A Look at What Did and Didn’t Work in Season 1
Earlier this week, Bunheads aired its winter finale, and based on the viewer numbers it’s been been getting in recent weeks, things aren’t looking good renewal-wise. However, I’m preferring to take a half glass full approach here and wish for the best.
In the mean time, I’d like to take a look at what exactly made the show such a winner in my mind, while also taking a brief look at the things it could tone down – all while praying that the show gets a chance to continue.
First, the pros:
The show takes place in Paradise, a tiny, fictional Southern California beach town à la Carpinteria.
Most people who checked out this show did so because Amy Sherman-Palladino, the woman most famous for creating Gilmore Girls, is the show-runner. One of the main features of her previous show was the small town setting.
While it may seem redundant to do another small town show, Sherman-Palladino makes it work through the different vibes the town gives off. Stars Hollow was pure New England – very whimsical and historical – while Paradise retains the whimsy, but steps it up with a nice layer of surf town aesthetic.
With a show like this, where the characters are running around all over the place, there needs to be an anchor. For Bunheads,that anchor is a ballet studio. Run by Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster) and Fanny Flowers (Kelly Bishop), a daughter and mother-in-law pair, the studio functions as the one place all the characters can come together and interact.
Oh, and did I mention how cool the place looks? Because it looks very cool.
A good setting can only take a show so far; with a show like Bunheads – which is so light on plot that it’s almost nonexistent – having likable characters is critical.
Essentially, the show features lead character, Michelle Simms, played by Sutton Foster of Broadway fame, and four of her ballet class students: Boo Jordan (the insecure one), Sasha Torres (who is mean but lonely), Ginny Thompson (the naive, neurotic one), and Melanie Segal (the well-adjusted tomboy).
Much of the focus was on Michelle in the beginning, and her storyline played out beautifully. Her arrival in town was controversial – she showed up out of the blue after marrying Fanny’s son in Vegas – and just one night later, her new hubby was dead of a freak accident. Michelle, now the bewildered owner of both the aforementioned ballet studio and her ex-husband’s house, was left alone.
Throughout the first half of season one, Michelle fought to fit in – a struggle that showed off all her little quirks. Though a Broadway star at heart, Michelle’s dreams had fallen apart. Prior to moving to Paradise, she had become a showgirl in Vegas.
And because most people mistake her for a stripper, she reacts to the town’s lack of acceptance by awkwardly and incessantly saying whatever’s on her mind – but in a good way. The show does witty banter like no other, and it’s mostly all coming from Michelle.
The constant word vomit, paired with her inability to live a normal, mundane small town life, has led to some great comic moments – Michelle can’t even hang up curtains properly, for god’s sake.
All this talk about Michelle, and I haven’t even gotten to the other main characters yet. It seemed at first that Sherman-Palladino had taken a serious misstep. In the pilot, these girls could not act (the casting department went for girls that could dance first and act second, I believe).
However, after maybe two episodes, they showed vast improvement. Now, their plots are just as good as anything Michelle is offered.
Throughout season one, there’s been an almost subconscious rivalry between Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) and Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), two polar opposites that obviously wouldn’t be friends if they weren’t dancing together. This pays off in a big way by the end of the season, when Boo finally stands up to domineering Sasha.
Being a dramatic sort of character, Sasha is by no means one-dimensional: she’s cold-hearted because her parents seemingly don’t love her. When they divorce and skip town separately, they leave her behind because they don’t where she ends up. Once she’s alone in an overly-spacious apartment and forced to grow up too quickly, her plot really gets good.
Ginny is mostly given boy drama, which is kind of disappointing (you know how annoying it gets when characters are reduced to their love lives?) but still entertaining. Bailey Buntain is very obviously the most talented actress out of the bunch. However, her boy troubles are rooted in a desire to avoid becoming like her mother. It may sound cliche but it works really well in practice.
Finally, there’s Melanie (Emma Dumont), a near-enigma. Much of her time is spent reacting to everyone else. She has never had a love interest – which leads much of the audience to believe she’ll be coming out soon – and the one personal story she’s gotten has had her join a roller derby team.
Based on what you’ve already read, there’s really not a whole lot of plot happening on Bunheads. Most of the time, any semblance of plot is just there to put the characters in certain situations, then allow natural reactions to occur and relationships to develop.
A good example of this is in the episode “Next!”. Michelle, feeling like she’s wasting her life in Paradise, decides to jump start her career and audition for a chorus in Los Angeles.
This is literally the entirety of the plot for that episode. Everything that happens after is all tiny stuff, based on the other characters. The tensest moment is a scene where the casting director walks down the row of auditioning actors and gives them a single once-over to decide if they’d fit the show.
We aren’t shown where Michelle is in the line, so when he finally gets to her, so much tension has been built that it’s exhausting. Then when he’s actually looking her over, we don’t know if we want him to pick her or move on – if he picks her, it could mean losing her as lead and if he doesn’t she’ll be crushed. (In retrospect, Michelle would never have been chosen, since we obviously can’t lose our lead character to showbiz.)
Every episode is like this: the stakes are so low that they’re almost non-existent, but we care about the characters so much at this point that any little hiccup seems like a coming apocalypse.
And these hiccups feel apocalyptic for a reason: at its heart, Bunheads is about dreams. Michelle’s are in a coma at the moment, and she’s at a crossroads – pull the plug and watch your dreams flatline or keep fighting. She’s got a good thing going for her in Paradise, but is it enough for her?
This mirrors nicely with her up and coming students, who all have the same dreams she once had. They get a look at their possible future through Michelle. Will they ultimately choose to turn their backs on their passion? Being where I am at life at this point, watching this theme and the various ways it can play out is very interesting to me.
As much as I like this show, Bunheads also has a few cons (okay so there’s really several that all stem from the same source):
It’s always great to showcase past actors you’ve worked with. In the cold world that is Hollywood, it’s nice to think that some writers have enough loyalty to bring back the people they like.
Sherman-Palladino seems to be going overboard in this respect, though. She’s had at least four past stars pop up on the show, most notably Liza Weil as Milly, a business woman with a heart of stone. Milly is really the perfect example of how Sherman-Palladino has taken things too far.
Fans of Gilmore Girls will recognize the actress. She played Paris Gellar and it wouldn’t be too far off base to describe Milly as the adult version of Paris. I’m sure Weil can do different characters, but you wouldn’t assume that based on her work on Sherman-Palladino’s shows.
The show also mirrors Gilmore Girls in it’s score, done by Sam Phillips, who is another Sherman-Palladino vet. There’s a very familiar sound to it – once again, if you’ve watched the older show, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
So far, the music has been used sparingly, but it seems to be cropping up more and more. This is a detriment; it makes the show feel like a retread, which it most certainly is not.
Overall, while Sherman-Palladino seems to be a little afraid to let go of the pieces that made Gilmore Girls such a success, she has most definitely created a winner that can and should stand on its own (provided people actually watch it – and if you’re reading this but haven’t yet watched Bunheads, you need to get on that!).