“This would be a lot easier if I could offer you a drink.”—Michelle Sims
With a reputation staked on dense thickets of pop-culture arcana, witty dialogue, and settings stocked with colorful eccentrics, Amy Sherman-Palladino doesn’t get the credit she deserves for being able to nail the emotional honesty of a moment like the one that concludes “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky.” But her work on Gilmore Girls and Bunheads is lousy with those moments: Think a thrice defeated—twice in love and once in a dance marathon—Rory Gilmore breaking down in her mother’s arms at the end of “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” or that gorgeous Tom Waits ballet from Bunheads’ “For Fanny.” Because they make their singular sense of humor so readily apparent, these shows will never be taken as seriously as the premium-cable dramas to which they so frequently allude—tonight’s episode practically covers the HBO spread in the span of 45 minutes. And that’s too bad, because Bunheads is capable of genuinely affecting television on a regular basis.
The name after the “written by” credit on “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” is Beth Schacter (previously credited for “Movie Truck”), but that’s certainly Sherman-Palladino’s deft touch on the Michelle-Sasha scene that brings the main portion of the episode to a close. The show’s creator just has a way with heartfelt interactions between mothers and daughters—or, as the case may be with Sutton Foster and Julia Goldani Telles’ characters, mother figures and daughter figures—a connection to which I may not be able to speak directly, but one that Bunheads and Gilmore Girls, at their best, translate into universally understandable sentiment. Michelle has more or less fallen into the role of Sasha’s mother-like sounding board and emotional anchor, so it’s totally understandable (and perfectly reasoned, from a character-based perspective) for her age-inappropriate instincts to engage in the face of Mr. and Mrs. Torres’ separation. She is a creature of instinct, and though she might not know how to properly respond to the needs of her young charge, she’s there—and that’s what really counts. And the way the scene plays out grants tremendous impact to that choice. Seeing it played by someone as skilled in comic befuddlement as Sutton Foster is merely icing on the cake.
And then there’s how Sasha feels about the whole situation, which, though Telles expresses it best through the dance coda (Googled-lyrics soundtrack alert: that’s “You, Sailor” by Erin McKeown in the sequence), is treated in a refreshingly grounded manner. There’s an element of wish fulfillment in a teenager being handed the keys to her parents’ house, but that’s also a deeply terrifying prospect. Another family will move in eventually—maybe that nice couple that Ginny chased out of the foreclosed home in “You Wanna See Something?”—but who’s going to keep the lights on and make sure the fridge is stocked until they do? And what is the deal with all these extra keys? As negligent as they’ve been portrayed in the past, it’s hard to believe the Toresses would actually abandon their daughter in Paradise. But Sasha being left alone in a McMansion purgatory of her own making is a chilling prospect, and it’s written and performed with an appropriate—and stirring—sense of unease.
Some critics (myself included) have characterized Bunheads as a show at odds with itself; given its creator’s tendency to toss her laughter and tears into the same hopper, that really ought to be expected. And by giving the happenings in the high-school world equal weight with whatever Michelle and Fanny are up to in a given week, there’s always going to be an internal tension within the show that makes an episode like “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” feel a little wonky—and to me, it felt like the wonkiest of the first three installments of Bunheads: Season One, Book Two. Even with two lengthy dance interludes, it feels considerably breathless—maybe director Jackson Douglas (yes, Stars Hollow’s very own Jackson) is a little shaky on his master shots, but there’s a lack of longer takes in this episode, which shuts out the breeziness that characterized the two previous installments. Douglas managed to fit some good walk-and-talk in, though (including that hallway sequence with Ginny and Mel with the brutally funny slapstick punchline)—so maybe there was just more information than usual to convey this week. Following a brief history of the Flowers’ financial instability, there’s Frankie and Cozette’s pod-people-like conquering of Paradise’s various social strata, Charlie’s devastating public breakup, the latest chapter in the “Sparkles without a home” saga, the return of Godot, the establishment of The Oyster Bar’s trivia night (made possible with machines furnished by Millie Stone), Mel’s transformation into some sort of She-Hulk driven by romantic retribution, and Sasha’s final confrontation with her mother. No wonder Boo and Carl are nowhere to be seen: No time for love, Dr. Jordan—Mel needs to earn that roller derby flier.
