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?