To devote your life to the performing arts is to live a life of constant endings and new beginnings. Plays close, movie and television shoots wrap, the concert tour leaves town; on the flip side, there are always new roles to pursue, production schedules starting over, and more tour stops down the road. If we tend to think about performers as flaky and rootless, it can be traced back to the time-sensitive nature of their work. Not every dancer is afforded the chance to open her own studio and help ensure the future of her art form the way Fanny Flowers has on Bunheads. Despite making a home in Paradise, however, she’s still prone to wandering, as evidenced by the long vacation that’s come to an end as “Blank Up, It’s Time” begins. She has created a life for herself in this sleepy seaside town, but it’s an arrangement that, to borrow a paradoxical phrase coined by the character tonight, is “permanently not permanent.”
That phrase—used by Fanny to describe her romantic relationship with touring pianist/perennial houseguest Michael (a jovial Richard Gant)—could just as easily describe “Blank Up, It’s Time.” For a perpetually light show like Bunheads, this week’s hour is easily its lightest yet, one that moves several pieces around the board but offers little in the way of material that sinks in deeply. The final two episodes of the first season will prove “Blank Up, It’s Time’s” long-term importance; for now, it feels as temporary as the blue streak of hair Sasha sports in the evening’s epilogue—as well as the faux-rebellion that dye job represents.
But even a lackluster installment of Bunheads—albeit a relatively uncrowded and controlled effort by writer-director Daniel Palladino, scourge of the online Gilmore Girls fanbase™—has a point of view and memorable character interactions to fill out the timeslot. “Blank Up, It’s Time” has a lot to say about the ephemeral essence of so much in these characters’ lives, be it Fanny and Michael’s relationship, the plants in the garden, the casting for a dance routine, lines in a play, roles on TV, or Michelle and Hubbel’s brief marriage. Michelle is so inured to the shifting players and scenery in her life, she hasn’t fully processed Hubbel’s death until after she’s boffed (Fanny’s word, not mine) Conor, the director of the Broadway-bound play that gives the episode its title. (Could the “Blank” possibly stand for “boff”?) It’s a touching moment tempered with some rubbery facial expressions from Sutton Foster, whose stage training has her well-prepared for dealing with a strange stew of postmortem and postcoital emotions. Chris Eigeman expertly (as an actor) and awkwardly (in character) lightens the mood by quoting the major television work on Michelle’s résumé: A sunshiny ad for a maxi pad festooned with apparently euphoria-inducing wings. As a slave to the transitory, however, he can’t help but note the beautiful realness of his date’s conflicting feelings: “This is what we try to write, what we try to convey—and wow, are you conveying it right here, right now.”
The bright spots of “Blank Up, It’s Time” all come in two-character scenes like the one between Michelle and Conor at the director’s hotel suite. (Considering the pieces the episode looks to set into motion, it’s no surprise that it spends very little time drifting around Paradise.) Late in the episode, there’s a positively lovely, understated moment between Fanny and Michael where the former makes the first move toward removing the contradiction from their “permanently not permanent” situation. Running alongside that plot and Michelle’s interest in Conor, Boo’s sudden promotion to a featured spot in Paradise Dance Academy’s signature Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers number provides the week’s Film History 101 lesson, eventually running through the types of screwball-comedy scenes Astaire and Rogers would perform when they weren’t twirling around one another. Appropriate for an episode that places its emphasis on performance rather than small-town life, the camera dips, dives, and swirls through one such scene, as Boo’s overeager dance partner Carl (Carl J. Adler, the most boyish degree holder you’re likely to find on basic cable) lends an unwanted hand around the Oyster Bar.
There’s some good, if unremarkable, work between Michelle and Fanny and Ginny and Mel elsewhere, but it’s overcome by the sense of preparing the stage for the final two episodes of the season. Considering that those episodes will ostensibly build to Fanny’s annual Nutcracker performance (staged in August, when the costumes are cheaper and a quirky little town like Paradise is more receptive to a Yuletide tradition), it’s a shame the prep works comes at the expense of more relaxed character-based work, while also pushing Sasha to the margins of the episode.
For the version of Sasha glimpsed tonight, however, a little goes a very, very long way. The character continues lashing out at the only adults in her life who seem to give a damn about her, though her chosen mode of defiance seems pulled from the same sort of teen movies to which she pleaded ignorance in “What’s Your Damage, Heather?” Disobeying Madame Fanny’s rules about the sun via a blatantly displayed tanline is one thing, but the shrieking, sentient Hot Topic clearance rack that stalks into the studio at the end of “Blank Up, It’s Time” is a tremendous stretch. It’s not the wont of Amy Sherman-Palladino creations to constantly behave like recognizable human beings, but for a show that’s so smart and so pop-culturally aware, the mini-insurrection staged at the end of this week’s episode rings false. This turn feels less like an organic extension of the character and more like something she dreamed up after watching Olivia Newton-John turn up in leather and spandex at the end of Grease.
But like so much in these characters’ lives, perhaps this too shall pass. That’s the nice thing about a lesser episode of TV like “Blank Up, It’s Time”—for the time being, we know there’s, say, another chance for Michelle and Fanny to get snobby about theater only one week away. Unlike ballet or jazz, television is a fixed art form, but that doesn’t mean the next installment of this show won’t wash away this installment’s less-winning qualities like so much shampoo-in hair color. The implication of Bunheads and its ilk is that there’s always a second chance coming, always a big break waiting around the bend.
- Conor may have never booked Law & Order, but Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman did put in a guest shot on a Stillman-directed episode of Homicide: Life On The Street. And thus he answers his own question: “In this world, you either look like a rapist or someone trying to catch a rapist—how did I fall between those two categories?” (Revised for the Bunheads universe: “In this world, you either dated Lorelai Gilmore or lived down the street from her.” Speaking of which, watch for a cameo from Sean “Kirk Gleason” Gunn next week.)
- It took me entirely too long to realize Sutton Foster played one-time Bret McKenzie love interest Coco on Flight Of The Conchords. And this is coming from someone who’s watched the “If You’re Into It” video dozens of times.
- In terms of comedic Bunheads refrains, “kinky breakfast” is no “private road.”
- Best line of context-free dialogue from Blank Up, It’s Time: “Why do you need to know about mixed martial arts?”
- Conor and Michelle break some sort of land speed record in getting to the “bantering” stage of their relationship: “What brings you to the old-lady matinee?” “An old lady.”
- Programming note that I’m sure will interest many of you: This Thursday’s TV Roundtable piece is on my favorite episode of Gilmore Girls, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” See you at the dance marathon!