Review: Bunheads Pilot

C: Last night E and I turned on the DVR to check out the premiere of Bunheads, a new series on ABC Family. Already with that sentence, I’m bracing for skepticism. Can any good thing come out of ABC Family? I had my doubts, but had two reasons for watching anyway:

1) Amy Sherman-Palladino: writer/producer of Gilmore Girls, writing/producing this. I never actually watched GG when it was on, but I’ve since seen the first three seasons on DVD and it is pretty charming.

2) Sutton Foster: Broadway star recently acclaimed for Anything Goes, starring in this. Rose to fame as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which the Quibblers trekked to NYC to see a decade ago. Extremely charming.

E: Oh, that play!  The movie Thoroughly Modern Millie is a family favorite, and the stage version (and the fantastic Foster) was a marvel. M’s still mad we went without him (and not just because we, I kid you not, walked out of the theater between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas).

C: That was indeed an epoch in geek family life! But back to Bunheads — there’s also the fact that this is a show with dance as its main theme, and dancing is cool, right? (Bunheads = ballet dancers. Not people who really enjoy rolls, or Princess Leia role players.)

E: Right, right.  I’m not the Gilmore Girls devotee C is–

C: Having only seen the first three seasons, I can hardly own to that title.

E: –but I do love me some dance. Factor in a positive review from Ken Tucker,  the fact that it’s summer and there’s so little to watch beside the new-to-me episodes of Person of Interest and Awake saved up on my DVR, I was definitely down for checking this out.

C: Verdict: it was pretty cute. Spoilers below!

While I enjoyed the show, what threw me was how much it felt cut from the same cloth as Gilmore Girls. Not just the fact that Sutton Foster’s character, Michelle, talks just like Lorelai.

E: Well, for me that’s not so much an issue since I didn’t watch the other show, but sure, I can see how that’d be off-putting.

C: Well, I’d expected similar dialogue–in the way that you expect Aaron Sorkin’s characters to talk alike or J.J. Abram’s heroines to bear taut expressions of weighty but controlled pain.

E: Ha!  So true.

C: But the similarities started to pile up at rather too fast a pace. There’s the fact that Bunheads takes place in Paradise, which can only be described as a renamed, coast-swapped Stars Hollow. The fact that Sutton Foster has the look of Lauren Graham…

E: Do you think so?  I don’t particularly find them similar; to me, Foster’s Mary Tyler Moore all the way.

C: I can see that, but I also think it’s striking that she has the exact same coloring as Lauren Graham and seems adept at the same exaggerated facial expressions. And one of the central teen dancers has the look of Alexis Bledel…

E: Yes, I’ll give you that, though this character is surly where Alexis was sunny.

C: True. And the mother character IS the mother character – same actress.

E: There is no “yes but” defense for this one.

C: It’s not like she’s not a good actress, but really, isn’t that strange? To carry over the same actress in a somewhat looser but basically similar role? And then there’s the fact that Gilmore‘s bizarre, distinctive “la la la” music happens at the scene intervals here. It’s weirdly like watching a parallel universe version of the same show.

E: I wonder how much the musical choices belong to Sherman-Palladino, and how much was dictated by a network looking to duplicate her feel-good brand?

C: Good question. My unfounded guess would be that the musician, like Kelly Bishop (the mother), is an old friend of Sherman-Palladino’s. But there was quite a bit I liked about the series, so I don’t want to go overboard on the critique. For instance, the protagonist and at least one of the ballet girls are likable.

E: Indeed, wacky underdog Boo is quite appealing.  The overconfident, bored Bledel-type is less so, and the follower and the Megan Hilty lookalike aren’t defined enough yet.

C: And I was pleased to see Alan Ruck, who I have always been fond of since Ferris Bueller, as the execrably named Hubbell Flowers.

E: Hubbell took me about half the show to like; also, at first I assumed Michelle was calling him by his last name, so it took me half the episode to see my error.  When he’s ogling her pathetically, bearing gifts and taking her friends out to fancy dinners as Michelle blows him off, he didn’t make a positive impression.  I hardly bothered to think of his name. It wasn’t until his mother called him Hubbell (which I still want to spell like the telescope) that I realized it was supposed to be his first name. It’s the Flowers bit that puts it beyond the pale.

C: Well yes, he’s more pathetic than likable to begin with. And sketchy. I mean, I don’t think it occurred to me that men who haunt the stage doors of show dancers with presents and marriage proposals still exist in the present day. He should have a mustache and a monocle.

E: A tuxedo and mutton chops! But then he starts to pull you in.

C: Yep. The dialogue is one thing the show does have going for it, and he gets some of the best of it!

E: Which is to say that when Michelle (sloshed and warning her suitor that she’s a bad relationship bet) responds to his marriage proposal by calling herself Godzilla, Hubbell declares with completely beguiling sincerity that he would be the one scientist who knew that she wasn’t trying to kill the Japanese, but was really a mother protecting her hidden eggs, and that he was the only one who knew where they were and would never, never tell?  I had to pause the TV so I could howl “Best. Proposal. Ever!”

