The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself: Mamma Mia, Gilmore Girls and how (not) to write a sequel

Mamma Mia and Gilmore Girls: touchstones of mid-noughties film and TV culture, widely considered twee and lighthearted (*whispers* maybe because both focus on women’s lives and relationships, and demote men to background characters). Gilmore Girls is generally acknowledged to be a feminist series – if in a privileged, white-feminism kind of way – offering a rarely seen portrait of single motherhood and the mother-daughter relationships. Mamma Mia, too, although less self-consciously political, shares these concerns. With the emergence of streaming services like Netflix, catching up on old shows is easier than ever, and enough time has past that the nostalgia-tinted glasses make a re-entry into the old world seem like a great idea. Respective sequels Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018) and Netflix mini-series Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016) alter and build on the legacies of the originals. However, where the second Mamma Mia film expands on the first, creating a joyous and profoundly meaningful movie out of these tropes, the Gilmore Girls reboot – more interested in itself than in the outside world – undoes all the goodness of the original series, leaving us with nothing but disappointment and resentment. Kind of like life.

Both franchises centre on a mother-daughter relationship and the slow process by which the daughter becomes the mother, and this is obvious from the first episode of Gilmore Girls, in which we find out that Rory’s name is really Lorelai, after her mother. Towards the end of the episode, Lorelai and Rory fight over Rory not wanting to change schools:

LORELAI: This is about a boy. Of course. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. All this talk about money and bus rides… You’ve got a thing going with a guy and you don’t want to leave school.

RORY: I’m going to bed.

LORELAI: God, I’m so dense. That should’ve been my first thought. After all, you’re me.

RORY: I’m not you.

LORELAI: Really? Someone willing to throw important life experiences out the window to be with a guy? Sounds like me to me.

Throughout the series, Rory pulls closer to her mother, pulls away, pulls back. She has dalliances with boys who parallel Lorelai’s own love interests – one of them, Jess, is even related to Lorelai’s on-off love interest Luke. She repairs her relationship with her grandparents, and by extension Lorelai’s; she moves in with them, takes Lorelai’s old bedroom, comes out as a debutante and nearly becomes the daughter they never had; she fights with them, runs away as Lorelai once did, repeats history almost to a tee.

The original creator and executive producer of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, left the show due to a contract dispute in 2006, meaning that the final season of “original” Gilmore Girls was written by a different team, and doesn’t follow the trajectory planned out by Sherman-Palladino. From early on, Sherman-Palladino had intended that Rory’s story would repeat her mother’s, that the show would end with four words that start the cycle over again; in the revival, she got her chance. The problem is that this makes the whole mini-series feel contrived; in order for Rory’s revelation of pregnancy to be meaningful, she has to be in the same position her mother was in as a sixteen-year-old – but Rory in the revival is thirty-two, and the fact that she hasn’t yet found career success or romantic happiness is not because circumstances were pitted against her so much as that she has failed to pull herself together.

Those final four words, to which Sherman-Palladino was building all those years, sum up the project of Gilmore Girls pretty succinctly:

RORY: Mom?

LORELAI: Yeah?

RORY: I’m pregnant.

The four words are shared by the two women, and the fact that it is these four words – not just the last two – which are important foregrounds not only the pregnancy but also the relationship between Rory and Lorelai. Sherman-Palladino says of the ending that,

“[Rory and Lorelai are] very tied and to me, that history repeating itself and daughter following in mother’s footsteps, “where you lead, I will follow” — we took the [theme] song very seriously. When we picked those words and we went down that path, it just felt right then and it actually feels even more right now especially because Rory is older. She’s the same age Lorelai was when the show started. It really does feel a little Lion King-y, the whole circle of life.”

It’s easy to see how this would have been an interesting ending in 2007 – Rory fresh out of college, with a degree and possibly a stable relationship, embarking on the same journey as her mother but from a very different starting point. And there was potential for it to be meaningful in the revival – as Sherman-Palladino points out, Rory is the same age that Lorelai was when the show started, so there’s still a sense of cyclical time at play. However, Rory’s inability to hold down a job or a relationship, at this point, gives this twist a pretty depressing feeling. Lorelai took her fate into her own hands at sixteen, left home, cut herself off from her parents, found a community, worked her ass off and raised Rory alone: Rory has the support of the whole community, including both her parents and surrogate parent-figures, and presumably some financial means, despite barely doing any work for a year. The opportunities that Lorelai worked so hard to give her daughter seem to have been squandered, and we have little hope that either Rory’s attempts to parent, or Lorelai’s marriage, will turn out well.

If you’ve ever switched on a radio, you’ll know that ABBA’s songs deal with niche things like nostalgia and sadness and making peace with the past. “Fernando” is one of the last songs in the film, performed by Cher and Andy Garcia, who have finally found one another after years of solitude. On the one hand, it’s a crying shame that they both spent so long alone, pining for one another; on the other, it seems that there was no other way things could have gone – “There’s no regret / If I had to do the same again, I would,” they sing.

The different timelines are constantly collapsing into one another. “Every hour, every minute seemed to last eternally” when Fernando and Ruby were young, but time marches on and now “[they’re] old and grey”. What’s more, the second film repeats several songs from the first, forcing a comparison – significantly, Sam sings “SOS” alone in Here We Go Again, recalling his duet of the same song with the now-deceased Donna in the earlier film.

