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.