Thursday, August 02, 2012

TV Series Review: Bunheads

Watching Bunheads is a lot like mistaking someone on the street for a friend.  You catch site of a woman down the block and say, is that Susan? You get closer. It looks a lot like her, but isn’t the hair a little shorter? Would she wear that hat? You get closer still. No, that’s not her. Pretty definitely not. Then you yell out “SUSAN!” to see if she turns around.

From a distance, Bunheads is The Gilmore Girls. Both shows were created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, so they unsurprisingly have her trademark sharp, witty dialogue and quirky, engaging characters.  But it goes beyond that. Sutton Foster, who plays a Vegas showgirl transplanted to a small Californian town called Paradise, bears a notable resemblance to Lauren Graham, who played Lorelei Gilmore. They even have similar voices. Kelly Bishop, who played Emily Gilmore, shows up as Foster’s mother-in-law, while the spunky daughter of the old show has been supplanted by a quartet of teen dancers in the new one (one sweet and unsure, one prickly and arrogant, two generic).

At times, the series seems to just be Gilmore Girls with some dance numbers thrown in.

Bunheads began oddly, with Michelle, a dispirited Vegas showgirl, drunkenly agreeing to marry a gift-giving admirer she never particularly liked. He takes her to Paradise, where it turns out he lives with his mom and her gaudy tchotchkes. While we are assured over and over that this guy is a really, really nice guy, one can’t help thinking that a nebishy man becoming obsessed with a showgirl and luring her to the oddly decorated home he shares with his mother would make a good foundation for a horror movie.

If you don’t like the premiere episode’s premise don’t worry about it, because it has pretty much nothing to do with the series itself, which turns out to be about the relationship between Michelle, her ballet-teaching mother-in-law Fanny, and four of Fanny’s students.

Like Gilmore Girls, Bunheads is mainly about relationships. A big difference between the two shows is that while Lorelei was comfortably ensconced in a world of friends and family, Michelle finds herself dropped unceremoniously into a town of strangers; one of the first townspeople she meets is her new husband’s hostile, fiercely disappointed ex. While Lorelei always seemed to have a strong idea of where she was going in life, Michelle is lost and scattered, and while the series is developing its plot points slowly, it appears to be a show about someone finding her place in the world. It’s a journey that is looking to be filled with missteps and confusion.

While you can easily discover differences between Sherman-Palladino’s two pretty-lady-in-a-small-town series, these are less obvious than the similarities. And that’s fine with me. After contract negotiations fell through, Sherman-Palladino left The Gilmore Girls, leaving the final season in other hands. If Bunheads is like your friend’s doppelganger, the last season of Gilmore Girls was like the mother at the beginning of Invasion of the Body Snatchers whose son insists that, even though she looks like his mom and has her memories, she isn’t his mother. That last season was disturbing, with a Lorelei Gilmore who had the look but had lost the spirit of the woman I had loved so much that I could never decide if I wanted her more as my girlfriend or my mom.

For me, Bunheads is the sorely missed Gilmore Girls come back to life. If I may indulge myself in one more comparison, it is like losing a loved one, and, years later, having her knock on your door and say, it was all a mistake, I never really died. And even though her hair is different, she’s wearing glasses and she walks with a limp, you’d still recognize her anywhere.

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls, welcome back.

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