Sasha’s parents may be divorcing and deserting Paradise in separate directions, but judging by the evidence presented in tonight’s new episode of Bunheads, “Take the Vicuna”, their forgotten credit cards are keeping their daughter company in their absence. Their magically limitless credit line is enough to secure her new luxury apartment, cover the utilities bills (and hopefully the learning curve that goes with those), provide two carts’ worth of startup food and accessories, and still have thousands left over to throw a righteous housewarming party for her core friends, several classmates, the grownups who didn’t abandon her, and for reasons unknown Aubrey (Victoria Park), her onetime cheerleading captain. The snacks are plentiful, the guests receive parting gifts, and the decor is so over-the-top ornate, you’d think Sasha shares an interior decorator with Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec.
Tonight’s new episode of Bunheads, “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky”, saw the return of one of Michelle and Fanny’s most dreaded mutual enemies: their accountant, Eric (Ron Butler). Though they ostensibly “run” a dance studio as an awkward partnership, neither of them is big on bookkeeping, finances, profit margins, simple math, or numbers in general. Consequently, the studio is tanking hard, thanks to the Nutcracker fundraiser disaster, Fanny’s reluctance to bill many of her poorer students, and both instructors’ penchant for canceling classes on a whim and/or plot device.
Presumably before Hubbell’s death he managed his own money as well as his mother’s studio, but apparently didn’t leave her enough of a fortune to fund it on auto-pilot in perpetuity. Eric’s base-level fiduciary jargon reminds me of my day job, but is useless against a pair of flighty dance instructors, even though they prefaced their office visit with several rounds of energy drinks and a dedicated physical training montage set to faux-Rocky fanfare. Had they spent their formative years double-majoring, they wouldn’t be in this mess or, one hopes, overdosing on Red Bull. As it is, the best business proposition they can muster is a shaky plan involving a donkey, a sluice box (or “sluicer” in Michellespeak), and some gold in them thar hills.
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.
In spite of the scene near the end where two of our cast members turned into heartless teenage monsters, I heartily welcomed the arrival of Casey J. Adler as Carl Cramer, the young dynamo introduced in tonight’s new episode of Bunheads. With a song in his heart and a dream of his hundredth viewing of That’s Entertainment! lifting his spirits, the new lead in the dance school’s Rogers/Astaire tribute sought to leap, waltz, and charm his way into Boo’s good graces when cast as her leading man. With his predecessor out of the picture (special guest Kent Boyd from So You Think You Can Dance, a.k.a. SYTYCD, which I think is pronounced “sit-icked”) and Sasha sidelined due to forbidden suntanning, can this odd couple share a dance number without driving each other crazy?
This struggle was, for me, the most interesting part of tonight’s episode, “Blank Up, It’s Time”. (Despite Michelle’s consternation, the title of the play-within-an-episode makes sense to me. Every morning for me, “wake” is a four-letter word.) Carl and Boo were only one of three new couples featured. First, Fannie introduced us to her heretofore unknown troubadour amour Michael (character actor Richard Gant, whom you probably saw in this one thing, and you’re absolutely sure of it, but for the life of you, you can’t remember it, can you?). Later in the episode, while attending an amateurish performance of Blank Up, It’s Time with Fannie, Michelle makes a new friend in the play’s director, Conor (Chris Eigeman, best known to me as Malcolm’s obnoxious teacher on Malcolm in the Middle). I’m generally not interested when shows delve into sex lives, but the rapid-fire chemistry between Michelle and Conor was fun to behold, especially as they’re comparing notes on how badly his play is going (Conor surveying the unresponsive audience: “I count eight asleep, three dead”).
Random thoughts from tonight:
* When noting in old film dialogue that, “It’s funnier when it’s faster,” Ginny discovers the secret that has driven the careers of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Aaron Sorkin.
* I spent the second half of the episode fairly irked. Michelle’s haranguing of the buffalo-legged lady struck a little too close to home for me, someone who’s self-conscious about how much space he takes up in auditorium seating. Granted, the lady’s stubbornness was the more annoying obstacle, but most of the snark was at the expense of her weight, not her obstinacy. If that wasn’t enough lowbrow mockery, then came the short jokes about poor, effervescent Carl. I appreciated Fannie’s sobering moment with not-small-boned Boo when she subtly hints that sometimes it’s to our benefit when people overlook those of unusual size (a fitting callback to Boo’s own hard-won acceptance into ballet school). I less appreciated her summation of Carl: “What he lacks in everything, he makes up in enthusiasm.” Then again, that’s only slightly less backhanded than most of her quote-unquote “compliments”.
* Favorite scene: Fannie’s tantrum over the Arroyo Grande beach party’s decision to forgo ballet in favor of cheerleaders this year. (Maybe in their world, yodeling and plate-spinning are sports, Fannie! Not nice to judge.)
* It was hard to be shocked at Sasha’s continuing downward spiral into “DEFCON Swan”. After the forbidden suntan, then her dramatic act of wanton, reckless rebellion…was to try out for the cheerleader squad? For a brief moment the ending felt straight out of Bizarro World. If Carl sticks around for future seasons, expect his disenchantment with his parents’ marital issues to lead him into a street gang whose members are all on the chess team.
* I do not want to see Michelle’s one commercial gig. Please do not show us Michelle’s one commercial gig. I will die of male horror if I have to watch Michelle’s one commercial gig.
* I bet Conor would’ve made a fantastic murder victim on Law & Order: Parental Neglect. Dick Wolf’s people clearly just didn’t get him.
Regardless of all of the above, tonight’s real star was — that name again — Carl Cramer, the long-lost son of Mad Men‘s Michael Ginsberg. Once more with feeling, here was my second favorite scene (posted officially by ABC Family, so no pesky C-&-D order to disrupt transmission this time), in which Carl’s stalker-ish tendencies show just a little before he reins them in and ends on a note of gentlemanly class…and then undermines it all with a coda threatening to do impressions. Maybe should’ve stopped one sentence sooner, Carl.
(If you’re dying to see Kent Boyd’s musical number, that’s online, too. I don’t watch reality shows, but he does seem talented.)
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?
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.)