What's wrong with Episodes 1&2?
We watch "The Pilot" and "The Lorelai's First Day at Chilton"
Welcome to Gilmore Women: Two journalists discuss everything that’s wrong with every episode of Gilmore Girls & why we still love it
What’s wrong with Episode 1: The Pilot? It Sets Expectations Too High
Watching the Gilmore Girls pilot is like thinking back to the fun first days of a relationship, when all was full of promise and you had no idea how acrimonious things would get later on. What’s so infuriating about this episode is that it contains everything that’s good about the universe of Gilmore Girls, enough to make you wonder what might have been had Amy Sherman-Palladino only stuck with what really works about this show — the relationship between Lorelai and Emily, the pace of the dialogue, surly Rory! — and eschewed all the nonsense that clutters up later seasons. (The Life and Death Brigade? Episode names that get increasingly contrived? The cruel, cruel fate of Lane Kim? No thank you!)
We also owe a debt of gratitude to Lesli Linka Glatter, a veteran director whose credits include Twin Peaks and the very underrated 1995 film Now and Then, for making a pilot episode that does exactly what a pilot episode is supposed to do. It effectively situates the viewer into the show’s world — in this case a shot of adorable Stars Hollow set to the La’s version of “There She Goes” — and major characters and conflicts, as Lorelai (Lauren Graham) goes to her hated parents (Richard Herrman and Kelly Bishop) to ask for money to pay for the fancy private school where her 16-year old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) just got accepted.
We also get The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Alex Borstein (the best part of that show) as Drella the unkind harpist, the first of the continuity errors surrounding Rory’s language classes (does she take French or German or Spanish? Sherman-Palladino will never tell!), Melissa McCarthy pre-Bridesmaids, and Alexis Bledel scowling in a HUGE sweater. (“What’s with the muumuu?”)
There seems to be a general critical consensus that Bledel can’t act, but I actually like what she’s doing here! She seems to do better when she doesn’t try too hard (see: her brilliant turn on The Handmaid’s Tale, her arc on Mad Men) and her looser, more naturalistic performance in seasons 1-3 of Gilmore Girls makes Rory a grumpy, nerdy, more prickly person with a lot more agency than she’s allotted in later seasons, when her characterization is largely reduced to cute bangs and shitty boyfriends (a travesty we will explore later on). In the pilot, she’s kind of a weirdo who dresses in either shapeless sweaters or Doc Martens, and I support it!
There’s something poignant and sad about how Lorelai wants to be independent but asks her parents for financial help, anyway, showing all the ways she isn’t. When Rory says it was brave of Lorelai to ask her parents for the money to pay for Chilton, it’s true, but it also speaks to Lorelai’s privilege that she balks at the idea of having to go to Friday night dinners in exchange, an absolutely fair request on Emily’s part. They’re giving her a lot of money! Rory is their grandchild!
The fight Emily and Lorelai have at the ensuing Friday night dinner is a wonderful distillation of the conflict that will inform their characters for the rest of the series — both Lorelai’s tendency to assume the worst of her parents and Emily’s habit of minimizing or trying to talk Lorelai out of displaying strong, perfectly valid emotions (WASP grandparents aren’t traditionally so comfortable with those). Graham and Bishop really sell the central tension between Emily and Lorelai: It’s obvious that each desires a real relationship with the other, and can’t help but sabotage their chance of forging one.
And Lorelai isn’t the only one with parental baggage — sorry to ruin everyone’s good time, but Rory and Lorelai are seriously codependent! It’s sad to see Lorelai project so much of her own unfulfilled past onto Rory, and it’s equally a bummer to watch Rory step into a consoling, subject-changing, quasi-parenting role because she’s so emotionally enmeshed with her mother. For all her flaws, Amy Sherman-Palladino did write straight-up feminist characters when it wasn’t yet marketplace-acceptable, and I always loved the line about how Lorelai named Rory after herself in a moment when “her feminism took over.” But this time around, that decision seems pretty loaded with expectation and projection given the emotional territory of the show. Richard and Emily may be controlling, but Lorelai is, too.
These messy family dynamics make up the sweet, sad, complicated core of Gilmore Girls, a dark little center that’s so much more interesting than anything else about the show. The Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ruth Gordon jokes are fun, and plenty of bizarre side plots will gum up the works later on, but the relationships are what make you want to stick with this show, and in this episode, they’re at their strongest, most dysfunctional best. The rest of the series deviates further and further from this rich premise, until the show sort of feels like a cartoonish copy of itself. All of which is to say: If Gilmore Girls had stayed with the pacing and subject matter of its first episode, we might not be writing a newsletter about it.
