Monday, June 11, 2012

Bunheads, a review

This writing/blog/space/thing isn't usually for reviews, but since I have no way of contributing my critic's perspective to the world when I'm away from school and since the show Bunheads has just come on the air for the first time, clearly beckoning for my Gilmore Girls and Amy Sherman-Palladino-loving commentary, I've decided to make an unorthodox decision.

I don't think there's anything wrong with possessing perhaps a bit too much knowledge on the entertainment industry. Even before I got to school and started studying film and media studies, I'd already seen the featurettes and backstage secret special features on all of my DVDs enough to know terms like "DP" and "showrunner." Just yesterday, I was in conversation with my dad about Kristen Schaal and whether she was a "recurring character" or a "regular" on 30 Rock. My awareness of these terms gives me some undeserved pride, actually.

After one quarter in a class titled TV Reflexivity - which traced the amount of self-awareness in television from its inception through concepts like "breaking the fourth wall" (speaking to the camera) and "intertextuality" (when television references itself) - I've learned that perhaps I'm not the only person in this world so fascinated by the industry. Many people, through a purely self-motivated study, have come to know and explicate television jargon like a law student might learn terms like "subject-matter jurisdiction" and "mens rea" (these are terms I've, incidentally, learned from an entertainment source, namely Legally Blonde).

So even without this class, I've walked around with a more prideful knowledge of the world of television, and more specifically the world of Gilmore Girls, than the average person ought to have. And with that came a thorough and undying love for Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Palladino (I think this is how I should refer to her, though I'm not sure and I left my AP Style book in Illinois) is the creator, writer, executive producer, director and showrunner behind the world of Stars Hollow, a small town based loosely on Washington Depot, Connecticut. Stars Hollow is home to Lorelai Gilmore, a wealthy Hartfordite turned self-sufficient maid at the Independence Inn (in Stars Hollow) turned manager of the Independence Inn turned co-owner of the Dragonfly Inn (also in Stars Hollow). The story follows Lorelai and the daughter she is the single mother to, also named Lorelai but nicknamed 'Rory,' as well as other quirky inhabitants of the town of Stars Hollow.

Gilmore Girls was long characterized as a speedy, witty dramedy, as much known for its appeal to young girls and their mothers as for its intellectual dialogue and 52-page long scripts. What made the show so wonderful was how, despite it being pigeonholed by many less-than-enlightened viewers as being a show for a particular audience (namely young girls and their mothers), it managed to stay true to its fast-paced, quip-filled, intelligent themes. To this day I credit Gilmore Girls with making me a more worldly entertainment industry lover, and a better human overall.

From the Bunheads pilot. Photo from ABC Family.
So when a new show, Bunheads, was brought to the public's attention, obviously the stakes were set pretty high. Gilmore Girls was an almost faultless show (until showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and her well-involved husband Daniel Palladino left the show after the sixth season), providing audiences with high hopes that a new show with her brand might carry the same intellectual comedy as Gilmore had.

Could she pull it off?

If we're going for a single word answer to the question, then I'd have to go with yes.

From what I've seen, Bunheads has been met with relatively positive reviews. And by what I've seen, I mean what I've heard from friends. And by friends I mean one friend of mine who sent me a Facebook message after watching the show On Demand.

This unnamed viewer said the show was "okay, but not as good as Gilmore." And with that opinion, I must agree. After watching a single episode of the show, I admittedly found myself longing for more. My experience with Gilmore Girls began several years into the show, meaning I could watch the first few seasons on consecutive days as they had been syndicated on ABC Family. So I watched the show develop into something great almost instantaneously. Bunheads I'm watching on a weekly basis, a slow development that makes it harder to accept as readily as I did Gilmore.

Still, I find myself interested in the story - not only because it had good plot and character development, but also because of all the cameos by Gilmore favorites (including Rose Abdoo who played Gypsy, Alex Borstein who played Drella and Miss Celine and obviously Kelly Bishop who played Emily Gilmore). I half expected Sean Gunn (who played Kirk Gleeson on Gilmore) to jump out of the woodwork and start performing his "The Journey of Man". Among the in-references for Gilmore Girls fans were musical interludes by Sam Phillips as well, with the quintessential "La-La's."

But beyond watching this show for its Gilmore tributes, it was an interesting experience to see the first insight into a new world of Palladino's creation. Stars Hollow was something entirely fascinating and unique, and even in the first episode of Gilmore Girls it was not what it would come to be throughout the seven-season run. As the show developed, the characters did too, and as they changed Stars Hollow became all the more dynamic.

You can already sense hints of this in Bunheads, a show which takes place in the fictional California oceanside town of Paradise, where Michelle Simms (the amazing Broadway darling Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl, is now set to live with her avid fan and new husband, a wealthy bachelor from the coast named Hubbell Flowers, and his mother Fanny (Bishop).

Paradise is shown to us not in as wide a scope as Stars Hollow, which was filmed at the Warner Bros. Studio backlot (on the same set where The Music Man was filmed in 1962), but rather on location in Hermosa Beach with filming locations outfitted in a rustic fashion like the Sparkles clothing boutique. The atmosphere, with characters gathering for house parties and dance rehearsals in wonderfully homey sets, makes the community-oriented Stars Hollow-syness quite evident.

But this show is no direct copycat of Gilmore Girls as far as I can see. Yes, it may have producer Helen Pai rolling in the credits and several Gilmore Girl episode Director Kenny Ortega on board, but the story is no replication of the previous Palladino incarnation.

Unlike Lorelai Gilmore who seemed to have much of her life on track and had no interest in allowing others to meddle in her business (i.e. her hesitation in allowing her wealthy parents to pay for Rory's private school education), Michelle Simms is a character in need of an intervention. She wants help from others, which is why she allows Hubbell Flowers to take her to Paradise in the first place.

Lorelai's story in Stars Hollow was, to some extent, a tale of growth and development. Her various relationships and the development of her romance with Luke Danes and Rory's father Christopher Hayden, as well as the on-and-off estrangement between Lorelai and her parents, were constantly evolving interactions. And of course, Rory went from mid-teenagehood to young adulthood, which made for her own dynamic storyline separate from Lorelai's.

But if Bunheads continues on for several seasons to come - and based on its first episode it would likely benefit from a longer run - we are sure to see an intrepid path develop for Michelle. What has been established in this pilot is that there is potential for greatness in her, and though she believes her age might hold her back as a professional dancer, her spirit certainly won't.

It's an interesting topic worth exploring.

And aside from that, the character list as a whole that Amy Sherman-Palladino creates in her television programs is a testament to the greatness of female acting. Whereas other shows on ABC Family like The Secret Life of the American Teenager or Pretty Little Liars might cater to a catty notion of teenagers, Palladino shows an alternative view of life that assumes more of her characters. More intelligence, more strength, more sass, more feminism.

Even for those who can't embrace this show for its roots, those heathens who never gave Gilmore Girls a fighting chance because they mixed up the program with The Golden Girls (and also refused to watch sitcoms about elderly women), and even for those who won't take a second glance at a show on ABC Family, there's something about Bunheads that is just asking to be embraced and explored: the smarts.

Like anything Amy Sherman-Palladino touches, Bunheads seems to be destined for golden wit and comedy. If anyone is worth knowing for her King Midas capabilities, it's Palladino. And although TV Reflexivity classes may shun her work as mere fodder for the teeny bopper set, there's strength in her work, in her characters and in her potential.

So watch out for Bunheads. Where Palladino leads, millions of viewers follow.

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