Sunday, July 22, 2012
Desperately Seeking Gilmore Girls
ABC Family's new summer series, Bunheads, so desperately wants to be the new Gilmore Girls, the beloved 2000-07 dramedy about a single mother and her daughter living in a small town filled with quirky characters. Both series were created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose quick screwball-comedy pop culture-laced dialogue is her engaging trademark. Unfortunately, after watching the first five episodes of Bunheads, I've realized that the show - while working overtime to emulate the successful Gilmore formula - remains a sometimes charming but often frustrating mess with no apparent sense of direction. Although I enjoyed the first episode, I assumed that the series would only improve as it found its creative groove. But sadly this hasn't happened - yet - and I'm disappointed because Bunheads does have the potential to be so much better.
So let's begin with what is working: Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop. These two brilliantly talented Tony Award-winning actresses are a delight to watch as Michelle, a former Las Vegas showgirl, and her mother-in-law Fanny, who runs a ballet school (ala Gilmore's Miss Patty). For those of you who may not have seen the pilot episode, the basic premise of the series was introduced as Michelle got drunk and married Fanny's admiring son Hubbell, who then brought her back to his hometown of Paradise. Fanny wasn't too thrilled to meet Michelle - and at the end of the first show, Hubbell died in a car accident. It was soon revealed that he had left all of his assets - including his and Fanny's house (he lived with his mother) - to his surprised new wife. So now the two lovely ladies are just trying to get along together - just as Lorelai Gilmore and her mother Emily once did. Both Foster and Bishop are, of course, wonderful - they're the reason I'm watching the show - but so far the uneven writing is letting them down.
I also like Kaitlyn Jenkins as Boo, one of Fanny's aspiring "bunheads" (a slang term for ballerinas). She is the Rory Gilmore of the series but, unfortunately, there are also three other young dancers - the bitchy Sasha and the bland Ginny and Melanie. Boo is by far the best of the bunch - and four Rorys is three too many in my opinion. I guess Sasha could be considered the Paris Geller of the show - even though she is nowhere near as amusing as that Gilmore Girls character. And Ginny and Melanie are just too boring to be Lane (Rory's best friend). A part of me wishes Fanny's ballet school would go away, but I seriously doubt this will ever happen. Since the show is called Bunheads (I much prefer its original title of Strut), I think we're stuck with the dancing. But I really wish Sherman-Palladino and her co-creator Lamar Damon had come up with a different premise - maybe Fanny could've run a community theater, where all the residents of Paradise might have gathered together to put on shows.
And this brings me to what else isn't working about the series: its supporting characters. Dressmaker Truly (played by Stacey Oristano, whom I liked on Friday Night Lights) is annoying instead of funny as is Rico (Gregg Henry), the hippie owner of the local bar. I love the fabulous Ellen Greene (who played Audrey in the 1986 film version of the musical, Little Shop of Horrors) as one of Fanny's friends, who uttered one of Bunheads' best lines so far: “I just think the town could use a woman who used to be a man - to go with the Republican and the Liza Minnelli impersonator.” But she hasn't been seen since the second episode, which sums up the problem - the show doesn't have any fun recurring characters like Gilmore's Babette and Miss Patty - or even a Sookie sidekick for Michelle. And we need to get better acquainted with the town of Paradise, which is pretty much a blank page at this point. Gilmore's Stars Hollow almost became a character itself with its warm and inviting town square and various businesses - and Bunheads could certainly use a similar destination upgrade to keep us visiting.
And what about a love interest for Michelle? Hubbell (played by the wonderful Alan Ruck, who hasn't changed much since 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off) was a great character, but he was only needed to bring Michelle to Paradise and set up the premise. Both Lorelai and Rory Gilmore had potential love interests Luke and Dean from the very beginning - with Max, Christopher and Jess all showing up soon thereafter. Michelle, on the other hand, met Grant, a handsome rich resident, in the third episode, but he hasn't been mentioned since. So I have no idea if we'll ever see him again, but actor Steven Eckholdt - who has appeared on Melrose Place, Friends and The L Word over the years - would be a terrific addition to the show.
Finally, I have to mention the writing again, which was pretty good in the first episode but has become increasingly less so ever since. Having Michelle wake up to find a possum in her bed or making poor Boo jump up and down in a garbage dumpster are not the kind of storylines that keep an audience tuning in. Apparently Bunheads was first developed way back in September 2010, which seems like there should have been plenty of time to give the show some decent supporting characters and lay the groundwork for a little romance down the road. But for whatever reason, the series went ahead without either of these important elements - and now we're just watching two marvelous actresses struggle to rise above their sub-par material. I am rooting for Bunheads to succeed because with some major retooling I think it could become more than just a poor imitation of Gilmore Girls, which it is at the moment. So I'm giving it a grade of C, which I think is quite generous - but any series allowing me to spend time with Ms. Foster and Ms. Bishop on a weekly basis deserves better than a D.
Below you can watch Sutton Foster give a tour of the Bunheads set for Broadway.com.