‘Bunheads’: Lighthearted dramedy with some graceful moves on ABC Family
By Hank Stuever,
Anyone who writes about TV for a living has some unfortunate blind spots, where they just can’t see what others are seeing. Mine include nature documentaries, competitive chef shows, certain adult-oriented cartoons and, way down the list, the fact that I never watched “Gilmore Girls.”
Women I know and trust — and more than a few men — would go into rhapsodic reveries about “Gilmore Girls,” a small-town ensemble dramedy that aired on the WB (and later the CW) from 2000 to 2007. They loved the show’s wry dialogue and snap-crackle-pop references, which is a writing style you see in almost every comedy now but back then was something of a jolt. Fans also loved the show’s heart, and yet, whatever its selling points, “Gilmore Girls” passed me by like a speeding sports car.
I remembered that regret as I felt myself being lured in by the easygoing energy of “Bunheads,” the new show from “Gilmore” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, which debuts Monday night on ABC Family. Wielding the same wit and plain-spoken ingenuity in its plot and characters, “Bunheads” seems like it could be a worthy return to that same “Gilmore” spirit. It’s one of those shows that’s just fun enough.
Sutton Foster, a Tony-winning Broadway vet, stars as Michelle Simms, a Las Vegas showgirl who studied classical dance and had her dreams run aground on the Strip. Sarcasm has replaced her optimism. She puts her last bit of hope in an audition for a touring company of “Chicago” but is dismissed by the director before she dances a step, because he can tell she’s older than 30.
An awkward knight in shining armor waits in Michelle’s corner in the form of Hubbell Flowers, a well-meaning suitor played by Alan Ruck (who, despite all his credits over the years, will be forever known as the guy who played Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).
Hubbell has been bringing Michelle gifts and good cheer in the year since he first saw her perform, all in attempt to get her to go out on a date with him. A traveling shoe salesman, Hubbell lives in a small village on the California coast called Paradise. He implores Michelle to marry him and come live by the sea.
In a moment of drunken self-pity, she accepts his proposal, accompanying Hubbell to Paradise, where, she discovers, he lives with his overbearing mother, Fanny Flowers (Kelly Bishop). Fanny, a former prima ballerina, runs a small dance school where a group of teenage girls (a.k.a. the bunheads) are in the full throes of adolescent drama and angst. A sudden tragedy — one I certainly didn’t see coming — has Michelle reevaluating her options and deciding to stay and teach dance in Paradise.
All of this sounds like an old movie — and not a very good one. But “Bunheads” has that elusive momentum that most TV series so easily fumble in their first episodes. It is filled with smart, wacky writing that can pivot effortlessly into emotion when it needs to and then pirouette back to lightheartedness just as quickly. It gets the flavor of showfolk theatrics without relying on over-the-top mugging that have defined shows such as “Glee” or “Smash.”
As Michelle, Foster is a winning sort of gooney bird, confidently relating to the young ladies who are toed up to Fanny’s ballet barre. Bishop veers a bit toward stereotype as the disapproving mother-in-law obsessed with her own former glory; in fact, everyone in the cast has apparently been encouraged to dial their characters’ respective tropes up to the max. While it’s not perfect, “Bunheads” is a happy find, a ray of authenticity on a summer TV schedule filled with so much artificial light.
(one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.