I had kind of a tough winter this year. The details aren’t important, let’s just say I was stressed and frustrated at work and starting at about 5 every Sunday afternoon my chest started to fill up with acidy dread that wouldn’t leak away until the next Friday at around 4:30.
It was awful. It made Mondays especially awful.
But then there was Bunheads.
A glass of red wine and an hour in Paradise every Monday night may not have cured all of my problems, but it was enough to push away the tightness in my chest for a little while each week, a warm, safe place to land when everywhere else seemed cold and thorny. It’s a tribute to the world that Amy Sherman-Palladino built, and that Sutton Foster, Kelly Bishop, Julia Goldani-Telles, Bailey Buntain, Emma Dumont and Kaitlyn Jenkins infused with life, that a little show that lasted only 18 episodes could feel so much like home.
Bunheads was a show about growing up. Vegas showgirl turned dance teacher Michelle was attempting adulthood and committment for the first time in her mid-thirties as the accidental mentor to teenagers Sasha, Boo, Ginny and Melanie, and her mentees were just starting to grapple with responsibility and crushed dreams and blooming love. While the teenagers often seemed to act like mini-adults, moving out on their own, practically raising their younger siblings, selling real estate, under the surface they were full of messy teen hormones and insecurities. Sasha could throw together a housewarming party that looked like it had been staged for a Martha Stewart Living photoshoot, but she was too scared to spend the night alone in her apartment. Melanie’s relaxed attitude about most things betrayed some serious anger management issues. Boo could bounce from strict parent to naïve child and back in a single scene. And Michelle, for all her inexperience with responsibility and lifetime as a fundamentally selfish person, learned how to take charge pretty quickly. She wasn’t always traditional in her methods, but she proved to be an excellent teacher to her students.
Take the scene where she agrees to help Ginny prepare for an audition for the school musical. By high school standards, Ginny isn’t bad, this is a performance that probably would have landed her the lead at my high school. But Michelle, who has shown up depressed about her own career and hung-over to boot, takes a tough love approach to coaching Ginny. Good enough for high school isn’t good enough for her, and she keeps pushing Ginny to be better until she pushes Ginny out of the spotlight and does it herself.
And she’s amazing. Sutton Foster’s a two-time Tony winner for a reason. (No really, if you’ve never seen her perform “Anything Goes” at the Tonys you are living a sad and incomplete life and you should remedy that immediately.) But it’s not just Sutton Foster that’s amazing, it’s Michelle, too, and you can see all of her wasted potential bubbling below the surface as she takes the stage, all of her desperation and frustration and disappointment. She’s already wallowing in jealousy because her best friend’s just been offered a real part without even an audition and she feels like she’s missed her shot and then she sings.
It’s maybe not the most traditional teaching technique, or an advisable one, but it works. “She was mean and called me names and then she showed me how good she is and how bad I was and then she threw her water on me,” Ginny says, but she’s smiling and she gets a call-back.
And then there’s Michelle’s relationship with Sasha, who is not an especially trusting person, but finds a kindred spirit in her dance teacher. Sasha is stand-offish and angry even around her closest friends, but she opens up to Michelle. Even when Michelle has just (accidentally) maced her, she leaps onto a chair for an impromptu “Oh Captain! My Captain!” She cries on Michelle’s shoulder and asks for her advice about sex and, when her parents leave her on her own in Paradise to live their own lives, it’s Michelle that she turns to for help.
Every time I sit down to write about this show I promise myself that I won’t also talk about Gilmore Girls. It’s a show that deserves to be praised for its own merits and not just as a successor to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first series about quick-witted women. But the two series are undeniably similar in style and tone. They’re both set in small towns full of good-hearted oddballs, both star women who often act more like teenagers and teenagers who act more like adults, both are scored with the warm “lalalas” of Sam Phillips, and Bunheads drew heavily from the Gilmore Girls cast, to the extent that I’m not sure there was an episode without a familiar face, even when you don’t count Kelly Bishop, who had a lead role on both shows.
But while Bunheads often looked and sounded like Gilmore Girls, it took pains to differentiate itself from its big sister. The series was far more stylized, often employing thematic dance numbers that were removed from the show’s narrative context, or choreographed set-pieces like the sequence in the series finale in which the bunheads partake in a sex-ed independent study.
The increased stylization felt like a natural progression from Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls, which did similar things to a lesser degree. Scenes like the cold open to “Double Date,” in which Lorelai and Rory get ready for work and school, or the attempt to get Lane the new Belle & Sebastian CD in “It Should Have Been Lorelai” are early experiments with using music to tell the story, and they’re rare moments without dialogue in an otherwise verbose show. Bunheads feels like a true evolution in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s voice. Recognizable, but distinct.
