Tonight’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.
In happier news: Carl Cramer is back! Boo’s effervescent boyfriend returns after his annual six-week retreat at Camp Wannapamothpa, named after a Native American phrase so covert that it defies even Google’s almighty reach. Boo fusses about preparing for him first, but no such luck — good ol’ Carl (Casey J. Adler) is thrilled to see her, hand-carved her a Katniss Everdeen quiver as a gift, and doesn’t care that she’s sweaty and saw Magic Mike twice while he was away. Thus does Carl have the honor of seeing his sunny-side response to Boo’s confession used as the episode title. I didn’t make up that title myself.
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.
I never intended to dedicate a weekly spot to any given TV show, but the sheer density of dialogue, references, and character momentum packed into every episode of Bunheads keep driving me to take notes while watching for later musing and reliving. Tonight’s episode, “What’s Your Damage, Heather?”, was darker-edged than last week’s movie-truck escapade, with Michelle confirming the hard way what she’d already assumed deep-down, long before Fannie’s surprise vacation forced her into the substitute role: that teaching is hard, and role-modeling is even harder.
(Courtesy Spoiler Alert goes here. Bail out now if you’re planning to view the episode later this week on the ABC Family official site. This was no fluffy, inconsequential episode like “Movie Truck” was.)
As a consequence of Michelle’s carefree recollections of her life as a free-wheeling teen who received next to no moral guidance from her “Deb”, Ginny and Josh ended their aww-cute/uhh-weird eight-year relationship because Ginny (taking center stage for once) now feels inspired to play the field. The resulting domino effect emboldened Melanie’s icky brother Charlie to use poor lovelorn Boo as a potential inroad to now-unattached Ginny, to Boo’s humiliation and budding ire toward Michelle.
On the adult front, Truly remains on a roll from last week’s wild night and finds herself inexplicably drawn to one-eyed David the bad plumber. When Michelle isn’t upsetting the delicate fabric of the Paradise romantic scene, she’s busy bristling and fuming when Sasha acts up and all but demands a dressing-down from a capable adult. Meanwhile, Boo’s mom Nanette brings the gift of snacks, but seemed a little jealous of Michelle’s influence on Boo. Worst of all, now Ginny’s mom Claire will have to take out her own trash whenever she’s not busy shoving a real-estate pitch down someone’s throat. Oh, the horror and effort of it all. Tonight was just not Michelle’s finest hour.
Other random thoughts from tonight:
* The Heathers reference in the title was apt, though the callback to Winona Ryder’s one-time shoplifting incident seemed more than a little dated, even by the standards of a show that’s previously name-checked Girl, Interrupted. Also, though the “Heather” line is easy to remember if you’ve seen the film, Sasha reminds me more of Shannen Doherty’s Heather than Ryder’s Veronica. Differently apropos: when Charlie once again treated Boo like a doormat, I couldn’t help being reminded of poor, downtrodden Martha Dumptruck (in terms of status, not figure).
* Back in the days when I had enough hair to keep it shaggy and necessitate the use of a hair dryer, I recall many a time having them overheat and conk out after three or four minutes. How did Our Heroines manage to keep their dryers functional for three straight hours? Has the technology improved that much over the past decade? Do teams of Conair scientists work ’round the clock infusing their products with state-of-the-art upgrades?
* Are there reasons to hate Guys and Dolls? I’ve never seen it. Also to my shameful ignorance, I’ve never seen a single version of Les Miserables. Is this (a) a minor oversight; (b) a major oversight; or (c) a crime against art on my part? (If it helps, I promise to see the upcoming Hugh Jackman version as soon as it’s ready for me.)
* They mentioned a food truck fair! Finally, they cited an event we actually have in Indianapolis. I feel so hip and modern now.
* Fries on salad: worth trying or not worth trying?
* Sasha may be the first character under age 30 in recorded history to recite a snappy comeback using the word “shtetl”. Can someone verify that? Have pop-culture punchlines been sufficiently documented up to this point in time?
* Using “hip-hop line dancing” as an ostensibly made-up punchline isn’t half as funny if you’ve attended a company holiday party that endured a four-minute interruption by “The Cha-Cha Slide”. It’s not hip-hop, but I don’t appreciate that Michelle’s off-the-cuff wisecrack somehow brought it to mind anyway and now it won’t leave my head. (“Everybody clap your hands! CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP” AAAAAAAUGH.)
* Perhaps I’m too finicky, but ending a downer of an episode with pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies and a grape juice box isn’t nearly as tempting as the cheesecake breaks that used to punctuate every other episode of The Golden Girls.
