Last Friday, my 11-year-old son and I settled into our den for a binge night of television. Thanks to a Netflix preview copy, we were getting a sneak peek of the highly anticipated Gilmore Girls revival one week before the new season's official Nov. 25 release. We had blown up the air mattress and loaded the coffee table with licorice, pizza, hot dogs and chocolate, all in homage to the show.
"You better have a nap," my son had informed me that morning, anticipating a marathon of four episodes, each 90 minutes long. "Or drink lots of coffee." By the time we reached Episode 4, the sugar high wearing off, we'd both realized something: Not everything from the past translates well in the future.
One of the ways that Netflix and other streaming sites have changed how families watch TV is by making nostalgic viewing possible. Almost every parent I know has been keen to introduce a show or movie that they loved in their childhood to their own kids. There are some movies, such as Indiana Jones and E.T., that live outside time. Others age less favourably, and there is nothing like watching an old movie with your modern-day kids to make that point.
One friend recounts cringing when Judd Nelson's bad-boy character jokes in The Breakfast Club about impregnating the prom queen. Then there's the gross stereotype of the Asian foreign-exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, whose every entrance is signalled by the sound of a gong. The Disney princess stories, thankfully never a big draw in my all-boy home, are rife with retrograde attitudes. And Forrest Gump, best-picture winner at the 1995 Oscars, was met with confusion by the Generation Zs in my house: Was it one big joke about a guy with autism?
Watch the movies and television of your childhood through their eyes and the racism and sexism rises to the surface like scum on a pond: how minority characters are treated (or entirely absent), the nonchalance about violence against women (or that joke in National Lampoon's Vacation about incest), how Tom Hanks spends most of Turner & Hooch – not a gem, admittedly, but revived on Netflix this month – screaming at a sad-faced dog whose beloved owner has just been murdered.
The original episodes of Gilmore Girls, which ran from 2000 to 2007, are not immune. There's not much racial diversity in Stars Hollow, or the private school Rory attends, or even her circle at Yale. The few minority characters are often caricatures. Homophobic jokes are made out of the blue, which was particularly noticeable to my 11-year-old – the word "gay" isn't an acceptable pejorative in his world.
I watched the show, about a single mom and her daughter living in a quirky small town, back when you had to see TV on the night the network decided to air it.
Then I introduced it to my son, Samson, earlier this year, and we often watched it before bed, after homework was finished.
Gilmore Girls was a change from the typical television geared toward boys, the kind in which masked villains are always plotting an apocalypse. The only superpowers that Lorelai and Rory Gilmore can claim are rapid-fire quips and the ability to eat junk food and scorn exercise yet never gain any weight.
Samson especially liked the eccentric residents of Stars Hollow, a place that, as Lorelai points out in the first new episode, might exist in a snow globe.
In Stars Hollow, there is always a festival being planned, a hay maze to build, a lively town council to attend. No one appears to be unemployed or feel disenfranchised, the gossip is benign, the houses are pretty. Stars Hollow, in other words, is a fantasy. Going there each week was like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket.
This whimsy is retained in the best scenes of the new episodes. Kirk, the town's affable court jester, and his recalcitrant pig are a highlight. Emily and Lorelai in therapy is classic. But in bringing the story forward, the nostalgia is tainted: We lose the power to imagine endings as we want them to be.
Netflix has sternly established no-spoiler rules, so not much can be revealed. But since the actor playing Rory's grandfather, Edward Herrmann, died in 2014, his death has been written into the new episodes, creating a heaviness that never existed in the originals. Some of the characters have barely grown. Others have made disappointing choices. Maybe that's more reality than we'd like in Stars Hollow.
As Samson offered, in his assessment: "It was too sad, there was too much fighting, and not enough Sookie." (Sookie, Lorelai's best friend, was played by Melissa McCarthy, and her scenes in the originals were often the best part of an episode. In the new season, she makes one squeezed-in cameo.)
Nostalgia is fluid, of course. When I asked my boys what show they will remember enjoying with their parents when they were young, they both said, "Chuck," an underrated spy comedy which pokes fun at many of the stereotypes of older shows.
These days, our weekly TV event is watching The Flash, a lighthearted superhero show with a diverse cast that manages to bridge the tastes of a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old. The rule, to which everyone defers without complaint, is that The Flash doesn't get watched except as a family, however long we have to wait for the chance to sit down together. That's how appointment TV works in 2016.
The Gilmore Girls revival may disappoint at times, but then, reunions almost always do. (A reminder to stop pining for a Firefly revival.) But what was never a letdown was the time spent together on Friday night, snuggled under a blanket, chatting and chewing licorice sticks.
"That was the best part," my son told me the next day. Nostalgia isn't solely about tripping to the past, it's a chance to appreciate here and now. The Gilmore Girls were never the real stars of the show.