Bunheads: “What’s Your Damage, Heather?”
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Bunheads: “What’s Your Damage, Heather?”

There’s a sinister subtext to Target’s current ad campaign, where Top 40 hits of the 1980s (or the late ’70s, if you speak Spanish) are re-imagined as back-to-school shopping lists. These ads can only mean that the kids who listened to The Go-Gos, Thomas Dolby, and Cameo while their parents shopped for “pencils, hair gel, binders” (and denim) are now themselves responsible for school-aged children. The gap between those who bought Beauty And The Beat on vinyl and the target audience for The CW’s Beauty And The Beast revamp spans a generational divide. On the one side, mothers and fathers whose warm feelings toward “She Blinded Me With Science” can be converted into sweet, sweet fourth-quarter earnings; on the other, kids who’ll never be able to hear the mad-scientist exclamations of Magnus Pyke without thinking about summer vacation being rudely ripped out from under them.

The television shows overseen by Amy Sherman-Palladino are acutely aware of such gaps. On Gilmore Girls, there was a gulf of preferences, priorities, and opinions between Emily and Lorelai, one which didn’t exist between Lorelai and Rory—largely because the younger mother-daughter Gilmore pairing was so close in age. That closeness could be just as effective a source of conflict as the distance between Emily and her daughter, but the mere 16 years separating Lorelai and Rory created the openness that informed so much of their relationship (and Gilmore Girls as a whole). It might not seem like four years should make much of a difference, but the 20-some birthdays Michelle has on her Bunheads charges puts her further toward the “parent” side of the “parent/friend” divide that the Gilmore Girls leads so delicately tread. “What’s Your Damage, Heather?” drives that point home, in true, Sherman-Palladino fashion: with some well-deployed pop-culture allusions.

When it comes to contemporary pop-culture’s eagerness to quote itself and pop works of the past, it’s sometimes forgotten that preference in TV shows, music, movies, books, and games drives people apart just as often as it brings them together. “‘[Pop-culture name drop]’ ‘Who?’” can be a lazy, hacky way of telling a joke; when it’s grounded in character, however, it can be a potent tool. “What’s Your Damage, Heather?” wields that tool with expertise, ultimately lending a patience to an episode so full of new developments, it occasionally feels twice as long as it actually is. Sasha’s unfamiliarity with the Book of Winona Ryder is the final point in a game of missed cues that runs throughout tonight’s episode, a clever gag that turns poignant with a deadly precision—a testament to the fact that Sherman-Palladino (credited with the script alongside Grant Levy and Dominik Rothbard) deserved a better shot at sitcom success than that afforded by The Return To Jezebel James. The reveal that Heathers has fallen out of the required-viewing rotation for prematurely world-weary high schoolers is funny (but why would they need it in a world with Mean Girls?); but what’s more revelatory, and beneficial to Bunheads, is that Michelle and Sasha suddenly finding themselves speaking a different language. It’s authority figure coming down on subordinate, not friend admonishing friend for a perceived slight.

Of course, it’s a moment that also attests that a light, one-hour hybrid of comedy and drama is just where Sherman-Palladino ought to be working. Michelle’s blow-up in the dressing room might be awkward for the character, but it’s a blessing to the episode, and a series highlight for Sutton Foster. As Bunheads expands and explores its world, there are a lot of interested parties pulling at its sleeves, begging for attention—Michelle’s reluctant acceptance of her new, lofty status at the Paradise Dance Academy is backgrounded for a sizable portion of “What’s Your Damage, Heather?,” while the Ginny and Truly storylines dangle shiny distractions like relationship drama and a one-eyed plumber in front of the camera. Thankfully, Michelle cuts through the noise and reclaims the episode—though that’s followed shortly by an on-the-nose, absentee-mother epilogue.

Yet Michelle enters into the conversation even when she’s not onscreen in “What’s Your Damage, Heather?,” more so than any other episode since the pilot. While the hour prepares the character for her future, it also illuminates her past—or the myth of her past, at least. When a flood forces the girls to abandon their dressing room for Michelle’s guest-house digs, they ignore all rules of common decency (and Boo’s pleading) and rifle through their substitute teacher’s belongings. They uncover some old programs (“She was in Oklahoma!—in Oklahoma!”), a Rod Stewart-clogged MP3 player, and a raggedy Raggedy Anne that’s been stitched together at the midsection. The extreme invasion of privacy is a well-played reminder that Michelle’s still a mystery to the citizens of Paradise—even those she’s allowed to get closest to her.

