January 8, 2013



Within the first two minutes of its midseason premiere tonight, BUNHEADS featured a Harold Clurman gag.  For those not up on their celebrated left-wing Depression-era theatre directors, Clurman was–well, yeah.  (This particular gag took place in a kitchen perfectly constructed in miniature–including working electricity–in a cardboard box.)  I’m going to go out on a limb and say it was the first time Mr. Clurman’s name had ever been mentioned on an ABC Family original series (for that matter, you’d be hard-pressed to find the last time he was named anywhere in television).  That very particular, eccentric sensibility will probably keep Bunheads from ever being a breakout hit on its chosen network, but it’s also what makes the show unique and, for those on its wavelength (which is to say, co-creator and showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s wavelength), something to cherish.

The midseason premiere, written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, was one of those hours that had to spend most of its time undoing what had happened in the last episode some months ago.  In this case, former showgirl Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), who had impulsively married Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), who had almost instantly died after bringing Michelle to his hometown of Paradise, California, where his mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop) runs the local ballet studio and had hired Michelle to teach classes; anyway, she (that is, Michelle) had mistakenly maced the young dancers in the year’s big production of “The Nutcracker.”  A commotion (but no lasting injury) was caused, and Fanny and the students’ parents more or less ran Michelle out of town (although not before the kids themselves did their best Dead Poets Society riff, standing on chairs and declaiming “Captain, My Captain!”, these 14-year olds apparently being big fans of the films of Peter Weir).

When we rejoined everyone, summer had passed, and Michelle had very reluctantly taken a job as a magician’s assistant in Henderson, Nevada–a town helpfully described as one where even the hookers were actually headed to Laughlin when they stopped to do some business because they had to use the ladies’ room anyway.  She’s miserable, but certain no one in Paradise would want her back after the macing disaster (a video of which has gone viral).  She doesn’t know that misery is rife, too, in Paradise, as Fanny drags herself through the packed-up rooms of her house and studio, lonely and unable to make any redecorating decisions.  The dance students, too, are floundering without class:  Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) is coping with a pregnant and occasionally murderous mom on bed rest, Ginny (Bailey Buntain) has taken over her own mother’s real estate job, Melanie (Emma Dumont) is caring for her wheelchair-bound grandfather, and Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) is hiding from her divorcing parents.  Push has to come to shove, and by episode’s end, Fanny has come to Henderson to declare, in her crotchety way, her maternal feelings for Michelle, and make all right with the world.

For some of us, Sherman-Palladino’s crackling repartee is enough in itself to justify a weekly hour of our time, especially as performed by Foster and Bishop, but it has to be admitted that in its first set of episodes, Bunheads lacked the emotional hold of Sherman-Palladino’s classic Gilmore Girls, largely because Michelle seemed to exist in a show entirely separate from the one with the girls.  It appears as though those two worlds are now going to be more melded, as Michelle has become an increasingly important part of her students’ lives, so the series may begin to feel less disconnected.

Even if that’s the case, it’s doubtful that Bunheads will ever have the kind of success that Pretty Little Liars and some of ABCF’s other hits have had.  Sherman-Palladino has a limited interest in plot, and none at all in naturalism; she brings to the tube instead instead the fantasy rapid-fire dialogue of Preston Sturges and the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s (a more modern analogue would be an apolitical, unpretentious Aaron Sorkin).  Let’s face it: a limited portion of the network’s target demo is going to get, or care for, Harold Clurman jokes.  But Bunheads has already received a Season 2 order (the current episodes are the back half of the first season’s production), so those of us who do should enjoy them while we can.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."