entertaining as all that material is, this hour also has a good, surprisingly dark Luke story, as Lorelai is called to pick Luke up from the police station after he’s arrested jealously kicking the car of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. Luke may be a curmudgeon, but he so rarely lets his emotions get the better of him, and seeing just how deeply he’s hurting after his short, failed marriage makes for some great material. It also sets up the primary arc of the fourth season’s closing stretch, as Luke realizes the person who makes him happiest was there all along – and if he and Lorelai were a bit late to realize, it was hard to hold it against them once the courtship actually began.

Come back tomorrow as our journey through the finest hours of Gilmore Girls concludes, with #16 - #20 on the Top 20, as we prepare to welcome this wonderful series back into our lives.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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