A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.
BUNHEADS – Monday 9PM on ABCFamily: Potential DVR Alert
Previously… on BUNHEADS: Michelle (Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl slightly past her sell-by date, is having a really bad day when she runs across sweet, besotted Hubbell (Alan Ruck), who’s been pestering her for a date for months. She gets drunk, and then she gets married–and now she’s in Paradise, CA, taking up residence in a lovely seaside house that’s also inhabited by Hubbell’s imperious mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop). Fanny, too, has a dance background, and she runs a studio for the local girls, most notably BFFs Sasha (Julia Goldoni Telles), Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Bunton). Fanny can’t believe her son has impulsively married, and neither can Hubbell’s ex-girlfriend Truly (Stacey Oristano). But the real shock is still to come: the very next day, Hubbell gets into a fatal car accident, and Michelle is suddenly his widow.
Episode 2: We pick up where we left off, as the news of Hubbell’s death reverberates around the community and leaves everyone uprooted. Fanny is in a firm state of denial, planning an increasingly elaborate Buddhist memorial service for her son that she hopes will include a sitar player, a life-size (nude) sculpture of Hubbell, 500 guests, the Dalai Lama, and the deck of the Battleship Intrepid. The dance-studio girls react with flipness (they use Hubbell’s death as an excuse to cut school and go see a Mark Wahlberg movie) until it overwhelms them. And Michelle, who doesn’t even know where she’s going to live now, wanders the town with a dog she may have stolen. Finally, though, it’s Michelle who saves the day, taking control of the memorial service by teaching the girls a dance to perform for Fanny, and the episode ends with the first sign of rapprochement between the women–or it would, if Fanny didn’t discover that Hubbell has left his entire estate, including their house, to Michelle.
It’s hard to imagine any fan of series (technically co-) creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls not thoroughly enjoying Bunheads, but the series didn’t get off to a particularly good start in last week’s ratings. Although the show itself feels very assured, it may be suffering from a bit of a disconnect with its network. ABCFamily is geared to teen girls, and a marketing campaign based on images of Sutton Foster, a wonderful Broadway performer in her 30s not even well known to many adult non-theatre fans, didn’t exactly hit the target audience’s buttons. (Truthfully, Bunheads would have been better suited to Lifetime or even Bravo.) This disconnect is also leading to some conceptual awkwardness. It’s clear that ultimately the show will be about the bond between Michelle and the young dancers, but there’s a lot of narrative territory that has to be traveled before Michelle can get to that point, and after 2 episodes, we’re not there yet. For now, the sequences with the young characters are very much the B story to Michelle’s plot, which is different from Gilmore, where from the start Lorelei and Rory were co-leads, a focus that, along with the mother/daughter relationship, made the show more immediately appealing to young audiences.
On its own terms, though, Episode 2, written and directed by Sherman-Palladino (kudos, by the way, to her agents, who somehow got an extra “Amy Sherman-Palladino Presents” credit at the top of every episode, something even Aaron Sorkin and Matthew Weiner have yet to see) was as entertaining as the pilot. Watching Foster, you’d never think she’s had relatively little experience with television and non-musical comedy–Sherman-Palladino’s rapid-fire dialogue rolls out of her mouth, and she’s already perfected the writer’s trademark wry slant on worry and heartbreak. This kind of lighthearted but very stylized performing is often underrated–Lauren Graham never even saw an Emmy nomination for Gilmore–but pulling it off with seeming effortlessness is a real feat. Foster and the formidable Bishop are also already a fine pair.
The world of cable is different than network, and barring a true ratings collapse, Bunheads doesn’t have to worry about midseason cancellation (renewal, of course, is another story). The show has enormous potential, with an elastic premise (this week Michelle bumped into more possible recurring characters played by such welcome performers as Gregg Henry and Ellen Greene) and great charm. It needs to complete its narrative journey to the point where Michelle’s story is integrated with that of the young dance students, but once it gets there, quality shouldn’t be one of the show’s problems. All it needs is viewers…