C: It was genius. Truly genius. She’d have been mad to say no.

E: My hesitation about the show centers around the off-stage offing of Hubbell, who’s quickly disposed of in a car accident.  I was looking forward to watching Michelle fall for Hubbell, and now I’m annoyed that the next episode will consist of Michelle deciding against all reason to stay with her overbearing sort-of mother-in-law in the ghastly house of decorating horrors instead of slinking back to her admittedly hollow Vegas life.

C: I know, right? That just doesn’t grab me as much. Because while they made it sound easy (“I think I could fall in love with him,” says Michelle) you know it wouldn’t have been. I don’t think Hubbell was as smart as Michelle and while earnestness and niceness may have felt good to her at a very low point in her life, you could picture her falling into problematic attractions to other men when she regained her confidence. It would have be unique to watch.

E: Plus, I was so excited that sad sack Ruck seemed to be playing a hero for once.  I should have known that was too good to last.

C: Sigh. Indeed. He’s rarely played a good guy, but he’s good at it. I must say, it took a while for me to realize why I’m not more drawn to the show in spite of its many attractive qualities, and I think his too-convenient death is the reason. Everything else here I’ve seen before in some form. The woman who impulsively marries a kind but dopey suitor and has to decide if she’ll stay with him in the house he shares with his mother? That was new. That piqued my interest.

E: It would have been unlike anything else we’ve seen, that’s for sure.  Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show about a ballet studio before, either, so hopefully that’ll provide enough originality to keep it all interesting? 

C: True, but that’s not an inherently dramatic situation. A small-town ballet studio could be full of human interest, or quite dull. And there are several shows on air about aspirational young artists. Will this be one I continue to watch, or is it too much a Gilmore redux with nothing special added? I’m not sure. Another episode or two will tell.

E: At least two; I can’t imagine this next episode will be anything other than the forgone conclusion of Michelle choosing to stay in Paradise and work for at Fanny Flowers’ dance studio.  That’s much too obvious to judge the show on – unless, I suppose, they find a shockingly clever and original way to tell this perfunctory part of the story?

C: I don’t know if that’s possible. But tune in tonight, folks, and let us know what you think!

2 comments on “Review: Bunheads Pilot

  1. The Presidentrix says:

    It’s nice to hear somebody else say how interesting it would have been if Hubbell had lived. I, too, have a huge soft spot for that actor. (Though I tend to refer to him as ‘when-Cameron-was-in-Egypt’s-land-let-my-Cameron-gooooooo,’ which is hardly an abbreviation, but which has made it unnecessary for me to learn his actual name). I think he and Sutton Foster could have been so funny and strange together.

    I also had a second thought about how the show could proceed in an interesting direction from Hubbell’s death, but the subsequent episodes haven’t brought that idea to fruition, either. I was thinking it would be a fascinating twist on the Kelly Bishop character if, instead of just being intractable and judgmental and brittle and arbitrary, she was all those things but unexpectedly *bonded* with Sutton Foster’s character, such that they became kind of an unstoppable Godzilla alliance. What a strange result, to marry a near-stranger and get only a mother-in-law (and friend) out of the deal instead! But it seems like the show intends to use Kelly Bishop in the traditional ‘everything you do is somehow wrong’ way that ASP has generally used her.

    It’s funny how it troubles me simultaneously that Bunheads is so eerily similar to Gilmore Girls and that key aspects of the formula are missing. Luke was such a linchpin of my enjoyment of the original show; without his weird blend of affable dependability and ranty uber-grump, Lorelei wouldn’t have been half so funny. Now you deposit me in the middle of Stars Hollow mirror-verse, and I can’t get my bearings without him. I’m standing in the middle of the street (like Paul Anka the dog and Paul Anka the man, in that one weird dream sequence that one time), and I can’t stop myself from calling out ‘Luke? Luke? Where are you, Luke?’ So disorienting. (And we might have met the potential Luke in a subsequent episode, but if that’s going to be him, then I’m disappointed so far. He is not yet a Luke caliber Luke).

    This may not mean anything to either of you if you stopped watching GG before this character ever appeared (I kind of can’t remember how early exactly he came along), but in terms of ASP re-using the same actors, I got a huge kick out of the guy who used to play Horrid Potential Father-in-Law, News Magnate, Douchebag and All-Around Rory-Demoralizer Mitchum Huntsberger as the stoner bar-owner. That actor is so often typecast as a rat and a blowhard. (Like, for example, on the recent White Collar season premiere).

  2. The Presidentrix says:

    Oh, and regarding good things to come out of ABC Family: I never managed to see the whole season, but the predictably short-lived Huge was supposed to be pretty brilliant and profoundly counter-cultural. (To the point that you’d almost think ABC Family greenlit it by mistake). I watched a few episodes, and I was really impressed by the talent and charm of several of the young actors, kids who would probably have trouble getting noticed and hired for mainstream acting jobs. Huge was written by the creator of My So-Called Life and her daughter. Also, it had Gina Torres from Firefly.

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