Last summer I found myself addicted to an unusual new ABC Family series, thanks to a sneak preview for which I had zero expectations. The dance-crazy dramedy Bunheads surprised me with its rapid-fire dialogue, spark-filled cast, and copious pop-culture references — and not the same tired quotes from, say, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz. How many shows do you know that are off-kilter enough to make cracks about Martin Scorsese’s Kundun years after the fact, regardless of whether or not you could possibly envision the character sitting still long enough to watch the whole thing? I’ve never been a big fan of ballet, shows where the males are wildly outnumbered, or ABC Family, but Bunheads had me hooked from episode one. When the material is high-quality, I don’t care about its genre. Regrettably, I’ve seen very little of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s most famous series, Gilmore Girls, but I appreciated the input from trusty readers who filled me in on GG-related Easter eggs and casting coups that Bunheads apparently relishes. Someday I’ll have to borrow my mom’s DVD sets.
The premise, in brief: second-string Vegas showgirl Michelle (Broadway vet Sutton Foster) is swept away to the tiny town of Paradise, California, after a quickie marriage to her biggest fan, Hubbell (Alan Ruck from Star Trek VI, Speed, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)), who owns a super-sized estate in which he allows his mother Fanny (GG vet Kelly Bishop) to live and run a dance studio. Fanny is offended at the situation and her new unapproved daughter-in-law, as is Hubbell’s doting ex, loopy dress-shop owner Truly (Stacey Oristano), not to mention most townspeople. After one whole day of marriage, Hubbell dies in a tragic car wreck, willing ownership of the estate to his overwhelmed bride. Michelle and Fanny spend ten episodes establishing a truce, which eventually involves Michelle co-teaching at the dance studio despite low self-esteem and constantly failing at life.
When last we left our heroines, the studio’s annual production of The Nutcracker, the one show that pays most of Fanny’s year-round bills, falls prey to clumsy disaster when Michelle mistakes the Mace in her purse for a water-misting bottle and blasts every last teenage dancer squarely in their sweaty, unsuspecting faces. After much screaming and writhing on the dance floor, parents are incensed but the dancers are forgiving, displaying their support for Michelle with an homage to the last scene from Dead Poets Society. Michelle flees town anyway. It’s what she’s used to doing.
Monday night, Bunheads returned at last with the first of another eight-episode set. Entitled “You Wanna See Something?”, the winter premiere picks up at the end of the same summer, with Fanny wistfully viewing old videos of Michelle and her students performing in harmony until back pain strikes, while Truly tries to help with either redecorating or moving (I wasn’t clear on which). Somehow this involves Truly amusing herself, or possibly creating art in her own mind, by building a claustrophobic closet-sized outdoor replica of Fanny’s kitchen, made entirely of cardboard but equipped with working electricity. Every hobo should own one of these prized super-dioramas.
Fanny’s studio has stayed closed all summer after the Macing, its dance space wasted as storage, the Christmas tree still standing, the police tape still strung up, a neighbor’s canoe occupying several square feet. (Quoth a wide-eyed Truly ominously without elaborating: “Nothing is more terrifying than a canoe.” One too many viewings of Friday the 13th or the Jaws series, perhaps?) Meanwhile, with Fanny’s lessons shut down all summer long, her four pupils who receive the most screen time have 99 problems and ballet ain’t one:
* Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), the cultured, acerbic snob who’s also the undisputed star pupil, returns from vacation spent with the Joffrey Ballet, whose competitive atmosphere was, in her smiling words, “cutthroat…but I was the only one who’d read The Art of War.” Sasha refuses to go home to her continually battling parents. Instead her friends take turns hiding her away in their respective houses, shuttling her back and forth under the codename “The Package”. At some point her previous meet-cute with part-time bad-boy Roman blossomed into the early stage of a boyfriend/girlfriend thing.
