It’s easy for a television show about the performing arts to lose itself up its own ass. Because whether they’re playing dancers, stage actors, musicians, or other television professionals, the actors in these shows are still playing people who share the stress of auditioning, the pain of being passed over, and the longing for an audience. And the writers writing for those actors know similar kinds of stresses, as do the directors—and anyone working on the show, really. And with all that commiserating, it’s no wonder even the finest of TV series about the performing arts can fall prey to “Woe is I, the performer” traps that might be alluring to viewers outside of New York or Los Angeles, but are alien and indulgent to 95 percent of an audience.
It’s a young show yet, but Bunheads has done a commendable job leaping over those pitfalls. All of its principal characters devote the majority of their time to creative expressions of some sort, yet the specificities of ballet training, auditioning for a musical, or crafting a powerful-yet-elegant ladies pantsuit never outweigh the universal experiences and emotions of these characters. Twice now, the show has developed stellar musical sequences for Michelle to express the difficulty of maturing in a profession that could very well expel Sutton Foster’s co-stars before they can legally rent a car. But “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit” is a more satisfying episode than “Better Luck Next Year” because of the way it draws in one of those co-stars to share in the anxiety, all the while reminding Michelle of a part of her life she assumed was over.
Were it not a patently ridiculous thing to declare, I’d call Ginny the breakout Bunhead of this half season. (Thus making her performer, in the lingo of Twitter: “Bailey Buntain the blonde breakout Bunhead.”) The first 10 episodes did wonderful work for Sasha and Boo, but Ginny frequently felt underserved by those hours, a shame because Buntain projected a great deal more of confidence in her acting than any of her three teenaged cohorts. At the very least she gave off the sense of being well-versed in the pacing, rhythm, and density of dialogue written by Amy Sherman-Palladino. She confirmed as much at last month’s Television Critics Association press tour: “I was a really big fan of Gilmore Girls. So I was used to hearing that style. I was used to hearing ‘Pick up your cues,’ really fast.”
In this back 10, Ginny’s been granted a legitimate sense of place and purpose among the principals and within the show, and it’s paying off huge dividends in episodes like “Take The Vicuna” and “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit.” It’s fitting that her best episode yet should come in a week where Liza Weil is so prominently featured: Bunheads needed its Paris Geller, and over time, it’s found her in Ginny Thompson. Big on talk and mettle but bearing insecurities that muck up her follow through, it’s a personality type that’s worth exploring—and worth more episodes like tonight’s.
It’s not just that “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit” gives an underutilized player her due—it’s also that it does so while quietly channeling the stinging swarms of change buzzing around Ginny and her friends. At the start of tonight’s episodes, she’s the only one of the Bunheads who hasn’t found a distraction from ballet or their old lives: Boo has Carl, Sasha has Roman and the apartment, and Mel has nine other girls on roller skates hurtling toward her at high speeds one night a week. Ginny’s isolation is made plain at an Oyster Bar benefit for SURF (that’s the Surfers’ United Retirement Fund, a far more wieldy and scrutable acronym than the Society for the Preservation of Keeping it Real in Paradise’s alphabet soup), during which she announces her intention to audition for the school musical, the 1956 switchboard saga Bells Are Ringing. No one takes her seriously because this is an announcement Ginny’s made before: Every year, she says she’s going to do it, but then she chickens out at the last second. This is where the character smartly diverges from the Paris model: She’s a whole lot of bluster, but her spine gives out when it’s time to take action.
You’ll see nothing of the sort from the genuine Geller model in “There’s Nothing Worse Than Pantsuit.” In spite of her fashion advice to Michelle, Millie wears a skirt suit to the big meeting with SFPOKIRP—a gutsy sartorial call considering it might reveal the massive pair of balls required Fir pulling the rope-a-dope moves she uses to secure the society’s approval of the Millicent Stone Center for the Performing Arts. The way Michelle can’t conjure that fearlessness in the face of Sam, Sal, and company confirms the character’s pantsuit-less future. That and the surprise touring gig Talia books with Rock Of Ages while in Paradise to celebrate her engagement to Rick. (“Is Rick dead? You had a ‘My aged boyfriend might be dead look on your face,” Michelle says after the big call.)
So while Ginny’s gearing up for the audition no one thinks she’ll ever make, Michelle’s regretting the booking she missed by virtue of not sleeping with a Las Vegas valet for two weeks in the mid-’00s. Sutton Foster plays the disappointment of the latter beautifully. If Buntain’s performance elevates “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit” because of her ability to navigate the script, Foster does more than her fair share of nailing the space between the lines. Her physicality says it all after Angelina McCoy puts down the phone: The excitement in her line readings is counterpoint to her slumped shoulders, and until she upstages Ginny at the girl’s own audition-coaching session, Foster’s facial expressions masterfully convey the sense that Michelle is one reminder of her personal failures away from bursting into tears. There’s depth to this performance, and it’s gutting in a way with which Bunheads is intimately acquainted. There’s more than just Ginny’s pride riding on that rendition of “It’s A Perfect Relationship”—an essential, immutable, inalterable facet of Michelle’s identity depends on it as well.
