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.
I love Christmas. Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I don’t really care. I love Christmas. It’s fun to get gifts. It’s fun to give gifts. Also, Christmas is my birthday and thus doubly special to me. I know the holiday season is not all about celebrating the wonder of my existence, but it’s fun to pretend that the wreaths, the trees, the lights, the songs and especially the holiday-themed television episodes are a way of making up for the fact that I have to share my day with such a large percentage of the western world.
You may have noticed the word “especially” before “holiday-themed television episodes” in that paragraph. That’s because I love Christmas TV. Probably even more than I love popping in my Love Actually DVD as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table. Each year brings new episodes to the canon (I can think of several really excellent episodes from this year, some of which you’ll see mentioned below), but going back and revisiting the “classics” is good fun too.
I could not possibly come up with a comprehensive list of Christmas TV, and without one I wouldn’t dare to try an official East Cupcake top ten list. What I have to offer, however, is a list of ten Christmas episodes–or at least ten shows, there are a few series on this list that have turned out more than one excellent Christmas episode–that I especially love. This isn’t definitive, it isn’t complete, it’s just a handful of suggestions, things I plan to watch over the next few days to get in the spirit of this time of year.
Community has now turned out a Christmas episode in each of its three seasons and while the first one was fine (worth it for the Forest Whitaker eye alone), the second and third are outstanding. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” manages to be a silly and loving homage to the stop motion Christmas specials of yore and also a heartbreaking story about Abed’s inability to deal with his own emotions. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is actually quite similar to a later episode in season 2, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” They’re both stories of this study group sitting in a room with someone they believe is at risk, trying to talk them down in their own ways, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” hides it behind stop motion and musical numbers. In many ways it is tremendously sad. “Regional Holiday Music,” however, is transcendant. If Community never comes back (though I’m choosing to remain optimistic), at least it will have ended on an absolute high note, a better episode of Glee than any episode Glee has ever done. The songs are goofy, the jokes send up Glee, yes, but also aspects of Community, like all the messed up dimensions of Annie’s relationship with Jeff. And it’s unrelentingly hilarious.
The O.C. did a Chrismukkah episode in each of its four seasons, but I’m only recommending three of them because I can barely remember the events of “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvah-kah” (beyond the fact that there was a Bar Mitzvah). The other three episodes are each delightful in their own way, though, whether Seth’s first introducing the holiday in season 1, Lindsay’s true family tree is coming out at the world’s most awkward Christmas dinner in season 2, or Ryan and Taylor are trying to put the Cohens back together in a world where they don’t exist (or were born the wrong gender) in season 4. (The O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah is a staple in my Christmas playlist, too.)
How I Met Your Mother has turned out nearly as many Christmas episodes as it has seasons and they’re all worth watching at this time of year. “How Lily Stole Christmas” is funny and sweet and it explores Lily’s friendship with Ted, which doesn’t always get as much attention as either of their relationships with Marshall. “Little Minnesota” does this with Marshall and Robin, another little seen pairing and the primary reason I love the episode so. Last year’s “False Positive” and this year’s “Symphony of Illumination” have both explored the days after learning you’re pregnant and what that means both for those who want kids and those who don’t, as well as the roles your friends play in a moment of personal crisis. The two episodes took those stories in different directions, but they both did a great job with it. “False Positive” is also especially and exceptionally funny, and the home of Ted’s Christmas-Themed Movie Snack.
Before I started watching Doctor Who I never got new TV on my birthday. Times have changed, though, and now each year brings a new Christmas special like it’s a birthday present just for me. And with only one exception (*cough*”The Next Doctor”*cough*), they’ve all been pretty incredible. Just think of that moment when the Tenth Doctor steps out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Christmas Invasion,” awakened by spilled tea and ready to save the world (again and also for the first time). He’s tasting blood and quoting The Lion King and having a sword-fight on the ledge of a spaceship over London and it’s fantastic. Or think about loud, brilliant, loud Donna’s introduction in “The Runaway Bride.” Or Astrid’s fate in “The Voyage of the Damned.” Or the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreaking swan song in “The End of Time.” Or the way “A Christmas Carol” plays with sharks and stories and the ways time can be rewritten. Even “The Next Doctor” isn’t terrible, it just doesn’t live up to my expectations after so many other great Christmas specials.
The US version of The Office has turned out 5 Christmas episodes in 8 years, and while they’ve all had their moments I’d say these three are the best of the bunch. “Christmas Party” is both hilarious–Michael turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap–and heart-wrenching–Jim trying to make sure Pam gets the present he’s probably been planning for years. “A Benihana Christmas” pits the Party Planning Committee against the Committee to Plan Parties and finally unites Karen and Pam as friends (however briefly). And “Classy Christmas” is a brilliant study in psychological torture.