I don’t know if there was a single episode of Bunheads that failed to bring me to tears. Not necessarily sad tears–generally speaking, the stakes on Bunheads aren’t high enough for, for example, Doctor Who level crying–just tears because I was so full up on feelings. The series wrote to something fundamental about growing up, so that even when it seemed to exist outside of the real world it nailed a genuine emotional complexity.
Whether it was Michelle and her brother closing out a massive fight with a duet of “Tonight You Belong To Me,” or dueling Tommy Lee Jones impressions, or Sasha’s angry and now infamous dance to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” Bunheads found some vessel inside of me that only the show could fill, and boy did it runneth over with the antidote to that acidic dread. There should be more shows about complex women on television, more shows telling anti-cynical stories that pass on the high-stakes, life-and-death craziness that makes up so many TV dramas these days, and as of today there’s one less. Bunheads was built out of warmth and light and it has been snuffed out too soon, and to say I am sorry to see it go doesn’t do the feeling justice.
When I wrote about the pilot of Bunheads three months ago, I mentioned that I was thinking about taking up the subject weekly, reviewing the new episodes as they aired. And then I didn’t do that.
I’ve got a good reason, though.
Each week, as the thoroughly oddball first season of Bunheads progressed, I found myself more and more in love with the show, and less and less interested in breaking it down. Bunheads contained everything I was hoping for when I first heard about it and then some: the familiar warmth and humor of Gilmore Girls, its own unique sensibility, and the comfortable feeling of coming home after a long time away.
Bunheads is not Gilmore Girls, but it’s probably never going to stop inviting comparisons. I don’t think there was a single episode of this first season (or half season? Summer season? ABC Family has been a bit confusing on this matter) that didn’t feature at least one former Gilmore Girls actor. There was Kelly Bishop, of course, appearing in most but not all of the episodes, but also Todd Lowe, Sean Gunn, Rose Abdoo, Chris Eigman, Alex Borstein, Gregg Henry…I’m probably forgetting some. (And while we’re here, can I say I’m hoping to see Yanic Truesdale, Liza Weil and Keiko Agena at some point.)
And it makes sense that Amy Sherman-Palladino would bring back so many familiar faces. She writes wordy, witty dialogue that must, due to the time constraints of the medium, be delivered at an almost insane pace; it’s only logical that she would bring in actors who already know how to handle her words. But she didn’t do the easy thing, letting the familiar faces do necessary character work. The faces were familiar, but the characters were not. Gregg Henry’s Rico could not have been further from his Mitchum Huntzberger, and I would heartily disagree with those who seem to think Fanny Flowers is just a replicated Emily Gilmore. She may have Emily’s command, but not her world-view.
I called the series “oddball” earlier, so maybe I should specify.
Whether it was a defeatist environmental ballet ending in the death of nature or an angsty/angry teen dancing furiously to “Istanbul Not Constantinople,” a mis-matched Fred and Ginger performing in a crowded bar or an entire production of The Nutcrackercollapsing after a mass-macing, the dance numbers on the show were consistent only in how bizarre they were. (The Fred and Ginger dance was preceded by a public confession of teenage like set to “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” which seems like relevant information.)
Then there was the way the show kept twisting off in new directions. What first seemed like a series about a woman finding love for the first time in her life after an impulsive decision to marry her stalker quickly revealed itself to be a series about a woman finding commitment for the first time in her life after her impulsive marriage ends when she finds herself widowed 17 hours in.
And then it took about 5 episodes for the show to establish its basic premise, that Michelle, after years of failing to commit to anything but a transient life, failing to establish the dance career she could have had if she hadn’t kept running away from her life, would finally find herself able to settle down as a teacher to a new generation of aspiring dancers.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s plots have always moved at about 1/100th the pace of her dialogue, but Bunheads seemed to take that to a new level, with weeks going by in which Michelle grieved and poured wine into decanters and marveled about the strange little town she had landed in, but nothing really happened.
It never really bothered me, though. There was just something so pleasant about spending an hour every week in Paradise (California). I said above that it felt like coming home from a long vacation and I don’t think I can come up with a better way to describe it. Things have changed—the characters and the sets and many of the actors, but also, of course, me—but the foundation is the same. The voice. Week after week I responded emotionally to the show, not critically. I could see that it had flaws, of course, but that didn’t make me love it any less. If it were possible to give a show a great big hug I would be hugging the crap out of this one.
And I think my emotional point of view is a good thing. I founded this blog on the basis of sharing enthusiasm (“out of control enthusiasm,” actually) for television. I founded it because I love television. It is my default setting. And I can gape at my screen every Sunday night, astonished by all the moving pieces that make Breaking Bad a Truly Great show, the kind of show that will be dissected and studied and acclaimed for decades, probably, and yes, I can get very emotionally invested, at least in Jesse Pinkman’s fate. But the way I love a show like Breaking Bad is never going to be quite like the way I love a show like Bunheads or Gilmore Girls, it’s never going to be that deep, hearty love.
