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The Winning Weirdness of ‘Bunheads’: The Case for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Charming Dramedy

The Winning Weirdness of 'Bunheads': The Case for Amy Sherman-Palladino's Charming Dramedy

When the news came down the transom a few days ago that “Bunheads,” the new show from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, had received a back-order pickup for more episodes on ABC Family, fans like yours truly breathed a sigh of relief and wonderment. While positioned as a cute fish-out-of-water story about a Vegas showgirl named Michelle Simms (played by Broadway star Sutton Foster) who unexpectedly ends up in a small town teaching ballet, “Bunheads” never took the easy or expected path, even when that might have made it an easier fit at the network (its focus skews more toward the adults in the story than the four teen ballerinas Michelle comes to mentor).

“Bunheads” has remained enchantingly oddball and honest in its approach to its characters and to a scenario that has the potential to be but somehow never ends up cloyingly sitcom-like. It helps that the show zigs when it by all the normal rules of TV it should zag, presenting comedic bits (like the accidentally macing of the entire “Nutcracker” cast in this week’s season final) with serious consequences and exploring genuine personal dilemmas stemming from some of the quirkier developments. In the first episode, for instance, Michelle impulsively elopes with Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), a man who fell in love with her at first sight and who’s been patiently courting her whenever he’s in town. He promises her a house overlooking the ocean in a town called Paradise, and while he delivers it, he neglects to mention that he still lives with his prickly dance instructor mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop). But he introduces his new bride around, wins her over to giving things a try — and just when it seems the show will be about Michelle attempting to make this unusual coupling work, he dies in a car accident, leaving her his house and an uncertainty about how to mourn someone she was just starting to get to know.

“Bunheads” hasn’t, in these first ten episodes, been the story of Michelle and Hubbell or Michelle and the four girls — its central relationship has turned out to be the exasperated but warm one between Michelle and Fanny, two women who love and have enjoyed careers in dance that are, at least performance-wise, pretty much over, whose lives have taken unexpected paths and who are now bound together by shared ownership of the house and studio.

The bond between the pair is something between parental and friendship — Fanny comes to like Michelle while also clearly seeing that Michelle squandered a solid chance at a legitimate dance career, that she can be flaky and lazy and that she’s at a major crossroads in life. And Michelle pries Fanny out of her comfort zone, acts as an intermediary between her and the girls, wins her trust (and by the end of the season, loses it again) and allows her to consider loosing her iron grip on the dance studio and taking time away for herself.

The four teenage girl characters in “Bunheads” don’t hew to type — there’s talented, sulky Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), who’s gifted at dance but not necessarily that committed to it; sweet-natured Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), who doesn’t have the typical build of a dancer but adores it, and who gets an adorable romance with the geekily enthusiastic, shorter than her Josh (Gabriel Notarangelo). There’s Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Buntain), whose friendship grows bumpy after the latter pursues a relationship with the former’s detested brother Charlie (Zak Henri).

Their troubles tend to be of an achingly familiar adolescent breed, but aren’t leveraged to provide some kind of moral — the outcome from Melanie’s anger at Ginny’s trying to date Charlie despite the fact that Boo harbored a long-time crush on him was a messy and as unresolved as realistic teen tiff get. The girls are navigating portrayal of growing up that’s far less structured around lesson moments than is average on the small screen, and their boredom, restlessness and entertainingly mundane struggles are balanced out by moment of grace, like Boo’s dance with Charlie at the fundraiser party, a sequence both joyous and free.

But “Bunheads” is ultimately about Michelle, about her self-fulfilling belief that she destroys everything and so she’d do better not to invest in longterm relationships or plans. Foster imbues the character with an amused, knowing charm — she’s been around the block more than once and is prone to oversharing — and a sometimes ungainly Olive Oyl physicality. Michelle may be a dancer, but off the stage she’s prone to endless awkward moments, ones she’s lived with often enough that she accepts them with a ready self-deprecation. In her mid-30s, her days on stage coming to an end, Michelle is faced with decisions to make about a future she’s always put off considering, and is in the girls confronting the fact that she’s providing guidance to people without knowing where she herself is going.

The show has created in Michelle a lovable shambles of a protagonist, one who’s open about her mistakes in endearing ways, but who’s going to have to learn to grow in additon to having learned to own up to her faults. More than a town that gathers to watch a dance metaphor for reducing plastic bag use and that’s filled with neurotic clothing store owners, flirtatious surfer boys and barista-artists, the true quirk of “Bunheads” is in having a comedic heroine who’s likeable but who’s capable of behaving in genuinely disappointing ways. Michelle ended this week’s episode with a dramatic (“Dead Poets Society”-citing) exit — it’s so nice to know she’ll be back.

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So glad more episodes are on order. Bunheads is a wonderfully entertaining show, with extremely talented players, great writing, and characters worth investing our time in every week. Nothing seems contrived. The stories are like a glimpse into the lives of real people we want to see succeed and find happiness. Keep up the joyful work!


Firstly, Boo dated and danced with Carl, not Charlie. Ginny dated Josh for a while, but broke up with him after due reflection when Fanny was away. I loved Gilmore, and it is refreshing to see Amy Sherman-Palladino back on tv each week bringing us into yet another one of her worlds. I am only too thrilled it is dance related! It was amazing to see SYTYCD stars dancing with Amy's Bunheads. As far as comparing the show to Gilmore, it simply cannot be done. There is only one Stars Hollow, and as sad as I am it ended, it remains one of my all time favorites. Amy has a unique way of witty banter that is going to be in anything she would create, and that is why people love her! She brings isms and life experience to things that people often think but don't say. Amy carefully manipulates her words into characters and towns that she brings to life. I hated Gilmore Girls ending, but thankful Amy brought us a whole new world in Bunheads. I'll be spending some time in Paradise.

Andrew S

I watched the whole season of Bunheads and it's hard not to make comparisons to Gilmore Girls, and how it's not quite as good. Lorelai played by Lauren Graham is such an indelible character, and Michelle played by Sutton Foster is a little bit less funny, a little bit less clever, a little bit less likeable, and yet by seasons end Michelle was starting to grow on me. The season finale was strong, and if they continue on this trajectory they can start to wipe out the Gilmore comparisons, even if half the cast and guest stars are ex-Gilmore cast members. One thing Gilmore didn't have was great dance sequences like the Istanbul (Not Constantinople) routine
I like Bunheads – it's no Gilmore Girls. But, kudos to Amy Sherman-Palladino for writing something that isn't formulaic and for paving the way for other TV writers who want to tell their stories in their own way, without the oppression of having to stick to a strict formula. And kudos to ABC Family for sticking with this show!

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