“Bunheads” 8/20/2012: the Ringer Twirls While the Ballerinas Burn

"Bunheads: Rise of The Ringer"

The Ringer waits in the wings for her time to strike.

Important things first: ABC Family has wisely chosen to order more episodes of Bunheads, with a promise to return in the winter instead of making us wait till June 2013 for our next fix. Much appreciated, ABC Family execs!

That saving grace means that this week’s episode, “A Nutcracker in Paradise”, wasn’t the series finale after all, but a “summer finale” marking the end of the season in an astronomy sense rather than the TV-standard sense. I’m unused to this approach to TV time-marking since I’ve never watched any other ABC Family shows, unless you count the old reruns of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? that they dropped long ago, or one time our family visited the set of The 700 Club in Virginia Beach even though we weren’t fans. (Long story.) I look forward to the “winter premiere” when its time arrives, but one has to wonder if the summer season and winter season will together comprise the eventual Season 1 DVD set, or if Summer 2012 was Season 1 and Winter 2012-2013 will be Season 2, or if the DVD manufacturer will avoid “season” divisions and opt instead for “volumes” like some animated shows do.

I’m taking a DVD release for granted, of course. Now that the specter of cancellation has dissipated for the moment, unbridled optimism is the order of the day. While we’re dreaming big, let’s also wish for more fun cameos for the benefit of you Gilmore Girls fans, maybe a few higher-profile guest stars, and something involving the word “Emmy”. Call me a lunatic, but it feels a lot better than living in a constant state of fear and chanting, “Six seasons and a movie! Six seasons and a movie! Six seasons and a movie!” as if the Beetlejuice summoning method will make it so.

Regardless: we can breathe more easily, knowing that the show didn’t end permanently with this week’s cliffhanger. I knew the show was headed somewhere dark as soon as I realized that the first half-hour had far too many happy moments in it. Too much happiness always means doom and gloom are bound to arrive and restore much-unwanted balance to the scales. First happy event: the previous week’s feud between Ginny, Melanie, and Boo over the date-ability of icky Charlie and dashing Carl was forcibly negotiated with a gum-wrapper treaty and no small amount of badgering from an annoyed Sasha and a tentatively promoted Michelle, clearly high on the first of many power trips yet to come.

With everyone friends again, love was truly in the air! (Well, not for Truly, hereby dubbed Lady Not-Appearing-in-This Episode.) Michelle and Godot the bartending stud moved past the googly-eye stage and shared tender public moments, to a lot of bemused head-turning from the other tables. Fanny and Michael seemed happier than ever, and in talks for some extended quality time in Montana. Boo gave the most achingly self-deprecating speech of the season, threw herself on the mercy of the Nutcracker fundraiser, and won back the heart of Our Hero Carl at last. Hurray for happy endings that will certainly stay very happy forever and sure not be ruined by any horrifying turn of events or anything!

Not even Sasha was immune to Cupid’s well-oiled scattergun. Despite her wish for lesbianism to save them all from guy trouble, Sasha met-cute against her will with a potential suitor of her own at the Oyster Bar’s fundraiser. He begins the episode as Tyler, star of a sad basketball team on a Charlie Brown losing streak, and ends the episode as Roman, newborn rebel transformed by thirty-year-old goth-rock. I’m fine with the costume department’s eclectic decision — grateful, even, that they went with something besides ’80s hair metal or up-‘n’-coming corporate-rock product placement. I’m not sure how well “Bela Lugosi is Dead” would lend itself to modern dance, but they’re certainly welcome to try. (If that doesn’t work out, might I suggest “Detonation Boulevard” by the Sisters of Mercy?)

Outside the subplots of love, Sasha once again nabbed a solo routine, this time in a satirical anti-Wall Street number accompanied by the descendants of the dancers from Madonna’s “Material Girl” video. Michelle enjoyed a rousing musical moment, a dream rendition of “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Boo and Carl shared a blissful makeup dance to “The Rainbow Connection”, as covered by Weezer with Hayley Williams of Paramore. Hopefully the winter season/volume/session/whatever allows opportunities to shine the spotlight on Ginny, Melanie, or even twelve-year-old Matisse, who by my reckoning is owed something for enduring Ginny’s frantic will-I-or-won’t-I rapid-fire blathering that seemed to be fueled by one too many gallons of Red Bull. (Fun trivia: this episode isn’t actress/dancer Matisse Love’s first time performing The Nutcracker.)

Alas, everything came crashing down in the episode’s fateful second half, in which Michelle wreaked untold havoc with six of the deadliest words in the English language: “I was only trying to help.” After earning so many smiles from Fanny in the first thirty minutes, she found it was all frown-hill from there.

