A New Show That’s Like More Gilmore Girls

What you're watching.
June 11 2012 6:38 AM

Bunheads

The new series about dancers from Amy Sherman-Palladino is delightful.

A former ballerina turned Vegas showgirl decides to take a gamble on a new marriage and a fresh start in Paradise in the series premiere of ABC Family's original drama "Bunheads," airing Monday, June 11th.
Bunheads, with Emma Dumont, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain, and Kaitlyn Jenkins

Photograph by Adam Taylor/ABC Family.

Early in the pilot of the magnetic new comedy Bunheads (ABC Family, Mondays at 9 p.m.) comes a shot terrifically expressive of lost promise and showbiz frustration. It's a cityscape depicting the land of broken dreams. Here is the Las Vegas Strip, in the back of the black desert. In the foreground, here is a courtyard apartment building resembling a dingy motel, as if it's built around a pool last chlorinated in the '90s. On an upper story of the building, here stands heroine Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), a bit like a broken doll.

Michelle is a dancer whose ABT training has secured her only a spot beneath a feathered headdress in a Las Vegas revue, and she has had a lousier day than usual. An audition for a real part, a part in Chicago, didn't go well—not because she performed poorly but because she never got a chance. They looked at her aging frame and dismissed her, and it was over before she'd started. In the shot, you sense her regrets mounting as she stands outside her cruddy apartment, where her next-door neighbor is a literally a prostitute and everyone else, well ....

Michelle is caged and cornered. She can't see the Strip in the distance, but we can, and it glows like an insincere Oz. Bunheads—created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, a cult heroine for her Gilmore Girls—is fast, frank, and in love with the business of show despite itself. It offers memorable looks at rehearsals, auditions, ballet-company competitions, and dreams of names in lights. And while it’s a very handsome improvement on Smash, it also, in its first episode, makes an unexpected narrative pirouette into Gilmor-ely territory. The mental landscape of the show is a kind of jaunty battlefield where a fusillade of smart talk is fired in intergenerational skirmishes.

Given Michelle's desperation, it is unsurprising that she should leap into a marriage with a square Stage Door Johnny, a Californian who always brings her flowers when he's in town on business. His name is actually Flowers, Hubbell Flowers, and despite his lovely manners, emotional presence, and healthy income, he leaves something to be desired as a romantic partner. Michelle is repelled by the fact that he wears running shoes with a suit. Her colleagues find it suspicious that he will take a flock of showgirls out to dinner without any expectations of quid pro quo. We at home see that Hubbell is played by Alan Ruck—once and forever Ferris Bueller's Cameron Frye—and know that he's going to be, on some level, not matter how kind or even poetic, a drip.

He takes Michelle out to a three-martini dinner. (That's an average for the table; we get the impression that he has no martinis and she has six.) He proposes. She regains consciousness, the next day, in the shotgun seat of his Volvo, looks at her ring finger, and discovers that she has relented. He's driving her home to coastal California to meet his mother. The meeting is as logistically simple as it is psychologically stunning: Mrs. Flowers inhabits the house and fills it with kitsch—and Kelly Bishop, Gilmore’s matriarch, inhabits the role with a kitsch-free kookiness.

Everyone's a little off here: Mrs. Flowers affects a Russian grandiosity teaching ballet to the endearing girls budding in her dance studio behind the house and tells stories about Mr. Balanchine's rehearsals: "We only stopped when someone finally dropped dead." Meanwhile, Michelle scampers scattily. I got a kick out of seeing Sutton Foster play nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on Broadway; here as there, she gives off thrilling waves of presence, as if always surprised that her body can dance the numbers and her mouth can spit such juicy ripostes. She is generous with this surprised joy, and that's the spark she brings to reading lines that rattle with wisecracks, without self-regard.

"Wait, you live with your mother like a serial killer?" Michelle says to Hubbell when he drops the Mom Bomb. On a duller show, there would have been the pause of a question mark after mother, as a shticky set-up for the rest of the line, but Bunheads presses ahead at a fresher rhythm. Later, en route to the unsentimental heart-to-heart that bonds the show's most important relationship, the mother-in-law says to Michelle: "Oh my god, the quips, the chatter, don't you ever just shut up?" Thank heavens, no.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.