After all, there’s no place like home.
Warning: Here be spoilers for the Bunheads pilot. If you haven’t watched it yet, read at your own risk. (If you want to watch it, it’s currently free on iTunes.)
The first time I watched the Bunheads pilot, I watched emotionally, not critically. I’ve talked before about my relationship with Gilmore Girls and my excitement for this new show from Amy Sherman-Palladino, long one of my writing heroes, and I think even if I had tried to watch critically I would have failed. Bunheads is going to be my show this summer. Even if it were to suck it would probably be my show.
But guess what? It doesn’t suck!
In fact, it’s wonderful. Quick-witted and talky, funny and a little cynical, but not excessively cynical. Much like its predecessor, it looks like it plans to balance stories between its adult characters and its teen characters, so there’s something for everyone, and everything is set to a Sam Phillips score; even the cues will take you back to Stars Hollow.
If there’s one constant in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing it’s the exploration of relationships between women. That’s not to say that she can’t tell a good story about men and women–up until she intentionally ran everything into the ground, Gilmore Girls always told strong stories about Lorelai and Luke, and if you ever want to watch me sob hysterically all you need do is show me a scene between Lorelai and Richard–but the central relationships in Gilmore Girls were between Lorelai and Rory and Lorelai and Emily, and the central relationship of The Return of Jezebel James was between Sarah and Coco. If nothing else, this leads to series that consistently slay the Bechdel test–for every conversation Lorelai and Rory had about Luke and Dean and Logan and Max and Jess and Christopher, they had a million more about Rory’s future, about Emily and Richard, about school and work and what cuisine was on the menu at Al’s Pancake World that week.
At first Bunheads seems to be setting up a story about a woman who falls in love with her husband after she marries him, with a side of teaching precocious teens how to dance, but as the episode progresses, and in particular in the last five minutes, it becomes clear that Bunheads is not a show about Michelle (Sutton Foster) and Hubbell (Alan Ruck), the relationship at the center of this show is between Michelle and Fanny (Kelly Bishop), her new mother-in-law.
In that final scene, as Michelle and Fanny do shots at the local bar, they discuss Hubbell, yes, but mostly they talk about missed opportunities, dreams that didn’t come true either because life or a lack of focus got in the way. These women are both living their lives full of regret, as Sherman-Palladino beautifully illustrates in earlier moments of quiet, such as the scene where Michelle drinks a beer on the walk-way outside her apartment, the Vegas strip glittering in the distance behind her complex, or the scene where Fanny dances before the mirror in her empty dance studio, then offers herself a little nod as if to say, “that was okay.” The two women find uneasy common ground in their shared failures.
And then they dance together.
It’s an ecstatic moment, the tension between them breaks and they let loose a little, and it’s almost immediately cut short by the revelation, in the last moments of the episode, that Hubbell, out searching for his wife and mother, has been in some sort of accident, and the implication that he has died.
As a pilot, this episode has to do a lot of maneuvering. When the series starts Michelle lives in Vegas and knows Hubbell as little more than a harmless stalker who brings her shoes and buys her dinner once a month, but within the first ten minutes she’s had what she sees as her final chance at her dream shot down, gotten drunk over another dinner with her stalker and found herself married and en route to Paradise. Literally.
Paradise, California, doesn’t seem all that different from Gilmore Girls‘ Stars Hollow, Connecticut, with its nosey eccentrics. The residents have a warm sort of crazy–Michelle jokes that Truly (Stacey Oristano), Hubbell’s ex, has “driving-cross-country-in-diapers-to-kill-you potential,” but she mostly comes across as overly-emotional, and Oristano, who was so excellent in a more dramatic role on Friday Night Lights, delivers some of the best line-readings of the episode–much like the denizens of Stars Hollow, but they’ve got a more relaxed attitude than Taylor Doose and his town meetings. And hey, Stars Hollow had a movie theatre…part-time.
And while the pilot effectively sets up Bunheads‘ setting and its characters–I haven’t even touched on the four teenage ballerinas that make up the younger spectrum of the ensemble–its final twist leaves me curious to see what the rest of the series will look like. This is a place-setting pilot, not one that establishes a template for the series. In the past, Sherman-Palladino has often written towards character and location more than she has toward plot, and I suspect this show will continue along that pattern, but the pilot was very much about putting the pieces on the board. You think that Michelle’s decision to marry Hubbell and leave her life in Vegas behind is the catalyst for the series, but in actuality the catalyst doesn’t come until those final moments–we don’t yet know what to expect from this show.
