Almost every TV show features some kind of parent-child dynamic. From the eccentric but loving Phil (Ty Burrell, “Skeleton Twins”) and Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen, “Happy Gilmore”) to TV’s best-dressed and most hands-off mom, Lily van der Woodsen (Kelly Rutherford, “Dynasty”), TV parents have graced our screens for decades, setting some of our favorite main characters straight when they’ve needed it. But as much love as I have for Phil, Claire, Lily and the abundance of small-screen parental figures, something has always been missing — a sense of realism. “Modern Family” thrives off of its comedic elements and “Gossip Girl” emphasizes wealthy, adolescent freedom, so it’s understandable why these parents aren’t the most accurate. But after a single watch of “Gilmore Girls,” I knew I had finally found a parent-child dynamic that voiced real frustrations and described an authentic family — just not in the dynamic I had expected.
Filled with quick-witted banter and endless junk food, Lorelai (Lauren Graham, “Parenthood”) and Rory (Alexis Bledel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) are the hilarious heart and soul of “Gilmore Girls.” But while “Gilmore Girls” tends to focus on Lorelai’s relationship with her teenage daughter, each time I turn on the show, I can’t help but notice that her relationship with her own parents seems to be the more complicated and accurate of the two.
After giving birth to Rory at only 16 years old, Lorelai moves out of her parents’ house and begins building a life that allows her to live freely and support her newborn daughter. Sixteen years later, in the “Gilmore Girls” pilot, Lorelai finds herself back at her parents’ house to ask Richard (Edward Herrman, “Annie”) and Emily (Kelly Bishop, “Dirty Dancing”) for financial support of Rory’s private prep school education in exchange for weekly family dinners. After almost two decades apart, the Gilmores are spending time under the same roof, and here’s where the drama begins.
Something that makes the dynamic between Lorelai and her parents so complicated and realistic is the fact that both parties, despite differing levels of life experience and a stoic belief in their own perspectives, are deeply flawed. In one episode, Richard and Emily invite Lorelai and the (seemingly) Harvard-bound Rory to visit Yale, Richard’s alma mater. Although Richard has presented this idea to the Gilmore girls as a family day trip, it’s later revealed that he has set up an admissions interview for Rory that she is both unaware of and completely unprepared for. After the interview, Lorelai and Rory leave in a fit of anger while Richard and Emily claim that despite Rory’s insistence on attending Harvard, it wouldn’t hurt to keep her options open.
It would be ridiculous to pretend that Lorelai isn’t being completely naive here. By encouraging her daughter to only apply to her dream school, she is undoubtedly limiting Rory’s potential and ability to explore different opportunities. From a purely practical perspective, Richard and Emily have made the right call and Lorelai is in the wrong. But what makes the situation so complex is the fact that this was simply not Richard and Emily’s call to make. While Lorelai’s parents may have had solid logic behind their decision, there is no doubt that, daughter or not, they showed an incredible level of disrespect for another adult by going behind Lorelai’s back and making a decision about her child. Lorelai may have been unrealistic and naive in her choice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was her choice to make, and no amount of logistics justifies Richard and Emily’s encroachment on boundaries Lorelai had spent years trying to set.
In another episode of the show, Lorelai and her boyfriend Luke (Scott Patterson, “Saw”) attend Richard and Emily’s vow renewal together, and Lorelai makes it clear to her parents that despite Luke’s humble and nonmaterialistic approach to the world (everything Richard and Emily aren’t), he is the man she wants to spend her life with. However, Emily disagrees that Luke is the right person for her daughter and takes it upon herself to invite Lorelei’s on-and-off ex, Christopher (David Sutcliffe, “Cracked”), to the vow renewal, leading to chaos and a major argument between Luke and Lorelai.
I have no doubt, here, that Emily wanted the best for her daughter. She felt that Christopher would make Lorelai happy and give her the life that she deserved. I have no doubt that Emily tried to do the right thing. But her genuine intentions don’t change the fact that Lorelai is an adult who has explicitly expressed her happiness in the relationship she had chosen for herself. Lorelai’s autonomy was violated, placing her in a significantly unhappier situation due to her mother’s unnecessary involvement — one woman’s helping is another’s meddling. Once again, a realistic family dynamic is represented: Everyone is right, depending on what “right” means in their own eyes.
Lorelai can be unrealistic and is often lost when it comes to making major financial decisions. But when it comes to trusting her instincts and building a life that she is proud of, she’s never had anything but success, even if it’s not the kind that her parents would have wanted for her. No matter what she’s told, she still has the right to control her own life. Richard and Emily are naive in their own way, often using their less emotional, more objective perspectives to make decisions for their daughter. Despite the emotionally immature decisions that often come as a result of their collective mindset, the decisions they make are no doubt out of a genuine love for their daughter. Setting up an admissions interview showed disrespect for Lorelai’s boundaries, but was done with the intention of setting Rory up for academic success. Inviting an ex to a vow ceremony led to a falling out with Lorelai’s true love, but was done with the intention of helping her build the life her parents thought she wanted to lead.
In an age of teen dramas and mockumentaries, parents are often an afterthought used to fill plot holes or provide comedic value to a series. What makes Lorelai and her parents’ relationship so different is its complexity and real-life value. All parties involved manage to be in the right and the wrong at the same time — all depending on perspective. Lorelai doesn’t always make the best decisions, but that doesn’t mean her parents get to make them for her. And maybe we’re supposed to agree with Lorelai, but there isn’t a minute of the show where I don’t understand that even Emily and Richard’s worst actions are done out of a complicated but undying love for their daughter.
So, sorry Dunphy family. The Gilmores might just be the reigning champs of TV parent-child relationships — not for their comedic value and definitely not for their functionality, but instead for their authentic and relatable qualities. And where they lead, complicated, frustrating, emotional and real family dynamics are sure to follow.
Daily Arts Writer Olivia Tarling can be reached at email@example.com.