Bunheads debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Mid-June is the perfect time for ABC Family to roll out Bunheads, the first new television work from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino since 2008’s The Return Of Jezebel James. The pilot episode of the series is alternately breezy, funny, and wistful in ways that pair well with delayed sunsets and open windows. Its emotional stakes are pleasantly low, the concerns of its characters decidedly familiar, and the world it establishes escapist-yet-grounded-in-reality. During the official television season, it might not merit a second thought (beyond Sherman-Palladino’s co-creator credit, which she shares with Lamar Damon); taking its first steps between the last Mad Men of the year and the summer’s first Breaking Bad, however, Bunheads comes off like a welcoming, small-town oasis between destinations on a summer road trip. You wouldn’t want spend your whole vacation in the show’s setting of Paradise, California—but it’s a lovely place to be for 45 minutes.
That’s territory Sherman-Palladino knows well, having established Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow as a quaint little detour on the TV map in that show’s early seasons. And while it’s unfair to Bunheads to so constantly invoke its co-creator’s best known and most beloved work (one that she parted with, less-than-willingly, before the end of its run), this first visit to Paradise trades on an awful lot on residual Gilmore Girls goodwill. There’s the small-town setting, of course, and there’s the presence of erstwhile Gilmore matriarch Kelly Bishop, putting on her best “I’m not mad—I’m disappointed” face as Fanny Flowers, unexpected mother-in-law to the show’s protagonist, Michelle Simms (played by Broadway import Sutton Foster). At the very least, the pilot merits a pass for setting up future sparring matches between Bishop and another quick-witted, independently minded brunette with particular musical tastes.
But whereas Gilmore Girls kept the most trying of Lorelai Gilmore’s days in exposition and flashback, Michelle’s story begins in medias rut: She’s a ballet-dancer-turned-Las-Vegas-showgirl with grander dancing ambitions—ambitions which meet their latest roadblock in a curt, painful audition for Chicago that ends before it gets a chance to start. There’s also the matter of Hubbel Flowers (played by Alan Ruck, who previously worked on the pilot for Sherman-Palladino’s Wyoming Project), a kind, if overeager, suitor who uses regular trips to Vegas to lavish Michelle with footwear, steak, and an affection she’s uncertain about reciprocating. Following her latest professional setback, Michelle ends a three-martini dinner by accepting Hubbel’s marriage proposal, a decision that transitions the Bunheads from slowly escalating backstage tragedy to fish-out-of-water dramedy, moving the action from Sin City to the Pacific coast.
It takes a while for Bunheads to get out of Nevada, and once it arrives in Paradise, there’s an awful lot of information to lay out. That’s all the better for a Sherman-Palladino production, where characters talk a mile-a-minute, boil characterization down to digestible pop-culture allusions (at dinner, Michelle and Hubbel team up for a doozy of a Godzilla analogy), and convey the most basic elements of themselves in statement-of-purpose soliloquies. There’s plenty of speechifying in this pilot, with Foster, Ruck, and Bishop each receiving spotlight moments to talk in-depth about their characters and the series’ apparent theme of living “an unexpected life.” It’s a bit broad, but hey—this is summer TV, and it’s a pilot, and Bunheads ought to burn through this stuff so that it can start opening up the world in which Michelle finds herself.
The characters who miss out on the big monologues are Fanny’s charges at the Paradise Dance Academy, the school she runs behind her and Hubbel’s tchotchke-stuffed coastal home. (Yes, Hubbel lives with his mother, and yes, it’s the source of Michelle’s most forced bit of momentary panic.) Fanny’s four star pupils—or the show’s star pupils, at least—each originate from coming-of-age stock: queen bee Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), wannabe Melanie (Emma Dumont), body-image-obsessed Ginny (Bailey Buntain), and sympathetic figure/odd ballerina out “Boo” (Kaitlyn Jenkins). The scarcity of details we learn about this quartet is a byproduct of the pilot; there’s so much going on with Michelle that Sasha, Melanie, Ginny, and Boo are pushed to the fringes of the episode out of necessity.
The girls are the wobbliest aspect of the pilot, as the script struggles with introducing the characters alongside Michelle. It makes for bifurcated viewing, up until the moment the two storylines converge, as both parties attempt to escape a party at which they don’t feel welcome—especially awkward for Michelle, as it’s being held in honor of her marriage to Hubbel. The mock audition she holds for the girls (set to an approximation of The Beatles’ take on “Ain’t She Sweet”) is a heartfelt moment of bonding for the characters (save for icy Sasha), and one obviously intended to launch future storylines and a job at the dance academy for Michelle.
Nonetheless, the anxieties the girls express provide a nice parallel to those of Michelle and Fanny. There’s some nice material here about the passage of time, which moves too quickly for Foster and Bishop’s characters, and too slowly for their young charges. Dance serves the same function for Bunheads that football served for Friday Night Lights: a road out of the show’s small-town setting that could just as easily turn into a dead end. It’s a leavening dose of reality for a show that, given its subject matter, could take off for dreams-coming-true territory.
Another Paradise-Dillon connection: The pride of The Landing Stip, Stacy Oristano, appears here as the most prominent (and loudest) spot of local color, a main-street boutique owner by the name of Truly. For the bulk of the episode, the character’s status as Hubbel’s ex-girlfriend requires little from Oristano beyond cartoonish tears and barely contained fits of jealousy, but she gets to show some of those Collette family pathos in what’s bound to be the most controversial scene of the première.
There’s a chance that Bunheads may never blossom into anything as involving or immersive as Gilmore Girls or Friday Night Lights, but it’s slowly building an inviting world to visit on a week-by-week basis. For everything divulged in the pilot, there’s still plenty to be learned about Paradise and the people who live there—personally, I’d like to know more about the bar that serves as the setting for the episode’s final scene, where you can simply shout out a name and find a dance partner. Then again, if all this sleepy little town has to offer are beautiful vistas, some teenaged drama, daughter-and-mother-and-law spats, and one eccentric shopkeeper, you can always take off for greener TV pastures come Labor Day.
- The beer Sasha lifts during the party is a six pack of Heisler Gold Ale, a fake brand produced by prop-supply company Independent Studio Services—thus marking Bunheads as taking place in the same fictional universe as Glee and New Girl.
- Here is where I’ll add some thoughts about the ending of the pilot after the episode airs; in short, it undoes one of the threads I was most looking forward to following in this season. [UPDATE, WITH SPOILERS]: Midway through the first episode of Bunheads, I grew excited about the prospect of watching Michelle and Hubbel’s relationship develop alongside the development of the series. The way Stacy Oristano delivers the line “I’m so sorry” (along with the fact that Alan Ruck doesn’t appear in any further photo assets on the ABC Family press site) has me thinking that particular thread has met a tragic end. Promising this complex, “learning to love each other” plotline—only to yank it away in the final seconds of the pilot—comes across as a bait-and-switch, but I can understand its necessity from a storytelling perspective. If Hubbel was still alive, there would always be the option for Michelle to bolt, to flee Paradise and return to Vegas. Her husband’s death roots Michelle to this setting, as there is Hubbel’s grief-stricken mother to consider and wills to be read. Not to mention this whole town of people who seemed to love the man, and now only have his mom and his quickie wife to remember him by. (And I’m sure Michelle’s mourning period is going to be all sorts of complex and episode-driving.) It’s an abrupt note on which to end the episode, but it doesn’t quash all of Bunheads’ promise.