Television portrayals of high school tend to aim for the realistic because, ostensibly, a show should want its viewers to see a high-school experience to which they can relate. It’s rare to see a portrayal of adolescence as unvarnished as Freaks And Geeks, but that short-lived, much-beloved series is now held up as the gold standard of high-school shows partially because it didn’t force the pains and tiny victories of growing up onto students at an elite prep school or an academic environment that’s witnessed every conceivable modern trauma over the span of a decade. These were just regular kids, going through regular-kid things, and it spoke to viewers in ways few TV shows did before or have done after its brief run on NBC.
Why bring this up now? Because as much as the realism of Freaks And Geeks elevated the ordinary to the extraordinary, the Degrassi model has its merits as well. Why expect the high schools on our TV screens to accurately reflect what we went through (or what some viewers may still be going through) in similar looking hallways and classrooms when the people telling stories in those settings are far removed from their own teen years? Tonight’s television lineup brings us a pair of strong arguments for what my colleague Todd VanDerWerff terms a “magical-realism” approach to the high-school show: the debut of The CW’s better-than-expected Sex And The City prequel, The Carrie Diaries, and the 12th episode of Bunheads, “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor.”
That the teenaged residents of Paradise, California have informed opinions about the man they call The Big Brisket isn’t the first tip-off that Boo and company don’t behave in recognizably “high-schooler” ways—the bread crumbs in this case go all the way back to the first words Alexis Bledel ever spoke as Rory Gilmore. In fact, that Magic Mike joke isn’t even the episode’s most prominent evidence that the grounds of Paradise High School harbor what ABC Family ad copy might call “a new kind of teen.” That would be the moped-assisted introduction of Cosette and Frankie, the brother-and-sister pair played by newcomers Jeanine Mason and Niko Pepaj. In a sense, these characters are the über-Sherman-Palladino kids: Fluent in multiple languages, skilled across multiple artistic disciplines, prepared for several costume changes throughout the school day, and presumably immune to rules about imbibing on campus. (Or laws about underaged drinking in general.) The scenes in “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor” where the Bunheads gawk at the studio-musical qualities of Cosette and Frankie’s lives cultivate a certain mystery about the new kids in town, with answers wisely held back in spite of the piling on of fantastical characteristics from Daniel Palladino’s script. (Then again, that’s just what a Daniel Palladino script does.)
And with the way the details about Cosette are doled out, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor” climaxes with a stunning solo dance by Mason. One need only check Mason’s So You Think You Can Dance pedigree to expect some sort of thrilling choreography at some point in the episode. (Though I was unaware of her time on SYTYCD until Genevieve Koski IM’ed me this link. This is why it pays to have coworkers.) But the way the routine is deployed is a masterful payoff: With every new ability the girls marvel at, we can also hear in their voices, “Well, at least she doesn’t dance.” And then she does dance, and she dances very well, and it forces the characters into uncomfortable territory. We saw this with Fanny’s Nutcracker ringer, but the threat feels more real this time around. Cosette’s no special-guest antagonist—she’s sticking around for a while. And to make her all the more threatening, she seems so damn nice.
From a storytelling standpoint, Frankie and Cosette stand to open up more space for plots that take place when Boo, Sasha, Ginny, and Mel aren’t at the studio or at the Oyster Bar. Paradise High School’s been an amorphous setting so far, and if the girls are ever to carry equal weight with Michelle and Fanny (the latter of whom is absent for “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor”), it’s a necessary space. Bunheads very much remains a TV show about growing up, and a high school is a great setting for telling such stories. The show already had an ideal location for doing so in Fanny’s dance academy; this move doesn’t supplant its role on the show so much as give it some reinforcement.
Besides, Paradise Dance Academy is an inherently private setting—it was good for connecting Boo and Carl, and it’s done well as a clandestine rendezvous point for Sasha and Roman, but there’s a tipping point where introducing younger characters solely through the dance studio starts to feel forced. Both Cosette and Frankie end up at the studio by the end of the episode, but that feels more like an organic invasion of sacred ground. Similar occurrences took place in the first part of the season—with the aforementioned Nutcracker ringer, but also with Mel’s brother showing up to court Ginny, which is what Frankie is presumably doing there as well—but now that we’ve seen what life is like for the principals without Fanny’s studio, it means that much more that an interloper could steal the comfort Paradise Dance Academy represents.
