There seems to be this weird spate of TV shows that start roughly a season before the story really begins. On Luck, the season two we’ll never get would have been about Dustin Hoffman and Michael Gambon finally taking up arms against each other, as Hoffman’s horse would face off against Nick Nolte’s horse. That’s pretty much what most people assumed the show would be about when they heard “there’s horse racing, and there’s gambling, and there’s gangsters,” but it took a full season of character and plot development to get to that point. ABC’s Once Upon A Time (to head all the way over on the quality scale) also spent its entire first season building toward something that might as well have happened in the pilot, and now, season two could be a theoretically different, much tighter show where there’s actually been an inciting incident that kicks off the plot.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, but it really requires strong characterization and plotting to work, which is why Luck was more successful at it than Once Upon A Time was (and I generally found OUAT an enjoyable guilty pleasure). With rare exceptions, TV shows tend to have heightened stakes at least somewhere in their premise, even if those stakes are, “This family needs to get along better, or they might just stop loving each other.” Obviously, those stakes aren’t apocalyptic in nature, but they give a center to the proceedings and keep everything focused. Not having that center can make for episodes that seem aimless, where everybody’s heading away from where the plot must inevitably go, something that happened a time or two on both of the shows described above.
Let’s add Bunheads to the list of shows that are taking their sweet time getting to where we know they need to go to actually be a functional TV show. But where the other two series doggedly avoided heading where we knew they would, Bunheads has just headed for what’s inevitable—Michelle and Fanny teaching at the dance school together—at a snail’s pace, taking its sweet time setting up the town of Paradise and the various characters who live there (and will be playing the recurring roles of kooky oddballs for seasons to come, should the show unexpectedly triple its audience between now and next week). It’s such a weird little show, full of moments that defy and deflate what you expect, and I can’t really tell you what it’s about just yet. Plus, I find at least one of the teenagers wholly superfluous and can’t say I’m as engaged by any of their storylines as I am by Michelle and Fanny, even after five episodes. (Based solely on the teaser for next week’s episode, I’m prepared to say that it might fill in some of these gaps and make the kids at least slightly more interesting.)
Yet this is hands down my favorite new show of the summer, and if we remove Louie and Breaking Bad from the equation, I doubt I’ll see a better episode of TV in this three-month period than “For Fanny,” which concluded with that strange, moving ballet set to Tom Waits. Bunheads feels like it has more moving parts than it actually does. There’s a ballet in every episode, and there are at least two storylines, yet nothing really happens. It creates the illusion of things happening, but it’s mostly running in place and trying to tell meaningful stories about dreams, potential, and what it means to shift everything you’d hoped for in your 30s. It’s a frequently annoying show, but it’s also a frequently beautiful show, with storylines—and individual scenes—vacillating between things that are as terrific as anything on TV right now and Sutton Foster seemingly having a nervous breakdown as she tries to get the dance students’ parents to pay up for all the free lessons they’ve been getting.
Tonight’s episode does the typical Amy Sherman-Palladino thing of starting out in a completely ridiculous place, then bringing it around to something much more emotionally potent and true, until you forget that everything about the plot was a little weird to begin with. Fanny, as it turns out, has two “payment seasons” per year, during which she pays her bills by organizing them into boxes of people who “have” to be paid, people whom she’ll try to pay if she can, and people whose approach rubbed her the wrong way. The problem is that people in that second box—like Sal, from the local dancewear store—often don’t get paid, because Fanny has a significant cash flow problem. That cash flow problem stems from the fact that she’s only got nine students of 75 paying for lessons. The others are all on scholarships she’s seemingly made up. She’s an artist, she says. Why care about money?
On its face, this whole setup is ridiculous, part of the show’s insistence on making Paradise a kind of literal paradise that Michelle simply can’t cotton to. The whole setup strains credulity so much that it almost breaks, even as it’s filling in just how much this town treasures Fanny without coming right out and saying it. (In general, this show is just awful with exposition, as we saw in the scene where Ginny told her friends—who would already know all of this—about her relationship with her boyfriend since second grade.) Fanny is a fixture of this town, and that means everybody’s willing to put up with her eccentricities—to a point. We also get the sense that Hubbel was smoothing a lot of things over for his mother, and now, reality’s coming knocking.
