TV to cozy up to: Gilmore Girls comeback could signal return of 'comfort television'
Shows about family and kindness in stressful political times give viewers a break, experts say
Experts say the excitement about the new episodes of Gilmore Girls, released today on Netflix, could signal a broader audience hunger for less distressing, more comforting television.
"I think that TV has been dominated, particularly cable, for years by antiheroes: by the Sopranos, by the Don Drapers, by the characters from Breaking Bad, who are all monsters on different levels," says Daniel Fienberg, TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter. The protagonists of the Gilmore Girls, he says, are complex but essentially loveable.
"They're a mother and a daughter who are best friends, who love each other. And that is a comforting, happy, pleasant thing."
But Fienberg and other TV observers think it's not just the scripted-television stress that the viewers are seeking shelter from. He says shows like Gilmore Girls, with its scenic setting in fictional town Stars Hollow, provide a respite for viewers "who have been glued to the TV for 12 months for one of the ugliest political campaigns in American history."
British writers Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, who host the pop culture podcast SRSLY, know the soothing power of Gilmore Girls firsthand.
They are huge fans of the show, and turned to it after a long week of U.S. election coverage at New Statesman, a British magazine where they both work.
"We work at a predominantly political magazine; it was a really tough few days of work," said Crampton in an interview with CBC in London. "When I got home, the first thing I could think of to do was get really warm and go to Stars Hollow, watch some Gilmore Girls and it did calm me down enough to finally go to sleep, so it worked."
Cozy, but not cutesy
Gilmore Girls is not the only TV equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of tea. A few recent family dramas have also shown promise to delight viewers without resorting to violence, graphic sexuality, or a cynical world view.
On NBC, newbie family drama This is Us recently drew more than 14 million viewers, the numbers usually reserved for shows like the Walking Dead.
Queen Sugar, a new family saga by Selma director Ava DuVernay, is getting critical acclaim and a loyal audience buzz on social media for its portrayal of siblings whose lives are turned upside down when their father leaves them a sugar plantation.
Bad things do happen on these shows: family members face crises and characters even die. On the new episodes of Gilmore Girls, the family patriarch is gone (the actor who played him, Edward Herrmann, died in 2014), and the Gilmore women have to learn to get along without him.
But the essential underpinning of these shows is that the world isn't an evil place.
"It's about the idea that problems that you have, some of which may come from your family, can also sometimes be solved by your family, and by community, and by coming together," says TV critic Fienberg.
The future of family drama
But do these family dramas have a chance for a lasting future in a TV landscape that's more competitive than ever?
Leszkiewicz cautions the show's easy charms may not be palatable to viewers conditioned to cliffhangers and dramatic plot twists.
"It's about people and place more than it's about drama," said Leszkiewicz in an interview with CBC in London. "So if you're someone who wants racing plot lines, huge dramatic arcs, you are probably not going to find it in Gilmore Girls."
And there is a reason these types of shows have not dominated award shows in recent years in the way Game of Thrones or House of Cards have. Family dramas have always been around, but a good one comes only once in a while, and that has likely contributed to the image of these shows as cheesy and maudlin in the minds of uninitiated viewers.
It's one of the toughest genres to do right.- Daniel Fienberg, TV critic
"It's one of the toughest genres to do right. Because you can't have just one star or two stars, you have to have the whole family, you have to be able to reproduce decades of family history, and that's something that isn't easy," says Fienberg.
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But he adds that the enduring appeal of Gilmore Girls, which he says has more fans now than it did in its original run between 2000 and 2007, proves that family dramas can be a winner.
"There ought to be room for shows that play emotionally broadly but maybe play to only a limited audience that happen to love them," says Fienberg, urging TV networks to not only consider ratings, but audience loyalty and engagement when deciding which shows to greenlight and renew.
"How many of us have survived the zombie apocalypse? Not that many. How many of us have survived Thanksgiving with our families? The answer is hopefully most of us."