Since Amy Sherman-Palladino left “Gilmore Girls” after its sixth season, there has been a gaping Amy Sherman-Palladino-sized hole in my heart. (“The Return of Jezebel James” didn’t qualify to fill that hole.) To say that I’ve been anticipating “Bunheads” and Amy’s return to television would be an incredible understatement. Amy is well-versed in the world of dance and used to be a bunhead herself. For the uninitiated, a bunhead is someone that is so immersed in the world of dance that their hair is constantly in a bun.
While “Bunheads” is decidedly not “Gilmore Girls,” I like to think that Paradise, CA exists in the same universe as Stars Hollow, CT. (This does make the dual nature of Kelly Bishop rather confusing. I’ll have to figure that one out later.) The two shows share a lot of the same quirks, right down to the lightning fast dialogue and even the annoying “la-la-la” music between scenes.
Our Lorelai Gilmore stand-in is Michelle, a dancer-turned-showgirl. She’s got snark aplenty and loads of talent. Michelle is played by Sutton Foster, who’s made quite a name for herself on the Great White Way. Sutton is a natural fit for television and has picked up the mannerisms of The Amy Sherman-Palladino School of Acting with ease. One of my favorite moments from the pilot was when Michelle snapped at her hooker neighbor, “As long as my face doesn’t look like Chris Hanson, your guests will be fine.” That was the assurance I needed to know that I could fall in love with “Bunheads.”
Amy said in a recent Vulture interview, “The character of Michelle, for example, is different at her core. Lorelai was so centered on Rory and family and this town. She had plans. She was somebody who was very deeply into her life. Michelle is someone who lives outside of her life. Michelle is in complete denial about her life; [she] runs from reality. Lorelai’s humor was her guard and her deflection and what kept her strong. It was her Wonder Woman cuffs. Michelle has no deflection, no guard.” Michelle is also being courted by Hubbell (Alan Ruck), a shoe salesman that wears gym socks with his suit. He dotes on Michelle every time he’s in town. She usually turns him down, but after a failed audition for “Chicago,” she agrees to go out with him. There’s this beautiful moment in the audition where the spotlight passes over the stage and hits Michelle. Just when you think it might stay on her, the spotlight continues to sweep across the room. Her chance to be in the spotlight is over. It’s time to move on.
“If you like, we can order nothing but dessert.” Hubbell is a girl’s dream, or he would be if he weren’t so…nice. He’s loved her from the moment he saw her on stage. Hubbell plays into her extended Godzilla metaphor and that’s when Michelle gets the first sense that this guy might be worth something. So they get married. Hooray, Vegas!
Hubbell and Michelle take the road home to Paradise, CA. Within minutes, we get a glimpse of the two locations where we will spend most of our time in Paradise—the dance studio and the home of Hubbell and his mother. The Paradise Dance Academy is most important to four teenage girls, all aspiring ballerinas. There’s Ginny, who’s a dead ringer for Ivy Lynn from “Smash,” and Melanie, the group wannabe. Sasha plays the misunderstood queen bee and then there’s Boo, all hapless and brimming with potential. I’m wary of these girls, but then, I’m wary of most teenage girls. I can’t wait to see what Amy Sherman-Palladino turns them into.
The house is everything that Hubbell described…with the teensy little addition that he lives with his mother. Oops. Probably should’ve mentioned that before you put a ring on it. His mother is a tad bit tacky, obsessed with dolls, and buys wine with nuns on the label. Emily Gilmore would never stoop that low. Luckily for us, Fanny (and Kelly Bishop, by extension) is still the queen of withering glances. She can’t believe that she has a new daughter-in-law, but offers to throw a wedding party anyway because she loves to be the one in charge.
In preparation for the party, Michelle finds herself as the local dress shop. Truly (Stacey Oristano), the shop owner of Sparkles, is manic and officially my new favorite townsperson. The wedding party is fifty shades of awkward and made even more so when Hubbell and Michelle happen to consummate the relationship upstairs during the party. And then Fanny calls them out on it! She rails into Michelle, saying “The quips, the chatter, don’t you ever just shut up?” (I love how this is essentially a stand-in for all criticism towards Amy.) Michelle finds refuge in the studio and runs the girls through a fake audition for “Dogs,” the sequel to “Cats.”
Michelle holds the ability to instill confidence in these girls. She’ll be their mentor and provide them with focus. She is the One True Dance Teacher. Fanny witnesses their routine and softens towards Michelle. The girls go home and Fanny and Michelle hit the bar for shots and bonding. They stage a dance number set to Jim Croce in the middle of the bar and people actually join in. Amy Sherman-Palladino creates these fantasy worlds where anything goes. (See what I did there?) Her characters are all slightly larger than life, yet they manage to be entirely true to form at the same time. More than anything, that’s what I’ve missed in the years since she left “Gilmore Girls.”
Truly turns up at the bar in tears. Something has happened to Hubbell. The lingering pause implies that Hubbell died turning around that blind corner, but his status is not explicitly stated. In my experience, people on television aren’t dead unless a doctor specifically declares them dead and even then they maybe aren’t dead yet. Having Michelle deal with the death of her new husband could set a weird tone to the rest of the season, so keeping him alive would give Michelle an opportunity to really fall in love with him. But if he is dead, then Michelle could feel obligated to stick around and learn to love the townspeople that adored Hubbell. I don’t know which way the show is going to go on this issue and I’d love to hear your theories. If anything, it’s an effective, if cheap, way to get viewers to come back.
“Bunheads” is an ideal match for ABC Family and will return next week with answers and probably more dancing.