First she attempts to play Doctor Love for Fanny and Michael, now falling out over Michael’s alleged plan to move to Montana permanently and possibly solo. When Michelle tries to talk Michael out of doing what she thinks Michael is doing, Michael apparently accelerates his plans and vanishes ahead of schedule. Handy tip: when a schmuck of a male is trying to avoid commitment, telling him his Signficant Other’s surprise commitment plans may not be the best way to change his mind. Who knew.

And then there was the big night, The Nutcracker in all its intended glory, Paradise Dance Academy’s biggest show of the year, the one that keeps them solvent and on the map. It’s like tax season for H&R Block, or the Indianapolis 500 for the town of Speedway, or the annual Marvel crossover event. This. Was. Very. Important. And all of it came crashing down in an initially funny, suddenly terrifying sequence in which an inattentive Michelle reaches for some refreshing misting water for the overheated cast and instead whips out her can of “pretty mace” on all of them, even testing it on herself like a true Stooge. Hijinks, eye damage, and “Marco! Polo!” ensue. As blinded teens body-slam each other or crawl offstage to safety, The Nutcracker transforms into Rise of the Ringer as Sasha’s usurper seizes the day, takes the stage, and delivers the performance of her career to an appreciative audience of zero.

Yes, behind all this madness and mayhem lurked…the Ringer. The first-ever super-villain ballerina was cordially invited to infiltrate the dance studio at Fanny’s behest while Sasha was still under the spell of Bring It On. Though Sasha was obviously freed this week from the Cult of Sue-Sylvesterology and ready to assume the role of Clara per Paradise annual tradition, the Ringer was nonetheless unstoppable by the adults and unflappable in the face of Sasha’s attempt to fire her. The nameless Ringer was a lean, mean, dancing machine undaunted by multitasking, untempted by human niceties such as courtesy and emotion, and completely oblivious to everyone else’s constant movie references. “I don’t have cable!” she whined in pain as she revealed her one weakness and her secret identity in that moment: she’s obviously a Nielsen viewer. Expect this supernaturally talented adversary to become Bunheads’ answer to Sideshow Bob in the seasons/volumes/sessions/whatevers ahead.

Beyond a bittersweet yet enigmatic dream reunion between the widow Michelle and her departed one-time husband, the episode ended with a wrenching walk down the hospital’s White Mile, accompanied by the echoes of Fanny’s fury and the sounds of Paradise parents demanding something between justice and litigation. The final Dead Poets Society tribute may not have been original, but it was no less heartbreaking, especially when Michelle had to remind Blockbuster’s best customers how that particular movie ended. (Seriously, is there so little to do in Paradise that all the kids spend their entire lives sitting through eighteen hours of cable movie channels every day, memorizing them wherever possible, maybe even taking notes on index cards just for small-talk prep? Remember the time when Melanie cracked wise about Martin Scorsese’s Kundun? What human does that? Watch Kundun, I mean?)

In these next few months without Bunheads, many questions will haunt us. Can the parents of Paradise ever forgive Michelle? Can our queenly quartet devise a clever way to restore Michelle’s honor and somehow blame everything on the Ringer? Can Fanny forget that free-love cad of hers and move on with her life and heart? Even if she does, can the studio afford to go on? And is there some way Ghost-Hubbell can become a regular?

Until Bunheads returns, we bid farewell for now with this closing number — that Weezer/Williams cover of “The Rainbow Connection”, one of the best Oscar-nominated songs of all time, a close personal favorite of mine since childhood. Kermit’s fragile banjo hook strikes a nerve for me every time. This version opts instead for ethereal strings that don’t achieve quite the same authenticity, but a TV season/volume/session/whatever that included both this song and They Might Be Giants holds a pretty astronomical ranking in my book.

“Bunheads” 8/13/2012: Why Michelle Hates Kids and Ducks

Jenkins, Buntain, Dumont

If I could count the number of times that a small-town teen was suckered by a charlatan promising a “Sound of Music” singalong…

Despite Michelle’s hollow promises, tonight’s new Bunheads episode “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons” featured no bris, no Hugh Jackman on Skype, no free puppies, and no Sound of Music singalong (sorry, “Brigitta”). Sadly, Our Heroines were denied those things, any other Game of Thrones references, and ever so much more, thanks to the triple tag-team menace of whirlwind emotions, unconscious rivalry, and a Nutcracker production that threatens to crash and burn harder than a rafter full of Spider-Man doubles.

