ABC Family Consigns “Bunheads” to One-Season-Wonder Status

Bunheads, ABC Family

One last Bunheads pic for the road: Bailey Buntain, Kaitlyn Jenkins, Emma Dumont, and Julia Goldani Telles.

It’s never easy when one of your favorite shows ends prematurely without a chance for a tidy series finale.

After months of stalling on a decision, ABC Family finally revealed on Monday that Bunheads has been officially canceled. Despite internet buzz among select circles that now qualify for collective relabeling as a “cult following”, ratings among the Nielsen commoners were never great, especially compared to the performance of the rest of ABC Family’s mostly teen-soap lineup.

As created by Gilmore Girls mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino and a talented staff working with minimal resources, Bunheads was a literate, tragicomic fusion of ballet, Broadway, a female-majority cast, Sorkin-speed dialogue, showtunes, obscure entertainment punchlines from previous decades, dexterous back-and-forth rhythms, and musical numbers not set to the tune of current Top-40 hits or overplayed ’80s oldies. On a broadcast network, a show containing any two of these elements would’ve been lucky to reach episode three, even on the CW.

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“Bunheads” 2/25/2013: Secrets Not for Everyone

Bunheads

Left to right: Sasha, Ginny, Melanie, Boo

Tonight’s Bunheads winter finale, titled “Next!”, needed a very special TV rating to warn away older male viewers who might feel more than a little creepy watching scenes of teenage girls discussing their plans to go to the library and check out the entire sex education bookshelf. Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) is the instigator here, in full overintellectualization mode. She demands her boyfriend Roman (Garrett Coffey) provide her with a list of all his past relationships, well aware she’s manifesting an Anna Karenina sort of paranoia. She commands Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) to accelerate her relationship schedule with Carl for no justifiable reason. She likewise includes Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Buntain) in her orders, but Melanie deflects Sasha’s bizarre projection: “We’ve got ‘potential spinster buddy comedy’ written all over our faces.” Sasha even corrals all her Bunhead buddies into a montage of R-rated book-learning.

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“Bunheads” 2/11/2013: Heavy Hangs the Head That Wears the CAP Cap

Bunheads, Sutton Foster, Sean Gunn, cap capTonight’s new Bunheads episode, “It’s Not a Mint”, begins with Sasha experiencing every new renter’s worst nightmare: a possible burglary. Maybe. She arrives home with groceries in arms and finds her front door standing wide open. She smartly opts not to go inside, clumsily drops her groceries, and calls for help. The other Bunheads’ phones all go to voice mail. Her neighbor Mrs. Weidemeyer won’t answer the door. Sasha even turns to Siri to dial 911 for her because dialing three whole digits is too much work. Unfortunately her iPhone comes preloaded with the standard sitcom version of Siri that’s equipped with the hearing of a senile grandmother. (To be fair, it’s for the best that every fictional version of Siri malfunctions. If it worked according to specs, I’d roll my eyes and accuse the show of product placement. Siri just can’t win.)

Rescue arrives in the form of her dashing suitor, Roman. Sasha directs to him of numerous weapons of choice to arm himself against intruders — baseball bat under the couch, tennis racket by the fireplace, My Pretty Pony umbrella in the closet, backup baseball bat in the bedroom closet, or crowbar under the bed. Sasha has surely taken all those true-crime stories to heart and prepared her defenses well. One flaw in her plan: there’s no intruder — she apparently failed to shut the front door on her way out. Then more rescuers arrive — Boo and her parents. Boo’s dad even brought his own sledgehammer. They charge about the place, triple-checking and securing and shouting confirmation at each other from opposite rooms. Everyone agrees on two things: there’s no intruder, and there’s a spider in the bathroom that may be powerful enough to kill them all, weapons or not.

