(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
I watch every episode of Bunheads in a state of vague apprehension, convinced that somehow, Amy Sherman-Palladino and her team are going to screw everything up, only to find myself won over by the end, through one amazing scene or some improbably great bit of dialogue or a dance number (or two). The show is a weird high-wire act, a plotless wonder that wanders from bit to bit, with storylines not so much present as occasionally surfacing, like humpback whales cutting through the sea. The pleasures of the show are so disconnected from plot that the whole thing feels like some weird, anarchic throwback to the days when shows that were just about catching a particular vibe weren’t just on the air but could also be big, big hits. On the other hand, something will pop up a couple of times—like Ginny talking about auditioning for the school musical—and it will just seem to be a part of that vibe, only to turn out to be this giant emotional core of the whole series. The show is weird and elliptical and brilliant that way.
This also makes it spectacularly difficult to review. Not that there’s a lack of things going on or anything like that. Indeed, when you start boiling down Bunheads to its component parts, there’s quite a bit there. (I’m always amazed by just how female-centric the show’s universe is. There are men who have become characters, but they’re less important than everybody else and are occasionally just there to be eye candy.) In particular, the second part of the first season of this show has been interesting in how it’s managed to prove the show can stand on its own without over-relying on the Michelle and Fanny dynamic, which is a terrific dynamic but could be one that became far too easy to lean on. In these seven episodes, all four of the titular bunheads have become characters, and the town of Paradise has been fleshed out. That’s a lot of necessary work that’s been executed with aplomb, for the most part.
At the same time, the individual stakes of each episode are so small-scale that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. For instance, one of tonight’s many subplots involved the two guys competing for Boo’s hand—whose names I can never remember, even after copious Googling, though I’m pretty sure one is named “Carl”—doing warring Tommy Lee Jones impressions that weren’t particularly amusing and mostly just seemed to be there because some Palladino or another got it in their head that it would be funny to have a teenage boy doing a TLJ impression. (Hey, it was worth a shot, no?) On the other hand, things that seem like they could have huge stakes—like that condom Michelle finds—mostly disappear for large stretches of the episode, only to reappear at the end, when Boo reveals she’s on the pill, even though she hasn’t had sex yet (in a very funny, light-hearted, surprisingly sex-positive scene, which is not what you might expect from a “whose condom is this?!” episode). Anyway, it’s all build-up to the fact that Godot is apparently a volunteer fireman, and he’s walking in the room, and Michelle is, apparently, now in possession of a condom with which to consummate their simmering whatever it is.
The central device of the episode isn’t a bad one. Indeed, it reminded me of what might be the best Gilmore Girls episode ever, in the fact that it closed up everybody in the same location for a while (thanks to a mandatory forest fire evacuation), then let Sean Gunn be particularly annoying. (A little Sean Gunn goes a long way, but the man can be very funny. Fortunately, he’s only been in the two episodes of this show. As far as Gilmore alums who’ve jumped on in and aren’t named Kelly Bishop, I’d say Liza Weil has more readily acclimated herself.) But the dance marathon episode of Gilmore took place after a few seasons, when relationships had had time to simmer and percolate, so the fallout from what happened there was pitched at maximum devastation. This episode’s emotions are much more newly formed, much more nascent.
That’s probably a good thing. In general, Bunheads feels like a younger show than Gilmore, even though its protagonist is roughly the same age as Lorelai Gilmore was, and Kelly Bishop is Kelly Bishop. I’m not even sure why I think that, outside of the fact that Gilmore ran seven seasons, and this show is still in its first. But even though our four teenage girl characters are slightly older than Rory Gilmore was at the start of that earlier series, they somehow feel even more sheltered, even less able to deal with their own emotions. That’s always been Sherman-Palladino’s greatest strength, too; even though her teenage characters talk like teenagers wish they talked, she nails down precisely the whirling maelstrom of emotions that is adolescence, then puts it through a screwball pop-culture Photoshop filter. Put another way: I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I acutely recognized the swirl of emotions surrounding the characters tonight, from Ginny’s confused longing for Frankie to Sasha’s know-it-all haughtiness on the question of pretty much everything.