Yet this is a show that’s built to burn through all that content in the space of a single hour (“It won’t take long,” Michelle and Fanny tell their accountant at one point. “We talk fast”), and give or take a few lopsided detours to the hippie candle stand or the accountant’s office, “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” is built to handle it. Trivia night at The Oyster Bar is a big help in that respect: It’s an excuse to get the characters to a location that’s shared between the high-school and the Fanny-and-Michelle sides of the show, and it imbues everything that unfolds there with a sense of stakes. It’s a fun juncture through which to run the various threads of the episode—and if I hadn’t already reached my maximum “one mention of ‘They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?’ per week” limit, I’d say the trivia contest does for “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” what the dance marathon does for my personal favorite Gilmore Girls hour. (Loophole!) Also: C’mon, Michelle—even those of us with the most cursory knowledge of Broadway history know the musical adaptation of Breakfast At Tiffany’s starring Mary Tyler Moore (with book by Edward Albee!) was a notorious flop! Perhaps we just have to chalk that one up to a performance-anxiety-based brain fart.
Though the blame for Michelle’s poor showing in the trivia contest can be laid at the feet of yet another block of her assumed stability being yanked out from under her feet. In the process of applying to take business classes at the local junior college—in order to help realize her and Fanny’s dream of building an amphitheater on their land—Michelle learns that she didn’t actually graduate from high school. For those keeping score at home, here’s a less-than-comprehensive guide to the defeats we’ve witnessed in the first 13 episodes of Michelle Sims’ television life: instant rejection at that Chicago audition, the death of Hubbell, that incident with the curtain rod, her meddling in Fanny and Michael’s affairs, the Godot fiasco, the “macing an entire ballet class and being run out of Paradise” ordeal, and the entirety of her time back in Vegas. In that light, discovering that she’s a high-school dropout—though, as the script smartly notes, dropping out would’ve required action—might seem like another drop in the bucket. But in a moment where it really looks like everything’s coming up Michelle, it packs the proper amount of sting.
That reveal also ties neatly into the emerging themes of Bunheads: Season One: Part II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold (Which May Very Well Be Buried Somewhere On Michelle And Fanny’s Property)—and into the conclusion of “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky.” The sense that everything in this world has changed since Michelle first came to Paradise continues to reverberate throughout the show, even after Michelle has been back in town for a few weeks. In tonight’s episode, that’s carried through by the runner involving Frankie and Cozette’s swift conquering of all pursuits social, artistic, and trivial, as well as Michelle’s sudden reappraisal of her self-worth. The pendulum was swinging one way; now, it’s swinging back. It’s happening with Sasha, too: The girl who pretended toward independence from her parents has been granted it, under the most thrilling/unnerving circumstances imaginable.
And then there’s the whole notion of these characters finding a home. At their core, the multi-generational triangle that drives much of Bunheads—Fanny, Michelle, and Sasha—is defined by a sort of rootlessness. Fanny has all this land tying her to Paradise, but she frequently takes leave of the place. When Michelle tries to plant a root (settling in Paradise on a permanent basis), another is dug out of the ground (her high-school education). Sasha has nothing but connections to her hometown, but forces beyond her control are attempting to transplant her. And it’s there where “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” finds solid ground, where the episode keeps itself from toppling over under the force of all that talking. On the surface level, this week’s Bunheads puts its characters’ concerns in the top two-fifths of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization and esteem. The underpinnings of “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky,” however, are found further down the pyramid, in Maslow’s “safety” section. Building the amphitheater gives Michelle and Fanny some financial stability amid the wreckage of a tough year; not having a great go of it herself, Sasha seeks refuge in performance and at Michelle’s side. It’s this material that makes the episode recognizably human; it’s Michelle and Fanny’s whispered rat-a-tat among the Sparkles clientele and that Temperate Dorothy Parker epigram at the top of the review that makes it Bunheads. Though the tension between the two doesn’t always yield spectacular results, it always produces a viewing experience unlike any other on the schedule.
- Who needs woefully incomplete IMDb listings or a character bio from the network when Millie’s trivia projector can reveal the proper spelling of “Cozette.” My apologies for the misspelling last week. (Of course, I’m going to go right on ahead in assuming that Fanny and Michelle’s accountant, Erik, spells his name the proper way, much like myself and the other Erik on the show.)
- My two biggest, most unexpected laughs from the last few episodes came from surprise bursts of violence from the bunheads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m eager for a roller derby episode. (Unless, of course, the producers want to make use of this last-minute-suggestion roller derby pseudonym: Militia Joan Hart.)
- Lots of great nouns turn up in tonight’s script and demand to be repeated in subsequent lines, including but not limited to: “sluicer,” “alpaca,” and “loan-y thingy.” In that light, “You Didn’t Name Sparkles Sparkles?” would’ve been a suitable alternate title for the episode.
- Why, yes, Melanie—I will start referring to all furnishings wrapped in plastic as “Laura Palmer furniture” from now on. Thanks for the suggestion! (See also: Michelle’s malapropism for junior college: “baby college.”)
- The bunheads finally get down to the business of cataloging Frankie and Cozette: “And they know sign language?” “Of course they do.” “They’re like two hot unicorns.”