Auditions aren’t just a fact of life for performers—no matter what you do for a living, you’ll pass and fail (more often the latter) any number of tryouts in your lifetime. Be it in an occupational, romantic, or familial setting, we all find ourselves in situations where we’re dancing for someone else’s approval, trying desperately to smile through our worries about hearing the word “No.” That’s a point that the most recent season of Glee—a show that shares a lot of similar subject matter and thematic ground with Bunheads—struggled with every time it burrowed into Rachel and Kurt’s attempts to get into performing-arts college. In “Better Luck Next Year!,” however, Bunheads doesn’t make that mistake, subtly acknowledging that performers aren’t the only ones kept up at night by a fear of rejection.
Even so, the episode does place a lot of weight on a pair of auditions: one taking place at Fanny’s dance school, and one set in Michelle’s head. Bobbing once more where Glee would weave, the show opts not to tease “the Joffrey summer program” into a state of “regionals”/“sectionals” meaninglessness, placing the auditions for the program at the crux of “Better Luck Next Year!” It’s a pivotal moment for Boo, as well as Madame Fanny, who’s in danger of losing the big day to a Joffrey-associated studio in Ojai (a place for neither the kidnapping-averse nor animal lovers, according to Fanny). Meanwhile, when she’s not being awakened in the middle of the night by an insomnia-stricken mother-in-law, Michelle is losing sleep to a recurring nightmare in which she gets through her Chicago audition, only to receive the same curt dismissal from Dream Gary Janetti that she received from Real Gary Janetti. The second time around, she’s rebuffed with a sheet cake—the passive, preemptive tack Boo’s mother takes toward soothing her daughter’s post-audition nerves. The cake looks delicious, but the sentiment stings.
While these examples may be performance-based, “Better Luck Next Year!” does a great job of making them relatable to the members of the audience who don’t typically audition with numbers pinned to their chest. Dancing is Michelle and Boo's calling, but there’s a sense that calling both informs and is informed by their daily lives. Michelle remains essentially anchor-less in Paradise, still attempting to make a home for herself—this despite the fact that the contents of her apartment have just arrived from Las Vegas. Amy Sherman-Palladino and the writers (of whom Sherman-Palladino’s husband, Daniel Palladino, receives credit here) are having great fun with the idea that commitment-phobic Michelle nonetheless accumulates a lot of stuff that would otherwise tie her down. She has baggage, all right, and her time in the desert added a grandfather clock and a dresser with horrifying contents to that load. Add to that the fact that the guest house may be trying to asphyxiate her, and it’s no wonder she retreats into a fantasy about the one place she’s always felt comfortable: on stage. Yet, in true dream fashion, Michelle is home in these scenes, but she isn’t quite home: She’s singing and dancing her way through “Me And My Baby” in an oddly lit version of Fanny’s studio. For a scene that tips its status as a dream sequence early on, it is effective in its mix of the surreal and the mundane, the specific and the vague. Michelle is rattled, she’s barely earning a pass from the good people of Paradise, and it’s spilling over into her non-waking hours.
Sleeplessness appears to run in the household, and “Better Luck Next Year!” subtly implies that Fanny’s restlessness is prompted by the same kind of professional setbacks that are haunting Michelle. (Though it could also be that her only son just died in a car accident. Come to think of it, that might be what’s keeping Michelle awake, too.) The first four episodes of the series are frugal with the details of mother- and daughter-in-law’s parallel pasts, but Truly paints Michelle’s walls with a whole new shade of exposition when she suggests that hosting the Joffrey auditions is so important to Fanny because Paradise Dance Academy is all she has left in the world. As such, the ballet instructor willingly jumps through hoops to book the gig, arranging for an elaborate catering spread with the local hippie restauranteurs, orchestrating a wide-ranging cleanup of the grounds, and utilizing her feminine wiles to secure the discounted installment of a new floor in the studio. The last item on that list leads one of the episode’s many “auditions” into iffy casting-couch grounds, though in a role-reversed way that’s less about an older woman getting laughs by acting cheekily vixenish, and more about illustrating the lengths to which Fanny will go in order to keep her school secure. No matter what actually happened between Fanny and the carpenter, doesn’t the fact that the carpenter came to Paradise mean that she has more going for her than the school?
Of course, that whole act—trading sexual favors, implied or not, for a new floor—feels beneath Bunheads. For as well as she plays Roxy Hart in her dreams, those “private dancer, dancer for hardwood (flooring)” moments don’t look particularly good on Sutton Foster. There are some weird holes in “Better Luck Next Year!” (not the least of which are the ones left by the mysteriously absent Ginny and Melanie), and it’s all too easy to pin those holes on the guy under the “written by” credit. I wasn’t paying much attention to who was credited for what during my heaviest days of Gilmore Girls consumption, but talk on the Internet points to the polarizing nature of Daniel Palladino’s solo outings as a Gilmore Girls writer. In that light, it’s easy to see why his first Bunheads script would focus on an Emily-Lorelai-Rory-like nexus, with a dash of Paris Gellar thrown in for good measure. Fanny, Michelle, and Boo are being positioned as the show’s focal points, but following Boo’s defense of Sasha with a warmer, generous version of Fanny’s proudest student pushes too hard toward taking the character from mean girl to caring-about-other’s-feelings girl. Sasha’s a lot of fun when there’s ice running through her veins—as evidenced in the moment when she pushes one of the male students off the barre to make room for her new BFF. She’s received a marshmallow transfusion by the time she drops the pointe shoes off at Boo’s desk, but there’s at least a chance that getting the thumbs up from the Joffrey people will prevent her from going full-on Twinkie.
For all the time it spends on the topic, “Better Luck Next Year!” doesn’t pretend to offer any fail-safe methods for being passed on from the tryout to the callback; there’s no “fake it ’til you make it” nugget that suddenly earns Boo a spot in the summer program. Boo’s “just get noticed” epiphany offers a universal end goal for the process, but Fanny’s strategy—utilizing a box of wigs and another dancer’s leg warmers—gets her charge noticed in the form of two different people. Nonetheless, there’s some wisdom in Fanny’s snappy comeback to Michelle—“You don’t know how auditions work”—that’s worth applying to auditions successful and unsuccessful. No matter what, there’s no sense in getting discouraged by a jerk who didn’t want to see you dance, a well-heeled rival throwing her weight around, or a friend who won’t let you reciprocate their kindness. In its weekly auditions for viewers, Bunheads has had better runs than tonight’s—but that’s no reason to get discouraged and give up on the show. Not when there’s a whole box of wigs, character histories, and a whole town left to dig through.
- One more audition metaphor to mull over: As adolescents, Boo, Ginny, Melanie, and Sasha are effectively auditioning for adulthood on a daily basis. Sasha’s actions are abruptly motivated this week, but they’re definitely the kind that will be noticed by the judges.
- In the Sherman-Palladinoverse, everyone is well-read enough to know to ask for clarification on allusions to David Copperfield. Is it in reference to the magician, or the Charles Dickens novel?
- Bunheads is equal opportunity with its shout-outs to pop-culture, dropping a Godfather reference in addition to a Game Of Thrones allusion (“Ned Stark’d her”) during “Better Luck Next Year!”
- There’s a wonderful use of silence following Michelle’s first dream sequence, a pause in the dialogue emphasized by a moment earlier in the episode where Michelle's searches for a pen while invoking the object’s name with a rapid-fire cadence.
- Another line to add to Kelly Bishop’s family crest: “Aren’t you listening?”
- Michelle, on the piles of belongings being unloaded from her moving truck: “I’m being robbed in reverse.”
- “Find the plastic nose.”—Fanny Flowers, audition expert