Friday, July 27, 2012

Bunheads: Swirling Toward Success?

Note: This post contains some spoilers for the first six episodes so far.

Being a huge fan of the show Gilmore Girls, I was excited when I heard Gilmore Girls writer and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino had a new show coming out. But if the name Bunheads wasn’t enough of a turn-off, the initial trailer did the show no favors. I wrote off the show before it even came out … that is, until I read some of the press about it. In particular, the Entertainment Weekly interview with Bunheads star Sutton Foster piqued my interest in what the show would have to offer, so in the end I checked out the show.

Now is a good time to give a quick summation of the first episode and, with it, the show’s premise. The pilot episode opens up with Las Vegas showgirl Michelle going to try out for a dream dance job and getting immediately rejected without even performing. Back home, her not-so-secret admirer Hubble is hanging around trying to go out with her yet again and this time she acquiesces. In her sorrow and self-pity party on not getting the part (or rather, not even getting the chance to get the part), Michelle gets drunk at dinner and agrees to marry Hubble. The next morning they come home to his quiet town of Paradise, California where Michelle finds Hubble lives with his mother Fanny, who runs the ballet studio on the property and does not take kindly to her new foisted-upon-her daughter-in-law.

To start off with, this initial premise is ridiculous. It’s quite frankly creepy. I know Las Vegas is known as the city where crazy stuff like ill-advised shotgun-type weddings occur, but if it isn’t illegal for a marriage to occur in which one party is drunk while the other is sober, it SHOULD be. That’s just not good for anyone and is to the detriment of society. I can empathizes with Michelle’s feelings of being stuck, of not ending up where you thought you would in life, in seeing dreams of getting out of a rut shot down cavalierly, but I cannot understand her reaction. When I’m feeling particularly low, I veg out and watch some TV, take short road trips out of the state to visit with family and friends, or make small changes like dying my hair for the first time. I don’t think to myself: ‘Oh, I know what will solve all my problems -- get married to some guy I hardly know and get the heck out of Dodge without even bothering to pack a suitcase or inform my job that I’m quitting.’ Absolutely not. There is no reasonable rationale here. This is not 1890 where a woman is dependent on a man to provide for her so she has to just get married already to whoever is available because she’s getting older and he’s the only viable option.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other premises that could get the show started off with Michelle being thrown in the culture shock of small town life. She could be driving home from her disastrous audition and her car breaks down in the small town and she’s stuck there for a few days while it’s being repaired and is wooed by the small town charm into staying there. OR, Michelle and Hubble could *actually* be dating and decide to get married and for whatever reason this is the first time she goes to his house, but at least he’s not a creepy semi-stalker. Or, one of Michelle’s dancer friends could wax poetically about her youth in the small town and her early days of dance at Fanny’s studio, making Michelle decide to go check out the place. Or, Michelle could apply to a job posting to teach at the dance studio. That’s just off the top of my head; there’s potentially tons of alternatives and I can’t believe that a creative genius like Amy Sherman-Palladino couldn’t come up with a premise that was less disturbing.

All that being said, the viewer can manage to somewhat get past the disturbing factor after Hubble has a few nice speeches that make him seem slightly less creepy and a little more endearing. Just as the viewer is started to acclimate to him and think it could be interesting to see the relationship between Hubble and Michelle change and grow, wham! the first episode ends with Hubble’s death. Yep, that’s right, he gets into a car accident and dies. So the whole getting married to Hubble premise is not only ridiculous, it’s also in the end completely unnecessary as the show isn’t going to explore that relationship or be about how love can grow out of a marriage of convenience. (One review I read after being shocked by the pilot episode’s ending suggested that perhaps Hubble was just in coma, which could have been a more interesting twist but alas the writers did not choose that option.)

The second episode ends with a whammy too, with Michelle and Fanny finding out that after the wedding, Hubble immediately got on the phone with his lawyer buddy and made sure to make Michelle a co-owner of everything he had. With Hubble’s death, this now means that Michelle owns Fanny’s home and business, making an already tense relationship all the more awkward and giving Michelle a reason to stay in town after the funeral. It still remains to be seen though if and how Michelle will get more involved in the ballet school besides occasionally popping by and talking to the girls in passing on her way to and from home. Episode five introduces the idea of Michelle teaching at the dance studio by having Fanny bring it up repeatedly while Michelle adamantly refuses to even consider the possibility. In this week’s episode, Fanny runs off for an impromptu vacation, forcing Michelle’s hand into teaching a weekend’s worth of classes. However, we don’t really get to see this happened; we just know that Michelle agrees to do so.

