‘Bunheads’: Michelle’s Return to Paradise

The first half-season of Bunheads was filled with ups and downs. The big positive was the return of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to series television, doing an hour-long dramedy for the first time since Gilmore Girls. And in Broadway veteran Sutton Foster, Palladino found a perfect actress to deliver her trademark rapid-fire, pop culture-referencing dialogue. The pilot episode went through major plot convolutions to get Foster’s Michelle, a Vegas showgirl, out of the big city and into Paradise, a small coastal California town. Here it was quickly apparent that Michelle was going to end up working with Fanny (Kelly Bishop), the local dance instructor, in her studio.

Still, the show took its time getting to that inevitable plot development, getting Michelle gradually involved in the lives of the series’ four major teenage characters. She butted heads with Fanny and chafed under the accommodations and the lack of goods and services in Paradise, but eventually, she came around. Then Bunheads (metaphorically) burned it all to the ground in the midseason finale, as Michelle accidentally maced all the dancers in the studio in the middle of a production of The Nutcracker. The episode ended with Michelle headed out of Paradise, leaving behind loyal dancers and their furious parents.

That was the good stuff. The bad stuff in Bunheads was the writing, as Sherman-Palladino and her staff struggled with tone and energy: the scripts completely disinterested in the plot complications already set up, specifically those involving people who weren’t Michelle. As a result, Fanny swung from supportive to contrary and obtuse, depending on whether Michelle needed an adversary or a roommate surrogate. And Paradise’s supposed quirkiness devolved into silliness. In one episode the local authorities refused to give Michelle’s broken car a tow because she was parked on the entrance to a private driveway. Instead of someone merely suggesting she put it in neutral and push it back onto the road, the scene went on and on and on. Another episode turned on a set of too wacky moments featuring Michelle, and oh yes, the arty local barista/coffee genius tossed in a “Let’s shut down Walmart” plotline. The problem being that the big box store in question was rejected just days before it opened, leaving a huge derelict, concrete building on the edge of town and surely putting dozens of Paradise residents out of work. Such strained situations happened again and again over the first 10 episodes, often leaving Bunheads stuck between being a mediocre sitcom and a not-quite effective drama.

At the same time, it reminded us that Sherman-Palladino regularly and effectively emphasizes character over plot. Michelle arrived as a fully formed person, and the teenagers had the chance to develop beyond their obvious characters types through the course of the season.

Fanny remains less clear: Bishop does very good work, but the writers were still trying to get a handle on her right up through the midseason finale. The Fanny we see in the midseason premiere — premiering 7 January — is back to being mostly patient and understanding, though prickly when useful. As the episode opens, Michelle is back in Nevada, crashing on a friend’s couch and working as an assistant in a chintzy magic show in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. Fanny has temporarily closed the dance studio in the wake of the Nutcracker disaster, and the girls are all on summer vacation.

No surprise, Michelle is unhappy and not entirely welcome in her friend’s apartment anymore, and Fanny and the girls all miss her. The episode isn’t particularly plot-heavy, which allows all involved time to sort out their feelings, while we’re treated to plenty of comic relief, mostly in the form of a viral video that embarrasses some characters and delighting others. In typical Bunheads fashion, the episode restores the status quo by the end without spending much time on narrative or emotional details.

The second episode both returns to ongoing plotlines and sets up some new ones. We check in on the dating status of Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) and Carl (Casey J. Adler), as they get back together after a summer apart and have dinner with each other’s parents. Local weirdo Truly (Stacey Oristano), who has had something of a hate/tolerate relationship with Michelle, is suddenly all smiles as she begs Michelle for help involving her clothing boutique. And the school year begins with the introduction of a new sister-brother pair who seem to be adept at everything they try, much to the consternation of the girls. It’s a light, breezy episode that’s a lot of fun, and it finds the cast sliding back into familiar rhythms.

If these first two episodes are any indication, Bunheads is finding its strengths. With Michelle finally settling into her role as a dance instructor, the show can focus more on character development and dialogue and less on ill-considered plot contrivances. Foster is hugely appealing and Bishop is great whenever she gets solid material. More good news: Julia Goldani Telles, who often played the teenager Sasha as a stuck-up bitch with Hidden Emotional Trauma in the series’ early episodes, is particularly good here. At last, Sasha is less a collection of TV teenager tropes and more convincingly a Sherman-Palladino creation.

RATING 7 / 10