For a change, some of this was Boo’s fault. Last week she failed to stand up against Ginny and Melanie when their words tore like harpies’ claws into the fragile ego of dashing Carl Cramer, her Astaire/Rogers tribute partner and would-be soulmate. This week her courage and determination overcame that failure and allowed them to connect them both for several happily-ever-after seconds, until Ginny’s subplot careened into hers. The resulting collision induced temporary amnesia into Boo, who reverted to a previous mental state and convinced herself she liked Melanie’s icky brother Charlie again. It was just like The Vow, except I’d suspect that no woman on Earth would choose Charlie over Channing Tatum.

Ginny wasn’t in the best of mental states herself. Now that Charlie has set aside his Boo-using habit in favor of simpleminded flirting with Ginny instead, her body is resorting to new defense mechanisms such as high-strung responses, flat rejection of all comestibles, bleacher-diving into hapless basketball fans, and making short jokes about other people her own height. Too bad for Ginny that she shares Boo’s inexplicable weakness for icky brothers. Thankfully social taboo affords Melanie total immunity from Charlie-crushing, but her stern reminders about the Bra Code are useless against this grave, seemingly incurable contagion. Perhaps a fundraiser is in order, if only enough top-40 musicians could be enlisted to participate in a “USA Against Charlie” benefit single.

Alas, Michelle was preoccupied elsewhere. Her attempts at simple coffee-drinking are stymied by the eccentric perfectionism of the barista Bash (Gilmore Girls vet Sean Gunn), who has peculiar ideas about buyer/seller power dynamics and who may or may not have won competitions against an actual guy from Seattle, if you can believe the stories. Then she learns that Boo and Carl’s important, relationship-making performance at the opening of a premier supermarket is threatened by the Association for the Preservation of Keeping it Real in Paradise, local busybodies who oppose such everyday pleasantries as child slavery, environmental destruction, and duck genocide.

Michelle decides the best course of action is throw caution and fact-checking to the wind, and become Paradise’s first staunch supporter of their upcoming generic-brand Super Wal*Mart. Thus she recruits Godot the potential-love-interest bartender to her cause and stages an ambush on her opponents in the Axis of Real-Keeping — tap-dance student Sam (Gilmore Girls vet Rose Abdoo), Joe who owns Joe’s Market (conflict of what, now?), and Jon Polito from Homicide: Life on the Street. Somehow the forbidden love between Boo and Carl is not enough motivation for the hearts of TAFT-POKI-RIP to grow three sizes too big and extend an open invitation to Evil Foods and their Evil Grey Poupon. Is the Astaire/Rogers show-stopper doomed before its debut? Were Boo and Carl simply not meant to be? Will his Stewie Griffin impression remain repressed forever?

Not even Fanny is in a position to assist, as her participation in Our Heroines’ lives is minimized while she concentrates on whipping numerous inadequate extras into shape to populate next week’s Nutcracker extravaganza, which require her to bark lines such as, “ARABESQUE, MATISSE!” with contemptuous desperation. Why wasn’t Truly’s witches’ brew of pumpkin-pie candles and fresh-cut flowers potent enough to course-correct such disappointing rehearsals? Would cupcakes help?

Not all subplot roads lead to more ruin, however. Sasha plumbs the very depths of her soul and her brain, only to realize that cheerleading may just be beneath her. Her kicks are too emphatic; her school pride is tainted by her belief that high school athletics are a leading cause of adult career dysfunction and midlife crisis; and her cheers are fatally insincere. Every time she lifts a pom-pom, a Spartan Spirit dies. She took the easy road out from under Fanny’s perceived oppression, only to realize that the easy road is a pretty boring drive. Two barriers now stand between the prodigal daughter and her return to ballet life: Fanny’s demand for an apology, and her own youthful stubbornness. Can she and Fanny reconcile in time to save Nutcracker and the entire school? Does the school’s fate even hinge on this performance? Should we expect scary bulldozers at Fanny’s door next week?

Hopefully next Monday’s season finale will answer these questions and more. The next-episode promo already spoiled how “one moment will change everything”, which means we’re guaranteed at least one genuine Moment. Until then, you’ll have time to let Bash design you at least one complete drink, read further into your trigonometry textbook, sculpt whipped-cream replicas of Simon LeBon’s face, locate at least one Starbucks that doesn’t play world music, frost your cookies with cookie dough, reflect on your own “commitment to the sulk”, and lift your spirits higher and higher by repeating Sasha’s best cheer before every meal:

o/~
Stay in school!
Learn algebra!
You have no future in sports!
Hey-hey!
o/~

…or you can load your copy of The Sound of Music and sing along to “My Favorite Things” instead.

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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