Nobody means to end up in Las Vegas. It’s the ultimate “nice place—wouldn’t want to live there,” the kind of city that functions best as a vacation spot, the final resting place of a career in pop, or the central metaphor in a rambling narrative about the death of The American Dream. For most people, it’s not a final destination—it’s a temporary diversion.
Not so for Michelle Sims—at least the Michelle Sims we meet in the pilot of Bunheads or the Michelle Sims her brother Scotty expects to find in “The Astronaut And The Ballerina.” During her time as a showgirl, Michelle Sims was caught between Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas and Hunter S. Thompson’s take on the same, her own dream dead but reanimated, nightly, for the pleasure of the tourists and skeevy Vegas types. There was also one very sweet regular visitor, but “The Astronaut And The Ballerina” is not a Michelle-and-Hubbell story; it’s a Michelle-and-Scotty story. And because Amy Sherman-Palladino and the Bunheads writing staff have kept mostly mum with regard to much of Michelle’s past, it’s also the closest thing the show’s gotten to an origin story for its main protagonist. As a study of the factors that drove Michelle out of high school, toward a life of burning down parade floats (then blaming the her behavior on “rap music”!) and dancing with a giant feather duster affixed to her head, it’s revealing. As a piece of acting and writing, it’s riveting.
The chunk of “The Astronaut And The Ballerina” that introduces Scotty and illustrates his relationship with his sister is a product of two creative partnerships getting the best from their individual parts. Remarkably, one of them was working in this capacity for the first time: When I spoke to Amy Sherman-Palladino before Bunheads’ midseason première, she mentioned that Sutton and Hunter Foster had never shared scenes together before—they’d been in the same production of Grease (and, under the right, but unfortunate, circumstances, could’ve ended up going together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga dong), but tonight’s episode is the first recorded evidence of the abundant chemistry between brother and sister.
They should’ve started doing this sooner; at times during “The Astronaut And The Ballerina,” I could imagine the scenery, the music cues, and the camera movements falling away to leave the Fosters performing their part of the episode on a bare stage. And the heights of their performances would fill the whole damn theater space. The relationship between Michelle and Scotty comes to life because of the real-life relationship between the Fosters, and Hunter Foster incorporates himself into Paradise within a few motormouthed lines of dialogue. (In that same amount of space, he also reminds the audience that the town of Paradise is still shy of smitten with Scotty’s sister.) There’s a marvelous give and take between the siblings, which is especially necessary for weeks when Sutton Foster doesn’t have a Kelly Bishop with which to spar. It was easy casting, but it works, and Scotty’s presence—particularly in the siblings’ big blowout at the end of the episode—showcases a new side of its star’s performance. She carries a renewed verve in Michelle’s teaching scenes, which illuminates the fact that we’ve never seen the character trying to prove herself to someone who knew her before she moved to Paradise.
Of course, the theatrical power of “The Astronaut And The Ballerina” also comes from the script, for which Sherman-Palladino receives credit alongside and her husband, Daniel Palladino. The sheer size of the thing would require input from both parties: Even for Bunheads, the words fly quickly tonight, so “The Astronaut And The Ballerina” is almost certainly the show’s longest script to date. Among that informational deluge are a number of snappy comebacks and one-liners (I’m quite partial to “What’s your square footage, Scotty?,” though “Oh, there are a variety of places to get punch, Melanie” is just as readymade for everyday use), but also multiple storylines that pull the magical Sherman-Palladino trick of being irksome for 30 minutes, then snapping into place in the closing scenes and ending the episode on emotionally satisfying and/or humorous notes. A few scenes of Ginny’s misadventures on the fringes of the Thompson-Mendelson nuptials and Boo and Carl’s sudden descent into “parenthood” are good comic relief from the fireworks elsewhere in the episode, but each grow creaky in their later beats. Until, that is, the characters reach their breaking points, presenting Bailey Buntain and Kaitlyn Jenkins with spectacular moments of cleansing rage: Fed up with the way her mother, Faye Mendelson, and Cozette are separately re-arranging her life, Ginny tracks down Melanie at roller-derby practice and vents her fruit-punch-stained spleen. Boo, meanwhile, finding herself inundated with the demands of tyrannical children (in age as well as spirit), reclaims a rehearsal from overbearing substitute instructor, Jordan. Jordan is played by So You Think You Can Dance alum Kent Boyd, who expands a background role from the first half of the season into a speaking part while also firing the latest volley in the coming West Side Story-style rumble for control of Bunheads guest casting, to be fought between SYTYCD vets and the former cast of Gilmore Girls.
