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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Dancing into the dark, 'Bunheads' gives a solid season finale

For shows awaiting a new season order, finales take on both an optimistic and ominous tone for viewers. This is particularly true in first seasons when creators throw everything but the kitchen sink used to prepare kinky breakfasts at the wall in hopes of acquiring an audience loyal enough to tune in week after week.

After finishing its debut season with Monday night’s finale, “Bunheads” finds itself stuck between a rock and the box of hard bananas Fanny uses for impromptu sex-education classes.

Garnering only around a million viewers per episode with lost viewership in ABC Family’s target audience of people under 34, Paradise Dance Academy may be shutting its condom-hiding, UGG-laden doors for good. However, the network hasn’t made any decisions on the show yet, so there’s still time to bask in the golden rays of Paradise.

Created by Amy-Sherman Palladino, “Bunheads” features her trademark light-speed banter and glut of cultural references she perfected on “Gilmore Girls.” The series is easily one of my favorite shows of all time, so Palladino’s new project quickly became appointment viewing.

In many ways, “Bunheads” is essentially a “Gilmore Girls” clone, with Sutton Foster playing Lorelai this time around, but Palladino’s new show has developed a distinct tone over the course of its freshman effort.

Michelle’s journey from Vegas showgirl to quick-witted widow became the primary storyline for the show’s initial episodes after Hubble, her day-long life partner,  died. This transformation gave viewers a chance to explore the dynamic between Michelle and Fanny, her eccentric dance teacher mother-in-law, while fleshing out the four dancers that the network really cares about.

The brilliance of “Bunheads” isn’t any complex storyline or twisting reveal (although ABC Family seems to think so based on the ludicrous teasers they put together) but instead its ability to make viewers lose themselves in its charm and mile a minute references.

People who complain about Palladino’s sharp writing are missing the point. For 50 minutes Paradise—awash with one-eyed plumbers, oblivious surfer bar owners, and only one type of mustard (Paradise has no need of fancy Grey Poupon)—becomes a living, breathing town I continually wish was real.

Yet for the remaining 10 minutes, this pleasurable escapism disappears faster than Bash with a bottle of champagne. Viewers are jolted back to reality as Michelle grapples with the surrogate mother role she never seems comfortable with.

This distinction helps set her apart from Lorelai, a woman prone to mistakes yet confident in her ideals. Michelle meanwhile remains stuck in limbo, slowly embracing her role as teacher but continuing to practice with her students, unable to let go of her childhood dreams.

In the season’s second half, Michelle’s back story became more fleshed out through her brother Scotty and troubled history with her mother. Although interesting, the more compelling moments with Michelle always come when Fanny (masterfully portrayed by Kelly Bishop) is back at the studio, an element that was sorely lacking in several recent episodes.

For all the praise “Bunheads” deserves, the weakest part of the show is the four main dancers: Ginny, Melanie, Boo and Sasha. I appreciated the departure from the “shock” moments that characterized so many of the first ten episodes, but it’s difficult to emotionally invest in any of these dancers when most of their group remains painfully underdeveloped.

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In the season finale there’s a sudden outburst about the group’s dynamic. I relished this moment of real emotion from a character that had remained fairly static over the past eight episodes, but their argument quickly dissipated and left the group back at status quo. Continual petulant teen fights aren’t necessary, but so far the show’s emotional and dramatic portions are better suited for the student-teacher relationships.

While dancing generally serves as background for the show, its implementation this season provided some of the show’s most poignant and dramatic moments. Whether it was the “Constantinople” tour de force or this latest episode’s distinct take on teenage sex, these performances take on an almost dreamlike state in their intensity.

Their explicit message is so obvious even a maced ballerina could see it, but their ability to punctuate an episode leaves an ambiguous tone over the dances’ true purpose.

I could ramble on for days about the hilarious dynamic between Milly and Truly Stone, or why I appreciate my local grocer more than ever, but it seems best to simply quote the illustrious magician Jo-Jo’s dazzling act: “You wanna see something?” Yes, more “Bunheads” please.

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