Even within the heightened reality of Bunheads, this “Sasha’s emancipation” storyline is totally bonkers. The viewer can come to that point well before Michelle and Scotty emphasize it during the remarkably refined housewarming party the 16-year-old throws during “Take The Vicuna.” It’s a lot of fun watching Sutton and Hunter Foster play at Michelle and Scotty’s bewilderment—there are a lot of great lines from their characters during the party scene, all a variation on “We’re 20 years older than this kid, and she’s more put-together than we are”—but their reactions serve a larger purpose to the show. Just as she would in our world, it’s odd Paradise’s youngest renter is taking on the responsibilities of maintaining a home. It’s a flight of fancy, but one tethered to the earth by all the time Sasha spends during tonight’s episode negotiating via telephone or detailing with her regimen of bill-paying and grocery-buying. She’s calling her own shots, and she had a barre installed in her bedroom, but her friends aren’t allowed to spend the night due to the apartment’s lack of adult supervision. Echoing “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lanksy,” this is a teenage dream that comes with various clauses and provisos.
Were none of that the case, the storyline would still feel grounded thanks to how it’s drawing from and informing the dynamic that’s sneakily becoming Bunheads’s core relationship: the bond between Michelle and Sasha. I’ve been harping on this connection for weeks now, but “Take The Vicuna” is specially engineered to pull the show’s perspectives on motherhood together into a winningly written and frequently funny hour of TV. And that’s all happening before the siblings Sims meet their mother dearest for a late-night snack and a quick switcheroo of custodial rights. Sheila Lawrence might have used a Game Of Thrones allusion one Bunheads script too early; the title of her previous credited effort, “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons,” speaks more directly to the sense of maternal obligations to protect and nurture that are followed and/or ignored throughout “Take The Vicuna.”
That little Sunset Blvd. excerpt does come from one of the episode’s variations on its motherly themes, however. With recently minted business partner Millie fronting the cash, Michelle and Fanny willingly play Joe Gillis to Millie’s Norma Desmond, fleecing their benefactress for pricy costumes, well-dressed and able-bodied ushers, and other expenses for the new amphitheater. However, the woman they’re taking to the cleaners is more cunning than she first appears—the first indication of which should’ve been the size of the words “Millie Stone” on the sign for the amphitheater. What we have here is a good old-fashioned custody battle, one Millie attempts to decide in her favor when she treats the cast of Sleeping Beauty to a litany of inane notes after a “backer’s rehearsal” of the ballet. (“It’s very confusing that you’re not wearing tutus. People expect tutus when they go to the ballet.”) This works Fanny into an appropriately territorial lather, and my God, Kelly Bishop and Liza Weil should come at one another in close proximity more often.
On the surface, their disagreement—art versus commerce—goes back a few centuries; its roots, however, are pure King Solomon. Both Fanny and Millie have legitimate claims over Sleeping Beauty: It’s the former’s vision financed by the latter, after all. And when it comes to a head, it’s handled in such a way that would be pure invective were it not for Bishop’s dignified rage. Yes, she does fire off a “This is what’s wrong with the arts today,” but she is so grounded in her convictions that even the most meddlesome corporate underwriter would concede the actress and her character some ground. It’s preaching to choir, but it strikes me that no recent TV show outside of Slings And Arrows has issued a “separation of church and state” decree that’s more galvanizing than preachy. Bishop may be less and less available to Bunheads as time goes on, but she’s certainly making her onscreen time count.
But Millie doesn’t want to exert the degree of control she pretends toward from the throne she noisily drags across the studio floor. In line with the hollowness of her notes, she just wants people to think she’s a true lover and expert of the arts. She’s putting on a show, in other words—like the little performance Sasha puts on for her friends, classmates, and neighbors at the housewarming party. But note the amount of attention she lavishes on her ballet instructor once Michelle and Scotty arrive. There’s some superbly comedic material in the tour of the apartment she gives them—and an inversion of child-adult roles carried over from last week—but it’s to a more poignant end: Sasha just wants Michelle’s approval. The warm cookies, chafing dishes, and kitchen that looks suspiciously like Truly’s cardboard setup from “You Wanna See Something?” might impress Sasha’s friends, but that barre is probably going into the dumpster if it doesn’t earn a thumbs up from Michelle. Scotty could feel perfunctory to the scenes at the party—or just along for the ride to toss off a few punchlines—but he gives his sister an additional inner monologue in the situation. “She looks up to you,” he tells Michelle. There’s the implication that this isn’t best for either party—but if that’s the case, it’s not sinking in for Sasha, who ends up crashing on Michelle’s couch when all the revelers have dispersed and the boy she’s been ignoring for weeks is sent away following some farcical flirting. (Featuring legitimate door slamming!)