This places some additional weight on Mel’s roller-derby plot, which, if only for providing an intriguing visual counterpoint to the show’s dance interludes, was much better than I was anticipating. (You spend four years in Austin, Texas and not feel knee-jerk exasperation toward the roller-derby revival. If the show ever combines roller derby, neo-burlesque, and an artisan cocktail craze in a single episode, I probably won’t notice because my eyes will be rolling for the entire hour.) It helps that the storyline begins the work of bringing Cozette and Frankie down from their trickster god pedestals—though they are literally elevated above the rest of the cast in a DJ booth at various points. Mel’s need to find release on eight wheels comes on suddenly, but so did the fiery temper that put the character in Cozette’s sights in the first place. Her attempt to hide her new hobby also leads to an excellently written, nicely choreographed sequence where Mel and Cozette’s conversation about the derby interlocks with Ginny’s half of a phone conversation where she talks her mom off the latest Faye Mendelson-related ledge. Mel’s new pastime seems light at first glance, but it’s actually a new piece in Bunheads’ little thematic puzzle about change—a quantity that’s put in a positive light when it comes from Michelle, but breeds only skepticism when initiated by the Paradise Wonder Twins.
“The Astronaut And The Ballerina” could bore a roller-rink-sized hole through the parallels between Michelle and Scotty and Cozette and Frankie, but it merely grazes the subject. In another 20 years, the conversation that gives the episode its title could very well take place between Bunheads’ newly minted roller-derby DJs. If the beginning of this first season was about how Michelle changed Paradise, than the second eight episodes are about how Paradise changed Michelle—to the point where she ducks the “kids acting like adults, adults acting like kids” thrust of tonight’s episode. She can be as moony and petty and prone to digressions as her students, but those students have also taught Michelle a thing or two about responsibility, something four-time divorcé Scotty hasn’t considered when he arrives at the dance studio looking to borrow his sister’s keys. Impulsiveness and flakiness are apparently genetic traits among the Simses, but Michelle’s working on weening them from her system. In one instance where Scotty’s actions mirror Cozette’s, Michelle mentions that her brother is disrupting what she’s built in Paradise. “This is my life now, Scotty,” she says. She didn’t mean for it to end up this way—she didn’t mean to end up there. But unlike the last place she called home, she’s found that Paradise is a place where she can truly live. And truly destroy a TV audience with a rendition of “Tonight You Belong To Me” in the process of that discovery. You won’t see that in Vegas.
- In the event that things didn’t turn around for “The Astronaut And The Ballerina,” I would’ve singled out Ginny’s friend-repelling rant as the one truly great sequence in the midst of a muddle. Followed by the Foster Family Argument And Ukulele Sing-Along Finale, however, that sequence ends up as No. 2 in the best acting and boldest direction categories.
- Between Ginny’s “2,000-Year-Old Man” allusion and the soundtrack lift from The Jerk, “The Astronaut And The Ballerina” has an obvious Carl Reiner thing going on. And yes, yes, I know Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters weren’t the first duo to sing “Tonight You Belong To Me,” but the atmosphere of the sequence and its out-of-left nature owe at least a little to The Jerk. I couldn’t have been the only one waiting for Hunter Foster to wrap the song with a trumpet solo.
- I expected more from Mel’s roller-derby nickname. Let’s make up some alternatives to Cleosmacktra (or is it Cleoslaptra?). I’ll start: Battlie Portman, Margore Fonteyn, Alexis Bleedel.
- One day Bunheads is going to produce its equivalent of The Wire’s classic “Bunk and McNulty conduct an investigation while saying little more than ‘fuck’” scene [least-necessary NSFW ever], and its roots will be in the “His name’s Beaver?” sequence from “The Astronaut And The Ballerina.”
- CONTINUITY!: Scotty asks Michelle what she did to piss off the local barista; Ginny’s rant at Cozette and Frankie mentions the still-unseen, but apparently still noteworthy Mitch Alvarado.
- Yet another bit of dialogue from tonight’s episode that would be fun to shout, free of context, at your friends, family, and co-workers: “The birds ate all the breadcrumbs, Hansel!”