Part of the fun in watching an ensemble television series come together is in seeing seemingly disparate characters united by a shared location, experience, or passion. It’s a trick whose importance to this type of show can’t be overstated; it lays the foundation on which the truly great ensemble series build, an easy translatable method of forging bonds between, say, the patrons and staff of a neighborhood bar or a field hospital during the Korean War. Bunheads is still a ways off from being “great,” but it saves itself a lot of explaining and unnecessary exposition by letting us assume that the four principal ballet students, who might otherwise fall into separate lunchroom cliques, are friends because of their mutual commitment to their craft and their shared knowledge of the demands that stem from that commitment. Because they’ve encountered the agony and ecstasy of performing together (and lived to document the toil that experience takes on their feet), it’s easier to buy a sequence of Sasha, Boo, Ginny, and Melanie going to extreme lengths to secure four adjacent seats at a mobile movie house.
That aspect of Bunheads also simplifies the development of a friendship between Michelle and Truly. The two characters have their differences, but those differences are outweighed by some basic similarities: They’re in the same age bracket; they each felt deeply for Hubbel (even if Truly has the numerical advantage in stretching those emotions over a course of many years, rather than several hours); and both are, more or less, isolated in Paradise. When Michelle’s path first crosses with Truly’s in “Movie Truck,” the proprietor of Sparkles is participating in a book club where she’s the only member who didn’t read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret in its first edition. Understandably, she’s also the only woman in the conversation who didn’t read the club’s latest selection, Fifty Shades Of Grey, which she treats with a shock and revulsion that would qualify her to join in whispering about Lady Chatterley’s Lover among the women of Sterling-Cooper. Approaching the situation with arms not wide open, but fully extended forward, Michelle suggests to Truly that she really ought to be hanging out with women her own age. Only later does it dawn on Michelle that she’s the only woman of Truly’s own age within the zip code, and by then, it’s too late to deny Truly an invitation to the debauched, exhaustive birthday celebration planned by Michelle and Talia. They are kindred spirits who don’t acknowledge their connection until their pilgrimage to a mythical “cupcake ATM” located in Los Angeles.
Truly would like to be the Cheryl Ladd to Michelle and Talia’s Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson (give it up to credited writers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Beth Schacter for invoking Charlie’s Angels, Showgirls, and They Might Be Giants in a single hour). However, while she can wear the costume and offer up the properly spontaneous suggestions for dessert-based road trips, she falls short of fully embodying a Vegas showgirl out on the (small) town. All the booze she swigs during the screening of Mountain Of Arms ends up back in the bottle; Michelle’s disturbed at the thought of having chugged backwash from her late husband’s ex-girlfriend, but, really, that spit-swallowing brings them closer together than ever before. Bunheads could’ve eked a little more mileage out of a contentious relationship between Michelle and Truly, but it’s a smart move to inch the two characters closer to friendship. Because Kate Jackson’s going to leave this little Charlie’s Angels triumvirate, and Michelle could use the age-appropriate company just as much as Truly. And since this is Bunheads, that relationship will move along at a steadily casual pace. Truly may have put her differences with Michelle aside in favor of companionship, but it’s not like the characters are going to show up wearing corresponding sides of the same “BEST FRIENDS” pendant next week.
Just as isolated, but surrounded by a larger support system: Sasha, whose loneliness is underlined by the dance that concludes the episode, a slinky spotlight number set to They Might Be Giants’ cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Like the setting of that song, Sasha’s stuck, alone, in between a comfortable past with her parents and a brave, new, divorce-pending world where her father is finally free to be his true self—and her mom has fewer throw pillows to chuck around the living room. If the show is looking to draw a straight line from Fanny to Michelle to Sasha—the last of whom reveals to Boo at the end of “Movie Truck” that she’s attending the Joffrey summer program without telling either of her parents—this is one way to do it.
Yet, for all her bratty behavior this week, Sasha’s increased trust in Boo is a sweet way to add complexity to the character and her relationships. And while the Michelle-Talia-Truly end of the night at the mobile movies illustrates the advantages of writing scenes for three characters, rather than four, Sasha’s best moment of choreography tonight comes not in the dance studio by on the titular movie truck. Faced with a packed house, she orchestrates a multi-front scheme to secure four seats in the same row, an enjoyable setpiece that suggests, should this whole dancing thing not work out, Sasha would be well-suited to the role of the United States military’s first female field commander. All she’ll need to do is audibly express weariness and hope that the enemy surrenders in order to bring her some popcorn.
That pre-show shuffle is as high-stakes as “Movie Truck” gets, but it serves as a nice symbol of Sasha grasping for control as circumstances beyond her reach—in the immediate: a curfew-enforcing home alarm system; on the horizon: the end of her parents’ marriage—continue to encroach on her life. It’s a gentle way of telling that story, and Juliana Goldani-Telles meets that gentleness with a restrained-but-simmering frustration. The character’s true emotions aren’t expressed until the dance-routine coda, where a fierce intensity rages behind Goldani-Telle’s eyes, eventually sounded by the “stomp stomp stomp” of her exit from the frame. Bunheads’ reluctance to move at a quicker pace might be keeping it from finding a larger audience, but it pays off in the slowly building emotional material given to Sasha here.
Contrast that to Boo’s crush on Melanie’s brother Charlie, Duke Of Sulk, which manifested swiftly in “Inherit The Wind” and still feels underdeveloped and poorly explained in “Movie Truck.” With the way the show is taking its sweet time to get Michelle into the teacher’s seat, stories that move at a swifter clip are appreciated; it’s just that Sherman-Palladino and her writers are more adept at development in slow-motion, like the shift Michelle and Truly’s relationship has undertaken in the first six episodes.
Considering the pleasure of watching a show’s ensemble gelling in such a patient fashion, it’s fitting that all six characters eventually end up building and reinforcing their bonds while watching a movie. It’s doubtful that the principals of Mountain Of Arms find themselves in a similar situation, but any survivors of that made-up slasher pic would share a connection for the rest of their natural life—short though that life may be, given the way horror franchises tend to treat those that make it out of a previous installment alive. And so it is with the twin journeys into the night that make up “Movie Truck,” small-scale adventures that will later serve as experiences that brought these characters closer together. Years down the road, it’s doubtful we remember the reasons we wouldn’t be friends with the most important people in our lives; instead, we remember our buddy falling through the roof of a convertible or the Mountain Of Arms drinking game or the time we all rallied around the friend who was experiencing a tough time at home. And that’s why the circumstances of what happened before we came together will never be as important as what happened afterward—in real life, and on television.