If there’s one reason to recommend Bunheads at this early stage in its existence, it’s this: Amy Sherman-Palladino is evidently thrilled to be back in the television game, and her enthusiasm shines through each whip-smart one-liner, each callback to a previously established gag, and each newly introduced, delightfully twisted local. If Bunheads occasionally comes across as its creator crafting the Gilmore Girls addendum she negotiated herself out of participating in, you can’t begrudge her. The tone, the speed, and the general atmosphere of Sherman-Palladino’s previous series has been absent from the airwaves for far too long, and it’s mighty nice to have back.
Beginning “For Fanny” in that mindset makes it a lot easier to swallow Alan Ruck’s abrupt exit from the show. Disappointment about Hubbell’s death aside, the absence of Ruck allows Bunheads to dig into more poignant material. It also gives Michelle the intriguing arc of getting to know her late husband through the things he left behind—like a Metallica Ride The Lightning T-shirt, a copy of Tom Waits’ Mule Variations (the sheer specifics of these possessions point toward Sherman-Palladino’s giddiness at having characters speak in her pop-culture-informed tongue again), and his mother. From a storytelling perspective, the tragic loss Fanny and Michelle share catalyzes weeks of shared storylines, as both women mourn the man they knew and didn’t know, respectively (and vice versa).
“So last week you praised the show for being fluffly summer viewing, and this week, you’re applauding it for turning into a meditation on grief?” a few of you may ask. Well, yes and no: I’d still caution against taking Bunheads too seriously (as would NPR’s Linda Holmes), but I’m also worried that aspects of its premise (and the network that broadcasts it) are preventing some viewers from encountering what is a fun, funny little show—one which nonetheless has things to say on matters not related to ballet. (There’s also the issue of that title, which is probably the most inadvertently opaque name for a cable show since Terriers. But I digress.) Sherman-Palladino and her team have crafted an inviting television neighborhood, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean its houses are nothing more than cheery façades housing cardboard townies. There’s loss and disappointment in this world, too—and as the climactic performance in tonight’s episode (scored to the Mule Variations track “Picture In A Frame”) displays, the denizens of Paradise, California are increasingly complex characters ready to help one another through those setbacks.
Of course, doing so requires action—and as Sasha points out late in “For Fanny,” the people around her are dispiritingly slow to take any sort of action following their loss. “No one is doing anything” she says to an adrift Michelle, and she’s absolutely correct: 80 percent of the episode is devoted to either preparing to memorialize Hubbell or waiting around for Madame Fanny to arrive at the studio. (Boo temporarily assumes the role of giving marching orders in the latter sequence; it’s a fun showcase for the nervier elements of Kaitlyn Jenkins’ performance, if a little on the nose with its reminders that the characters live in a place called “Paradise.”) Fanny’s suffering from a bad case of denial, which, when combined with her eclectic taste and wild ambitions, produces the plans for a memorial service so grand and thematically muddled, it could count as a celebration of not only Hubbell’s life, but those of the 500 invitees as well. Michelle’s in her own state of shock, a stupor exacerbated by her unfamiliar surroundings and the fact that she forgot to pack a change of clothes. The characters have been dealt a tremendous blow—Fanny ought to feel the deeper impact, being Hubbell’s mother and all, but the last 48 hours or so of Michelle’s life would be too much to take for even the most grounded of people—yet they’re having trouble recognizing that they’re not alone in this. It takes Fanny’s students—who are grasping at their own reactions to the tragedy—to illustrate this connection. Out of the mouths of ballerinas oftentimes come gems.
Out of most of the mouths of most citizens of Paradise, actually: With minimal expository heavy-lifting to do, the dialogue sings in “For Fanny,” a welcome reminder of the nimble turns of phrase and sharp allusions that so capably served as the gateway to Gilmore Girls. If a character is on-screen for more than five seconds of this episode, they notch at least one memorable quip. The comic relief comes often and in bite-sized morsels in Bunheads’ second episode, be it Michelle’s screwball exchange about the dog she’s brought to Rico’s surf bar—“Is that a service dog?” “Like a marine?”—or Fanny’s increasingly ludicrous plans for the memorial service—“I’m looking to have cocktail napkins made with the Dalai Lama’s face on them.” Playing one of Fanny’s newly introduced confidants, Ellen Greene scores some of the hour’s choicest material, which acts as introduction to her own eccentricities while also adding shades to the show’s setting. A line like “I just think the town could use a woman who used to be a man to go with the Republican and the Liza Minnelli impersonator” is simultaneously hilarious in its specificity and intriguing in its refusal to name names. Given the way “For Fanny” sprints ahead with its own running gags—one involving the girls’ silent, head-nodding euphemism for “dead,” the other involving the Flowers women’s telephone encounters with an eager sitarist—smart callbacks to these character details must be in the offing.
In the meantime, the townsfolk must remain skeptical of our protagonist: Truly sums up the current local consensus on Michelle with a curt “I blame you” at the top of the episode. (Out of self-deprecating reflex and genuine emotion, Michelle responds, “Me too.”) The most pointed aspect of “For Fanny” revolves around the fact the only person who seems to care about the widow Flowers is hundreds of miles away and preparing to don a cascade of feathers on her head. Michelle’s daze could be a shell-shocked response to Hubbell’s death; she might also feel so alone and helpless because she’s in an alien, potentially hostile place. If she’s to make a life in Paradise—and the cliffhanger of this latest installment certainly suggests so—she needed to show all of these uncaring people how much she cares about one of their own. The “Picture In A Frame” routine is as much an expression of Michelle’s grief as it is a show of support from one of the many people in Paradise who look to Fanny as a mother figure. Sasha may use her closeness to Madame Fanny to get the ballerinas out of school and onto a bus to the nearest movie theater, but there’s affection buried her game of hooky. It just takes a while to find the proper method of expressing their gratitude and comfort. Thankfully, Bunheads’ main creative force is having no such problem expressing herself—she’s already tremendously confident in giving voice to these characters.
- ABC Family’s screener for the pilot didn’t feature an intro sequence, so I was unprepared for the black-and-white-and-pink “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” number that jetéd across my TV screen at the top of “For Fanny.” Someone really wants us to remember that the main characters on this show are dancers.
- This week’s spot of local color: Gilmore Girls’ high-powered newspaperman, Gregg Henry, shows up here in decidedly scruffier form as waterlogged bartender Rico. If you feel like torturing the Gilmore Girls parallels further, you could say he’s being positioned to be Bunheads’ equivalent to Luke Danes, with his sage earthiness amplified to compensate for a lack of obvious Luke/Lorelai sexual tension with Michelle. There’s also the guy in the Airstream trailer who lends Michelle his dog, some sort of Corgi-Husky mix that could only exist in worlds partially constructed by Amy Sherman-Palladino.
- More details on Ellen Greene’s character: “You were in a Wiccan group?” “It was Vancouver—I didn’t ski.”
- Words which Kelly Bishop was born to recite: “None of this is your concern.”
- The ballet tribute to Hubbell stirs conflicting emotions in Melanie: “It was fun—for funeral dancing, I mean.”
- After a day of frantic planning, Fanny finally checks in with her daughter-in-law: “How are you?” “I think I stole a dog.”