Seven other things wrong with this episode:
An unfunny, ableist joke about diabetics I will not repeat.
Mrs. Kim is characterized as a Singularly Mean, Overbearing Mom, a choice I find questionable at best, and a racist stereotype at worst, on a show FULL of overbearing parents. In this episode, her muffins, made without sugar, dairy, or wheat, are supposed to show how wacky she is. I mean that doesn’t sound GOOD to me, but it’s something Goop would make and would not be a big deal if this show were set on the West coast, where we have all been gluten-intolerant since 1995. Justice for Mrs. Kim!
The introduction of love interest Dean (Jared Padalecki) is not cute? He reports having spent some time “watching” Rory, which is still creepy even if you say you didn’t mean it in a creepy way, and finds her reading alluring. OK, I hate this because it’s just a little too close to “You’re not like other girls,” and if Gilmore Girls has taught us anything it’s that SO MANY women and girls are smart in SO MANY different ways, from Lorelai’s incredibly intuitive people skills to Miss Patty’s racy self-mythologizing.
There appears to be an actual old-timey porter at the Independence Inn, complete with a little hat and matching uniform, and he’s the only person of color in the scene aside from Michel. Gilmore Girls has a weird tendency to use background actors of color without actually giving them any real characterization, and the optics of this one are just glaringly bad.
The other diverse background actors in this episode are nameless men who work in the inn’s kitchen, following Sookie around while she makes awful messes. The whole “Lol, Sookie the chef is a hot mess!” thing is not the laff riot I think ASP intended it to be. I mean, the scene where Sookie smacks one of her sous-chefs in the head with a skillet and he passes out and she just keeps talking to Lorelai? An absolutely wild writing choice, and I mean that in a bad way.
Lorelai is … mean to Sookie? I noticed on a recent re-watch of Sex and the City that there’s sort of a nastiness underlying a lot of adult female friendships depicted on TV shows from this era, and it’s sad to see that Gilmore was not immune.
I mean, it’s whatever, but the baby ballerinas at Miss Patty’s are not actually doing a waltz step.
What’s wrong with Episode 2: The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton? Unquestioned Elitism, Mostly
Just thinking about this episode makes my skin crawl. Of course, I’m sure that was Amy Sherman-Palladino’s intent. But the second Lorelai runs down the stairs to meet Rory, hopelessly late for her first day of school at fancy-schmancy Chilton, and you see her outfit: daisy dukes, a pink tie-dye cropped t-shirt, boots (!), and hair in a messy af ponytail — you know this is not going to go well.
I get the point: that Lorelai does not belong in the Chilton world. But I don’t actually buy the clothes charade — not for a second. First of all, just because her perfect “flippy skirt” suit outfit is at the dry cleaners along with all her “nice clothes” does not mean this woman with an enviable wardrobe does not have an old pair of perfectly fine jeans lying around. The woman has an endless supply of strappy sundresses, are all of those at the dry cleaners too? Also, Lorelai’s hair looked better when she first woke up than when she threw it back in that awful messy pony. Later, when Rory forces Lorelai to go inside to meet the Headmaster with her, why does she not put the coat on before she leaves the car? Why does she not immediately belt the coat and try to pass it off like she’s wearing normal clothes underneath? And finally, WHY does she feel the need to acquiesce to Headmaster Charleston and her mother by taking the coat off when they only stay in the office for approximately 30 seconds before she and Emily leave?
In all, the scene is successful, I suppose, memorable for its cringey-ness and for the way that Lauren Graham completely embraces the physical comedy of the situation. More importantly, it visually sets up the dichotomy between Emily (wearing, of course a perfectly tailored and clean skirt suit) and Lorelai. The whole thing introduces the tension inherent in Rory’s new life at Chilton: it’s a reminder of the world Lorelai was raised in, which, we now know (because they mention it approximately 800 times in the first two episodes) she left when she got pregnant in disgrace at 16 with Rory.
Later, this theme is driven home when Lorelai confronts Emily at the hair salon. In one of the only times we see Emily as vulnerable, trapped under a hairdresser’s hood, Lorelai tears into her for attempting to throw money at Rory so she better fits into the Chilton world.