In the comments section of early reviews, some speculated that the scene in which Michelle and Hubble had sex upstairs during their wedding reception party was a set up for later announcing that Michelle is pregnant, but there’s been no evidence yet that the show is going to go in the direction; rather that fact is just something nosy neighbors throw up in Michelle’s face, particularly when people first meet her - ‘oh you’re the sex at the party girl’ is a refrain repeated throughout the early episodes.

There’s little but some inclination that the show is looking to set up a love interest for Michelle (for instance, there was the introduction of Grant, the fellow who lives in the private house on the hill), which is probably a good idea now that there’s no Hubble-Michelle relationship to explore and will probably add another level of tension to the Michelle-Fanny dynamic as I doubt Fanny would be happy to find her daughter-in-law moving on so quickly (even if intellectually acknowledging that there isn’t much for Michelle to move on from as she was only married a day or two. However, Hubble is hardly ever talked about after the second episode; even his mother and Truly, his overly devoted ex-girlfriend, seem to have forgotten about him quickly.)

Whether or not there’s a romance brewing for Michelle, the show is certainly interested in exploring her options and her relationships. There have been a few moments where Michelle contemplates what to do next and what her life is now. Besides her tense relationship with Fanny and her chatty but ultimately superficial one with the girls from the dance studio, Michelle and Truly have awkward interactions that seem to be trending toward a growing friendship between the two. With Truly being one of my favorite characters on the show, I’d love to see more of this.

Speaking of characters beyond the main ones, Paradise (like Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls) is full of quirky locals who do such odd things as refuse to put up a sign about a private road but expect everyone to know that it’s a private road. Besides Truly, however, none of these characters really stand out as of now. Most of them have only been given a short scene or two to play and even these are few and far between. I suspect that we will see more of the locals over time, but right now we have valuable talent such as Ellen Greene (Aunt Vivian in Pushing Daisies) and Rose Abdoo (Gypsy on Gilmore Girls) wasted in characters that are hardly given a handful of lines.

Back to the main characters, the four girls from the ballet school that the show is focusing on are still not entirely fleshed out as characters, but it seems like we are getting more and more of that with each episode. There’s Boo, the insecure girl who worries that she doesn’t have the ballerina “look” and secretly crushes on her friend’s brother but is also sweet and full of empathy for those around her. Then there’s Sasha, the mean girl of the group who seems to have it all on the surface, including the perfect ballerina look and technique but has a less than ideal home life with parents too angry at each other to notice anything she does. The other two girls, Melanie and Ginny, are pretty nondescript right now, although Ginny strikes me as the fulfilling vapid airhead trope (similar to Madeline on Gilmore Girls, while Melanie isn’t far off from being Louise to round out the rest of that dynamic duo). Some reviewers pointing out the similarities between Gilmore Girls and this show note that Sasha is a stand-in for the Rory character. Here I have to disagree. Yes, the actor looks somewhat like Alexis Bledel, but the character is completely different. She has a lot of meanness and spite while Rory had been all sugar and spice. Her character is more akin to Paris Geller -- she's starts off as cruel but there's hope for some redemption as the series continues. Nor do we see shades of Rory in Boo as she is too insecure and worried to be a Rory stand-in. For the most part, the girls’ characters (the little we have seen so far) don’t seem terribly different from the stock of any standard show on the host network, ABC Family. If the show were only about them, I would have cut and run already.

