'Bunheads' premiere review: Summer TV just got dreamier, dancier

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Image Credit: Andrew Eccles/ABC Family

Things are looking up for summer TV on Mondays: First Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires debuted on the Discovery channel a few weeks ago, and tonight, ABC Family rolled out Bunheads, the new Amy Sherman-Palladino creation that brims with smarts, sass, and a secret agenda: smuggling dance and musical-comedy theatricality onto that network’s line-up of troubled, sensitive teens and Pretty Little Liar junior-harridans.

The premiere was all set-up, but whatta set-up. In a quick hour, we met classically-trained dancer/Vegas showgirl Michelle (Tony winner Sutton Foster), her modest but persistent suitor Hubbell (Alan Ruck crossing the Henry Fonda of The Lady Eve¬† with the Ralph Bellamy of His Girl Friday), and his imperious dance-instructor mother, Fanny (Gilmore Girls‘ Kelly Bishop). Hubbell proposed to Michelle, she warned him she didn’t love him and acceded to his persistence, Michelle and Fanny were appalled to learn of each other’s existence, Hubbell died, and now Michelle and Fanny are left in Paradise (the so-called “dreamy little town” that contains Hubbell’s house and Fanny’s amateur dance studio). Since news of Hubble’s demise formed the climax of the premiere, we have to wait until next week to see how things will shake down, but in the meantime, there was a lot to relish and ponder.

For instance: Sutton, for all her Broadway success, is no one’s idea of a traditional TV lead — she’s got a quirky, animated face that in close-up registers about five things at once in any given scene; when she’s not dancing, she lets her body droop in the alert manner of an athlete at temporary rest — and it doubtless took a television auteur like Sherman-Palladino to push through what proves to be a small masterstroke of casting. Bishop’s presence may at first seem like a concession to Gilmore fans after the ratings failure of Sherman-Palladino’s The Return of Jezebel James, but it’s actually a bolstering return of the Sherman-Palladino stock company. (Like Preston Sturges, she uses actors again for slightly altered roles; the presence of another Gilmore alum, Rose Abdoo — Gypsy in Gilmore — is an example.) And Bishop is, simply, an ideal performer for this role of Fanny, able to dial down the haughtiness to convey woundedness or playfulness in seconds.

Fanny’s key line this night — “The quips, the chatter, don’t you ever just shut up!” — is Sherman-Palladino’s way of signalling to her fans that, no, the relentless pace pf the dialogue will not cease to flow, and good for that.

Sherman-Palladino has constructed Bunheads cannily to both fit into and transcend ABC Family’s programming. Foster and Bishop are surrounded by young girls — the students, the fledgling dancers, the “bunheads” — with whom the ABC Family youth demo can identify. Care is taken to present at least one girl, Kaitlyn Jenkins’ Boo, as the underdog, the teased girl, the girl who doesn’t fit in because (as Fanny says with rare politesse, “you’re a big-boned girl.” Jenkins’ performance is marvelously shaded; she doesn’t play Boo as a sad-sack or a figure of pity; you can see the flames of irritation, anger and rebellion flickering around the edges of her still face.

The pilot’s most audacious gesture was, of course, killing off the man whom we thought would be its romantic lead. Casting a familiar face such as Ruck, having him win us over before he won over Michelle, was shrewd. Sherman-Palladino deliberately painted herself into a corner: She couldn’t go on having Michelle continue to take, take, take from Hubbell without returning some love, love, love — she’d eventually seem selfish, if not a monster. But rather than watch her gradually warm to him, he exited, leaving Michelle, and the series, free to concentrate on the true relationship in the show, the one between Michelle and Fanny, just as, no matter how many men shuffled through Stars Hollow, Gilmore‘s center remained Lorelai and Rory.

At the same time, Bunheads asks its young audience to step outside its comfort zone, most delightfully in a scene in which Michelle asked the dance class to step outside its comfort zone. She quickly choreographed a routine to “Ain’t She Sweet,” a 1920s pop hit best known now, if at all by a young audience, in the Beatles’ version. The scene was wonderful for the time it allowed Sutton to demonstrate how she dances, how her character possesses a natural knack for teaching, and for the way the scene moved the narrative along, sketching in character through action.

All of this combines to give Bunheads an energy — a lift — that few other current shows can match. It makes other TV shows about dancing, such as the grotesque reality series Dance Moms, and the wearisome So You Think You Can Dance, look pallid. (Except I do think Cat Deeley would fit right in for at least a stunt-casting cameo Bunheads appearance; Deeley’s sunniness would fit right in in Paradise.)

Did you watch the premiere of Bunheads? I’d be curious to know what you think, below.

Twitter: @kentucker

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