Why shouldn’t Sasha look up to Michelle? For the most part, Bunheads toes the Gilmore Girls lines of good mother figures and their poorly performing counterparts. To her students and her shows (and occasionally her daughter-in-law), Fanny falls in the former camp, caring for and nurturing her charges in a manner that’s not averse to tough love. (“A closed mouth is a pretty mouth,” she tells her students during the chatty, exquisitely staged cold open. How is it that it took this long to get a motormouthed free-for-all that moves and heightens in time with a dance routine’s choreography?) And if you’re still interested in drawing parallels between Michelle and Lorelai Gilmore, there are worse places to start than Michelle’s relationship with Sasha, which walks the tricky line between friend and parent figure that was defined by Gilmore Girls’ two Lorelais.
And then there are the strained ties between Michelle and her mother, a Cold War well into its 12th year, if the dialogue of “Take The Vicuna” tells it accurately. As a sequel to “The Ballerina And The Astronaut,” this week’s episode is bookended by a Sims family tradition of too-good-to-be-true ends: packing a sleeping loved one into the car, driving around for a few hours, and then declaring that the destination was reached and returned from during the passenger’s slumber. That’s not exactly how Scotty gets his sister to the Sacramento greasy spoon where their mother is waiting—but his Burning Man diversion comes close. (The desire to guard a loved one from the truth cuts across the boundaries of parenthood and siblingdom.) Once small-time gaslighting enters the equation, we don’t really need to learn much more about Scotty and Michelle’s mom. And yet we do, and there’s enough romantic flakiness (she has a tendency to buy real estate with boyfriends) and cracked artistic ambition (she’s recording a country album in the place she bought with the latest beau—mostly because she’d look good in a cowboy hat) to shade Michelle and Scotty without making their mother look like a composite sketch of her children. Her estrangement from Michelle marks her as the worst kind of Bunheads mother—though the fact that she had herself declared legally incompetent to get out of a soured real-estate deal is even worse. If this is the crazy kind of shit she’s known to pull, no wonder Michelle has frozen her mother out for longer than a decade.
And maybe that’s why Scotty indicates that Sasha looking up to Michelle isn’t a positive development. He knows his sister has a history of cutting and running, and he knows she didn’t have the greatest mentor when it came to the maternal arts. What he doesn’t consider is how Michelle’s relationship with Fanny is reshaping the way she understands the role of a mother figure. Not only that, but she’s done incredibly wrong by Sasha and her other students, and they still gave her the Ethan Hawke salute on her way out the door. Bunheads can (and probably will) take itself to greater ludicrous heights than whatever floor Sasha’s apartment is located on. But as long it continues producing meaningful moments like Michelle’s silent pause in front of Sasha’s mirror—and as long as the emotions of moments like that are based on palpable connections between characters—the most nonsensical notions of Amy Sherman-Palladino and her team will make a certain kind of sense.
- Lolita Davidovich is only eight years older than the actor playing her son here, but let’s just ignore that for the time being. (Amy Poehler is a mere seven years older than her Mean Girls daughter Rachel McAdams, so it’s not like it’s the smallest mother-child age gap in recent pop-culture memory.)
- Further proof that there are rules to the way Bunheads operates: In spite of spying on Cozette and Frankie for several weeks, the bunheads acknowledge that no one but Mel has actually met Cozette. (And right on cue: “I’m Cozette!”)
- Michelle is worried Sasha’s housewarming could be a dinner-party flop of Mary Tyler Moore Show proportions; Scotty still hasn’t spent enough time in Paradise: “Yes, grandma, I’m sure they’ll all call her ‘Mary Richards.’”
- Millie and Fanny come to an agreement: “Will you tell people it was my idea to wear the tutus?” “Absolutely.”