Back Here

Anytime someone asked me what I did for Thanksgiving, my answer was “you mean the ‘Gilmore Girls’ revival?” Actually, anytime anyone has asked me anything for the last two weeks, I have answered in the form of Gilmore Girls. I do not mean talking fast and making references – that is the manner to which I am accustomed – I mean my world has assumed a new shape. And old. Sort of like a pair of jeans you find at a thrift store which are exactly like ones you had years ago that were shrunk in the dryer – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire which became a pyre – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire which became a pyre for jeans you admired* – and so when you get another pair, it’s like going back, but you’re here, and it’s good to be back here.**

Here is Stars Hollow, the town of “Gilmore Girls,” which many viewers have suggested*** would be an ideal setting for “The Twilight Zone,” while seeming to forget that it practically was – in the episode “Walking Distance.” A 1959 Mad Man “living at a dead run” is fleeing Manhattan in his car through the countryside, when he stops at a gas station and recognizes the area is within walking distance of his place of birth, Homewood. At some turn in the route he is transported 25 years ago to his childhood, a place in the summer, with a merry-go-round and cotton candy and band concerts. That atmosphere is very breathable to me. When someone asks where I’m from, I always end up listing several towns, saying “I’m from East Troy. It’s Stars Hollow. It’s Mayberry,” then explaining the reference and/or justifying the comparison with: “We have a square. And a trolley. And a vintage ice cream parlor.” So I understand why the man in “Walking Distance” stays home long enough to realize how much he’s longed for it, only to learn, in his father’s words, that he doesn’t belong. “You’ve been looking behind you,” the father says. “Try looking ahead.”

As a writer, what is behind has always possessed more potential than what is ahead. When I watched the first season of “Gilmore Girls,” I was staying with my sister, a teacher, who had the entire series to that point on DVD. While she was at school, I was getting schooled by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, particularly in the reference, a hyperspecific metaphor. It was a technique I had observed elsewhere, most notably and obsessively in Myra Breckinridge. The reference uses literature, film, music, history – as coordinates for a specific moment, an X marks the spot, the X a cross, of course, one line being the time you are in, another line being the time of the reference, so you are here and there, the one who knows, who can be asked for directions.

“Gilmore Girls,” now more than ever, acknowledges that it is “never or now.” A vital member in the original cast has died, everyone has aged, and the world of 2016 is not as we remember it in 2000, or 2007, the years when the show premiered and ended. Its creator and sustainers, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, left the original run a season early, due to lack of support from the network. The actors were never certain what the final episode would be. So this is one revival where everybody took Arlen and Koehler’s advice to get happy – and get ready – for the judgment day: this might be the end, more than the might before, and a manic energy, an emotional undertow, shoots through the series like an arrow, to a bull’s eye ending, those famous last four words to which Amy alluded for years. But I didn’t watch for those four words. I watched because, in a small way, it was a resurrection, and I always want to believe in that.

“You hardly ever get a chance, at any point in life, to appreciate the moment you’re in, while you’re in it,” said Lauren Graham, who plays Lorelai Gilmore. “I was just walking around [set] like…’you’re here, and thank you so much for being here’…I was just a freak, I had so much appreciation it was actually very overwhelming and…I’m not a person who cries very easily. I would cry every day.” Graham rightly insists that crying in character is different than crying as yourself, but still, it is not difficult to believe she cried every day; there are so many gradations of grief in her performance. I’ve never seen such a range, in any of Graham’s performances, or anyone else’s. Indeed, for a character and actor renowned as fast-talkers, some of their finest moments in the revival are silent, grounded in truth and floating on emotion.

“Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening,” writes Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Foster’s book does not mention “Gilmore Girls,” but surely that is because his most recent revision was 1998? Watching the revival, it was like someone was listening to me and speaking for me, simultaneously, in a rapture of understanding. I was in my sister’s living room, 10 years ago; I was in my parents’ living room next to my sister, now. And when Sam Philips’ song played over the final scene, just as it played over a similar scene in the original series, we wept together. I felt like one of my hands was holding the past, just as the other was holding the present – and even though both were empty, my eyes were reflecting light.

 ~ ~ ~

*Apologies to Rose Bonne, and you. I just couldn’t stop.