The stakes are high for Ginny and Michelle’s informal Fosse pas de deux, and the Grant Levy- and Dominik Rothbard-credited script lays the groundwork for it nicely, placing both in conversations where other people recognize and comment upon the shifting tides in Paradise. During their studio time, both characters are determined to affect change, not have change affected upon them, and that contributes to the triumph of “It’s A Perfect Relationship.” When the scene starts out, Michelle is noting Ginny to death, as if to live vicariously through someone who still has a shot at booking Rock Of Ages. (Or its garage-rock-revival equivalent, set to bring the sounds of Jet, The Hives, and The Vines to New Broadway in 2023.) But as it progresses, she seizes her own destiny, proves she’s got plenty of moxie left, and if Ginny’s spirits at the end of the episode are any indication, follows through on her commitment to coaching the kid to victory.
Performances like “It’s A Perfect Relationship” are becoming increasingly justified on Bunheads, grounded in the reality of a rehearsal or a one-on-one practice session. It’s been a few weeks since the show made its last trip to the Dream Theater, but recent musical sequences have demonstrated how Bunheads is consistently beating Glee and Smash at their own games. The way these sequences are handled is restrained, and it’s only when the emotions truly need to burst out of a character that they’re employed at all. And, increasingly, there’s the sense that the show is grounded more in the tradition of stage musicals and not their screen equivalents. Michelle and Scotty essentially stepped upstage to deliver “Tonight You Belong To Me” two weeks back; tonight’s episode uses offstage voices to such an extent that it must’ve been a consciously theatrical choice on the part of director (and viable Random Roles candidate) David Paymer. Either that or the shooting schedule for “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit” was seriously whacked.
And true to the observation that Bunheads can indulge in such material and not end up sounding like so much insider baseball, the “performer’s lot” specifics betray universal sentiment. Ginny’s singing about Frankie just as much as she’s singing about Plaza-O-Double-Four-Double-Three—he’s the guy who only knows her as a voice, a wisp of nothing that barely gets him to look up from his sketch pad. (Which is all well and good, if Cozette is to be believed.) Relatable, keenly observed, and not at all a sentiment exclusive to a teenaged ballerina whose friends are all finding their own diversified interests while she wages a Cold War against the twin sister of her unrequited love. Michelle’s concerns in “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit” resonate beyond performing-arts circles as well, for who hasn’t sold out their personality to get things done—and then learned to regret it? And for all that broad fodder, it’s only Bunheads that could tell these stories in this way with this many big laughs and one showstopping song-and-dance number. And tonight’s episode does all of those things perfectly.
- Whatever the reason for all the ADR tracked for “There’s Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit,” it is appropriate that Bells Are Ringing figures into an episode that so frequently reduces its characters to nothing more than voices.
- On any other show, the squirrel hypothetical that nearly scotches the Millicent Stone Center for the Performing Arts would be much too much. Here, however, it’s expertly deployed, perfectly delivered, and the source for some of the episode’s biggest laughs.
- What are the Bunheads watching? (With apologies to Noel Murray’s essential charting of Raylan Givens’ Netflix queue, a new weekly feature tracking the girls’ more unorthodox taste in pop culture): In between Rachel McAdams romantic dramas, Boo, Ginny, Mel, and Sasha take in a screening of the classic surf documentary The Eternal Summer. It should go great with the existential searching Ginny will do after looking up that “Things known and things unknown” quote with which Frankie favors her, as she’ll find it’s alternately attributed to William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison, and Ray Manzarek. But when you go looking for surf, you don’t go looking for a really big wave…
- “Please, I own property.” Millie should get that printed on a T-shirt.
- A snapshot of champagne wishes and caviar dreams from the Lifestyles Of The Rich And Also Frankie And Cozette: “We spent a summer on Annie Leibowitz’s yacht—we got some tips and some very expensive parting gifts.”
- With Roman introduced to the lunch table, Boo tries to bring the basketball-playing punk into the conversation: “So, is Wilt Chamberlain still alive?” (Sorry, Boo: The Stilt died in 1999.)
- Truly and Michelle talk pantsuits—and audition for Paradise’s forthcoming vaudeville revue: “I could play with the crotch a little.” “Best offer all day.”
- The pantsuits, however, are much less breathable than other outfits Michelle has worn: “I was in a donkey costume for an experimental production of Don Quixote, and I didn’t sweat this much.”