But how do we define the connections Michelle has made to the students of Fanny’s dance school? The way this week’s episode tells it, she can be friend and mentor, but her position as an instructor—and Fanny’s absence—put her in the tight spot of taking on Fanny’s role as the strictest of the strict (albeit with fewer dietary restrictions). When Michelle snaps at Sasha, she’s also snapping at herself. “I’m not a disciplinarian, I’m not a grown-up—well, I don’t want to be. I’m not here to teach you anything but ballet,” she says, but can’t entirely mean. Leaving Las Vegas has changed the character, and caring for these kids and doing right by Fanny is obviously scary to someone who lived without responsibility for so long. Taking responsibility for your actions is a huge step toward being the type of adult who doesn’t keep a jar of peanut butter on her headboard, a lesson that’s learned simultaneously by Michelle and Sasha. With Fanny away, Sasha is without the one authority figure who could keep her accountable. But whereas Ginny interprets Michelle’s life advice as “dump your boyfriend,” Sasha learns the harder lesson. Judging by the preview of next week’s episode, that’s a lesson that comes with a bout of rebellion sponsored by Manic Panic, but we’ll get to that when the time comes.

Until then, we’re left to contemplate whether the two decades of hard knocks that sets Michelle apart from Sasha, Ginny, Boo, and Melanie is a legitimately enormous divide—or if that’s just an optical illusion caused by Christian Slater and Siegfried And Roy T-shirts. It’s plenty of years of dating in shifts and wearing sequined thongs that the girls haven’t experienced, but certain aspects of their lives in Paradise have forced them to grow up in ways Michelle is just now experiencing. Of course, if Fanny were here, she could’ve handed down those lessons herself. However, it brings Bunheads’ five younger principals closer together to gain such knowledge from one another. They might be mystified by one another’s cultural touchstones, but the process of becoming a complete, compassionate, responsible human being is one people of all ages can understand. To put it in the dumbed-down lyrics of a pop-punk act that slipped between the generations depicted on Bunheads (but will probably be used to sell notebooks and T-shirts to the children of my generation): I guess this is growing up.

Stray observations:

  • Further basis for the Heathers quote, which took me a good hour or so to catch: Like the movie’s star, Sasha was caught lifting clothes.
  • The solo sequences with Sutton Foster are getting better and better with each passing episode: The curtain rod gave way to the pole, which led to tonight’s tour de force voice-mail message, where Foster plays both parts of an exchange between Michelle and Fanny, absolutely nailing her the sardonic put downs of her character’s mother-in-law.
  • Boo is so eager to bend to authority (no matter how minor), her Oyster Bar waitressing instincts kick in even when she’s at the bar as a customer.
  • Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize Davis, the one-eyed plumber, as Todd Lowe, whose previous incarnation in the Sherman-Palladinoverse was that of Lane Kim’s bandmate and eventual husband, Zach. The will-they/won’t-they tension between his character and Truly could’ve played out for any number of prospective Bunheads seasons, so kudos to the writers for skipping all that and letting the characters go straight to Make Out City.
  • In reply to Michelle’s question about the usual noise created by tap dancing, Sam (played by Rose Abdoo, another Stars Hollow refugee filling out Paradise) produces an appropriately folksy quip: “Unless a cowboy is shooting bullets at your feet, it’s the loudest dance there is.”
  • Michelle is a dietician: “No one is happy with a salad. The lettuce just punched itself in the face.”
  • Davis, caught in the act with Truly: “Please don’t mention this on Yelp!” Michelle: “I wouldn’t know how.” Under a “Specialties” heading, maybe?
  • Michelle doesn’t want to be a disciplinarian, but she certainly knows how to craft a cutting rhetorical question like a disciplinarian: “Hey, you break your legs? Are those prosthetics you had to carve yourself out of an old dining room set? That’s why you’re late?” 

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