One of the enduring strengths of the Gilmore Girls is that throughout its seven season run it deftly combined a winning sense of quirkiness with real emotional resonance.
Sure much of Lorelai’s (Lauren Graham) dialogue was peppered with witticism, quips and an almost inexhaustible supply of pop culture touch points, but she was also given the opportunity to explore the gutsy, independent and emotionally self-aware parts of her character on many memorable occasions.
One of the most memorable, if only because it occurred only six episodes into the first season when the quirk was still very much transcendent and we were delighting in the funny, intelligent closeness of Lorelai and her BFF daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), is “Rory’s Birthday Parties” because it gives us an opportunity to really understand what makes the relationship between Lorelai and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) tick.
Of course we’re aware from the first episode that the relationship between free-spirited Lorelai, who chose to have Rory at age 16 against all the advice and with the social censure of her parents, and Emily, who values her status in society to an almost self-harming degree – it has cost her closeness with her daughter and comes close to have the same effect on her relationship with Rory – is fraught.
So fraught in fact that when Emily, against all expectations, turns up at Rory’s birthday party in Stars Hollow, to which the whole town has naturally been invited including Miss Patty (Liz Torres), Lane (Keiko Agena) and Babette and Morey (Sally Struthers and Ted Rooney), it’s the first time she’s been to Lorelai’s home in 16 years.
Emily later admits to husband Richard (Edward Herrmann), after a heart to heart with Lorelai during the party where she realises she didn’t know her daughter broker leg three years earlier and that she prefers a messy bedroom to a pristine Vogue-perfect one, that she doesn’t really know her daughter at all.
It’s a momentary blip and one that she soon covers up with a hurried injunction to Richard to get going or they’ll get caught in the traffic home to Hartford but it humanises Emily and gives us further opportunity to understand why it is that she and Lorelai are so at odds.
Miraculously this episode grants the chance to see mother and daughter actually get along.
And no one is more surprised than Lorelai who agrees only reluctantly to the shopping expedition to buy Emily’s present for her granddaughter and who is, naturally enough given her mother’s track record, expecting the worst.
While Emily does get upset at one point when Lorelai very gently but firmly rejects gift suggestions of pearls, twin sets and Mont Blanc pens, none of which reflect actual Rory but Emily’s wishful version of her, Lorelai uncharacteristically takes in her stride, determined to keep the spirit of pudding alive.
What is this spirit of pudding you may ask?
It hearkens back to an earlier Friday night dinner when Emily serves up pudding for dessert, an altogether rather down-at-heel option for a woman more inclined to the more rarefied end of the culinary spectrum.
It makes Lorelai feels as if her mother is truly listening to her, paying attention to who she actually is and trying to make an effort to connect and she’s not about to endanger this by losing her patience with her mother.
So gifts are bought, connections are made, and so emboldened, Emily takes it upon herself to organise a birthday party for Rory’s big day which happens to fall on a Friday night, the one night of the week that Emily lays absolute and irrevocable claim to, and which she will not relinquish.
The big downside to this magnanimous gesture, and one which reflects how little Emily knows her daughter or her granddaughter, is that the event is all string quartets, rich friends of Emily and Richard, and Rory’s supposed friends from Chilton, none of whom including Tristan (Chad Michael Murray) and Paris (Liza Weil) particularly like the birthday girl.
The feelings of course are mutual, and the clash between a grandmother’s ideas of what her granddaughter, whom she is still getting to know, wants, and what Rory actually wants leads to all kinds of misunderstandings, outbursts and the very firm underscoring of the gaping gulf that exists between the Gilmores of Hartfords and the more Bohemian variety in Stars Hollow.
It’s all beautifully and sensitively written, a trademark of the Gilmore Girls which never traded emotional gravitas for quick or easy laughs and balanced its quintessential humour and silliness with real insights into the all too real dysfunctional nature of many families.
Of course, penetrating insights into the dysfunction between Lorelai and Emily does not a whole Gilmore Girls episode make and so with the tension of the formal birthday dinner do behind them, Lorelai and Rory could enjoy the Saturday night celebration, with catering provided by, naturally enough, Sookie (Melissa McCarthy).
Apart from Emily adoring Sookie’s cooking to the point where she all but carved out a new career in catering for her till Lorelai nicely reminded her mother that Sookie has a job, and a good one thank you, at the inn, the party gave us everything we love about any event that involves Lorelai, Rory and the idiosyncratic citizens of Stars Hollow.
There was a stonking big cake of course, colour, vibrancy, warmth and friendship, a sweet casualness borne of people who know and care for each other deeply like family.
It reinforces the enduring sense that the people of Lorelai’s adopted hometown are her and Rory’s family and the insertion of Emily and Richard into this illuminates exactly why her chosen family far outweighs her actual family in her affections.
However, it also offers hope, in the sweet tender exchanges between Lorelai and Emily that a rapprochement is possible and that the estrangement that was only partially mended by Lorelai’s need for her parents to cover Rory’s private school costs may become fuller and more complete in coming years (which is in fact what happens; at this point that all lies in the future).
A Gilmore Girls episode would not be a Gilmore Girls episode without a myriad pop culture references and so it is that we have mentions of books such as Cinderella and The Age of Innocence, films such as The Fly (Jackson, played by Jackson Douglas, marries a raspberry with a cumquat sending Sookie into paroxysms of culinary delight) and Freaky Friday and songs by the likes of Altered Images (“Happy Birthday”, of course), Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, and “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” by Travis.
And to the sublime joy of wordsmiths everywhere, the following divinely funny and adroitly-clever slices of delicious dialogue:
Lorelai – So, how’d you like two parties this year?
Rory – You couldn’t get her to cave.
Lorelai – No, but she did agree to make the string quartet learn “Like A Virgin”
Rory – So, is this party grandma’s having going to be a big deal?
Lorelai – Not really. The government will close that day. Flags will fly at half-mast. Barbara Streisand will give her final concert… again. Now, the Pope has previous plans, but he’s trying to get out of them. However, Elvis and Jim Morrison are coming, and they’re bringing chips.
Lorelai – Here.
Rory – What is it?
Lorelai – Shirley Temple.
Rory – What are you drinking?
Lorelai – A Shirley Temple Black. I got your Good Ship Lollipop right here, mister.