That type of encroachment crops up elsewhere in “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor,” emphasizing themes of finding a home that are proving especially important in the second half of Bunheads’ first season. Truly is temporarily a designer without a country, locked out of Sparkles’ storefront due to a disagreement with her landlord—whom it’s revealed in the third act is played by Gilmore Girls alum Liza Weil. In a deft turn of scripting, it’s also revealed that Weil’s character, Millie, is Truly’s sister; that this is treated as such a niggling part of Millie’s business relationship with Truly makes me so, so grateful to have Weil back in the Sherman-Palladinoverse. Nobody plays icy and condescending like her, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of Millie.
Michelle’s probably hoping that as well. As soon as she returns to the relative normality of her life in Paradise, the town once more comes crashing in on her, this time in the form of Truly setting up shop in Michelle’s living room. And kitchen, bathroom, dining room—the guest house is now Sparkles, right down to a sign near the window, and Michelle’s been unwittingly transformed from home owner to shopgirl. But she’s not the only one having the steady footing of a stable living situation pulled out from under her: Sasha’s parents are officially splitting up, and that forces her to decide between heading upstate with her dad or back to Los Angeles with mom. (“You have a choice, Sophie,” says mom in one of the show’s most wickedly callous—and easy to miss the first time around—pop-culture allusions.) With all the skulking around she’s done since returning from Joffrey, the character’s missed her last opportunity to experience life under the same roof as both of her parents. Sure, it would’ve stressful, and it would’ve cut down on her time spent making googly eyes at Roman—but it’s not like she’s had a whole lot of time do the latter at the studio, what with Michelle’s uncanny ability to locate any camouflaged Mini Billie Joe Armstrongs within a 5-mile radius. The end of “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor” foreshadows choppy emotional waters ahead, hopefully with less screechy melodrama than was applied to Sasha’s last bout of emotional turmoil.
In their first two episodes back from hiatus, the Sherman-Palladino team has drawn distinct lines between Sasha and Michelle, setting the stage for an increased older sister/surrogate mother dynamic between the two characters. Sutton Foster and Julia Goldani Telles play well off one another, and more scenes like the few they receive in “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor” and “You Wanna See Something?” are welcome. They’re relegated to the corners of tonight’s episode, which shakes out to be more of a Boo-Truly-Ginny affair, but the emotional connections Sasha and Michelle share help ground an hour that could’ve easily been lost to the hectic, at times exhausting, beats of Boo and Carl meeting one another’s parents. But that’s something the team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino has always done well: Heightened realities with human components. The stranger nooks of Paradise High School ought to be explored, so long as the episodes are moored by scenes like the one Sasha and Michelle share after Michelle’s disastrous date. (Or the evidently pained revelation that Truly stole Hubbell from Millie well before Michelle made him an ineligible option for either sister.) If it continues the upward trajectory started in “Channing Tatum Is A Fine Actor,” Bunheads’ cockeyed view of high school can’t be defined by the outrageous behavior of its characters—it has to be defined by the feelings and motivations behind that behavior.
- Millie, of course, is the name of the “thoroughly modern” character that one Sutton Foster a Tony in 2002.
- At this point, I don’t have much more to say about the scenes at dinner with the Cramers and Jordans. Boo’s meeting with Carl’s parents goes for broke with regard to cringe humor, but the game of the scene is too facile to fully enjoy; once Kaitlyn Jenkins starts reacting to half sentences from Alex Borstein, it lapses into predictability. (Also, in spite of her association to Gilmore Girls, I’ve never been a fan of Borstein’s schtick. There’s a knowing, “Ain’t this old-timey showbiz stuff a riot?” air to her performances that’s lacking from, say, a Sutton Foster. This is, of course, is what makes Borstein such an able foil for Seth MacFarlane’s old-pro smarminess.) That said, the “Yodeling Cowhand” interlude at the Jordans’ falls just on the right side of weird.
- The Great Gatsby does not, as Mel assumes, feature a whale, but I think we can all agree that if it did, it would irrevocably cinch the title of “greatest American novel.”
- I hope that the Erik in Michelle’s ballet class spells his name correctly.
- Sasha shoving Matisse out of frame is my new favorite theoretical animated GIF.
- Kaitlyn Jenkins gets a lot of laughs out of sheer repetition in this episode. Her line about Mitch Alvarado gets funnier with each iteration of the kid’s name. “I switched deodorants. I’m very uncertain about this new deodorant,” meanwhile, lands because “deodorant” is a funny word.
- Millie wants to sell the Sparkles storefront to a chain of oil-change shops. “I won’t say which company it is, but you’ve both gotten lubed there.”
- Michelle has a specialized version of “The Talk”: “It’s a good one—you’ll never use a public toilet again.”