Ballet does not get a lot of pop culture recognition, and I love ballet. Like love it. Doing it, watching it, teaching it. So I wanted Bunheads, a show about dancers coming to ABC Family, to be more than Make It Or Break It with tights. It takes about 30 seconds worth of the pilot to see it’s got its own thing going on — though it does share some traits with the network’s gymnastics dramedy.
This new show from Amy Sherman-Palladino, beloved as the creator of Gilmore Girls, forgotten as creator of The Return of Jezebel James, premieres June 11, but a sneak peek of episode 1.1 was briefly available online.
It begins by introducing a Las Vegas showgirl, Michelle, played by Tony winner Sutton Foster but soon takes us from the glam of the strip to a humdrum California town without so much as a movie theater.
You have to make a decision early on about whether you can sympathize with Michelle as a protagonist. She is introduced in a conversation where she and another scantily clad dancer trash talk the topless dancers. (It’s the old Showgirls conflict all over again.) So we’re taught that Michelle has some standards. Then she sidesteps a date with a backstage suitor, Hummel, played by Alan Ruck of Cameron Frye fame. So, still. Standards. She’s trying to make it into legit theatre — she has an audition for the musical Chicago. Staaannndards… okay. Then she gets turned down at the audition based solely on her looks — admittedly painful — and the next thing we know she’s getting drunk and marrying Cameron Frye. If you can accept that, you can continue on her journey.
Then we find ourselves in a dance studio, where young girls are executing their barre work to the barked commands of an unseen but stereotypical ballet instructor. If the instructor’s voice sounds familiar it will spoil the big reveal when you see who it is: the formidable Kelly Bishop. Her character is Emily Gilmore with more eye makeup and less money, i.e., she’s fabulous. Turns out she has a Broadway background, getting her break as Sheila in A Chorus Line in the 70s. Who knew?
Cameron (I’m just going to call him that) lives in a big, cluttered house in a small town on the ocean. He shows up with his new bride, who is dumbstruck to learn that he lives with his mother. “Wait you live with your mother, like a serial killer?” (How Gilmore Girls is that line?)
Spoiler alert. The mother is Kelly Bishop. Her name is Fanny Flowers. (Ugh.) She runs the studio, which is behind her house. Somehow Michelle never noticed the dance studio sign beside the front walk. This is one of a few really annoying plot holes, like why didn’t Michelle pack any clothes when she moved to California?
Four young dancers are introduced, ala the four gymnasts in Make It or Break It. While all white, pretty and thin, they represent a range of body types, and in ballet, seemingly small differences can be a big deal. Natch, the most talented girl is mouthy and ungrateful; while the least accomplished one is plucky and tenacious. We’re set up to see Michelle become a friend and hero to these girls as they struggle with adolescence in general and double pirouettes en pointe in particular.
There are definitely shades of Gilmore throughout. Michelle sounds a lot like Lorelei when she snaps at a waiter, “Keep ’em coming was not a euphemism.” Another gem, on hearing how her new mother-in-law quit dancing when she got pregnant: “How very Turning Point.” There’s a self-referential layer, too, where Fanny continually points out Michelle’s ability to banter wittily.
We don’t see a ton of dancing in the pilot, unfortunately, but we do see runs the gamut; there’s the brief Vegas showgirl scene, some barre work, a really cheesy pseudo-jazz “audition” piece that Michelle teaches the girls, and a little of Kelly Bishop dreamily reviewing some port-de-bras in front of the mirror.
The ending of the episode may take you by surprise and a show that can surprise is one worth hanging with for at least a couple of episodes. Hopefully there will be plenty of dancing, too. On Make It or Break It, the gymnastics is front and center, so I’m hoping this show will do the same with ballet. Plus, there’s the Sherman-Palladino pedigree and some solid star power. (The most recognizable actor on M.I.O.B.I. was a former Full House cast member, for pete’s sake.) Though I have to say, I’ve been involved with dance in some capacity for most of my life and I have never once heard of ballet dancers called “bunheads,” but I guess I’ll go with it.