"Information that I should have had."
"Information that would have come out eventually. Like the Iran-Contra scandal."
"So you're Oliver North."
"No, I'm Fawn Hall."
"Well, she was much prettier."
One tactic DVD reviewers often resort to while hammering out their diatribes is rattling off a particularly clever quote from the movie or television series du jour. Gilmore Girls is the type of series where I could blindly pop in a disc, turn to any random moment in any random chapter in any random episode, and instantly stumble upon a passage of dialogue worth quoting. Despite opening with that sort of flowery comment, I have to admit that this DVD set marked my introduction to Gilmore Girls. Despite being inundated with tomes of critical praise and hearing numerous recommendations from friends of mine, I was too small-minded and short-sighted to give a series about a mother and daughter who also happen to be best friends much of a shot. Thankfully, a larger-minded, longer-sighted dedicated fan base did tune in, propelling it towards the top of the WB's ratings and apparently convincing some of the suits at Warner's home video division that it'd be a big seller on DVD. This six-disc set collects the series' entire first season, giving fans a chance to rediscover their favorite episodes and offering new viewers the opportunity to see what they've been missing.
The Gilmore Girls are Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, respectively), a young mother and her teenaged daughter clawing out a life for themselves in the sleepy little town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Lorelai hails from an wealthy family but struck out on her own after her teenage pregnancy, making a life for herself outside the stuffy confines of Hartsford and rising through the ranks at the inn she now manages. Sixteen year old Rory, half her mother's age, isn't just Lorelai's daughter but her best friend in the world. They share not just first names, clothing, and make-up, but a quick wit, determination, and a deep-rooted obsession for coffee. Although Lorelai's spent little time near her parents outside of holiday obligations, she's lobbed back in their lives when the exceptionally bright Rory is offered an opportunity to attend the prestigious but prohibitively pricey Chilton Academy. Her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) offers to help out, under the condition that her daughter and granddaughter attend a weekly dinner at their home. The situation presents headaches for both of the titular Gilmore girls -- Lorelai's frustrations with her family immediately resurface, and Rory finds herself pushed to the brink at her new school thanks to its weighty curriculum, unrelenting staff, and cruel, competitive students.
"Just watch it. It's much better than I make it sound." Those are Melissa McCarthy's first words in a featurette on this DVD set, and I'll parrot them. Gilmore Girls is funnier than most series slapped with the 'Comedy' label, but it handles drama equally effectively, juggling the two seamlessly. The machine-gun delivery of the banter is what makes the series really stand out -- dialogue is frequently delivered in as few syllables and breaths as possible, giving the series an energy that slapstick or a more traditional approach to comedy can't touch. Speaking so quickly gives Gilmore Girls ample opportunity to demonstrate its writers' wit and breadth of knowledge. Like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in its prime, Gilmore Girls isn't afraid to reference decades-old TV series, obscure pop-culture and historical figures, and acclaimed but generally forgotten authors, all in the space of a single episode. It can just as easily make the transition from leaving me laughing out loud to silently muttering "wow." to myself with its more dramatic moments. Unlike many series which package their episodes in neatly-packed bundles like "the episode with the car wreck" or "young ingenue takes drugs", the drama here generally comes in the form of family strife, a theme that's spread across the entire season, not in a small arc or an episode with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. I found it easier to relate to the sorts of problems they endure, and I think having a lot of the issues centered around family rather than a young relationship resonated more deeply for me.
Gilmore Girls is a series that's driven by its characters, not by a canned premise, and that's a large part of why I think it works so well. Every single character has such a great dynamic with everyone he or she interacts with throughout the course of the season. Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel in particular have an amazing chemistry together, but I think the most interesting relationship is actually between Lorelai Gilmore and her mother. Emily wants desperately to understand her daughter and to be a part of her life, but she hides behind the prim and proper front that she seems to think is expected of her, the sort of woman to whom perception is everything. Gilmore Girls also benefits from a great supporting cast, a group too large to cram into the tidy synopsis scribbled above: Rory's best friend Lane and her oppressive Korean mother, the Gilmores' hipster jazz pianist neighbor and his one-taco-short-of-a-combination-plate wife (Sally Struthers), Lorelai's brilliant chef and not-a-blood-relative best friend Sookie (McCarthy), a worldly dance instructor, a pompous French concierge, a farmer who specializes in creating his own hybrid fruits and vegetables, and a civic-minded grocery store owner. A few others in particular stand out. One would be Edward Herrmann, who plays Lorelai's father, a business-minded insurance executive who's never found without a newspaper of some sort in hand. There's also Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), a gruff guy perpetually clad in flannel who's unwaveringly set in his ways and just might have eyes for Lorelai, despite their constant lite-bickering. Less quirky but still of note are Rory's overly-competitive nemesis Paris (Liza Weil), flirty rich kid Tristan (Chad Michael Murray), and Dean (Jared Padalecki), the new kid in town who quickly falls for Rory. Rather than merely being weird for the sake of being weird, the series is self-consciously quirky, and at least some of its characters are fully aware how absurd their conversations and actions are.
