February 26, 2013



The second half of BUNHEADS‘s first (and potentially only) season seemed designed to drive even fans of Amy Sherman-Palladino a little crazy.  The auteur delights in having her characters dance on the head of conversational pins, and if her non-stop dialogue is to be more than mere verbal choreography, it’s critical that the scenes have strong emotional underpinnings.  Those were easy to come by in Gilmore Girls, because the show centered around two emotionally fraught mother-daughter relationships, and they were present in the opening stretch of Bunheads as well, which had a lot of territory to cover, as Las Vegas showgirl Michelle (Sutton Foster) impulsively married, and was almost instantly widowed by, genial Hubbell (Alan Ruck), and inherited both his home and a rocky relationship with his mother Fanny (Kelly Bishop).  The latter brought her into the orbit of Fanny’s dance studio, where she began teaching a teenage group that most prominently included Sasha (Julia Goldoni Telles), Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Ginny (Bailey Buntain) and Melanie (Emma Dumont).  Getting all that sorted out took most of the initial mini-season, but by its end, the show’s pieces were more or less in place, and it took a phony crisis (would Michelle really leave town after accidentally injuring the dancers?) to give the show something of a cliffhanger.

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that from the time Bunheads returned until tonight’s season finale nothing else happened, but it certainly felt that way.  The girls had vaguely interchangeable boyfriends (as much love and care as Sherman-Palladino lavishes on her female characters, that’s as little interest as she has in her men), mostly distinguishable by whether they talked a lot (Boo’s) or almost not at all (Melanie’s).  Sasha became emancipated from her divorcing parents and moved into her own apartment.  A great deal of time was spent worrying about the closing of a boutique owned by Hubbell’s ex-girlfriend Truly (Stacy Oristano), and the purported building of a new amphitheater by Truly’s aggressive businesswoman sister Milly (Liza Weil, like Bishop a Gilmore veteran).  Michelle’s amiably shiftless brother Scotty (Foster’s real-life brother Hunter Foster) showed up to provide a new partner for her speedy banter, and Michelle’s Vegas pal Talia (Angelina McCoy) was going to, then was not going to, marry her much older fiancee.  A new brother and sister pair even more eccentric than our regulars (a considerable achievement) started attending their school.  Events, in other words, took place in every episode.  But nothing, you know… happened.  If any of these characters disappeared, or any of the plotlines reversed, no one would have cared.

The season finale, written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, summed up the show’s achievements and frustrations.  With Fanny and Michelle more or less at peace, the two of them reparteed at each other a bit, but with no particular conflict.  The major action of the episode had Michelle deciding to go to LA for a Broadway audition, followed surreptitiously by the girls, and the audition sequences were extremely well observed (and Sherman-Palladino must have hoarded her budget for it, because there were a really impressive number of dancing extras).  But Michelle’s decision to leave the dance school and try Broadway again, while arising somewhat from hints planted in earlier episodes, had little emotional grounding, and hardly rose to a season-finale level of drama, while the girls were never seen by Michelle in LA, so they had no interaction with her (she found out they’d been there, more or less, in the last minute of the episode) and there were no consequences to their trip.  The second storyline, in which the girls considered having sex with their boyfriends (and we discovered at the very end that one actually had), felt shallow and unconnected to Michelle, even though the script shoehorned her into it.  The season ended with no cliffhanger, revelation or major event.  It just–ended.

Bunheads is enormously frustrating because it’s bursting with talent.  Foster is splendid at putting a spin on Sherman-Palladino’s flood of dialogue so that it hits at more than a surface level, and she and Bishop are wonderful in their scenes together.  The younger characters are less fleshed-out, but Sasha, with her sarcastic vulnerability, is clearly the one closest to Sherman-Palladino’s writing heart, and Telles would be a fine acting partner for Foster, if the show let them have more than mere moments together.  Even with a lack of meaningful drama, it’s always a pleasure to listen to Sherman-Palladino’s characters talk at each other, endlessly eloquent especially when they’re stumbling over their own overbusy minds.  As much as one hates to advocate a network telling a writer-producer-director what to do, the most cliched network note of all, that the stories need “stakes,” is true here.  Someone needs to force Sherman-Palladino to give her show some substance.

It’s not clear Bunheads will ever have that chance.  Although not an outright flop, the series hasn’t made any impact in the ratings, falling behind its lead-in Switched At Birth (0.6 to 0.4, most recently), let alone the network’s hit Pretty Little Liars (at 1.1).  It hasn’t gotten the kind of praise or buzz likely to lead to Emmy talk or a Season 2 bump, so its fate will likely depend on how much ABC Family likes its next crop of pilots and the executives’ affection for the show.  Sherman-Palladino has a truly distinctive authorial voice, and a terrific cast to work with here.  But it would be an exaggeration to say, at this point, that Bunheads is ready for Broadway.


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."