The moment I fell in love with Bunheads was thanks to one simple, naturalistic scene buried later in the episode. After ditching the “wedding party” thrown for her by her new mother-in-law (and featuring the entire town of Paradise, California), former Vegas showgirl and classically trained ballerina Michelle heads out of the house and into the nearby dance studio to find four young dancers having a party of their own. Rather than busting their chops and breaking up the festivities, she fields questions about her career and leads the aspiring hoofers in a simulated Broadway audition, complete with encouraging words, line-up shifts, and multiple practice runs before the talent had to be “evaluated”. It was a little goofy and not the flashiest or most emotionally affecting scene in the pilot, but it contained the type of enthusiasm for dance, colorful dialogue, and character beats through movement that a show like Bunheads can use to its advantage if it knows how.
And, for the most part, it does know how, as the pilot for Bunheads is a quirky, summery episode of television that makes an interesting turn right when you’ve gotten comfortable in the latest small town from Amy Sherman-Palladino. While the Gilmore Girls creator’s distinct writing is extremely sharp and a delight to hear on television again, a mash-up of cultural references, snappy quips, and a whole lot of heart, it’s lead actress Sutton Foster that makes the episode come alive. Foster embodies everything about Michelle – the jaded, emotionally wounded dancer that is looking for direction in life – and immediately makes you empathize for her; promisingly, Foster gets to run the emotional gamut in the span of 42 minutes, all the way from drunk to devastated and peppered with physical comedy, and she manages to flow through everything pretty effortlessly. Whether it’s letting down Michelle’s emotional wall to new husband Hubbell or sparring with new mother-in-law Fanny, she has this charm that is instantly likable and quite vibrant. By the closing moments of the Bunheads pilot, you understand Michelle pretty darn well and with Foster already more than proficient in the role, the comfort and ease around the heroine can only grow from here.
Particularly if the ending of the episode doesn’t sink the show completely and allows for even more of a realistic, personal look at grief. When I first saw promos for Bunheads, I assumed it’d be a cute, silly little show about ballet dancers, nothing too taxing or anything, but the ending of the pilot definitely changed my thinking. Granted, I had really enjoyed the episode until that point, but seeing Truly come into the bar that Fanny and Michelle were at to tearfully tell them about running into Hubbell’s car was a dramatic shift that I didn’t even consider in the realm of possibility. Though it makes me wish that the pilot was two hours to see how the lightweight tone of the show handles sudden death, I have to give the show props for being incredibly ballsy. The transition may have been jarring and the lack of immediate follow-up leaves us very much up in the air, but the effect that it could have could make Bunheads an unexpectedly deep show. By the time that lovely, romantic Hubbell had his accident, the show had already demonstrated greater aspirations that one might have expected, notably through Michelle being at a crossroads personally and professionally. But death is an entirely different animal altogether and one that the show will have to handle delicately; you want to see the big reactions in order to have Fanny and Michelle pull themselves (and each other) out of the hole that it’ll put them in and move on, for the sake of Hubbell. Have them dwell too long in their sadness and it becomes a much dourer show than, I think, anybody wants, but have them move on too soon and Hubbell becomes less of a character and more of a thing. Can happy, quick-witted Bunheads reconcile itself with a Bunheads befallen by grief, loss, and tragedy?
I may have enjoyed the pilot of Bunheads, but it wasn’t without fault. The fact that the episode acted more as a premise plot hindered the development of the supporting cast, particularly the younger dancers. The only two that stood out were Boo and Sasha and even then, they felt like little more than walking archetypes. Boo had the most personality out of all of them, her mixture of perfectionism and child-like optimism rather sweet, with the biggest “show not tell” moment coming during the practice scene with Michelle. Ginny had a couple of moments, but her “thing” (insecurity over her breasts) felt too close to Boo’s body image issue to really make an impression, and Melanie was nearly invisible in terms of actual discernible personality. Of course, this is a thing that will be fixed during the next few episodes as we get to live in the Bunheads world vs. actively create it, but for now, the pilot made the girls less people and more plot devices for Michelle to prove her worth to Fanny and rediscover her love for dance in the process. And for that matter, I was kind of sad to see Vegas get left in the dust that quickly. I knew that the show had to get to California quickly and spend time building Michelle’s new life, but from what little bit we got to see of Michelle’s old life, it could have provided quality material and been the basis for some very nice episodes. I mean, you had her dance colleagues, both on stage and off, as well as the neighbors in her building, all of whom had their moment in the sun and made the early moments of the pilot enjoyable.
With Michelle pretty much running away from home, you’d think that we wouldn’t have seen the last of Vegas or any of the questionable hookers that live in her complex. What about her apartment? And her job? And her stuff? The urgency that she had in getting out of town is understandable and she did buy the dress in town, but would she really leave every possession and every friend behind without another word? Again, like the personalities of the girls, I expect Michelle to tie up some loose ends in future episodes, but for now, it’s a little too out of sight, out of mind for me.
Bunheads isn’t a fully-formed series quite yet, but with a promising pilot, dynamite lead performance, and innumerable avenues in which to go down, I have a feeling it won’t take long for it to figure everything out. I maybe would have liked a bit less premise and a bit more development, but now that Michelle is in Paradise and Hubbell is gone, the show can slow down and stew in everything that just happened for a while. What happens when the one good thing to come into your life for a long time suddenly is no more? What does it take to rediscover the passion you once had in something? Can two people that barely know one another help ease the grieving process that comes with death? Bunheads may seem like a silly, silly dance show, but when it lets its hair down, it can be oh so much more than that.
Thoughts, Quotes, & Observations:
-“Mara over there looks like Muammar Gaddafi…but nobody cares.”
-“If anything in the world should be sold as a pair, it should be boobs.”
-“I have to be perfect and glowing and 25 by 9 o’clock.”
-“Well I left three messages and sent that telegram…”
-“As long as my face doesn’t look like Chris Hansen, your guests will be fine.”
-“Just tell him I died and I’ll see him next month.”
-“I am old. Any shock could kill me.”
-“I’m not really a duck person, but that’s great, really.”
-“You weren’t supposed to be pretty.”
-“Oh my god, the quips! The chatter!”
-Hey, everybody! Let’s all watch Bunheads this summer, braid each other’s hair, and dream of being half as cool as Sutton Foster. Don’t be afraid to e-mail me or tweet me if you have a question or comment about the show, okay?
-I’m not that much of a dancer nor am I immersed in the dance world, so bear with me on terminology and technique. I’ll get there, but if you’re like me, you can check out the “Bunheads dictionary” and ABT’s ballet dictionary if you get a little lost/confused.
-The yellow coat that Michelle wore in the dressing room talking to Hubbell was beautiful, as was the black dress at the party.
-Speaking of beautiful, how nice was the master bedroom in Fanny’s house?
-I admittedly swooned over both of Hubbell’s passionate monologues to Michelle, especially the one about “you want to live a unexpected life”. All the acting jobs for you, Alan Ruck.
-For those curious, I saw the pilot early, but I don’t have any other screeners, so expect future reviews a little later on Monday nights.
–Next week on Bunheads: Michelle and Fanny deal with the aftermath of Hubbell’s accident.