Once upon a time, Gilmore Girls danced the night away

In season three of “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” Rory and Lorelai go head over heels in a 24-hour dance marathon.

Warner Bros. TV

By Valerie Ettenhofer Published on June 30, 2022

This essay is part of our series episodes, a monthly column in which TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer delves into the special chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s watching Gilmore Girls and “They’re shooting Gilmores, aren’t they?”

The Bracebridge Dinner. The Bid-A-Basket Festival. The Old Muddy River Bridge Knit-A-Thon. Some TV shows portray themselves with cliffhangers or action scenes: Gilmore Girls overwhelmed itself with gleefully ridiculous urban happenings. Throughout its eight-season series, the breathtakingly charming drama series had plenty of memorable moments, and almost all of them were set against the ever-changing New England backdrop of Stars Hollow.

At some point, the near-mythical city—with its troubadours and town gatherings, snowglobe-like winters and coffee-powered summers—became the show’s biggest, strangest, and sometimes most insufferable character. Sometimes Stars Hollow felt like a daydream. Other times, the WASPy, Hallmark movie-ish town felt like a fever dream. Few episodes have captured that strange, sometimes magical dichotomy like season three’s dance marathon outing, “They’re shooting Gilmores, aren’t they?”

The central event of the episode is clear from the opening shot: the camera hovers over a sign set up for a 24-hour dance marathon this Saturday. Jazzy music sets the tone as we hear Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) chatter about passersby who look like they have mad cow disease. They try to find Lorelai a dance partner for the marathon she has won four years in a row.

The scripts for Gilmore Girls famously was twice the length of most, and series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had a knack for letting the show’s cast speak in a motorized, near-constant stream of dialogue. The result is a series that rewards rewatches more than most, as the conversations fly by so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to catch every punch line and pop culture reference the first time. Before restaurant owner Luke even finishes handing Lorelai her coffee, she’s already told him a story about how her previous dance partner, Henry “Ho-ho” McAffee, lost to the strange Kirk (Sean Gunn) at the last minute when the latter waved a McDonald’s apple pie in his face.

The rest of the dance marathon setup flies by just as effortlessly as Lorelai’s Ho-ho story. Annoying city leader Taylor Doose (Michael Winters) forces Luke to offer free coffee at the upcoming event, despite the latter’s grumbling about the futility of endless infrastructure fundraising. “You’d kick Tiny Tim’s stool out from under him, wouldn’t you?” Taylor mocks Luke.

Lorelai can’t stop smiling at the Gilmore family’s weekly dinner. Her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), remembers sending the girl to her room for her first homecoming dance because she was just too happy. Lorelai’s grin is because she has found a perfect dance partner. Just the mile-per-minute twists of fate in the show mean she’s lost him by the end of the scene. Poor construction worker Stanley has a jealous wife who won’t let him dance with Lorelai. At one point, Emily and Lorelai’s daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) started comparing her to Elizabeth Taylor. “You’ll find one,” Rory says sympathetically. “Elizabeth Taylor always did,” Emily jokes.

When the dance marathon finally arrives, it is teenage Rory who is prompted to join her mother. The couple wakes up to the sun and strolls their way to the event hall, dressed to perfection in 1940s-style outfits and hairstyles. When Rory says she can’t even open her eyes, Lorelai paints a hilarious visual image of the city men in assless dudes and Speedos to get her attention. So far, so good. But when the dancing begins, so does the drama.

In its best moments, Gilmore Girls uses his surreal, whimsical city and the emotional truth of his characters. The show is often able to get real on topics like income inequality, teenage parenting, and first love. It makes every pivotal moment feel unique by setting it against the backdrop of this funky little place.

“They’re firing at Gilmores, aren’t they?” turns out to be a pivotal episode of the series: by the end of the marathon, Rory’s relationship with jealous first friend Dean (Jared Padalecki) will have ended, Lorelai and Luke will have talked about their feelings about having children, and Lorelai’s best friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) must have accidentally agreed to raise an entire group of them with her own partner, Jackson (Jackson Douglas). However, all of this unfolds against the silly faux-tense backdrop of the dance marathon.

