Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bunheads Review

I really liked it.

I should admit right off the bat that I am a pretty diehard Gilmore Girls fan. I'm also a fan of any ballet-related stories. I've long awaited something new from Amy Sherman-Palladino that I could get behind (do NOT mention, or even think about, The Return of Jezebel James)so when I first heard about Bunheads I was naturally excited.

Sure there was some hesitation; ABC Family has a way of making everything they're airing sound horrendously cheesy in their advertisements. (Either tell your voiceover guy to stop fake grinning while he speaks or hire a classy female voice.) Also the typical ABCFam schedule generally resemble shows MTV would have rejected whose writing makes Rizzoli & Isles look like Mamet.

So I went in to last night's Bunheads premier with no expectations, just the desire to be pleased and feel some of that rhythm, and comfort and fun that has been missing since Gilmore Girls retired.

And I liked it. A lot. (Spoilers follow)

The show centers on Michelle, played by famous Broadway actress Sutton Foster, an unhappy Vegas showgirl whose lack of focus in her youth cost her a brilliant dancing career. Her life involves a crappy apartment, a boring and repetitive dance routine, and humiliation whenever she tries to advance her career.

Alan Ruck plays Hubble, a bumbling, earnest, good hearted shoe salesman who visits and woos Michelle on a monthly basis as he visits Vegas for business. He brings her flowers, and new shoes, and jewelery and watches, and takes her to dinner, though generally she blows him off. After a particularly brutal audition humiliation, Michelle agrees to dinner, and finds his sincere kindness overwhelming and restorative in a life full of regret and disappointment. That plus a few martinis leads her to say "Yes" when Hubbel proposes marriage.

They get hitched Vegas style and then he drives her home, to a town up the coast called Paradise, where he lives with his ballet-teaching mother in a cluttered house in a sleepy small town.

Now this plot, though with some similarities to Gilmore Girls (female relationships, independence vs. family, small town life full of eclectic characters) is considerably more twisted and adult. The lack of love felt by Michelle for Hubbel is admitted out loud on more than one occasion. We never actually see her agree to the proposal (a smart move on Sherman-Palladino's part) but there are moments when we're forced to consider that our heroine is a Vegas showgirl who married a nice man with money just to change her situation. It's not the most endearing and admirable of characteristics.

Yet somehow, whether it's the classic Sherman-Palladino well-written mix of comedy and banter and legitimate emotional confession, or Sutton Foster's impressive comedic timing and charming clumsiness that still somehow translates into believable dancing capabilities and the certain gravitas necessary to anchor a lead role on a one hour show, it all came together and worked.

A good amount of that is due to Kelly Bishop, the most recognizable Gilmore Girl alum as she used to be Lorelai's mother (though we also see Gypsy at the local dress store, and Alex Bornstein does a good Vegas hooker neighbor) who here plays Hubbel's mother, the overly dramatic ballet school teacher, who has regrets and eccentricities of her own, and welcomes Michelle with hostility and suspicion before having an enjoyable heart to heart at the end of the pilot. Bishop makes the badly titled small town feel real, and is convincing as a past 'bunhead' who gave up the stage for the duties of single motherhood and who, while capable of affection, is a no nonsense kind of woman with some interesting layers to explore in this series.

The bunheads themselves, Bishop's students, are also interesting and well-acted considering they're teenagers. There's the standard body issue conflict of an aspiring ballerina, which thankfully is handled in the pilot so one can hope for some more interesting dance-drama, and the less standard problem of a truly talented ballerina who has no heart or focus and an off-camera gay father who's still in the closet. They were written and acted with enough humanity and humor to make one look forward to seeing their own personal stories evolve. (And Shonda Rhimes should be ashamed of slamming Sherman-Palladino on twitter for not including a token "girl of color" among the dancers, but instead she doubtless feels like a champion of diversity.)

But mostly it's the path of Foster that holds our interest; her inevitable role as a teacher in her mother-in-law's ballet school and her relationship with that same mother-in-law. Having kept away from any spoilers or press about this show, I was also interested in seeing her quasi marriage with Hubble evolve and perhaps grow less weird and awkward for me, but instead Sherman-Palladino made a clever little plot twist, one that furthers the relationships she clearly cares about more and gives us some good TV drama opportunity; the off-camera car crash death of Hubble at the end of the pilot.

Thus will our heroines be thrust together. Thus will the mother open up to the daughter-in-law, and the daughter-in-law will feel the responsibility to stay and help with the school and paying for the house, which the son had taken care of. And thus shall the eccentric ex-dancer learn to love the small town and the young girls' lives she can help shape.

And thus does Amy Sherman-Palladino finally, finally have a new canvas with which to give us her humor, her intelligence, her lovely female characters and her ability to make an ordinary day in a small town full of drama and interest. Well-written and perfectly cast, this is the first new series in awhile that I'm really looking forward to continuing.

True I still harbor hopes for a GG reunion (telemovie?) but Bunheads is familiar enough in voice and visuals to fill that void, and unique enough in tone and story to satisfy that perpetual craving for something new.

Highly recommended.

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