Although I’ve touched on it a bit already, it’s now time to address the elephant in the room: In many ways, Bunheads is like Gilmore Girls but not. The similarities between the two shows include:
- Again, we are introduced to a very small town with a host of colorful characters and quirky scenarios. However, like with Gilmore Girls, the show suffers from a lack of diversity despite this large cast of characters. In particular, the main cast is pretty homogenous, as pointed out by fellow TV show creator Shonda Rhimes.
- The same actors are called upon to play new roles: the aforementioned Rose Abdoo, a cameo from Biff Yeager (Tom the contractor), Gregg Henry (Mitchum Huntzberger) has popped up repeatedly as Rico, Chris Eigeman (Jason Stiles) and Todd Lowe (Zach) are reportedly going to guest star in the future, and most notable of all, Kelly Bishop (Emily Gilmore) as Fanny.
- In many ways, Fanny is a similar character to Emily. While she may appear slightly more carefree as a Buddhist who collects tacky oddities to clutter her home with rather than the snooty, old money DAR member, Kelly Bishop is still playing a woman who is very controlling and wants things done her way or the highway and is apt to overreact and lash out at others when things don’t go as planned as a result. The most recent episode also points out how she can be manipulative when need be to get her plans to work out.
- Sutton Foster as Michelle even looks a bit like Lauren Graham as Lorelei (pretty, tall, trim, with long dark brown hair). However, she’s not the same caliber of actor as Lauren Graham, although I feel that’s improving somewhat. The first episode in particular felt very much like she was over-acting with her big reactions instead of subtle ones. It reminded me of Maureen O’Hara’s memoir describing her move from the stage to the silver screen; O’Hara noted how you act for the back row on stage while you act for the front row on the screen.
- There’s even one scene in an early episode where Michelle walks into a small bar/restaurant and the proprietor, Rico, is wiping down the counter and sharing in her woes in a very Lorelei-Luke way, except that Rico has some years on Michelle and is already married. Also, Michelle imbibes alcohol the way Lorelei guzzled coffee.
- We are treated to what is now considered Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “trademark” style of dialogue: fast-talking quips packed full of witty pop culture references. The show even calls attention to this in the pilot when an angry Fanny lashes out at Michelle and complains, "Oh my God, the quips, the chatter. Don't you ever just shut up?" Still, there haven’t yet been any great memorable lines like in Gilmore Girls’ “To me, you are the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon” or “Oy with the poodles already!” or any other number of fun quips.
- Sam Phillips is once again on the helm for musical interludes, so we hear a very similar “la la” type score for scene transitions.
– Likewise, Helen Pai returns as producer again, although I’m not sure that we necessarily see her influence in such obvious ways.
- Even the font used for the credits is the same (or if not, virtually the same) as the one used for Gilmore Girls!

All and all, there are enough similarities between the two shows that if anyone other than Amy Sherman-Palladino had been involved in this show, there would likely be cries of foul play in the copyright arena. As one reviewer put it, it’s as though Sherman-Palladino presented this show’s concept with the comment of: "Here is this thing everybody loved once upon a time, wrapped in a slightly different package.” This same reviewer also summed up some of my feelings by writing of the two shows’ similarities that “it's close enough to be reassuring — and, on occasion, distracting.”

Of course, there are some notable differences between the two shows as well. Most obviously, dance plays a much larger part in Bunheads and we get to see at least part of a ballet or other dance routine every week, unlike in Gilmore Girls where we only occasionally caught a glimpse of classes or performances at Miss Patty's. Bunheads does not examine family relations with the same intensity as Gilmore Girls, let alone generations of familial relationships. On the other hand, body image is a recurring theme as Boo, who is by no means large but isn't the stereotypical ballerina stick figure, is constantly worried about her size and her eating habits. And while Lorelei and Rory were very driven characters who knew exactly what they wanted out of life and (merely) had to overcome obstacles to their goals, Michelle is a lost and floundering character who is still examining her life choices and wondering what to do with herself. Instead of roadblocks to try to circumnavigate, Michelle is given opportunities and possessions that she doesn't know what to do with and only add to her confusion about what to do next. In some ways, this (along with the tragedy of Hubble's untimely death) creates a show that reflects a sadder world, one in which a person with even the best of starts and educations can still end up feeling unfulfilled and confused, not to mention lonely.

It might sound like I don’t like the show, and to be honest, I’m not really sure yet how I feel about it. Yet I keep watching it each week and was disappointed the week of July 4th when it was on temporary hiatus. With each week, it seems to grow on me a little more. Like my college statistics professor repeatedly lectured, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (somehow this was math related). Without any new Gilmore Girls episodes to watch, I’ll keep settling with this show for now.

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