A show’s first bad episode isn’t exactly the end of the world. Or, well, it doesn’t have to be. Rare is the series that has it completely together from the word go, so there’s bound to be some growing pains and missteps while it’s still figuring things (and itself) out. And as long as they happen early enough and the show improves following a bad move, you can easily write them off as a product of new beginnings and growing into the world of the show. In the case of Bunheads, though, its first bad episode has me feeling a bit less confident than I was before about the potential of the show to blossom.
Do I think “Better Luck Next Year!” was awful? Not particularly. It had enough good moments, mostly Michelle-related, that held my attention and made me laugh/feel, which is a testament to the range and magneticism of Sutton Foster. In the span of 42 minutes, she got to touch on many pockets of her artistic repertoire by exercising her musical talents, excelling at multiple moments of physical comedy (the dusty stove, the tension rod, the flirting), and hit the type of pitch-perfect emotional beats that have kept her sometimes stage-y performance grounded in reality. In particular, her brief conversation with Truly and the continual nightmares about her botched audition in the pilot served as reminders that behind the verbally dexterous tongue and gorgeous hair, Michelle is wounded, vulnerable, and someone that’s in desperate need of a new direction in life. The Truly powwow, which also turned the Sparkles owner from manic Maria Bamford-ish manifestation to a tender, self-aware outsider, makes me hopeful that the two will stop their territorial squabbling and find the type of common ground needed to become friendly. Like it or not, they need one another and whatever past they may have just isn’t important.
Although I continue to love watching Michelle try to figure things out, everything else about “Better Luck Next Year!” was kind of a mess. The fact that Melanie and Ginny could go absent for an episode and not be missed is troubling; it’s still early on in the run, but the parts of Bunheads with the four young dancers have been the weak spot since the pilot. The show managed to give all four a little shading, but what point is there in having four girls if they’re only going to really concentrate on Boo (and sometimes Sasha)? Before the show premiered, I assumed that the four girls would be equally important and we’d get to delve (a little) into each of their home lives, in addition to the dynamic between the four of them; not fleshing out all four girls makes Melanie and Ginny feel like filler characters that we’re not to really invest in, which is a shame because they would have potential to be solid B-characters in another show. With Michelle (rightfully) taking up the bulk of the show, there being four girls makes the side plots feel a little overstuffed, so I’d almost rather them shift Melanie and Ginny into the background if they’re not going to be given anything to the level of the other two.
I try to give Fanny the benefit of the doubt, both personally and as a character; a type-A personality loses what stability she has and has to cling to the only thing she knows until everything recalibrates. As someone that doesn’t take well to change, I feel like I understand where she’s coming from and the reasoning behind her snarky defense mechanism that pops up once the stress level rises. I just don’t know if I like her whatsoever anymore. I know, you don’t have to like every character for a show to be good and sometimes the most unlikable people have the most interesting stories, but Fanny’s been incredibly shrill for three episodes running. I mean, part of the fun of Bunheads is watching Kelly Bishop (who has been really good from day one) banter with Sutton Foster, stringing together dense verbiage with the greatest of ease and bouncing off of one another wonderfully. But there’s verbal acrobatics and there’s what the show is doing, turning Fanny from a high-strung perfectionist into a sour shrew spitting acid at anyone that walks by. And it’s not like she even has a reason to; her unresolved grief may still be talking, but the constant passive aggression toward Michelle is a little grating. Fanny has her house to herself, her studio fixed up, and someone that has put on her son’s memorial living in the guest house; it might be time to start easing up a bit.
The deeper supporting cast also isn’t being given a lot to do. For example, I liked Boo’s mom in her prior brief appearance, but she read too much like Michelle to me in her scene tonight; the writing needs to have a more varied voice, particularly when it’s from a pair as idiosyncratic and distinct as Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel, who wrote this episode. If everyone in town is quippy and extremely reference-heavy, it takes away the impact of that type of writing when it really crackles. It doesn’t feel as special or as beautiful as it is because it’s been drilled at us for episode upon episode, character upon character, something that eventually becomes tiresome to listen to. Boo’s mom being a little weird like her daughter is one thing and you can excuse it here because they’re close and would/could have that type of rapport with one another – my hope is that we’ll get a little more variation in voice, however slight it may be.
Additionally, the couple that owns the bar are as I feared – the cliched stoner/hippie/surfer space cases. I don’t need everyone in town to be ultra complex 3D individuals four episodes into a series, but I need to feel like they’re actually human beings and in this case, I don’t. They’re cardboard cutout stock characters that are being used for cheap laughs rather than being remotely developed; I think a writer can do a lot with an archetype and playing with expectations, but this is lazy writing that feels beneath the level of talent that is on Bunheads. A quirky small town has a lot of potential in terms of what you can do with its residents; thus far in its run, the show hasn’t even scratched the surface.
I like Bunheads and I think there’s a potentially tremendous show lurking under there, but “Better Luck Next Year!” highlighted a lot of the faults that it has right now. Aside from the main character, the show feels really underwritten, to the point that I kind of wish the premise had been pared down to a more manageable level. By the end of the season, this could all be forgotten, with the show putting together its disparate halves, fixing tonal problems, and fleshing out its world to make for a rather sublime finish. If something like that were to occur, I wouldn’t be shocked in the least, but at this point, Bunheads has a ways to go before becoming the show that it could be. The show that it is now, while enjoyable, still feels directionless like Michelle and one small puff from falling apart like Truly.
Thoughts, Quotes, & Observations:
-“I don’t have enough inside for all this to go in.”
-“I’m being robbed in reverse.”
-“Hooray for edamame.”
-“Boy, the beard made him seem so kind. Like Lincoln.”
-“We’re open seven days a week. Who made that decision?”
-“So, no one wants to do me or your floors.”
-“Can’t tell how horny they are, but I’ll find out when I get there.”
-“For some reason, I’m not as hot in California.”
-I loved the explanation for Michelle’s stuff in Vegas, if only because they actually addressed it.
-Great moment: Boo opening the fridge to find the cake. Also, the way Michelle says Oxnard.
-Another negative: the couple that own the bar are one-dimensional cliches. The whole stoned surfer/hippie thing is very tired, which is too bad because I like both actors so far.
-Great non-dialogue scene: Michelle looking through the photos of Fanny in the studio. That said more than any expository dump ever could.
-Among the references tonight: The Godfather, David Copperfield (the person), Abraham Lincoln, Game of Thrones, Contempo Casuals, Nurse Jackie, Jason Priestley, and The Carol Burnett Show.
-Next week on Bunheads: Michelle helps Fanny with her finances, but she inadvertently threatens the Spring Flower Festival in the process, while Boo gets closer to a bartender at her new job.