* Boo (Caitlyn Jenkins), the big-boned gentle-souled misfit, is now running her household while her weight-enabling mom is on bed rest due to surprise late-in-life pregnancy. Boo’s mom is giddy at first at the prospect of unlimited TV time, but grows bored after Day One, then shows unsettling signs of shifting personality from one Misery character to another. (The last straw may be the imagined torture-to-come that could be “six months of Katie Couric giving herself a colonoscopy over and over AND OVER!”) Boo is thrilled by none of this because it leaves her less time for her waitressing job at the Oyster Bar. She’s also not excited that some artistic fiend turned her post-Macing interview with local TV into an Auto-Tuned viral-video number called “It’s Time to Dance”, complete with goofy hand motions and humor at her poor teacher’s expense. Worst of all, to cut expenses for the new baby, Boo’s dad canceled their premium movie channels. Now she won’t be able to reference as many movies as her friends do!
* Ginny (Bailey Buntain), the undertall type-A motormouth, is now running her parents’ real estate business while they divorce. She even has her own diminutive red blazer, but has trouble pawning off dilapidated fixer-uppers on adults twice her age.
* Melanie (Emma Dumont), the taller smart-Alec with an icky older brother, had nothing better to do with her summer than cruise around town with her silent, motionless grandfather, letting have some fresh air and free water, assuming he’s alive enough to drink it. To lift her spirits she overindulges on fried treats at the Oyster Bar and harasses uptight waiter Jeff until he whines.
Meanwhile, Michelle has fled to Henderson, Nevada, which appears to be several notches below Branson, Missouri, on the has-been live-show entertainment chain. Putting her dancing skills to little use, she earns peanuts as second assistant to a hack magician (Michael DeLuise, middle son of Dom) with little audience and the face-palming catchphrase, “Do you want to see something?” (Um, no, we kind of don’t. If we pay extra, can you please button your shirt at least halfway up?) She stays as a guest with her pal Talia (seen in previous episodes), and Talia’s man-friend several times her age. As expected, Michelle eventually loses her cool and makes the mistake of mouthing off to her boss, who punishes her by reassigning magic-bird-holding duties to his first assistant, who’s also his wife, a true pro. Not only does she sweep the stage after performances, but according to hubby, “She claps like a champ!”
By the end, everyone realizes that all of this is wrong. Fanny journeys out to Henderson, whose waiters have no clue how to make her a competent martini, and pep-talks Michelle into coming back. Michelle still needs a little coaxing by this point, but they bond over a newly discovered souvenir: Michelle and Hubbell’s wedding video. Michelle was drunk and has no memory of it, but she’s touched by the effusive praises of a pre-posthumous Hubbell, who won’t stop saying nice things about her immense talents and refers to their short, surprise relationship as “Duckie got Molly.” (True confession: I’ve never seen Pretty in Pink, but even I got that one.)
Thus does Fanny convince Michelle to return with her to Paradise, though both parties agree they each reserve the right to snipe at one another at their discretion. Also, in case of persisting plot point, if any parents are still enraged about the Macing, Fanny will be more than happy to allow their child’s withdrawal from class. Whether this is Fanny blithely daring anyone to try and ruin the show’s premise, or a true omen of confrontation to come, remains to be seen. Either way, class is back in session, and It’s Time to Dance once again.
The bonus extra enclosed below is the soundtrack for this episode’s opening number, Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”. In her version there’s still dancing, but for some reason director Spike Jonze had her wear an orange pillowcase and perform the first verse in a Goodyear repair shop. Then again, maybe those were her ideas.
So. Do you want to see something?
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Missing an episode of Bunheads? Be sure to check ABC Family’s official site for recent episodes posted online, consult your local Video On Demand provider, spend money on them over at iTunes, try Hulu if you’re so inclined, or check out past episode recaps here at MCC. Your handy episode checklist is provided below, along with recap links where available. Enjoy!
6/18/2012: “For Fanny”
6/25/2012: “Inherit the Wind”
7/9/2012: “Better Luck Next Year”
7/16/2012: “Money for Nothing”
7/23/2012: “Movie Truck”
7/30/2012: “What’s Your Damage, Heather”
8/6/2012: “Blank Up, It’s Time”
8/13/2012: “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons”
8/20/2012: “A Nutcracker in Paradise“