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TV Tonight: Bunheads

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ABC Family

A decade ago, two of the most distinctive voices in TV belonged to writer-producers whose characters machine-gunned crisp dialogue at a blinding words-per-minute rate. Aaron Sorkin, with The West Wing, turned his verbal gymnastics to matters of state and politics. Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls, concerned herself with family, community and second chances. But her subject matter did not mean that Gilmore Girls, with its caffeinated brain and big fast-beating heart, wasn’t as excellent a show (if not better).*

This month, HBO debuts Sorkin’s The Newsroom, about media, politics, big issues. Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads debuts tonight on ABC Family, and it’s about ballet dancers. But if you write off Bunheads because it shows up in a leotard instead of a suit, you’ll be missing something special.

We begin with Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), a classically trained ballet dancer who, through a string of decisions that seemed easy and fun at the time, has ended up in a chorus line in Las Vegas, dancing backup to the showgirls who end the show by flashing their boobs (and who therefore get paid more). She already feels over the hill and running out of options, a feeling confirmed when she wrangles an audition for Chicago and gets told no before taking a step. “If a director can look at you and say no after three seconds,” she says, “it’s not ‘No’ cause you’re so young and hot, it’s ‘No’ ’cause you’re starting to look like an IHOP cashier.”

Michelle’s one potential escape route is Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), a businessman and persistent suitor who chastely courts her whenever he’s in town. MIchelle likes, and/or pities, Hubbell but doesn’t love him. But she goes out with him after the bombed Chicago audition, and too many drinks and one sweetly romantic gesture later, they’re married and driving off to his tiny hometown of Paradise, CA, a kind of Stars Hollow West.

There is, of course, trouble in Paradise, where Michelle discovers that Hubbell still lives with his mother, Fanny–played by Gilmore’s Kelly Bishop–an imperious, hovering matriarch who is surprised and none too pleased that Hubble has come home with a surprise. (You go off to Vegas on a business trip,  then you come back, hand me a Penn and Teller coffee mug and say, ‘By the way, I just got married’?”)

Hubbell, it turns out, isn’t quite the mama’s boy he first seems, insisting that Fanny accept his decision. Michelle is not quite the opportunist she first seems; she’s confused and a little desperate, but honest enough to admit, after sobering up, that she doesn’t love Hubbell–but that she might, someday. And Fanny proves to be not a complete ice queen; she and Michelle bond over dance, because, coincidence of coincidences, she’s a former ballet pro who runs the local dance studio.

That last connection introduces the other half of the story: the teen students of the studio, who bring down the average cast age to something more typical of an ABC Family show. Aspiring to be bunheads–pro ballet dancers, with their tightly wound hairdos–they see in Michelle as an exciting connection to the pro dance world instead of, as most of the rest of Paradise sees her, a golddigger. (“The stripper from Tahoe,” as the rumor mill has it.)

The premise is different from Gilmore but the theme of starting over, the snappy dialogue and the offbeat charm are very similar. (Foster, a Broadway veteran, is similar enough to the young Lauren Graham in her appearance and her sweetly sardonic tone that at one point in my notes I started referring to her as “Dance Lorelai.”) One very big caveat: the pilot closes on a twist–no spoilers here–that may send the show in a very different direction than most of the pilot sets you up to expect. It’s a bold move, but also one that makes it hard to endorse the show unconditionally.

That said, Bunheads is probably not the kind of show that is going to live or die on the basis of its plot. What matters is its voice, and the spring in its step, and its first hour was just so damn enjoyable that I’ll gladly season-pass this and see where the season takes it. Out of the gate, Bunheads has some impressive moves; I look forward to trying to keep up.

* Yes, I know: after I wrote this review Friday, but before it posted as scheduled today, Alan Sepinwall ran a review of Bunheads with essentially the same lede. I’m sticking with it anyway. Since we’re both talking about the return of two writers with very similar dialogue signatures, think of it as a metacommentary.

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