The layering of timelines is exemplified in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Beginning with Donna and Sam’s break-up in 1979, and crossing over to the present day, the song bridges the two timelines and consolidates the idea that love and loss go hand in hand. It starts with young Sam lamenting his mistakes in the run-down shack, before cutting to the same location in the present day, where Sophie reflects on her relationship with Sky, and old Sam looks back on the years he spent both with and without Donna. The “empty house” Sam walked through as a young adult – about which Donna “[had] a dream” – is now a hotel on the verge of opening, where they (presumably) lived together between the end of the first film and her death. There are several layers to the song – young Sam and Donna’s break-up, Donna’s death and old Sam’s grief, and Sky and Sophie’s fracturing relationship – and this is handled well enough to be genuinely meaningful, and not messy or contrived. There is a sense of comfort thanks to the parallel structure – we know that young Sam will eventually go on to marry Donna – as well as pathos, in the knowledge that they will lose all those years in between, and of her sudden death.

When, towards the end of Here We Go Again, Sophie reveals her pregnancy, she is in a similar position to both her mother before her and Rory Gilmore. She has an unstable financial situation, thanks to this burgeoning hotel, and an unstable relationship (whatever you say, I’m not convinced that Sky and Sophie will go the distance). She also has the support of the community that rallied around her mother three decades previously – both Lorelai and Donna, cut off from family, form strong bonds with the people they meet, especially women. Lorelai, after giving birth, runs away from home and is taken in by the owner of the Independence Inn, who gives Lorelai a job at an inn as a maid and lets her live in a potting shed with the young Rory until she can afford to move. Donna, after refusing to leave Greece and taking on a job renovating the shack in exchange for freedom to stay there, discovers that she is pregnant and gives birth there, with the help of Sophia, the owner of the shack (and names her daughter Sophie after her).

Both franchises are interested in communities – the adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” is deeply appropriate in both cases – but while the community in Here We Go Again rallies around Sophie to help her after her mother’s death, the village of Stars Hollow, by 2016, is populated more by caricatures than the cast of friendly figures that appears in the original series. The whole village feels stuck, everyone living out the same old storylines over and over again; the image of Stars Hollow as a snow globe town becomes an unfortunate metaphor, as growth seems impossible for anyone trapped inside. Here We Go Again, meanwhile, by showing us what happens after Sophie announces her pregnancy, reinforces this sense of community – again, the parallel timelines intersect, and we see Sophie’s christening in the hilltop church intercut with the christening of her own child in the same place. Where Donna had only a few people to support her, Sophie is surrounded by loved ones, including all three of her possible fathers and her child’s father – and Donna’s ghost, who appears at the altar to duet “My Love, My Life” with Sophie. Sophie’s future seems to build directly on her mother’s life, her years of hard work and cultivating relationships with those on the island, but Rory’s is uncertain, untethered, without that same sense of security.

Both Sophie and her mother work so hard for their futures, pouring everything they have into the hotel, willing to sacrifice personal relationships for their shared vision. Lorelai and Rory, meanwhile, never seem to try particularly hard. Rory doesn’t bother to prep for a meeting that turns out to be a job interview – not that she needs the money anyway, she’s happy to throw herself on the mercy of her mother or Logan when she needs a place to stay. Lorelai hyperfocuses on marriage or babies or therapy as a quick-fix solution to the problems in her relationships, but abandons her plans as quickly as she starts them. When things go wrong for Sophie, it is an act of nature – or of God, maybe – not her own fault, and her consistent kindness, along with some good luck, sees to it that not only do things turn out alright, they turn out better than they were supposed to. By forging meaningful relationships with others, the protagonists of Here We Go Again manage to pull off a party which appropriately honours Donna’s memory, as well as opening their doors to the locals – rather than the big-shot investors. Instead of transplanting themselves to a foreign land and taking it over, they all work in harmony, and the hotel and island become a meeting point for American, British, Scandinavian, and Greek culture.

The Gilmore Girls reboot, too reliant on callbacks and running jokes to present us with anything new, exposes its once-beloved characters as fundamentally hollow; they are puppets for Sherman Palladino’s wish-fulfilment, not the living, breathing characters we used to know. The sweetness of the original series now leaves a sour taste, as what was once a forward-looking show is irrevocably stuck in the past, doomed to cycle through the same unoriginal material, its characters perpetually repeating the same mistakes. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, meanwhile, not only lives up to but advances the message of its predecessor. Twee it most certainly is, but it also has genuine heart, and offers us a profound exploration of friendship, family, loss, and love. Both conceptually and narratively it often turns to the past – mining Abba’s oeuvre, constantly calling back to the first film, and following two parallel timelines, often within the same song – but resolutely looks to the future, informed by history but never bogged down by it. While Gilmore Girls has become too self-important to be meaningful, Mamma Mia’s irreverent approach towards self-awareness is productive, joyous, and life-affirming.

Nicky is a cultural critic who writes about all kinds of art – from pop culture to theatre – and tweets about Taylor Swift. You can find her at http://nickyjwatkinson.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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