But it honestly feels like, to me, Sherman-Palladino’s strengths at writing adult characters have gotten a little lost in the discussion of this stretch of episodes. Michelle is a fantastic protagonist, not least of which is because the writers of the show (and Sutton Foster) aren’t afraid to make her a little selfish, a little mean. The much-praised rehearsal sequence from last week only works because she’s kind of an asshole to take over for Ginny like that, and this week features a scene where she tries to tell her friend off for choosing marriage instead of a chance at being on Broadway. But, see, Talia’s pregnant. Priorities shift. Your life isn’t necessarily what you expected it to be. Michelle, of all people, knows that, and she’s frantically standing at the edge of a cliff marked “actual adulthood” and yelling for everybody to go back. But sooner or later, you have to choose between what you thought you wanted and what life actually gave you, and it’s sometimes the better choice to go for the latter. There’s no shame in that.
What’s interesting about this dilemma is that it’s an argument Michelle is having with herself, but the show keeps finding ways to externalize it. When she’s more than happy to let Truly take over Talia’s maid-of-honor duties, or when she’s trying to take over her section of the evacuation procedures, or when she’s just coaching the girls in her charge through the tricky passages they’ll have on the way to adulthood, she feels like one of the most realistic characters on TV, somebody who’s “grown up” but hasn’t yet finished growing up, a person who knows what she wants but hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to get it and doesn’t yet realize how much of what she’s hoped for is right in front of her. It rarely works for a TV show to have a central character keep fighting against the series’ premise—look at how quickly Northern Exposure just had Fleischmann accept that he was going to be working in this quirky Alaskan town for a while—but Bunheads is managing the tricky task of having Michelle want to be in Paradise but also want to be anywhere else.
All in all, this wasn’t the show’s strongest episode—that Tommy Lee Jones runner just didn’t work in any way, shape, or form, and the story ended up being a little too freeform, particularly when the bottle-episode constraints should have given it more rigor—but at this point, the show’s on such a roll and has captured that “vibe” so effortlessly that I’m willing to follow it just about anywhere. All of this is to say that I’ll take “pretty good” Bunheads—the bulk of this episode—over just about any show on TV, because there’s always a scene or two of “great” Bunheads—Michelle’s fight with Talia, Boo’s birth control admission—peeking out from everything else. And great Bunheads is like nothing else on TV.
- Hello. My name is Todd VanDerWerff, and I am a Sasha. Erik, a Ginny, will be back for the winter finale next week.
- Speaking of Sasha, her apartment continues to be like something that was forced onto the show via notes from a young-adult fiction publisher, but I kind of like the whole thing in spite of myself. Plus, the plot where she’s convinced someone has broken in, which concludes with Boo giving her a ferocious hug, just reminded me of how much the series has built female friendships as its center, in a very quiet, interesting way. It’s like Girls if Girls was about younger women and wasn’t on every other magazine cover.
- As a dude, I sometimes miss the Luke Danes presence on this show, but I’m not sure how to fix that, short of just adding a new character in season two (something I think is regrettably likely). But who’s going to bounce off of Sutton Foster as well as Scott Patterson bounced off of Lauren Graham? Certainly not Godot!
- I searched a bunch of Bunheads fan blogs to try and figure out some character names for the guys (who, honestly, all blend into one another and shut up), and I came across an interesting theory my wife has also been advancing to me all season: Do you think Melanie might be a lesbian, with an attraction to Cozette? Do you think that would mean Cozette would be on the show more? Because Jeanine Mason isn’t the world’s greatest actress, but, c’mon! She’s Jeanine from So You Think You Can Dance!
- I pretty much laugh at every word out of Liza Weil’s mouth on this show, but I was particularly taken with “What? She has toys!”
- This week in Bunheads dancing: There’s a weird number in coal-miner helmets that’s kind of fun but also kind of ridiculous for how the show keeps finding ways to have the key light hit Sasha’s face just so. (As a Sasha, I approve.)
- Bunheads power rankings:
1.) Michelle =
2.) Sasha ^
3.) Ginny (down)
4.) Melanie =
5.) Fanny (in absentia)