Although I had initially dismissed Gilmore Girls because I assumed it was the small-screen equivalent of Beaches, I'm glad I had a chance to discover the series on DVD, and I'm more than willing to give a swift kick to push over anyone on the fence about picking up this box set. If you're still cautious about forking over $40 for these DVDs and don't mind the wait, ABC Family will be replaying the first few seasons this Fall. Catch a few episodes and maybe it'll be clear why I'm giving this season such an enthusiastic recommendation.
Video: All 21 episodes are presented full-frame on this DVD set, the same way they originally aired on the WB several years ago. They all look decent; nothing remarkably different than what I'd expect from a television broadcast, but still, with few flaws of note. The image isn't razor-sharp but is generally fairly crisp, with some softness and grain sneaking in intermittently. Dunno what happened during "The Lorelais' First Day at Chilton", but it looks fairly awful, especially compared to the rest of the season. I'm not sure if the episode turned out softer than expected, resulting in the colorist cranking up the sharpness in post to compensate, but it frequently has an artificially sharpened appearance with some pretty nasty edge artifacts creeping in as a result. None of the other twenty episodes look like this, and since the brief glimpses of those portions in the "previously on..."s boast a similar appearance, I guess it's a safe assumption that this particular episode looked the same way when it originally aired. Even stepping over "The Lorelais' First Day at Chilton", the visual presentation doesn't really impress. I'd still be willing to bet it's a notch or two above how these episodes looked when they debuted on the WB, and a faithful representation is really all I ask for.
Audio: Although the back of the case lists Dolby Digital stereo surround audio, it's actually just stereo, encoded at the standard 192Kbps bitrate. I left ProLogic II decoding enabled on my receiver anyway for a couple of episodes, but having random syllables leap into the rears was annoying enough that I stuck with standard stereo for the duration. It's almost indistinguishable from something I'd expect from network TV, although the dialogue did strike me as awfully sibilant. More interesting to me than the technical minutiae of the soundtrack is the variety of music that frequently springs up in it. The songs chosen for the series aren't blindly plucked from the charts as background music as is the case in some other series. I get a bit of a college radio vibe from the selections, and particular songs and bands are a frequent topic of discussion in Gilmore Girls. There's even a town troubadour, fer cryin' out loud, played by Grant Lee Philips. It's becoming dangerously routine for studios to ditch songs when a television series hits DVD, but at least the songs I'm familiar with remain intact. The power-pop geek in me flipped when I heard no fewer than four XTC songs, all of which are used very prominently, two even opening their respective episodes. Big Star also chimes in, leaving me wondering if they were the inspiration for the name of Rory's school. One episode revolves around a Bangles performance, and although the standard "Walk Like an Egyptian" and "Eternal Flame" are incorporated, the concert kicks off with the underrated "Hero Takes a Fall". Wilco, the Las, Beck, Elvis Costello, the Cure, and Travis are just a few of the other acts that aurally appear. If they'd managed to squeeze Jellyfish somewhere in there, Stars Hollow would be a complete poptopia. Okay, I've sufficiently derailed the review, but to steer things back towards the technical end of things, my three word summary would be "okay, I guess", followed by some sort of indifferent shrug.
Other audio options include subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, as well as closed captions.
Supplements: All of the set's extras are piled onto its sixth and final disc, beginning with "Welcome to The Gilmore Girls", even though I didn't think an article was included in the show's title, but whatever. It's a fun featurette, delving into pretty much every aspect of the series, from its conception as a hastily-pitched idea to WB execs, its real-life inspirations, the weighty task of assembling a cast, a director's perspective, the way characters changed before cameras rolled (Luke was originally a woman, for one, and some test footage of Alex Borstein as Sookie is included), the awkward positioning of blocking for a screen kiss, and opining about a centerpiece laden with four-year-old partially gnawed acorns. The episode "Rory's Dance" is presented again, this time with Pop Up Video-ish facts leaping onto the screen, generally tossing out background info on the cast or using the dialogue as a trivia springboard. "Gilmore-isms" condenses some of the wit and pop-culture references into a two minute, fifteen second collection, although a more comprehensive look would take closer to...oh, I dunno....a full 922 minutes. Rounding out the extras are three and a half minutes of deleted scenes from the episodes "Love and War and Snow", "Forgiveness and Stuff", and "Emily in Wonderland", including some rapid-fire flirting, a stew-centric conversation, and chatter about family pictures and tennis shoes.
An included booklet lists the episodes on each disc, providing a synopsis, brief production notes, and a description of the six chapter stops of each episode. Each disc also includes a set of static 16x9 menus with a short, skippable animated intro. All of the episodes on a disc can be played in succession with the "Play" menu option or viewed individually. The 6-disc set is packaged in a book-style case from Nexpak. With the copy I was sent, discs two and three had slipped off their hubs during shipping and were pretty well mauled by the time they hit my doorstep. There were severe playback issues on several episodes -- nothing dulls the effectiveness of a dramatic scene like the image freezing, devolving into a large series of multicolored chunks, and the audio skipping ahead half a second. Be careful when picking out your copies to try to avoid the same.
Conclusion: Although I wouldn't have minded some meatier extras, particularly audio commentaries, Gilmore Girls is a series that's well-worth discovering on DVD. It strikes a rare, effortless balance between being wickedly smart, hysterically funny, and touching. Even though the first season is still a few hours shy of being released as I write this, I'm already impatiently awaiting the followup set. Highly Recommended.