**And hear ye, year ye, those who aren’t familiar with the show: become familiar with the show. Start at season 1 and watch through season 6 and skip season 7 – the only season without Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, which was basically Madame Tussaud’s wax figure of Rowan Atkinson, frightening, lifeless and without purpose – and proceed directly to the revival, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” It’s all streaming across that beautiful banquet hall called Netflix, booked solid with reboots and reunions.

*** James Poniewozik in The New York Times and Todd VanDerWerff at Vox, to name a few who can write.


Lights rise on a set that merges reality and illusion with a lucid mystery that can only be seen, and believed, in the theatre. Surely this is some patriotic carnival of souls; a purgatory where discarded popcorn bags and American flags, dismembered baby dolls and discolored painted horses, try to see their sin through a dusting of rusty blood.  A wooden combination factory-merry-go-round-prison looms at the rear of the stage, drunk driving around the actors and scenery. Huge portraits – the 6 American presidents on whom assassinations were attempted – stack into a checkered tower, topped by the signs Hit and Fail, which light and buzz and ding like a slot machine.

It is the pay-what-you-can* performance of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s** production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. At 82, Sondheim is still a boy wonder. His old shows open like new shows, because they’re usually better than anything new. Yes, they are musicals, but even though the music is hosting the party, Sondheim refuses to let it dominate the conversation. There are characters, and ideas, and critique, all of whom must be heard, sometimes simultaneously.

“Come on and shoot a president!” Barks the barker in his red and white striped coat, slithering from a booth in the corner. As if entering a musical Twilight Zone,*** the assassins dispense with time, space and other meddling realities, coexisting and co-creating each other’s destinies. From a window facing the grassy knoll, they gather around Lee Harvey Oswald as a cloud of witnesses; prophets of the false god of self, shedding blood so that their culture will endure.

John Wilkes Booth casts Brutus as a role model, whom Oswald immediately remembers. “[He] assassinated Caesar what, 2,000 years ago?” Booth marvels, “and here’s a high school dropout with a dollar twenty-five an hour job from Dallas, Texas who knows who he was. And they say fame – is fleeting?”

With the assassinations finished, the procession begins. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy…” they chant musically to one another, to the audience, coaxing a collective hypnosis. Guns drawn, they aim at us. Eyes open, we look back at them. “…everybody’s got the right to their dreams.” The stage lights go off. The house lights come on.

Backstage, the actors congratulate one another for getting a standing ovation at the first dress rehearsal. In the back of the house, the director presses next to a light board operator, proving his power. As we walk out of the theater, my friend and I discuss the musical we’re writing, sculpting our visions out of the night air.


*I paid in lint and used chap stick. No, I paid the suggested donation, a phrase which is almost Nietzschean in its manipulation. “We suggest this donation for the common man, because he needs structure. But you’re above all that, aren’t you? You’re super. You can give more than the suggested donation. Come on, Superman.” But I was not a mark for this philosophical con. I paid the suggested donation, no more, no less. Unless that was the con. Dammit, this is worse than David Mamet.

**Prior to the performance, Artistic Director and Briton Mark Clements strolled onstage with an authority unique to Milwaukee, where the British are still believed to be more cultured than Americans. After nodding with approval at the awed applause, he dismissed it with a gesture and we were silent. He then provided this introductory speech:

“Right. So, since I came here, we’re constantly trying to push the limits, uh, push the envelope, and this is the most technically complicated show we’ve ever done in the history of this theatre. We had 3 weeks of rehearsal with the actors, a week of tech, and, uh, this is our first dress rehearsal. Actually, um, we’ve never gotten through the whole show before. So we might have stop at some point. If we do, you’ll know. I mean, we’ll turn on the house lights and you can talk amongst yourselves. But when the house lights go off, I’d ask that you stop talking and we’ll start again. But our people have been putting 80 hour weeks in on this, so. Right. Enjoy. Cheers.”

***The Twilight Zone episode “Back There” is about a man who time-travels to the day Abraham Lincoln was shot and meets John Wilkes Booth. It’s worth seeing for the performance of John Lasell, who distills Booth’s political and theatrical ambition into something mesmerizingly convincing.