Cross-Post The Winning Weirdness of 'Bunheads': The Case for Amy Sherman-Palladino's Charming Dramedy

Television
by Alison Willmore
August 24, 2012 11:40 AM
4 Comments
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When the news came down the transom a few days ago that "Bunheads," the new show from "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, had received a back-order pickup for more episodes on ABC Family, fans like yours truly breathed a sigh of relief and wonderment. While positioned as a cute fish-out-of-water story about a Vegas showgirl named Michelle Simms (played by Broadway star Sutton Foster) who unexpectedly ends up in a small town teaching ballet, "Bunheads" never took the easy or expected path, even when that might have made it an easier fit at the network (its focus skews more toward the adults in the story than the four teen ballerinas Michelle comes to mentor).

"Bunheads" has remained enchantingly oddball and honest in its approach to its characters and to a scenario that has the potential to be but somehow never ends up cloyingly sitcom-like. It helps that the show zigs when it by all the normal rules of TV it should zag, presenting comedic bits (like the accidentally macing of the entire "Nutcracker" cast in this week's season final) with serious consequences and exploring genuine personal dilemmas stemming from some of the quirkier developments. In the first episode, for instance, Michelle impulsively elopes with Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), a man who fell in love with her at first sight and who's been patiently courting her whenever he's in town. He promises her a house overlooking the ocean in a town called Paradise, and while he delivers it, he neglects to mention that he still lives with his prickly dance instructor mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop). But he introduces his new bride around, wins her over to giving things a try -- and just when it seems the show will be about Michelle attempting to make this unusual coupling work, he dies in a car accident, leaving her his house and an uncertainty about how to mourn someone she was just starting to get to know.

"Bunheads" hasn't, in these first ten episodes, been the story of Michelle and Hubbell or Michelle and the four girls -- its central relationship has turned out to be the exasperated but warm one between Michelle and Fanny, two women who love and have enjoyed careers in dance that are, at least performance-wise, pretty much over, whose lives have taken unexpected paths and who are now bound together by shared ownership of the house and studio.

The bond between the pair is something between parental and friendship -- Fanny comes to like Michelle while also clearly seeing that Michelle squandered a solid chance at a legitimate dance career, that she can be flaky and lazy and that she's at a major crossroads in life. And Michelle pries Fanny out of her comfort zone, acts as an intermediary between her and the girls, wins her trust (and by the end of the season, loses it again) and allows her to consider loosing her iron grip on the dance studio and taking time away for herself.

The four teenage girl characters in "Bunheads" don't hew to type -- there's talented, sulky Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), who's gifted at dance but not necessarily that committed to it; sweet-natured Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), who doesn't have the typical build of a dancer but adores it, and who gets an adorable romance with the geekily enthusiastic, shorter than her Josh (Gabriel Notarangelo). There's Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Buntain), whose friendship grows bumpy after the latter pursues a relationship with the former's detested brother Charlie (Zak Henri).

Their troubles tend to be of an achingly familiar adolescent breed, but aren't leveraged to provide some kind of moral -- the outcome from Melanie's anger at Ginny's trying to date Charlie despite the fact that Boo harbored a long-time crush on him was a messy and as unresolved as realistic teen tiff get. The girls are navigating portrayal of growing up that's far less structured around lesson moments than is average on the small screen, and their boredom, restlessness and entertainingly mundane struggles are balanced out by moment of grace, like Boo's dance with Charlie at the fundraiser party, a sequence both joyous and free.

But "Bunheads" is ultimately about Michelle, about her self-fulfilling belief that she destroys everything and so she'd do better not to invest in longterm relationships or plans. Foster imbues the character with an amused, knowing charm -- she's been around the block more than once and is prone to oversharing -- and a sometimes ungainly Olive Oyl physicality. Michelle may be a dancer, but off the stage she's prone to endless awkward moments, ones she's lived with often enough that she accepts them with a ready self-deprecation. In her mid-30s, her days on stage coming to an end, Michelle is faced with decisions to make about a future she's always put off considering, and is in the girls confronting the fact that she's providing guidance to people without knowing where she herself is going.

The show has created in Michelle a lovable shambles of a protagonist, one who's open about her mistakes in endearing ways, but who's going to have to learn to grow in additon to having learned to own up to her faults. More than a town that gathers to watch a dance metaphor for reducing plastic bag use and that's filled with neurotic clothing store owners, flirtatious surfer boys and barista-artists, the true quirk of "Bunheads" is in having a comedic heroine who's likeable but who's capable of behaving in genuinely disappointing ways. Michelle ended this week's episode with a dramatic ("Dead Poets Society"-citing) exit -- it's so nice to know she'll be back.

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Alison Willmore is the TV editor of Indiewire.  Cross Posted with permission.

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4 Comments

  • Guybrush Threepwood | August 24, 2012 10:20 PMReply

    Since all the comments have been skeptical, I want to chime in in defense of the show. I watched it expecting it to suck, expecting to dislike it even though I love Sutton Foster's performances. But particularly when the end of the pilot put a giant screeching halt to the original rom-com premise, and suddenly it became a show about 7 women (counting the rather amazing Truly)... and that's awesome. How many shows on television are about 7 women?

    But really what won me over was that Sutton Foster is SO good as a comic. I knew she could sing, but damn if she doesn't have a gift for deadpan - for the first few episodes before things got rolling I was really just watching it as "The Sutton Foster Show" in which Sutton Foster does hilariousness. And it was great. I used to say about watching Bunheads "don't worry, it's way better than it has any right to be" ie given the premise.

    That said, with the obvious oversight that none of the four girls are folks of color, it is a VERY white show, as Shonda Rhimes was right to point out, but at least they have Michael now.

    As to whether these small towns exist since facebook and twitter and the internet... maybe they do, they probably do, but even if they don't Bunheads is one of many shows that mythologizes the small town (from Twin Peaks to Gilmore Girls to Eureka), and whether it exists anymore or not is kind of beside the point methinks.

    Anyway. I very much agree with Ms. Wilmore, that the show could have taken so many turns, and then it didn't, and it is so much the better for it.

  • Gigi Young | August 24, 2012 8:41 PMReply

    I finally got around to watching the first episode and was "meh". For some reason, the isolated, small town quirkiness that worked in 2000 (when Gilmore Girls debuted) seems out of place and almost like a bizarre time warp in 2012 now that we have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online shopping, et al to keep people connected. And all I could see when watching Sutton Foster was that I wished Amy Acker was in this role. Foster is just gawky in an uncomfortable and off-putting way, and she brings little charm to the sardonic, biting zingers ASP writes for her.

  • Therese Shechter | August 24, 2012 6:45 PMReply

    I do want to clarify that I think there's plenty of room for both of these shows (and more) and wish ABC Family felt the same.

  • Therese Shechter | August 24, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    I tried so hard to like this show (Sutton Foster! Dancing!) but I just couldn't come around to it. And the fact that ABC Family requested more episodes of 'Bunheads' but cancelled the truly original and awesome 'Huge' makes me sad.

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