Gilmore Girls’ silly little dance contest has some serious repercussions 

Gilmore Girls’ silly little dance contest has some serious repercussions 

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the next eight installments is “competition.”

“They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” (Gilmore Girls, season 3, episode 7; originally aired 11/12/2002)

In which the Gilmores hop ’til they drop

Erik Adams: It’s telling that one of television’s most revered half-hours is called “The Contest.” For much of its existence, TV has been a medium driven by condensed storytelling, and few devices can catalyze the conflict necessary for such storytelling (or organically draw conflict out of existing characters) like a contest or competition that suddenly becomes the center of a show’s universe—if only for one week. Scenarios like a fundraiser or an interoffice Olympiad instantly and painlessly raise a show’s stakes, giving its characters a palpable focus for their wants and needs. The members of the Seinfeld gang want to prove they’re “masters of their domain”; Jim Halpert needs to stave off the boredom of another day at Dunder Mifflin (and give himself a daylong chance to flirt with Pam); Lorelai Gilmore wants, just once, to win the annual Stars Hollow dance marathon.

A dance marathon is a very Gilmore Girls setting, and Lorelai’s all-consuming desire to win the thing is a very Lorelai goal. And for a character-driven series like Amy Sherman-Palladino’s perpetually undervalued small-town dramedy, a dance marathon is the ideal method of introducing a little structure into a series where the quips are often better defined than the stories. As such, it’s ideal viewing for Gilmore Girls novices and experts alike. I can’t recall if “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” is one of the first episodes I saw, but it’s certainly the one that stood out from the afternoon-rerun cycle and loudly declared, “This show is onto something.”

Re-watching the episode, the way Sherman-Palladino’s script balances ongoing plots and one-off concerns is as staggering as any of the swing choreography (and the swooping camera moves to match it) from first-time Gilmore Girls director Kenny Ortega. Stars Hollow stands with Mayberry, Springfield, Wellsville, Dillon, and Pawnee as one of those TV towns that’s more a living organism than a spot on the map, and the relationships that define our impression of the sleepy Connecticut town go a long way toward informing “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” The Main Street rivalry between town muckety-muck Taylor and loveable local sourpuss Luke gives us the cold-open negotiation in Luke’s Diner; the dominance over the dance marathon by eccentric loser Kirk makes Lorelai strive for victory all the more; the long-standing tension between brooding bad boy Jess and boy-next-door Dean finally comes to a head in the waning hours of the dance marathon.

Ultimately, Jess and Dean’s struggle for the affections of young Rory Gilmore is the competition whose outcome holds the most weight. Jess’ arrival in Gilmore Girls’ second season signaled a significant challenge to Rory and Dean’s puppy-dog romance, and the extended love-triangle plot that ensued was a dance-marathon-like endurance test for the characters (and, occasionally, the viewers). After 24 hours in a pressure cooker where neither Jess nor Rory will cop to gazing longingly at one another, Dean calls the whole thing off. It’s a hollow victory for Jess, however, as he can’t be with Rory without letting down the girl he spent all night making out with to prove he didn’t want to be with Rory. In the highly affecting epilogue of “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?,” where an exhausted mother and daughter prop each other up for one final dance—to the strains of Kirk’s traditional victory anthem, the theme from Rocky—Rory’s in tears because she’s lost something far more important than a silly little dance contest.

In addition to the sudsy relationship material on the episode’s surface, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They” has a lot of fun teasing out the type of customs bred by TV-world competitions like the Stars Hollow dance marathon. Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue-heavy scripts lead to a unique balance of telling as well as showing, so while the introduction of the dance marathon requires a fair degree of expositional catch-up, there’s a tremendously satisfying sense of payoff when the episode ticks off each of the boxes on Rory’s “happens at every dance marathon” check list. Taylor does, in fact, lose his marbles around hour 15, kicking off a drowsy lament about never becoming a magician. Events like this show us a whole other side of characters we’ve come to know.

But the thing about tradition is that it often sets up lofty expectations that are rarely met; this dance marathon was never going to live up to the previous one, which would pale in comparison to the one before that. And that sense of compounding disappointment dovetails nicely with Lorelai’s disappointment at losing, once more, to Kirk—a loss that is itself a type of tradition. Fortunately and unfortunately, we never get to see if a “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” sequel could go broken-toe-to-broken-toe with the original.