I’m excited to find out, though. The patter of Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue is familiar, the quick-witted oddball characters are, too, but she’s telling a different story here. Gilmore Girls was very much about a woman whose life revolved around her daughter, but Michelle’s life revolves around Michelle. Gilmore Girls begins just as Lorelai is starting to live her own life again, separate from the one she’s had with Rory, while Bunheads is beginning with Michelle learning to let others in, whether that’s developing a friendship with Fanny–and, I hope I hope, Truly, just because I found her to be so enjoyable–or becoming a mentor to the girls. There are a lot of stories in those relationships, and I look forward to watching them unfold.
- Of the four teenage girls, only two stand out especially in the pilot, Sasha with her technique and her disinterest, and Boo with her enthusiasm and uncertainty. I look forward to seeing Melanie and Ginny develop as well.
- Oristano’s Truly is so different from the stripper-turned-mother that she played on Friday Night Lights, but I already love her nearly as much. She’s very funny without being too broad.
- Familiar faces from Gilmore Girls include Alex Borstein as the prostitute who lives next door to Michelle in Vegas (she played Drella the harpist and Miss Celine the stylist, and was originally cast as Sookie, but had to drop out due to her commitment to MadTV), Rose Abdoo as the owner of Sparkles (Gypsy the mechanic) and, of course, Kelly Bishop.
- Hubbell’s proposal by way of extended Godzilla metaphor is beautiful, and does a lot to overcome his initial portrayal as a stalker. The fact that he’s played by Alan Ruck helps, too.
- This Vulture interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino did a lot to remind me how much I love her. It’s worth a read.
- I’m thinking about covering this show on a week-to-week basis. Would that be of interest to anyone?
When I was 15 I wrote a fan letter to Amy Sherman-Palladino. It was largely incoherent, unnecessarily long–I think about 17 pages, front and back–scribbled in the hasty handwriting of a teenager who had more feelings than sufficient words, and, thank God, it was never sent. That was one of my earliest attempts to explain what Gilmore Girls meant to me, and the role it was playing in my life at the time.
I’m 24 now and I still haven’t really figured out how to put my relationship with the series into words. It’s not enough to say that it’s my favorite TV show of all time, or even just to say that I loved it. Gilmore Girls represents something larger about who I am. It shaped my sense of humor, my sense of taste, my sense of style…it’s the reason I speak at outrageous speeds. It has played a part in small decisions in my life–what book to read next, which t-shirt to buy–and some big ones–where to go to college. Maybe most importantly, Gilmore Girls was the show that first brought me online, lead me to fan fiction and message boards and eventually LiveJournal, to some significant long distance friendships that I’ve been sustaining for upwards of 8 years. And that, more than anything, is why I am sitting here, writing a TV blog.
Or, to put it simply, if you asked me to choose one piece of pop culture, something to point to and say, “this, if you get this then you get me,” well that’s Gilmore Girls.
All of this is to say that I probably have unreasonable expectations for Bunheads going in. Not critical expectations necessarily, but certainly emotional ones. I know that, probably because I’m not twelve years old anymore, it will not–it cannot–affect me the way that Gilmore Girls did. There’s a place inside of us that’s reserved for the culture of our childhoods and teen years, the culture that helps shape us when we’re still as moldable as playdough, and that’s untouchable after a certain point. No matter how much I have loved other series since, they have never touched that part of me.
This first trailer is all we have of Bunheads so far–not very much. It doesn’t really tell you anything beyond “ballet!” and “Sutton Foster!” And yet I can’t watch it without tearing up. And maybe that’s just a response to Mr. ABC Family intoning “From executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls,” in that way that Mr. ABC Family intones things, but I think it’s something more. I think it’s something in the little bit of set design we see, in the costuming, in the words “attitude, my friends,” and in the way Sutton Foster is delivering them.
This is not Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first series since leaving Gilmore Girls at the end of its sixth season. She had a very short-lived (only three episodes aired) mid-season sitcom called The Return of Jezebel James in 2008. It was not the worst show ever, but it wasn’t the best either. Parker Posey was miscast in the lead role, her comic rhythms didn’t match with Sherman-Palladino’s particular style–nor did the sitcom format, for that matter. Given the chance it probably could have grown into a pretty good show, but there’s a reason I didn’t feel compelled to watch it until just a few months ago.
But what “attitude, my friends,” tells me is that Sutton Foster might just have the, well, attitude to pull this off. There’s a patter and wit and speed to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue that not everyone can navigate, and there’s a tone to her writing, something that goes beyond just her pace and her constant stream of cultural references–there’s a warmth to her characters and to the stories she can tell with them. Maybe I’m reading too much into a 16 second trailer, maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, but I feel like this show could restore some of that warmth to my pop culture diet.
My inner teen will keep her fingers crossed.