The rules are explained at the beginning: 156 couples will spend most of the next 24 hours on the dance floor and must keep moving unless the group has a short break or uses their emergency card. There’s a first aid kit, a coffee stall where Luke secretly gives the girls a warm thermos, and a lunch spot where Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) has egg salad sandwiches and handmade Christian pamphlets called Dancing With The Devil (“Boy, her flames become really good!”).

At one point, Lane’s beau Dave (Adam Brody) walks in and says he had to see the event because “it sounded bad Blue velvet.It’s not true, but maybe Dave is using the Movie Twitter, Lynchian’s squint-extra-hard-to-see definition. Still, the episode knowingly pushes the boundaries of the show’s romcom world, fusing celebration and tradition with an event that resembles pure torture. At one point, the dancers stumble through a spontaneous runaround, instantly eliminating the last five couples to cross the gym’s finish line. A couple runs off after a friend is insulted to find out that his girl once dated Liam Neeson. As the night wears on, others pass out dead and are often subtly caught by their partners before they can hit the ground.

High School Musical filmmaker Kenny Ortega directed the episode, and while there’s very little choreographed dance, it has a satisfying visual flow. The energy of the dancers ebbs as the night goes on, indicated by a transition from a disco ball shot. Doose Sleep talks about being a magician, Sookie and Jackson bow to discuss parenting plans, and referees wander by on roller skates, making sure everyone is still shuffling a fraction of an inch at a time. The biggest disturbance of the night, however, comes in the form of Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia).

Luke’s cousin in a leather jacket has been a magnetic provocateur ever since he got off the bus in Stars Hollow, and in the show’s fiftieth episode, he has become an unstoppable force in good girl Rory’s life. He knows this clearly, as he shows up at the event in a crowd-stopping fashion, crossing the dance floor much to the chagrin of Doose to take a seat in the stands. For the next few hours, he alternates between giving Rory his best smoldering look and aggressively making love to a poor girl named Shane (Jessica Kiper), who is little more than a mainstay in his plan to make Rory jealous.

His plan works, and everything comes to a head at the height of the dance competition. Lorelai breaks a heel (“These are brand new shoes too.” “They were made in 1943.” “Well, I just bought them Tuesday!”) and uses her emergency card to call Luke to help her fix it. While she’s gone, Dean replaces her, but soon loses her temper when Rory starts complaining about Shane. Jess overhears and confronts Dean about it. In the end, their breakup comes quickly, which is a relief given the number of machismo-laden confrontations Dean and Jess had before that. “You’ve been in love with him since he came into town,” Dean spits, leaving Rory on the dance floor.

Despite the memorable central event, “They’re shooting Gilmores, aren’t they?” doesn’t end when Lorelai finally wins the dance competition. It ends with the feeling, familiar even to those of us who have never taken part in a competition like this, of a dance worn too long. Rory storms out of the event hall, where she ends up on a water jetty, upset and withdrawn. When Jess finds her, it’s not a moment of riveting romance, but something more intricate and mature that hints at what the show will become in its back half.

“He was right,” Rory says, admitting her feelings to the boy for the first time. Jess is silent and the wave of shame washing over Rory is almost visible. “Well, wasn’t he?! Fine, then he was right about me.” Jess always stares intensely, but after he shrugs as small as possible and admits that, yes, Dean was right, that intense stare softens in microscopic increments. To the uninitiated, it looks like Jess’ typical aloof expression, but to Jess fans it looks a lot like love.

Rather than stay to comfort her, he leaves to break up with Shane. When Lorelai returns to the dance floor, Rory is nowhere to be seen and Kirk takes the trophy again. The episode ends not with a triumph, but with a moment of dejected hilarity as Kirk races across the empty dance floor, trophy in hand, while everyone else is asleep. This episode may not be Stars Hollow at its best, but it is Stars Hollow at its best: funny, messy, exhausting and somehow winningly charming in spite of everything.

Related Topics: Episodes

Valerie Ettenhofer is a freelance Los Angeles writer, TV enthusiast, and mac and cheese lover. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association’s television and documentary divisions. Twitter: @aandeandval (she her)