Bunheads: Bumps in the Private Road

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Bunheads S01E03: "Inherit the Wind"

A show like Bunheads is bound to have some growing pains: From the get-go, the basic conceit seemed flimsy, at best, not to mention difficult to sustain. But I was so charmed by the writing and the cast of this series, I kind of pushed any shortcomings out of my head. Amy Sherman-Palladino would find a way to make this work, and I could deal with the bumps in the road when I came to them.

Those bumps came sooner than I thought, in an episode that felt a little forced. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still smitten with Bunheads—but I’m a bit more nervous about the series going forward. There’s plenty to love about the show, and we’re only three episodes in, so I’m far from checking out. I’m just wondering if anyone else felt slightly less enthused by “Inherit the Wind.”

The episode wasn't bad, but it did raise a few flags. For instance, I love how insufferable Fanny is. It’s rare for a character to be that stubborn, that impossible to reason with, and not have the audience want to throttle her. But that’s one of Kelly Bishop’s gifts—no matter how frustrating Fanny is, we still kind of like her. The scenes between Bishop and Sutton Foster are great because the two play off each other perfectly, whether they’re fighting or dancing or sharing a rare calm moment. I’d watch an entire show devoted to just that.

But alas, a series is more than just one-on-ones between its two main characters; it has to be. And I do appreciate the way Bunheads continues to build on itself. Last week, the town of Paradise expanded, as we got to know a few more supporting oddballs. This week, we learned that Michelle’s inheritance is a whole seven acres of land—a daunting prospect for anyone, let alone a person who has never owned anything in her life. Did she really not know what a septic tank was?

Growth is a natural and essential process for any new series, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. And indeed, while there was plenty to latch onto in "Inherit the Wind," there were some bits that didn’t work for me. They didn’t ruin the whole hour, but they’re central enough to the show that I’m feeling some concern over where the series is headed next.

Here’s the thing: Bunheads is a fish-out-of-water story about a Las Vegas showgirl who ends up teaching ballet in a small town. But it’s also a story about the young ballet dancers she teaches. This is an ABC Family series, which means a focus on the girls is inevitable—even though, as I said after the pilot, they’re not the most compelling characters. I have nothing against them, and Boo in particular has potential, but they’re nowhere near as well-drawn as Michelle or Fanny. I don’t miss any of them when they’re not on screen.

“Inherit the Wind” gave us even more of the four girls, and some stories worked better than others. Boo’s crush on Melanie’s brother Charlie is cute enough. And again, Boo is the most interesting so far, so I’m more enthusiastic about her than I am about the others. I also enjoyed the girls participating in a contest to see which dancers have the grossest feet; as tangential as this was to the episode, it was just the right amount of kooky. Sherman-Palladino does weirdness well.

What didn’t work for me was Sasha’s estrangement from her friends and her troubled home life. I don’t know Sasha well enough yet to really care about her, and nothing about the story makes me want to get to know her further. It’s just so trite: problems at home make her lash out at her friends, her mom is too busy for her and her dad is always out, she puts all her focus into dancing. I recognize these tropes, all of which I kind of expect from a show like Bunheads, but it’s a lot to deal with so soon.

I guess what I’m saying is, I need to get to know these characters before I can invest in them. As it stands, the girls mostly just remind me that I’m missing out on scenes with Michelle and Fanny. Add to that the sort of obvious tween-drama subject matter, and I’m left wondering just how much of Bunheads they're going to be.

At the same time, the Sasha stuff put a damper on the entire second half of the episode—switching between the kids and the adults suddenly felt clunkier. This isn’t unsolvable: Bunheads just needs to find a way to blend its storylines better, or to make them both so interesting that we hardly notice the back-and-forth. Otherwise, it starts to feel a little all over the place, and even Sutton Foster’s charm can be spread too thin.


QUESTIONS:

1. How can Bunheads find the right balance between the adults and the kids?

2. Mysterious rich-guy Grant: possible love interest for Fanny, or am I too concerned with pairing characters off?

3. Did you feel sympathy for Sasha, or were you also a little bored by her storyline?

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