About halfway through the first episode of Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life, Lorelai gets scotch-drunk at her father's funeral. Then, when her mother Emily asks the last lingering guests at the wake to each share a favorite memory of him, Lorelai panics and drunkenly stammers out a story about a time her father forgot he was playing hide and seek with her and left her in a steamer trunk. Emily's furious, and she paces through her house spitting venom at Lorelai until she finally tells her to go home to Stars Hollow, "Go back to your beloved town with your carnies and misfits." Lorelai can go back to Stars Hollow, and she does. We can go back, too, but the sad truth is there's not much keeping us there anymore.
"You can go home again!" is one of the central assurances of A Year In the Life, and it spends most of its first two episodes assuring us that Stars Hollow is exactly how we left it. Children still dance in Miss Patty's studio. The town troubadour still sings folk songs. Snow falls on cue. If there's an Emmy award for the painstaking reconstruction of sets destroyed close to a decade ago, this show will win it. It is all your favorite things about Gilmore Girls. It isn't very good.
The bigger pieces of what made Gilmore Girls compelling are in place. Lorelai and Luke are together and happy (enough). Rory's (sort of) working as a writer. Paris is blazingly brilliant and a still allowed to be a semi-awful person. Emily and Lorelai are at zinging odds. There's too much coffee, lots of fast dialogue, and sixty-seven separate pop culture references in the first episode alone. Kirk has a pet pig!
I've stopped and started this paragraph half a dozen times because writing it feels somehow disloyal, but a big part of the problem here is Alexis Bledel herself. Bledel had barely acted when she was first cast as Rory, and her coltishness is one of the main charms of the show's early years. But there's a self-consciousness to her acting that's marred pretty much every performance in her post-Gilmore era, a pronouncement I feel qualified to make since I've watched almost all of those, including the misbegotten American adaptation of Gavin and Stacey and both Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies IN THEATERS. This is not to say her work in A Year in the Life is a phoned-in performance. Bledel's trying so hard you can sometimes see the slightest tinge of panic in her eyes.
Her performance, too, is hemmed in by the fact that the stakes of Rory's story in the first two episodes aren't particularly high. It's a problem throughout — the show is far more interested in its past than in setting up future conflict — but it's particularly clear as Rory struggles to make a real career come together on the back of a single successful New Yorker piece. A long-anticipated meeting with Conde-Nast doesn't yield any real work, and when Rory takes an interview at a website she feels is beneath her, she botches it by not preparing any pitches in advance. (Incidentally, the website, all pastel word bubbles and "loser girl" think pieces, will be an excellent edition to my Museum of The Ways In Which People Who Write TV Don't Understand The Internet.) But the only real consequence is that she moves back in with Lorelai and Luke temporarily. It's not the move any 32-year-old wants to make, but it's a very soft place to land.
It's hard to feel sympathy for Rory in that moment, but then, it's hard to watch television about the idea of safe, soft places at all right now. Gilmore Girls was always a show about safety, and not just the relative peace of life in a small town. It was a show on which difficult and complicated women were allowed to safely be themselves. A Year in the Life gives women that same space, and what feels inauthentic isn't the performances themselves, but the idea that it will ever feel safe to be a woman in America again. It's a little like the first walk I took in my neighborhood after Trump won, a few days after the election. I walked past the kids who play basketball in the middle of the street, the house with an "I'm With Her" sign in each window, and the little box from which a neighbor dispenses monthly poems to anyone passing by. All the charming markers were still there, but they weren't enough to disprove the reality that security is an illusion, and we're not truly safe anywhere. Not in America, not in liberal neighborhoods, not in Stars Hollow, not in Lorelei Gilmore's goddamn living room. Television that tries to tell us otherwise simply feels pretend.
But there are some genuinely lovely moments in the mix, too, most of which come out of the story of Richard's death. (A lot of the show's story is drawn from that well, and it is probably too cynical to speculate how the writers would've generated drama had Edward Herrmann not died before the reboot was planned.) It's overwrought in places, to be sure, including the use of Tom Waits' "Time" during a flashback scene to Richard's funeral, an item I present without an additional thousand words' worth of dithering over whether Richard Gilmore would 1) know of and 2) like Tom Waits. But Kelly Bishop was born with the spine of a widow grieving with dignity. She gamely attacks every monologue about grief and anger she's given (an average of two and a half per episode), but she's devastating in silent moments, too. At the end of the first episode, she tricks Lorelei into starting mother-daughter therapy, which is gimmicky storytelling, and also every bit as delightful as you'd hope.
We hear Richard's voice, too, just once, during a juxtaposed voiceover that opens the first episode. It's a collage of lines from the show's early episodes: Lorelai begging Luke for coffee, Rory telling Dean she loves him for the first time, Paris realizing she's not going to Harvard, Luke telling Lorelei that he's all in on their relationship. Richard's evokes less nostalgia:
"People die. We pay. People crash cars. We pay. People lose a foot. We pay." (This seems as good a place as any to say that I watched these with my mother and her favorite part was the "in memory of Edward Herrmann" card that ran after the first episode.) The line is pretty clearly chosen for the pathos of hearing Herrmann say the word "die" in that distinctive voice of his, and it's effective in that way. But it's also more comforting than sad. I vastly prefer 15 words of Edward Herrmann assuring us that everything isn't going to be okay to the three full hours of television that followed, promising us everything already is.