Gilmore Girls fans will find a lot to love here, including a bright but burdened heroine, clever dialogue and quirky characters dancing about (quite literally) in a cute small town setting. Bunheads boasts many of Gilmore Girls’ strengths, including the brilliant Kelly Bishop in a lead role, but this is no Gilmore retread.
Sherman-Palladino revisits some of her previous show’s trappings and themes here – familial struggles, growing pains, Kelly Bishop – but she’s crafting a different story, one that’s colored in slightly darker tones and sets much larger obstacles between the two central characters. Also, there’s dancing – ballet, cabaret, ballroom, freestyle … lots and lots of dancing! And it’s all remarkably well-choreographed and fun to watch.
The premiere episode opens in the unlikely setting of a Las Vegas showgirl stage, where topless two-steppers obscure a more demur opening act, a troupe of leggy, feather-clad chorus girls. Tony-winning Broadway actress Sutton Foster plays Michelle, one of the sassier chorus girls who has grown tired of dancing in a sleazy show and living in a dumpy apartment next door to a hooker. Michelle is trapped in a life defined by poor choices and missed opportunities. She’s desperately looking for an escape.
Michelle sinks lower than ever after a harsh reality check slays her already low self-esteem. Looking to get her mind off her troubles, she opts to go out with Hubbell (Alan Ruck), her well-meaning but seemingly pathetic fan who corrects Michelle when she dubs herself “an over the hill loser.” “I think you’re the most beautiful girl in the world,” he tells her in all sincerity. That’s all it takes — well that, many glasses of wine, a cute speech about Godzilla, and the promise of ocean front property — to get the desperate Michelle to agree to marry Hubbell and move to his hometown, a tiny beachy hamlet called Paradise.
Michelle’s sudden escape from Vegas to Paradise may seem a little too far-fetched for some viewers, but Sherman-Palladino lays enough groundwork in the premiere’s opening minutes to make it seem believable. Plus, Foster is so bright and charming as Michelle that it’s hard not to want to see her escape the dead-end Vegas showgirl life, even if it means marrying a man she barely knows and moving to a town she’s never even visited.
The town of Paradise proves to be even less hospitable than Vegas at first, as Michelle meets Hubbell’s bossy mother, Fanny, (Bishop), who runs a dance studio next door and disapproves of her son’s showgirl bride. Michelle can’t escape Fanny’s judgey eyes – she lives in Hubbell’s house, where Fanny has plastered the walls with eccentric paintings, knick knacks, old playbills and images of Buddha. “Wait – you live with your mother like a serial killer?” Michelle yells at Hubbell.
The entire town seems to mirror Fanny’s feelings about Michelle, except for four of Fanny’s young ballet students, the “Bunheads” of the show, who are charmed by Michelle’s experience as a dancing pro and former ballerina. Bunheads isn’t only about Michelle’s journey – the show also introduces us to Melaine, Sasha, Ginny and Boo, teen ballerinas with their own struggles, insecurities and talents. Their conversations hint at the richness of the town and of promising future arcs the show will most likely explore. Boo and Ginny emerge as the most well-defined and lovable of the four, with Sahsa playing the slim and trim mean girl and Melanie acting more like a follower than anything else. Boo is eager and ambitious but lacks self-confidence. Ginny is sharp and tough, a determined realist with a hint of sadness.
The girls’ dialogue is delightful. Their conversations feature less pop culture references than Rory and Lane’s chatter from Gilmore Girls (which makes sense – the Bunheads live in a town with no movie theater and hang out at the library) but the writing and delivery is unmistakeably Sherman-Palladino at her best – rapid, funny, clever and way more entertaining than the generic character-speak you’ll hear on most other TV shows.
There are several elements that make Bunheads, airing Mondays on ABC Family, worth watching, including the talented cast, a warm and inviting tone, and the very human story. But it’s Sherman-Palladino’s voice that truly sets the show apart. And I’m not only referring to the snappy dialogue. Bunheads clearly has a strong, original point of view, which makes the show feel fresh, confident and fun.
The premiere ends with a bit of a shock and sets up an incredibly intriguing dynamic between the two main characters. Bunheads is possibly the most promising new show of the summer, and if it goes where it promises to go, it could also become one of the most profound family TV dramas of the past several years.