Let’s just get this out in the open: I’m a Gilmore Girls fan. My mom and I watched every episode together from the beginning to the very end, and while the final season certainly showed the loss of creator/showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, the previous six seasons under her control overshadow any lingering disappointment.
Six years after the end of her Gilmore Girls days, Sherman-Palladino returns to television with Bunheads, a series that bears striking similarities to and startling differences from our beloved Stars Hollow. Our protagonist, Michelle (Sutton Foster), is a professional dancer stuck in a dead end Vegas showgirl job. Dissatisfied with Vegas but unable to even land an audition for something else, Michelle is feeling pretty low when her “suitor” Hubbell (Alan Ruck) shows up with flowers and a dinner invitation. She’s blown him off repeatedly, but this time she’s in the mood for a free meal, an ego boost, and a lot of booze.
Hubbell is a gentle sort. A businessman in his 40′s who sees Michelle for who she really is, and loves her anyway. Sensing that she might be open to a change, Hubbell tells her about his idyllic hometown on the coast, Paradise, CA, and before she knows it, Michelle is married and headed for Paradise.
This being an Amy Sherman-Palladino series, Paradise isn’t quite what Michelle imagined. First of all, there’s the mother-in-law. Fanny, played by Gilmore-alum Kelly Bishop, is a former professional dancer herself and now runs the local dance studio where she trains future bunheads for stardom. Or at least provides something for the town’s teen girls to do now that the movie theater has closed. Fanny is an intriguing character. Rather than reprise her Gilmore role, Bishop keeps some of the East coast hauteur that Lorelai despised but tempers it with genuine warmth and humor. Fanny is formidable, but not unlikable. The first episode hints at a woman who has overcome many obstacles to create success for herself and her son, but who isn’t inflexible. And has hilarious taste in interior design. She’s not happy about Hubbell’s impromptu marriage, but by the end of the episode, she’s ready to try befriending Michelle for his sake.
Although they don’t have a lot of screen time in this first episode, we do meet the ballet students who will presumably be a major focus as the series progresses. These four girls – Boo, Sasha, Melanie, and Ginny – are classmates in Fanny’s dance studio, but it’s not all montages and warm fuzzies with this group. Right away we are privy to competitiveness, body issues, discontent, family problems, and more. Michelle stumbles on them after escaping her own wedding reception and quickly starts to bond with the girls, especially Boo. She obviously sees herself in their faces, in their hopes and dreams.
Bunheads begins from a much more cynical place than one would expect from the woman who delighted in writing small town festival scenes centered around a gazebo. Michelle’s life in Las Vegas is just a couple of notches above hardscrabble and her quiet desperation is palpable. When Hubbell offers her a new life with him, her acceptance is a little cringeworthy. Sure, he’s a nice guy and she needs to make a change, but her decision is so obviously based on fear and unhappiness that I couldn’t quite see it as either hopeful or romantic.
Fortunately small towns heal us, or at least they do in Sherman-Palladino’s world. Filled with quirky characters, including a couple of familiar faces from Stars Hollow, Paradise certainly has the potential to give Michelle what she really wants out of life. Hubbell turns out to be gentle, sensitive, understanding, and yet surprisingly firm and even sexy. Their marriage was spontaneous, but might have been the best thing that ever happened to Michelle. However, when tragedy strikes and Michelle’s future is suddenly uncertain, it will be Fanny and the bunheads who help her not just go on but find her place in Paradise.
Bunheads premieres Monday, June 11 at 9/8c on ABC Family.