* Alas, no use of They Might Be Giants this week. I was rather hoping for a brisk interlude set to “The Mesopotamians” or even “Boat of Car” (good luck choreographing that one). For the curious, the song of the night was briefly brought to you by Mates of State, before being interrupted by the wall-punching incompetence of David the pirate plumber.
Apparently because the showrunners can peer inside my mind and divine all the right ways to earn an instant thumbs-up, tonight’s episode of Bunheads concluded with Sasha (played by Julia Goldani Telles — in Archie Comics terms, she’s the Reggie of our four teen heroines) and two backup dancers performing a routine set to They Might Be Giants’ classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. It pains me to realize their version of the song is now over twenty years old and therefore qualified for “classic” status on age alone, despite complete lack of Top-40 love or common-man opinion, but there it is. I owned a copy of Flood long before the song was famously featured in an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures.
Their Malcolm in the Middle theme notwithstanding, any other chance to hear TMBG tunes outside the Internet or my CD collection is a rare major event in my life. I have zero (0) local friends who get them, not even my own family. In all their years of existence I’ve heard Indianapolis radio play exactly one TMBG song exactly one time, and why that honor went to a single rotation of “AKA Driver” I cannot even begin to speculate. I’ve seen them twice in concert — once at the now-defunct Music Mill and once at the Vogue — and in both cases I had to attend alone. Hence their headline status tonight. For me this is huge, even if it’s just for me and only me.
To the show’s credit, tonight’s episode was full of fun concepts even before the epilogue. Concept #1 provided the episode title, “Movie Truck”. Our main characters spend an evening grouped separately by age inside a full-on movie truck, which I gathered from the background glimpses is like Indianapolis’ own food trucks, except instead of food they serve a cinema inside a truck, walled with gypsy quilts and furnished with interior seating for a fair crowd. Someone must invent this if they haven’t already.
Trendsetting concept #2 in dire need of widespread acceptance and franchising: the cupcake ATM. When Michelle’s birthday night-on-the-town threatens to end before dawn because of Paradise’s small-town closing hours (I’ve known this pain, albeit without Michelle’s love of alcohol), a blessedly sober Truly is still enthralled by night-on-the-town fever (in an increasingly bubblier performance by Stacey Oristano as a meek-girl-gone-slightly-less-mild) and offers to drive them out to a rumored 24-hour cupcake ATM over in L.A. One scene later it’s dawn, they’re still awake but a little less toasted, and they have cupcakes thanks to the invention of a Redbox stocked with snacks instead of flicks. I can only hope the contents of this magical bakery-vending machine aren’t facilitated by an evil preservative formula that maintains freshness from within the product, like a reverse Hostess wrapper.
I hastily researched but couldn’t confirm the existence of a movie truck in real life (yet). To prove Bunheads isn’t secretly a science fiction show, I did find the following evidence of an alleged cupcake ATM sighting that doesn’t appear to be an SNL Digital Short or College Humor offering:
Concept #3 wouldn’t be my thing if it were real, but I won’t be surprised to see it exist within a year: Mountain of Arms, the R-rated movie-within-the-episode that I assume is like The Crawling Hand crossed with The Human Centipede. Our Four Teen Heroines obtain movie-truck passes and sneak out to see this future Criterion Collection classic without permission, all the better to escape an unfortunately epic rumble between Sasha’s troubled parents. I never had the wherewithal to pull such a stunt when I was a teen, but there was the time when I was eleven and snuck over to my friends’ house to watch Friday the 13th parts 1 and 3 on a surprise snow day when parents had to work. I recognize this ritual even if I naturally don’t condone it as an adult. (The moral: kids, do as I say now and not as I did then. And that’s…one to grow on.)
Between the majority of the above and an amusing sequence of movie-truck musical chairs, I found this a great character-building episode tonight (and I think I finally have all four girls’ names memorized now), even if it ended on a downer of a note, as relations between Sasha’s parents hit a new low, and a fateful letter in the wake of last week’s Joffrey Ballet auditions brings rewarding news that threatens to separate one of our lucky heroines from her best friends. I’m not sure which part of that is meant to be symbolized by Sasha’s non sequitur “Istanbul” set. Some deep thinking might be in order.
ABC Family will post the episode for online viewing on Tuesday, so another run-through of Flood will have to do until then.
* * * * *
Updated 7/24/2012, 7:30 EDT: Someone’s posted the “Istanbul” segment online! Enjoy before Disney or ABC Family shoot it down:
Updated 8/2/2012, 8:05 EDT: As expected, the YouTube user took it down days ago. I’ve left it up for posterity because I hate being too much of a George Lucas with my old posts.
Updated 12/9/2012, 7:00 EST: Oh, what the heck — here it is anyway:
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.)