Are any of you newbies to the series? If so, I’m interested to hear if “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” does its job to immerse you in the world of Stars Hollow. And for those who’ve seen the episode before: Does the dance marathon loose any of its charm on rewatch? As funny as Taylor’s magician fantasy is, Michael Winters’ slap-happiness now comes off as a touch cartoonish.

Ryan McGee: Count me in as a newbie to the series. I know. Don’t shoot me. I’m one of those people who have the weird experience of comparing this show to Bunheads, vs. the other way around. (Then again, my first encounter with Zach Gilford was on the première of Off The Map, so wrap your mind around that for a moment.)

I think you touch on something important about the idea of tradition superseding its actuality. The dance contest dovetails nicely with the subplot (which is summarily forgotten after the first half of the episode) concerning Paris’ attempts to work over the weekend to complete the school newspaper’s 75th-anniversary issue. Celebrating something like the 75th anniversary only makes sense if you don’t think too closely about the manmade nature of that event. That’s not to say every tradition breaks down upon close analysis. But traditions do depend on how much people invest importance in them.

Stars Hallow feels, by extension, as important as people perceive it to be. The city feels constructed, but in a way in which its denizens seek to maintain it as an enclave from the rest of the world. Having this dance contest is just one way to maintain the façade of the town’s exceptional nature; perhaps “façade” is the wrong word, since that has negative connotations. But it’s weird to hear Rory talk about New York City as Jess’ home, especially because it’s hard to believe New York City and Stars Hollow actually exist in the same universe, never mind geographically close to each other.

Still, what makes Stars Hollow work in my initial foray into the town is the way in which characters and events seem interrelated. Perhaps this is the first episode of the show to nail this, or perhaps it did it on a weekly basis. (That unfortunately isn’t something upon which I can comment with authority.) But there’s a tendency for shows in the time since Gilmore Girls to equate “world-building” with “sticking a shitload of people in disparate parts of the world and passing it off as a panorama.” You can definitely build a successful show out of that latter model, but it takes either great skill as a writer or great patience as a viewer to make it work. I’d rather see world-building through constant overlapping of characters’ interests in ways that produce unique obstacles that can only come from the intersection of seemingly unrelated interests. That’s what made a show like Deadwood so successful, and what stood out so strongly in this episode.

Donna Bowman: Very little makes me happier these days than having Sherman-Palladino back on television. So it was entirely a joy to revisit Gilmore Girls, a reliable delight that is, as Erik said, something special and distinctive in the syndication spectrum. “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” would be a lovely introduction to the series for the way it’s clear on what drives Lorelai—not that she’s ever altogether explicable, but she does seem powered by an internal flywheel or gyroscope. As she careens through Stars Hollow, she absorbs as much of her eccentric surroundings’ energy as she ricochets off them in bemused frustration.

Sherman-Palladino has always understood that the essence of comedy is specificity, and she peppers her scripts with so many indelible details that I’m tempted to undervalue them for their bounty. Just look at the mileage she gets out of Andrew repeating Liam Neeson’s name several times in the space of a few seconds. Or the way dinner with Grandma becomes a riff on making your food talk.

The dance contest is all about the past. For the town, it’s an old tradition; for Lorelai, it’s the unmerited, infuriating streak of victories Kirk has racked up. And that’s the optimal setting for a Sherman-Palladino script that relies, as she so often does, on references to anecdotes and memories. When sadistic Taylor (whose slavishness to the way things have always been done constitutes the kind of sputtering conservatism that can be rendered more harmless in this kind of small town, with these kind of low stakes) blows the air horn for the “runaround,” Lorelai apologizes to dead-on-her-feet Rory: “I’m so, so sorry… Every year I block this part out.” For Sherman-Palladino, every memory hides three or four deeper ones with contrary messages, and every character is a weekly opportunity for wholesale reinvention.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I watched the show faithfully up until its final season—the one after Sherman-Palladino left—but I didn’t specifically remember this episode from its title. When Erik picked an episode of Gilmore Girls as part of a roundtable devoted to the theme of “competition,” my first reaction was that it sounded a little off. I never thought of Stars Hollow as a place where much competitive tension was expressed. Gilmore Girls is one of those shows—like Northern Exposure, which I liked a lot, and Picket Fences, which I never quite got the hang of—that trade on the appeal of a small town draped in whimsy. Characters can enjoy the low-pressure enticements of being part of a small community that still makes room for people with offbeat personalities and exotic cultural interests, like Rory’s passion for books and her friend Lane’s encyclopedic knowledge of the rock music that her mom won’t allow in the house. These places are basically college campuses, except there are no classes, and nobody ever has to break the spell by graduating.

