Summer truly must be ending if the season's best TV show aired its finale last night. (It's possible I need a better yard stick with which to measure the passage of life.)
Bunheads, in my humbly infallible opinion, marked Amy Sherman-Palladino's triumphant return to the small screen. The story of a discontented, quick-witted, eternally stuck Las Vegas dancer named Michelle who, through the combined efforts of a good man's boundless adoration and several martinis, ends up married and living with her mother-in-law in a town so small it's practically off the map, was not a revelation. But that was only due to my prior experience of Sherman's writing.
An almost perverse premise remarkably came off all sweetness and guffaws right from the pilot, and did not stop pleasing until the credits rolled last night. Critics, and there appear to be a good amount, abuse the lack of plot developments, the almost sleepy, pastoral scenes going on for minutes, the unexpected end of an episode where no horrible conflict reared its head and no plane crashed in the middle of the ballet studio, leaving teenage girls to pirouette perfectly to safety or perish in a shaky Hunger Games close-up.
But that's not the kind of show Sherman makes. (Suck it Shonda.) Gilmore Girls lasted for 7 seasons of 22 episodes, not by a cliffhanger every week, or seasonal deaths of major characters, pregnancies, affairs, secrets, etc., but by the intricacies of human interaction. Sherman likes to take the time to focus on actual life, showing us events that truly transpire, albeit made significantly more interesting by language that flows almost too fast for comprehension laden with enough wit and intelligence and humor to keep you completely engrossed in the communication between barista and customer, teenage brother and sister, playwright and audience, realtor and homeowner.
She doesn't have demons and mystical forces and monsters to overcome, symbols of the battles inherent in life and maturation a la Whedon, though she can give even him a run for his money with recognizable, effortless dialogue heavily peppered with pop/culture references. Instead she illustrates, over a season of ten episodes in which one assumes several months have passed, the subtle changes of human relationships. The main one, between Michelle and her mother-in-law Fanny, is the most essential to the show.
As one could fairly easily predict, Michelle being a dancer and ending up in a home with a dancing school, last nights finale showed her heavily involved in all aspects of running Fanny's school, and in fact preparing to take over for Fanny for the summer. There is considerable pleasure in seeing the two of them bantering with the complete absence of any of the sarcasm or bitterness that had colored their first few episodes together (natural enough what with their meetcute being the blink-and-you'll miss it marriage to Michelle followed by the untimely death of her son.) Michelle's input is not only active and welcomed by the end of the season, but heartily approved as she takes a hand in the choreography of the schools most important performance.
The brilliance of Sherman is not in showing merely that they have bonded. After all they are fairly similar; dancers whose passion never dissipated despite the unexpected, uncontrollable twists of life, women who cared deeply for a man they expected to have around for the rest of their lives, women of independence and pride. No, the real fun comes when she reveals everything they have hidden and ignored and brushed aside and denied in all the past episodes where seemingly "nothing happened."
As the show progresses perfectly, Michelle makes the innocent, horrendous, hilarious mistake, when misting the dancers backstage to cool them off, of using her pretty can of pepper spray instead of the water, thus maiming all the students as well as herself, ending the performance and enraging the stereotypes of overprotective suburban parents who like to pay a lot of money for special services if only for the right to complain and threaten (I've met a few, and while I like to think they aren't as prevalent as TV would lead me to believe, they are a convenient shadowy background ensemble character here.)
Michelle's mistake, though she clearly repents and blindly (literally) puts the dancers' welfare before her own, is met with an appropriate level of anger and disappointment by Fanny, who has to cancel their most lucrative event as well as appease the rabid progenitors. However when it comes out in the same conversation that Michelle, who had been flush the previous evening with her newfound importance, respect and success, and consequently spreading her advice and wisdom all over the place, also interfered in Fanny's love life to the complete detriment of it, Fanny loses her filter, or rather breaks the rose-colored glasses she had been recently seeing Michelle through.
The interference of this woman, her meddling and snark, her unasked for existence, the blame she should bear for her son's death and disappearance, all come out. Not with tears and screams and guns and a psychotic break, but with control, and astonishment, and such brief, pointed disappointment that you know, even if Michelle were not the kind of woman who always ran from conflict and never grew roots, you just know she can't stay in Paradise anymore. (Major props to the versatile and talented Kelly Bishop, one of many Sherman-Palladino players that she brought back in this show.)
This conflict (yes, something happened; Sherman, while maybe more interested in filling her seasons with small town life and first world problems, surely knows how to make memorable finales and premieres) is followed by a dream sequence. While I had been longing to see Michelle sing and dance again, as well as some reunion of her and Hubbel and their unresolved romance, this wasn't my favorite part of the show.
First of all, I'm pretty sure Sutton Foster could do a better version of Maybe This Time than she gave us. Yes, she was a Vegas, Broadway dancer, but she's also well trained and clearly a good actor, so aside from mimicking past dream performances as well as her catastrophic non-audition in the pilot, the table-gyrating and leg crossing didn't seem to fit the song. An erect, minimal cocktail lounge type of performance would have been better. But I understand that she's a dancer and can accept the routine. The singing though...no one loves that song more than me, and since it's often repeated a more thrilling version would be expected. (If Kristin Chenowith can kill it on Glee, I don't think Sutton should have any trouble--a comparison I'm sure she'd want to win.)
Regardless, the intent was clear and hit the appropriate nerve, and despite a couple clunky dream-dialogue-lines, seeing Hubbel was poignant and illustrated how much more positive and hopeful Michelle had become, only to see the old&new self-doubt more sharply, starkly, crushingly felt by her in comparison.
Her inevitable slinking departure occurred after waking from this dream, and the O Captain, My Captain of the girls was just like the show: funny, referential, sweet, and sad. Michelle grew to love them, and they her. With her in their lives the girls had changed; Sasha got through a dark time (and might have found a male counterpart in her identity struggle who happens to be cute.) Boo overcame diffidence and immature fantasy for a self-possession and an actually affectionate romance. Ginny began living life rather than following a routine, despite the inevitable unexpected pain that brings. And Melanie...well Melanie became a better friend, and no doubt feels more comfortable as a tall woman with Michelle around.
In their great wisdom, ABC Family has ordered more episodes, likely to air during Spring of next year. The fun part will be seeing where Michelle goes after leaving (back to Vegas? staying with the playwright? hopefully NYC) and how she'll find her way back to Paradise (Fanny tracks her down? the girls do? the unalterable fact that she owns the school and the house?) There's a lot to work with, and I have no doubt Sherman has some good ideas.
But it's not just her long-term plotting that makes her shows such pleasant experiences. It's that she focuses on the experience more than the plot. If you haven't seen this show, pre-order that DVD, decant some wine (it takes awhile) and let the story wash over you.