Michelle has to come back. If she stays in Las Vegas and Fanny tries to pull the Paradise Dance Academy back together by herself, there’s no Bunheads. Partially because the show is about the uneasy relationship between mother and daughter-in-law, and partially because stranding Sutton Foster on Talia’s couch for any longer than an hour would’ve robbed the series of its basic energy and zest. The “It’s Oh So Quiet” rehearsal is a great way for Bunheads to leap its way back onto the primetime grid, but the show could only coast on the fumes of “previously taped” rehearsals for so long.
The challenge, then, is wringing drama from a scenario that’s an inevitability. When I recently asked showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino (who wrote and directed “You Wanna See Something?”) how she prepared this winter première without treating Michelle’s return to Paradise as a foregone conclusion, her answer was simple: She treated it like a foregone conclusion. Sherman-Palladino has faith in her audience’s intelligence, so “You Wanna See Something?” wastes no time trying to fool viewers into thinking that Michelle will stay in Nevada for a few more episodes, moping through an existence where she’s the supporting player in an embarrassing viral video and the third-string talent in a magic show that’s not even on the Vegas strip. (Technically, the casino’s not in Vegas at all—it’s in Henderson, sad rider of Sin City’s desert-glitz coattails.)
Instead, the impact of “You Wanna See Something?”—its title derived from the catchphrase of Michelle’s brief employer, a magician name Jo-Jo—is grounded in everything that’s changed in Michelle’s absence. The scenes from a ballet-less Paradise don’t reach Pottersville levels of despair, but the differences are palpable: Mel is spending afternoons hogging three tables at The Oyster Bar, under the auspices of caring for her seemingly comatose grandfather. (We can presume grandpa was the sprightly sort who boogied to Vengaboys tracks by way of promoting national theme-park chains before Michelle packed up her world-brightening spunk and returned to Las Vegas.) With her mother pregnant and due to be bedridden, Boo is on childcare detail. Most shockingly of all—and wisely placed at the beginning of this parade of pseudo-misery, the better to underline the topsy-turvy nature of New Paradise—Ginny’s working as a real estate agent. The job suits Bailey Buntain’s chipper, preternaturally polished charms, but the red blazer doesn’t fit her character at all.
The passage of time between “A Nutcracker In Paradise” and “You Wanna See Something?” is handled more elegantly in some places than others. The cobwebs and the detritus of a life being sorted out midstream are strewn about Fanny’s house and the dance studio with an awfully heavy hand; only the heightened, occasionally fantastical reality of the Sherman-Palladinoverse can explain why the studio is its former, immaculate self by the time Michelle arrives for her first class back. Yet it was during one of those heightened-reality moments—Fanny and Truly’s scene in the cardboard kitchen model, a spectacular comic setpiece for Stacey Oristano—that it occurred to me that Bunheads’ strongest ties to our reality are the way the show mirrors the languid pacing of life outside the television set. On this show, relationships and character dynamics move in real time—even though the characters’ lips move faster than sound. It’s Sherman-Palladino’s most impressive trick: Providing the thematic and photographic space enables Bunheads (and Gilmore Girls) to be so thrilling moment-to-moment.
Because as much as “You Wanna See Something?” is about what happened in the months and days leading up to the episode, it does an excellent job of zooming in on circumstances as they’re unfolding. Scenes that occurred offscreen lead to Fanny showing up at the casino or Sasha skulking around in Unabomber drag, but they’re not prioritized over important developments like Fanny and Michelle’s conversation during Jo-Jo’s show. Fanny’s remodeling plot establishes an episodic motif of characters watching videos from the not-too-distant past—but even in those scenes, the takeaway comes not from what’s documented in the videos, but how Fanny or Michelle feel while watching them.
So how are the principal players feeling as we check in with them after four-plus months? “Fine”—at least that’s the watchword in “You Wanna See Something?” The refrain of Sherman-Palladino’s script, “fine” is a deceptive word—and when it’s used in the pingpong game of Fanny, Ginny, and Mel’s Oyster Bar dialogue, it flimsily stands in for “good” when “bad” is what’s meant. These characters live to dance or live to teach dance, and when that’s absent from their lives, they have to do a lot of compensating, be it in the grown-up affectation of selling a foreclosed home or the ballet of denial Kelly Bishop performs all up and down “You Wanna See Something?”—an evasive, withdrawn routine covering up for the absence of Hubbell as well as Michelle.
Appropriately, it’s the word “fine” that seals Michelle’s deal to resume the life she started in Paradise, a place to which she has tenuous (see also: fine) connections and where her relationship with the locals is in a fragile (see also, again: fine) state. But she’s needed there, and not just because getting Sutton Foster back onto the property her character owns is a narrative necessity—it’s driven by character need as well. Boo, Ginny, and Mel need her there to help break up the boredom of an adolescence in a sleepy hometown. With a challenging summer at Joffrey behind her and an uncertain home life ahead, Sasha could use the support Michelle provides. Fanny needs her daughter-in-law to run the family business and assist in the healing process following Hubbell’s death. Above all, Michelle needs to be in Paradise in order to be the person Hubbell mentions in that wedding video.
When a story like Michelle’s homecoming is driven by concerns of narrative and character, it’s not an inevitability—it’s just smart TV.
- Watch for my interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino to post next Monday. And prepare for further excellent Gilmore Girls crossover cameos in the Bunheads episode that airs that night. (Speaking of which, that’s Michael DeLuise—a.k.a. Luke Danes’ numbskull brother-in-law, T.J.—as Jo-Jo.)
- In line with ABC Family’s unorthodox scheduling practices (see also: Switched At Birth’s year-plus-long, 30-episode freshman season) this episode is technically part of the same season as the 10 episodes that aired last summer.
- It might just be the seething, Luke-esque quality of his dialogue with Mel and Ginny, but the show could stand to see more of sarcastic Oyster Bar waiter Jeffrey.
- There’s a laundry list/mini-biography on Michelle’s shirt in one scene of “You Wanna See Something?” Even the fashion on this show is talkative.
- As a joke, “Nutcracker Macing” could’ve devolved into a deep, dark pit of hackneyed Internet humor. It’s saved, however, by whatever Kaitlyn Jenkins was doing in the raw footage that lead to the Auto-Tuned “song.” Her facial expression when Boo says “It’s time to dance!” is golden. That the track is later worked into a dance routine by Madame Fanny speaks volumes of her evolving relationship with Michelle.
- The beats of the scene where Sasha—home from Joffrey, but hiding out to avoid her feuding parents—is revealed to be “the package” are pure farce. Her entrances and exits form a nice arc, too: The first is funny and the second feels strained, but the whole thing is justified by the visual gag of Julia Goldani Telles’ arm shooting forth from the closet, broom in hand.
- “You wired a cardboard box for electricity.” “I know, so what do you think?” “I think it’s the most disturbing thing you’ve ever done.” “No, not by a long shot.”—The last line in this exchange between Fanny and Truly deserves to be elaborated upon at a later date—but it’ll be just as funny if it goes unexplained.
- Magician’s assistant Michelle asks Fanny a question, and she gets the answer she was probably expecting: “What are you doing here?” “Well, I came to see something.”
- Hubbell puts his relationship with Michelle through the analogy grinder—and Allan “Cameron Frye” Ruck crosses the John Hughes streams: “Ducky got Molly.”