What I’d forgotten was how intense the romantic rivalry for Rory could get, and how badly it could churn up viewers’ emotions. That image of Milo Ventimiglia sitting miserably in the stands, glowering with longing, sums up the aching heart of the show like nothing else, and reminds me that Rory’s love life was as responsible as the mother-daughter bond for keeping the show from choking on its own cuteness, as it sometimes threatened to do. It also made me realize that Lorelai’s romantic life, which was also a constant thread running through the show, was comparatively easy on the nerves, just because it was more a case of serial boyfriends without anyone smoldering on the sidelines—at least until she completely lost her goddamn mind and fell back into bed with that piece of shit Christopher. (Sorry, some wounds don’t heal.) Of course, Luke was supposed to be smoldering, or at least keeping a warm torch for her, through most of the series, but I never knew anybody who didn’t think that relationship was a non-starter. Which I was kind of grateful for. If that show had had two frustrated romantic triangles going at blast-furnace temperature at the same time, I’m not sure I could have taken it.

Noel Murray: As I recall, Donna and I watched the first four seasons of Gilmore Girls over the course of a single summer, one a day on ABC Family, finishing up right around the time the fifth season started. That was pretty much the perfect way to experience the show, in my opinion. Besides being Gilmore Girls’ creative heyday—seasons two through four especially—the show just works best as a place to drop by every day, to catch up with friends and escape the real world for 44 minutes. Like Donna, I’ve been impressed by how quickly and (almost) completely Bunheads conjured that Stars Hollow feeling, though after re-watching this Gilmore Girls episode, I realized there was so much about the world of Stars Hollow I’d forgotten, like Taylor’s insanely over-organized local events, and Lane’s comprehensive rock fandom, and Babette just in general.

I hadn’t forgotten Luke’s pancakes, though. (The No. 1 way Gilmore Girls established itself as something of a fantasy world was the way Lorelai and Rory could pack away so many carbs without gaining a pound.) And I hadn’t forgotten the way the show could use a comic situation to advance its more dramatic story arcs. Given what I know about the future direction of these characters’ love lives, it was hard for me to get too caught up in the Jess-vs.-Dean drama here; and knowing the rumors about Lauren Graham and Scott Patterson’s chilly on-set relationship, I’m less invested in the Luke-and-Lorelai flirtation now, too. (Though I still dig the way Luke expresses his affection for Lorelai through deeds, not words.)

But I love the way this episode uses the dance contest as a metaphor. It isn’t heavy-handed about it, but there’s still something perfect about all these characters feeling compelled to drive themselves to the point of collapse doing something that should be much more natural and romantic. (Taylor’s air horn and Lorelai envying the way Kirk flips his partner are just two examples of how these characters’ choices are driven by other people’s demands.) And it’s telling, too, that Lorelai and Rory are dancing with each other, while the men in their lives look on, shut out.

Plus it’s a TV episode about a dance marathon. I mean, who does that? God bless Gilmore Girls.

EA: Who does that? None other than The Muppet Show, which in 1981 rightly picked up its final Emmy for Outstanding Writing In A Variety, Music, Or Comedy Program for the fifth-season episode where Gonzo The Great stages a dance marathon around Carol Burnett’s visit to The Muppet Theater. It’s a testament to The Muppet Show’s love of old-timey, outdated entertainments, as well as the second point in my crackpot “Want to make a great episode of TV? Throw a dance marathon into it!” theory.

