The worst thing about summer for television addicts like myself is that we are forced to lower our standards. Unless you’re a fan of reality television (in which case I will try not to judge you too harshly), it is incredibly hard to find quality shows to watch. Yes, there are the rare gems out there. I adore Weeds and have very high hopes for The Newsroom (what’s not to love about Aaron Sorkin?). True Blood is always great fun. But to go from having 30 television shows I follow on a weekly basis to only three or four in first-run episodes is a bit of a shock to my system. Which is why I was so thrilled when I heard about Bunheads on ABC Family.
Every now and then, a truly great television writer comes along with a brilliant series. Aaron Sorkin with The West Wing, Rob Thomas with Veronica Mars, and Jason Katims with Friday Night Lights are my top three of all time. The real test of a writer, though, is when they can create more than one quality series. Sorkin had Sports Night and Studio 60, Thomas had Party Down, and Katims still has Parenthood. So many writers, though, turn out to be one-hit wonders.
Another one of my favorite series of the past ten years was Gilmore Girls, written by the brilliant Amy Sherman-Palladino. Since she ended her affiliation with the show in 2006, she hasn’t really had a whole lot of new stuff going on. She had The Return of Jezebel James in 2008, but that lasted roughly seven episodes. That doesn’t necessarily mean a show is bad, though. I never watched it because it didn’t intrigue me all that much. When I heard that Sherman-Palladino was coming back again, though, I got so excited for a chance to get another glimpse into her mind.
Gilmore Girls was known for being a really heartwarming dramedy about a mother-daughter relationship, but also having quick-witted, comedic exchanges between the characters. People always commented on fast the characters talked. The writing had tons of pop culture references that alternated between really obvious and incredibly obscure. It was such intelligent writing. Lauren Graham was an absolute rock star as Lorelai Gilmore. It had five really great seasons and two sub-par ones. So, any chance to get a brilliant writer back on television is fantastic.
Bunheads is about Michelle (Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl who moves to Paradise after a quickie marriage to Hubbel (Alan Ruck). Paradise is full of wacky characters and Michelle clashes with Hubbel’s mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop), who runs a ballet studio in town. At the end of the first episode, tragedy hits and Michelle and Fanny are forced to try to work together. There are four teenage girls who attend classes at Fanny’s studio and seem to want to become professional ballerinas (or “bunheads,” as per the series title). In the first two episodes (which are all that have aired), the ballet part of the story is really subordinate to the relationship between Michelle and Fanny.
It’s not that this series is bad. It is witty and the characters are likable enough. It’s just that it is almost an exact replica of Gilmore Girls. During both episodes that have aired, I find myself going through this intense sense of deja vu. In the pilot, Michelle has no other clothes in Paradise and has to spend the day wearing a T-shirt, jean shorts, and high-tops, which nearly everyone who meets her points out. In the second episode of the first season of Gilmore Girls, all of Lorelai’s professional clothes are at the dry cleaners and she is forced to take Rory to her first day at Chilton wearing a bright pink T-shirt, jean shorts, and cowboy boots. While the outfits weren’t identical, the way they were used was.
In Gilmore Girls, Kelly Bishop plays Emily Gilmore, a Connecticut socialite who is all about her image and how she appears to society. Although Fanny is very much a free spirit, she has so many Emily-like tendencies, which is probably just because both roles are played by Bishop. It’s going to take a while before I can separate the two roles in my mind.
Both shows feature small towns with wacky names (Stars Hollow, Paradise). Both shows have “townies,” who are the wacky characters that populate the town. Since there is very little to do in either town, both shows feature lots of town gatherings (the constant festivals on Gilmore Girls, the “welcome party” and memorial service on Bunheads). Both shows have free-spirited, older women running a dance studio that is at the center of town. The soundtracks are similar, particularly in the pilot episode of Bunheads. Both shows feature main characters who have some sort of characteristic that is looked down upon by mainstream society (Lorelai was a teen mother, Michelle is a Vegas showgirl). Both shows feature a mixture of political and pop culture references. These are just comparisons from the first two episodes.
Over the rest of the season, Bunheads really has to try to separate itself from Gilmore Girls. That’s not going to be easy with so many GG actors making appearances on the show. The next few episodes are going to be the real test for ASP. If all she can do is quirky, small-town dramedies, then I might as well skip Bunheads and just watch my GG DVDs. She needs to step up and try to find an identity for Bunheads. It has potential, if only ASP would stop falling back on things that worked on Gilmore Girls. It’s time to figure out what works for Bunheads.