In general, I like how this show is about the terrifying moment when you realize that nothing is turning out quite like you’d hoped it would. Michelle is stuck in a small town and facing down teaching, which appears to be her worst fear or something. Fanny is having to realize that she can’t sweet talk everybody into letting her avoid paying her bills forever. The teenagers are all coping with realizations of their own—like Boo having to take a job at the Oyster Bar. Beneath its comedic, whimsical exterior, there’s a surprisingly deep and serious examination of what it means to be “grown up” going on in this show, right alongside that examination of how not every artist—even the talented ones—gets to head on to what they’d always hoped for. I hesitate to compare the show to Glee, since they’re fairly different programs, but this really does feel like a version of that show that kept the focus more squarely on Will and let the kids fill in the blanks of their own personalities with time.
Speaking of the kids, they’re easily the weakest part of tonight’s narrative. I like what I think the show is trying to do with Boo’s friendship/flirtation with hot bartender Godot (no, really, that’s his name), but it’s also just strange to see a man who appears to be about 25 flirting with a girl who’s meant to be 15 or 16 and looks the part. Having twentysomething guys flirt with teenage girls is an ABC Family hallmark, sadly, so I assume the series really will “go there,” and that will be too bad. But at least the show is preparing us for some deeper storytelling by having Michelle point out all of the ways Godot won’t live up to expectations. (The girls are lucky if he owns a second pair of shorts, she says.) He seems fun and romantic in the moment—and he seems like an ideal crush to have if you’re a teenage girl—but the second things actually become real, that’s when the disappointment comes waltzing through the door. My favorite scene here was Sasha trying to flirt with him, hoping to appear older than she was, only to be utterly ignored. It’s like the show’s mission statement: You can’t just hope to appear grown up. You have to go through some shit along the way.
Fanny doesn’t figure out how to pay her bills, not really. Michelle makes some angry noises at a dance lesson (and calls herself the bad cop or “Chiklis”), then has to work hard to pull back in all of the students and parents she’s alienated—complete with the one family that was paying full price demanding to be knocked down to half price if everybody else is going to be getting lessons for free. The episode culminates in a flower show—complete with ballet performance—that leads to Fanny’s at once ridiculous, hilarious, and terrific routine called “Paper or Plastic,” with the girls running through an ecological nightmare via dance. (Kelly Bishop’s delivery of Fanny’s explanation of what’s happening here makes the whole thing.) Michelle watches this dance—goofy as it is—and for a second, she gets what Fanny’s doing, how she’s allowed herself to get stuck here, in spite of everything. Teaching isn’t the end of the world, Fanny says, and it’s obvious Michelle’s starting to realize that.
That’s the thing, though: We know this show’s center is going to be Fanny and Michelle teaching at the dance school together. There’s no good reason to delay getting to that point. But if the show is going to keep delaying, at least it’s having fun along the way, moseying down sidestreets and getting distracted by interesting trinkets that pop up in its path. Bunheads is far from great television right now, and it has a fair share of problems it needs to fix. But the soul of the show is so sweet and loving and humane that I can’t help but root for it. One of these days, it’s going to tie all of the things it wants to do together again—and in a way that advances the plot in a substantial fashion—and it’s going to knock everybody out. Until then, it’s fun to saunter.
- I still have basically no idea who Melanie is supposed to be, but Ginny is finally coming into focus for me with this episode. Boo and Sasha, of course, are often very fun.
- If I had to pick a favorite supporting character who’s not Fanny, though, it would be Truly. I know some people find her irritating, but I enjoy her particular brand of flustered.
- Ryan McGee compared the four girls on this show to the immortal Teen Girl Squad. Your task is to correlate Ginny, Boo, Sasha, and Melanie to the four girls in Strong Bad’s series.
- The guy who was ordering Boo around was kind of a waste of a character. Even if I have trepidations about where this Boo/Godot thing is going, I would rather watch those two hang out any day.
- Another scene that was fairly excruciating: Sal telling Michelle how he can tell who any woman is just by looking at their "tush." It was like someone writing a bad parody of Sherman-Palladino's dialogue.
- I like the pop culture references, of course, but every time the show drops a dance reference, it is almost even more fun. I get maybe half of them, but it is nice to imagine these characters talking in a language only they truly understand.
- Erik will be back next week. Thanks for putting up with me!