Sherman-Palladino’s “Bunheads” Does Ballet with Sharper Wit, Less Trauma Than “Black Swan”

I don’t normally tune in to TV shows in which the women outnumber the men by a wide margin. I’ve seen multiple episodes of The Golden Girls and Designing Women only because they aired during my childhood, when I had no say in what shows our family watched. As far as more recent years go, let it be noted for the record that the gender margin on Buffy was by no means wide.

I never brake for ballet. I was once forced at too young an age to sit through a Dance Kaleidoscope performance of The Nutcracker that scarred me with boredom for decades. I’ve never seen Billy Elliott or The Red Shoes. I only endured Black Swan because my annual fanatical Oscar completism required it. Even ballet episodes of The Simpsons aren’t my cup of tea, except for any scene involving Lugash.

I’ve never even watched an ABC Family series, unless you count a few guilty-pleasure reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. I try (and fail) to justify that by citing the members of its writing staff who hailed from the great and powerful Mystery Science Theater 3000. I also secretly think Tom Bergeron is underrated, but you didn’t hear it from me.

And no, sadly, I never saw a complete episode of Gilmore Girls. Nothing about “women’s drama on the WB” sounded like a draw for me. Admittedly, occasional snippets and reviews I caught in later seasons gave me the impression that I might like it if I tried it, but by then it was too late.

Today Entertainment Weekly gave subscribers access to a sneak preview of the entire first episode of the upcoming ABC Family series Bunheads, a ballet drama created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and voice behind Gilmore Girls. The last time EW sent me a sneak-preview link, that particular free sample lasted all of four minutes before I rolled my eyes at the show in question, closed the browser window, and thanked them for thinking of me.

Given all of this, I had no reason to expect that Bunheads would beat the previous four-minute record. I rolled the dice and gave it a go anyway.

The first minute wasn’t encouraging– a kickline of Vegas showgirls doing their onstage frilly thing for the men, only to be pushed aside by the even less clothed real stars of their stage. The camera switches focus to two girls in the back row, exchanging catty remarks about why they don’t qualify for front row. From there the pace picks up as we move backstage and introduce a very special guest star: Alan Ruck, known to many as spineless sidekick Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but dearer to me as Captain Harriman, the schlub who helped Captain Kirk get dead in Star Trek: Generations.

Ruck’s presence as a stubborn, clueless suitor bought the pilot ten minutes of my time. Fair exchange, I figured. I’ve never seen him misused.

The next time I remembered to check the timecode, fifteen minutes had gone by. From there the scene abruptly changed, new characters entered and marked their positions, and the momentum wouldn’t stop. Next thing I knew, the full 45-minute episode had flown by and ended with a precipitous cliffhanger that left me wanting to know what happens next.

In my book, that’s unconscious high praise.

The premise, since it matters: Michelle (Tony nominee Sutton Foster, razor-sharp and Sorkin-film-ready) is a trained dancer turned hopeless Vegas eye candy who impulse-marries Captain Harriman in a rock-bottom moment of weakness and agrees to move into his mammoth abode in a faraway, cozy, everybody-knows-your-name small town called Paradise, a name well chosen from the approved list of ironic names for TV small towns. Everyone except Harriman hates her, especially his ex-girlfriend Truly (Friday Night Lights‘ Stacey Oristano, who steals every scene with pitiful comedy tears), and doubly especially Harriman’s mom (Kelly Bishop, also formerly of Gilmore Girls, playing far from caricature), who is stern and offended at the tawdry acquisition of a surprise daughter-in-law. She lives in Harriman’s home, just as you’d expect from a sitcom aiming for wacky hijinks. Michelle’s in luck, though — hubby’s mansion also houses mother-in-law’s ballet school.

You can imagine the culture clashes. You can imagine the possibilities for the two adversaries bonding over ballet despite having little else in common. You can imagine there are at least four young students with singular character traits who are only a pirouette away from being labeled the Bad News Bears of ballet.

What holds it together and makes it zing are Sherman-Palladino’s ear for dialogue that’s not cribbed from other TV shows; the immediate, surprising depth of the awkward quote-unquote “relationship” between newlyweds Michelle (who’s well aware that her actions don’t speak well of her) and Captain Harriman (who we learn isn’t as dense about their situation as he seems); and a few moments of gravity struck in just the right places that lift this pilot several planes above the level of chick-flick flight-of-fancy. I sincerely apologize for expecting no more than that going into it.

The premiere airs Monday, June 11th, on ABC Family at 9 p.m. EDT. The official site has plenty of preview material and freebies for the curious. I’ve clicked on none of them because I’m giving serious consideration to catching episode two the following week and would prefer to avoid spoilers. Also, if future episodes aim more for the ABC Family young-girl audience and not so much on a level for me, the complete opposite of their target demographic, then I’d prefer not to find out yet.

(I’m thankful the show isn’t aiming for a prurient tone — setting aside that fleeting opening scene — so I can explain to my wife why I think the show might be worthwhile without looking like a dirty old man. It also helps my case that I find her 200% more attractive than any ballet dancer. Yes, really. Don’t give me that look.)

Enclosed below is a two-minute fraction of the episode I watched of The Show I Couldn’t Possibly Like. Enjoy! I’ll just be over here remembering what owning a Man Card once felt like.

(If I could make just one suggestion: is it too late to change the title to, say, Dances in Paradise? Bunheads sounds like an Adult Swim show about animated foul-mouthed pastries.)

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