A good dream sequence is hard to find—especially on television. Scenes set in a character’s mind tend toward the extreme: outrageous imagery, nonlinear dialogue, or psyche-scarring nightmares where a protagonist’s friends are inexplicably rendered as pulsating vinyl faces and ghouls with glowing red eyes. The best dream sequences do little to hide the fact that their central characters aren’t in waking states—they do a fine job of putting recognizable faces in unrecognizable places, much like a real dream (see Enlightened’s “Lonely Ghosts”). Others are simply directed by David Lynch.
Amy Sherman-Palladino isn’t noted for her flair for the surreal or the mysterious (the quirks of her worlds are too affected to count as surreal; her characters never hold back when they can express themselves via quips), but Bunheads has a touch of Twin Peaks in its DNA. And those characteristics—the kooky small-town setting, yes, but also Michelle’s pair of audition dreams, the otherworldly quality of the dance interludes, and the show’s taste for slapstick—contribute to the sense that Sherman-Palladino’s latest is more than a Gilmore Girls clone. At the very least, you have to wonder what Lynch and Twin Peaks creator Mark Frost would think of a series finale that involves Michelle Macing the entire cast of Fanny’s Nutcracker.
The vision that throws open the windows to the next set (or season? ABC Family’s insisting on branding “A Nutrcracker In Paradise” a “summer finale”) falls short of the standards set by Agent Dale Cooper’s first visit to the Black Lodge, however. It’s not for lack of trying: After Michelle runs through a hushed, sultry “Maybe This Time,” she accompanies Hubbell through several vignettes relating to her brief past and potential future in Paradise. (Hubbell:Bunheads::Laura Palmer:Twin Peaks. Not in the “town golden child with a dark side” fashion, but because both of their deaths keep the series’ protagonists in town for longer than they anticipated.) The sequence goes to extremes too quickly, pivoting from a graceful companion piece to the earlier “Me And My Baby” dream and Sasha’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” to messages from beyond the grave and silhouetted, vaguely threatening bunheads. It’s a lovely coda that gives way to clumsy bridge to an episode that’s months away.
It’s not as if a dream sequence is thematically inappropriate. Bunheads has gone to that well before, after all, and it is a series where the characters’ dreams stand in constant contrast to reality. And, depending on your interpretation, a large chunk of The Nutcracker takes place in a dream state. On top of all that, “A Nutcracker In Paradise” is the episode where Michelle’s idyllic California reinvention collapses in on itself. Her life in Paradise so far is not the third act of a feel-good movie. And, as she reminds her Whitman-via-Dead Poets Society-quoting charges at the end of the hour, at the end of that movie, Robin Williams still has to leave.
Michelle departs on an odd note, but it’s one that Bunheads has built to—in its own, rickety way—over the course of the previous nine episodes. It finds what “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons” lost among its “Dance Your Ass Off” T-shirt and duets with Sean Gunn: a sense that Michelle hadn’t fully assimilated to life in Paradise. She moves at a different tempo than these people, with their dusty grocery store, perfectionist barista, and video-rental outlets that include the works of Cher and Williams yet omit the crowning achievements of Ryder and Bacon. (Sasha reaching for a Single White Female allusion tonight when a perfectly good Black Swan reference was sitting right there can only owe to the fact that the series played its Aronofsky card a few weeks back.) Sutton Foster’s character is a force of nature (as is Foster herself), and as Dream Hubbell tells Michelle, she’s in Paradise to “rock the boat.” She’s just going about it the wrong way, and her attempts to not rock the boat by being prepared for any backstage mishap short of a zombie apocalypse lead to a hospital lobby choked with pepper-sprayed ballet dancers.
Before “A Nutcracker In Paradise” overindulges its Lynchian side, it provides a condensed runthrough of the highs and lows of Bunheads’ first season. There’s solid material for Sasha and Boo, a shakier story for Ginny and Mel, a pair of wonderful sequences that zip around Paradise locales through artfully executed tracking shots, and the intimation that the show could function perfectly well without Fanny—before a powerful spotlight moment for Kelly Bishop acknowledging that, hey, people who qualify for Social Security benefits have feelings, too. The one boat that Michelle shouldn’t have rocked was Fanny’s relationship with Michael, and in addition to providing the character with another cornerstone of her mother-in-law’s life that Michelle could wreck (despite her good intentions), Fanny’s dismay at Michael’s departure is an honest, touching treatment of a late-in-life romance. Though the way those types of stories are typically told, the fact that the whole relationship isn’t treated as being inherently humorous is an achievement. It’s just a shame that both Michelle and Michael end the episode as adrift as ever, with the specter of a true home taunting them on the horizon.
Thank goodness for that back-end order, though, right? In its early goings, “A Nutcracker In Paradise” hints that it could be series finale as well as a capper for the season/summer. But I agree with Salon’s Willa Paskin that Michelle leading a trail of Mace to the edge of Paradise would’ve been a disproportionately downer ending for such a joyful show. Fortunately, it’s not concluding on that Dead Poets Society lift, either. I initially assumed Sasha’s quickness to embody young Ethan Hawke was a joke, not the sincere expression of appreciation it eventually becomes as the whole Nutcracker cast takes to its feet. Here’s a good argument against Sherman-Palladino’s typically on-point appropriation of pop-culture touchstones: Sasha’s gratefulness doesn’t mean as much if it’s couched in someone else’s words. Before that moment, Bunheads had already illustrated its ability to absorb and reshape works of art that came before it. The next time one of the show’s characters stands up for what they believe in, what they’ve been dreaming about all these years, hopefully they’ll do so on their own two feet.
And hopefully those feet won’t have unexplained, post-coma superpowers.
Season grade: B
- It’s an unfortunate statement on the proliferation of Auto-Tune and other pitch-correcting software that a live recording Sutton Foster singing “Maybe This Time” contributes to the unreal qualities of the dream sequence. It’s a bold choice nonetheless, and the show deserves props for not relying on an overdub.
- The fact that “The Ringer” never receives a real name makes her even more of a threat to Sasha. All the time The Ringer’s spent dancing (and not cheerleading or watching movies) has obviously taught her how to lie in wait for the incapacitation of an entire production’s cast.
- I suspect Sasha and the talking Bauhaus T-shirt with whom she reconnects in the emergency room will be very happy unleashing their latent rebellious streaks together.
- Continuing the streak of dance sequences with unorthodox musical cues, Boo and Carl receive their big Fred-and-Ginger moment to the strains of Weezer and Hayley Williams covering “The Rainbow Connection.” Muppet purist that I am, I would’ve preferred the Kermit The Frog-Debbie Harry version.
- Dark horse contender for “best bunhead”: Matisse, who provides the real-life preteen reactions to Ginny’s oversharing about Charlie and the “O Captain, My Captain” moment.
- You know what would’ve made the Dead Poets Society moment more bearable? If Truly was around to participate.
- If you haven’t already, make sure you check out Genevieve Koski’s recent interview with Sutton Foster, which is linked above. At the very least, it’ll give you a greater appreciation for and understanding of Foster and Kelly Bishop’s jaw-dropping, totally in-sync overlapping dialogue in the examination room. Spend six months onstage with another performer, and you will be able to pull off something like that.
- Fanny, on a perceived character flaw of Michelle’s: “You always end the conversation one sentence too late.”
- Melanie has a new method for not insulting Carl’s height: “You’re way taller than Prince.”
- When dream dialogue gets too elliptical: Michelle: “I miss you.” Hubbell: “It’s funny when things happen.”