Otherwise, tonight was a special “bottle episode” — another sitcom tradition in which the whole story takes place in a single setting, either as a creative experiment or as a budget-cutting measure. In this case, what wasn’t spent on sets and camera setups was instead spent on bringing in the supporting cast all at once. The premise: a forest fire has sent the entire town of Paradise into emergency mode. Every citizen except Michelle naturally knows the drill: west-siders and east-siders each have their own assigned evacuation centers. For east-siders, said center is the dance academy. The designated captain of the east-side center is Bash (Sean Gunn), the eccentric barista last seen sparring with Michelle at his coffee shop. Bash wears his role well and boldly wears his cap that says “CAP” to signify to ordinary folks that he’s the captain. He’s very proud of his CAP cap. Someday when Bunheads merchandise becomes all the rage, I hope to see a hat sporting a photo of Bash in uniform, so I can buy my very own “CAP cap” cap.

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Next Week’s “Bunheads” to End With Funeral Pyre Stoked with Unsold “Private Practice” DVDs

Despite ratings for a basic-cable premiere that were okay but not grounds for instant Fox-style cancellation, ABC Family’s Bunheads made a few headlines anyway last week thanks to a gift from Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, who thought the show needed publicity. Rhimes tweeted to her 190,000 followers about the failure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to establish and enforce strict racial quotas during the twenty-minutes-long casting phase of the low-budget show’s compacted pre-production schedule.

On Monday Entertainment Weekly passed along interview excerpts in which Sherman-Palladino expressed disappointment in Rhimes’ flagrant disregard for the Woman Showrunners’ Code, and implied her preference instead for a one-step-at-a-time approach to show creation. (Step 1: get the show on the air in the first place, compromised or otherwise. Step 2: entertain the masses enough to survive past four episodes. Step 3: make changes as needed after you know you’ve earned the privilege to continue working.)

Anyone who tuned in Monday night for the second episode would have noticed a few non-white characters in the tiny town of Paradise, including one of Fanny’s close circle of friends. The representative even had lines, but had quite the unenviable challenge of sharing scenes with the uniquely animated Ellen Greene. Asking her to steal a scene from Pushing Daisies‘ Aunt Viv, here playing an oddball found-object nude sculptress, is a taller-than-tall order regardless of minority classification.

Personally, I thought episode 2 was even more electric than episode 1, with plenty of quotable dialogue (“At last, a chance to use my high school Tibetan!”) and a few tear-jerking scenes as everyone struggled to cope with the fallout of episode 1’s devastating cliffhanger. In addition to Ellen Greene, I was also overjoyed to see the episode end with another guest star from an old, swiftly canceled, Barry Sonnenfeld-related TV show — David Burke from the live-action version of The Tick. (All we need now is a walk-on from a veteran of Maximum Bob and we can declare June 2012 as Sonnenfeldmania Month on Bunheads. Might I suggest Beau Bridges as the Mayor of Paradise?)

Discussion questions for those who caught episode 2 tonight:

1. I thought someone somewhere manufactured party tents in black. Am I, too, imagining this?

2. Is any Mark Wahlberg film really worth skipping school on false pretenses? Even if he’s making things in France explode?

3. If you ran a party supply shop, how much would you charge for Dalai Lama cocktail napkins?

4. Capes? Seriously?

5. Which Paradise resident do you think we’ll meet first, the Republican or the Liza Minnelli impersonator?

6. The USS Intrepid‘s official site offers no coupons, but does sell gift cards. Close enough?

7. Am I or am I not alone in thinking that Fanny had the funniest and saddest line of the night, as she scoffed at the notion of being prayed for from afar: “I take my spirituality very seriously. If I don’t see it, I don’t believe it!” It’s just me, right?

8. Is it really true that no one eats carbs anymore? If so, do I have to keep living in that world?

9. If the Shonda Rhimes “Save Bunheads So It Can Have Time to Replace Half Its White Cast” publicity campaign works and the show survives past this summer, which fad do you think the show will inspire first: funeral dancing or sitar players at parties?

10. Would anyone else like an encore of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame”?

I’d also like to address what was, for me, the most incendiary portion of the show: the scene in which Michelle and Rico the mellow bartender knock the concept of brunch and raise their glasses “to time-specific eating habits.” Hey, Bunheads: really? You couldn’t show even one scene of an adult male celebrating the magical rarity that is breakfast-for-dinner, so I as a breakfast-food fan could feel good about watching this show? Not one?

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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