“I appreciate what you have done for Rory in paying for her school. That will not be forgotten. You won't let it. But she is my daughter, and I decide how we live, not you.”
But that’s the big problem this episode raises for me: is Lorelai really considering what Chilton will do for the way Rory lives? I don’t think this very complex and central conflict was investigated deeply enough in the show. If Lorelai so hated the prep school, WASPY, privileged life her parents raised her in, why on earth is she shoving it on Rory?
Rory shouts at Lorelai in Episode 1, when reconsidering Chilton on account of Dean (lol): “We don't know that I can't get into Harvard if I stay where I am.” And, actually, she’s right. And more specifically, we do know that she could be a brilliant journalist or whatever she wants without going to Harvard. Because, yes, we all know that elite colleges do bestow a certain amount of access to particular parts of the world. But they also aren’t the only way to succeed, especially for smart, driven, supported people like Rory.
Sadly, this decision is never really the one that gets questioned, it just stands: a girl as smart as Rory must go to an Ivy League school, and can’t possibly stay at the (probably perfectly fine suburban Connecticut) public high school. There is no other option. She must do the things Lorelai gave up when she got pregnant, even though Lorelai insists she is happier without any of that in her own life.
As a teen, I thought, too, that my future life depended on the college I went to, my happiness would be defined by the career I would have. But — still paying my student loan debt off today from private college and graduate school and still not sure whether I even have “a career” — I want a different world for my kid. I don’t want to feel like I have to use a cheat sheet to make sure my son gets the best education he can get in an education system that is despicably rigged for the privileged.
Maybe considering systemic inequality would have been a stretch for a TV show from 2000, sure. And I love the way Rory’s smarts and drive are never questioned in this show, but I wish Lorelai grappled more with the complications of what it means to send her daughter to a pricey prep school in order to gain access to the same elitist world she hates so much.
Five other things wrong with this episode:
Why does Paris hate Rory so much before she even meets her? Her first interaction with her is super antagonistic! (“You'll never catch up. You'll never beat me. This school is my domain and The Franklin is my domain. And don't you ever forget that.”) Rory is coming from what Paris could only see as a podunk public school and Paris feels threatened by her just because she’s going out for the newspaper, too? Do not get me wrong, the Rory, Paris frenemy relationship is truly delightful as it evolves, but that initial hostility feels contrived to me, especially when there are several other perfectly fine excuses for Paris to start to hate Rory soon. For instance: when Rory accidentally ruins Paris’ incredibly intricate diorama just before her presentation! And the fact that Tristan so clearly has an immediate thing for Rory and we all know Paris has crushed on him for years. (MORE ON TRISTAN SOON, PROMISE).
Kirk, a series regular, is introduced in one of the many odd jobs his character will be seen in throughout the 7 seasons. He’s there to install DSL at Lorelai’s house on request from Emily. But he introduces himself as “Mick,” not Kirk. Why do they change his name??? Is this one of those “Does Lane have a dad or not?” plot-hole questions that we’ll never really know?
The Stars Hollow sign that gets a moment of screen time says Population 9,973. That may be a fair assessment for a small town in Connecticut, but then why do only 40 people go to the Town Meetings? And how do they run into the same 10 people every episode? I honestly thought this tiny town was like 200 people, max.
Just one episode after Dean is creepily introduced as Rory’s love interest (“I’ve been watching you,”) Lorelai’s first love interest also gets a gross misogynistic early-2000s fiction treatment: The Chilton dad who hits on Lorelai (while she is at Chilton wearing the utterly embarrassing and inappropriate outfit) by suggesting she couldn’t possibly be old enough to have a daughter in high school, and then proceeds to drive 30 minutes out of his way to ask her out at work (!) on the same day (!) gives off pretty stalker-ish vibes with today’s eyes.
I do love that later when Lorelai tells Luke about Chilton dad, his response is: “He’s probably old, right?” And of course, we get a taste of the absolutely electric sexual tension between Luke and Lorelai in this scene.
“But you’re not going?”
“No, I’m not going.”
LINGERING EYE CONTACT.
It is SMOLDERING. Anyway, my point is, on re-watching this I cannot fathom how these two don’t jump all over each other until Season 5...but more (much more) on that plot disaster later.
Gilmore Women is a weekly newsletter from journalists Maggie Mertens and Megan Burbank examining everything that’s wrong with Gilmore Girls.
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