Todd VanDerWerff: Way back when we talked about The Andy Griffith Show, I said that my wife always jokes I grew up in Mayberry. Here’s the thing, though: I always wished I could have grown up in Stars Hollow, Connecticut or Cicely, Alaska, or Everwood, Colorado, or one of those wonderful, too-good-to-be-true TV towns. (I actually worked in one for a summer, but that’s a story for another time.) Gilmore Girls comes from that time when The WB could do no wrong, when it was one of the chief creative forces in television, and the network seemed like it had the perfect idea of what teenagers (and their parents) were interested in. Furthermore, this episode comes from what’s probably the show’s strongest season, though I’m also fond of the fifth, which has some of the show’s best dramatic moments. (Sherman-Palladino is so renowned for her comedy skills that it’s easy to forget how easily her stories could pack an emotional gut-punch.)

What’s most impressive to me about this episode is the way the competition aspects of the story are simultaneously foregrounded and backgrounded. The dance marathon is highly important to the story, but it’s also essentially just the way to get the story moving, the thing that’s going on so the emotional conflicts can play out in front of it. What’s most interesting to me this time through is that I’m not sure I buy Rory’s badmouthing of Jess to Dean, so he’s increasingly aware of her crush on the other guy. It feels a touch forced, as if Sherman-Palladino isn’t sure how to bring all this out in the open. Then again, this is a show about people who talk and talk, who substitute conversation for everything else. In that respect, it makes perfect sense.

Stray observations:

EA: It’s weird how time affects certain allusions—some get more relevant, like Andrew’s vexation at the news that his date once went out with Liam Neeson. In the light of Neeson’s semi-recent emergence as a bankable action star, that piece of biographical information becomes all the more intimidating.

RM: Good God, who isn’t in this show? I knew about the leads, even without having seen it. But I didn’t know Melissa McCarthy, Jared Padalecki, and Milo Ventimiglia were, too. It’s hard not to imagine a spin-off in which Peter Petrelli travels back in time with Sam Winchester to prevent Beth Dawes from ever meeting Pete Campbell on Mad Men.

EA: …though they’d risk running into young Don Draper, who trips into the future (possibly using an inter-dimensional rift opened by Shelly Johnson when she left Twin Peaks for the Boston of Earth-Gilmore Girls) to wear bad three-button suits, invite Lorelai to a David Bowie concert, and bore her with an endless description of his Jaguar (!!!) in one of the episodes that precedes “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” on the season-three DVD set. Which is to say I totally blame Amy Sherman-Palladino for the way my brain is forever weaving intertextual TV quilts.

PDN: So long as other people are pointing to actors who were on this show before going on to bigger things, I’d just like to put in a kind word for Liza Weil, who I last saw on Scandal, which has maybe the best dramatic cast of any new show this year—though only Weil was able to come across as an actual (and interesting) human being. One thing I always admired about the show, and the actress, was the way Paris was introduced as a raging bitch on wheels, and then gradually, convincingly developed into one of Rory’s best friends (and one of the show’s most sympathetic characters) without ever backtracking on the qualities that made her seem dislikable at first glance. She’s still young, to put it mildly, and I hope that this won’t be the last show she’s ever part of that a sane person would want to look at twice. (For those of us who followed Paris’ character arc across six of Gilmore Girls’ seven seasons, it’s a treat to hear her wondering if a boy might possibly be interested in her when he could have his pick of all those “college girls” who are so much “more experienced,” knowing that within a few years, she’ll be spending Friday night in the hospital emergency room, waiting to learn whether Professor Michael York has survived their big date.)

NM: I miss Paris Geller, and the way she’s compartmentalized her life to such a degree that she can shrug off a former crush-object by saying, “I already wrote his name in my revenge notebook.”

NM: I know some folks are driven to distraction by Amy Sherman-Palladino’s rapid-fire, quirky patter, but so long as her characters say things like “find a pirate to sit on” to people who repeat themselves, I’ll be a fan.

NM: Even the defiant broodiness of Jess meets its match in Mrs. Kim, who glares him into calling her “ma’am.”

NM: There’s no location in Stars Hollow that the characters can’t get to or from in under a minute.

TV: Choice Sookie line: “Wait ’til you see Jackson’s suit. It makes me want to ration sugar.”

Next week: Meredith Blake says “farewell” to the roundtable, but not before making us watch an episode of Laguna Beach. Then, Ryan McGee works us into a psychotic frenzy over “awesome” Veridian Dynamics merchandise with Better Off Ted’s “Swag The Dog.” (Available streaming on Netflix, here.)