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"Bunheads" And Its Movie-Referencing Siblings

[Editor's Note: I keep forgetting to write about Bunheads so my friend Susan offered to step in. We both watch the show religiously so here's Susan with a take I mostly agree with -- if enough of you are watching we'll discuss again. I love the show.]

Sutton Foster in "Bunheads"

Up until this past summer, I had never watched a show on ABC Family. Not that I have anything against ABC . Or families. But thanks to Sutton Foster, I decided to give Bunheads a try. While the show’s rapid-fire, pop culture infused dialogue can sometimes be more exhausting than exhilarating; I’ve come to appreciate its rhythms and strongly beating heart. Those beats are familiar to fans of Amy Sherman-Palladino, who previously created the much-loved Gilmore Girls

I come to Bunheads as a virtual Sherman-Palladino virgin, bringing my appreciation for Foster and not much else. In some ways, I think that’s a good thing. I don’t watch Bunheads through a “this is like Gilmore Girls, this is different; this is better, this is worse” prism. Foster’s character, former showgirl Michelle Simms, is not Lorelai Gilmore-light to me, even if she does share some (fast-talking) characteristics with that previous Sherman-Palladino creation. 

As a newbie to the Sherman-Palladino-verse, I welcome insight from those who are more familiar with it or from those of you who are fans of Foster, Sherman-Palladino or the show [More after the jump including the show's love of movie references]

Hunter Foster guest stars on "Bunheads" starring his real life two-time Tony winning sister.

Rather than a full plot re-hash, I’ll touch on aspects of the show and/or episode that stand out for me. Thanks to Nathaniel, for giving me this platform to share my take. 

Last week on Bunheads... “The Astronaut and the Ballerina,” serves as a family reunion for Foster as her real life brother, Hunter Foster (also a Broadway regular), who plays her fictional one, Scotty. This is more than just cute, stunt casting. While a lot of their interaction – especially early in the episode – is played for laughs, the visiting character also helps to peel back some of Michelle’s layers. Not everything revealed is pretty, as Scotty challenges the relative comfort zone that Michelle has found in Paradise. She’s clearly threatened by Scotty’s infringement on the more serious, dance instructor life that she’s starting to build for herself. Scotty watches her teach and then tells her students about Michelle’s youthful disdain for her own ballet teacher (she was inspired to sabotage said teacher after watching Margaret O’Brien destroy Cyd Charisse in the ballet melodrama, The Unfinished Dance, 1948).  Later, she accuses him of undermining her authority with jokes. It’s not surprising that this sets her off, given her own habit of using humor to deflect emotional honesty.  

The interplay between them reveals how raw those familial nerves can be, and how hard it is to truly escape who you are and where you come from. In terms of hitting those tough emotional chords, Sutton Foster is impressive here. She’s obviously a deft comedian, but Bunheads also displays her dramatic abilities. The fact that they are real siblings and that I love both performers separately – I’ve had a chance to see each headline shows on Broadway – makes the discord between them more palatable to me. Hunter is a great addition to the cast—I hope he sticks around for at least a few more episodes.

Michelle’s storyline in the episode (and really, on the show), explores the idea of dreams and expectations (astronaut and ballerina) versus reality. It’s something each of the younger characters deals with as well, as they struggle to figure out who they are, who they want to be and who they don’t want to be. Melanie (Emma Dumont) tentatively ventures into the roller derby arena in order to carve out an identity beyond what her family and friends expect. Ginny (Bailey Buntain) fears she’s destined to be crazy like her mom. Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) literally turns into her mom, as she and boyfriend Carl are breaking under the strain of having to watch her younger siblings. While Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) takes the week off, her parental and identity issues have been well established. At the core of each conflict is personal identity and family – whether blood relations, like Ginny and her mom, or created bonds, like Ginny and Melanie. 

What I’m loving…

Melanie. She’s probably the most well adjusted of the bunch (and seems to have the best family life), but that doesn’t make her dull. Of course, the roller derby stuff is a little ridiculous. What ballet dancer would dare risk the injury? However, it's well played by Dumont, who makes an adorable, swanlike figure in her derby getup. She looks like she's having fun.

Reference of the Week…

So many to choose from, but I’ll go with Scotty’s Milton reference, “Paradise Lost … and found.” It fits perfectly with the overall themes of the episode too, as both the younger and older characters are searching…

Musical interlude/film clip…

The Foster siblings’ melancholy take on “Tonight You Belong to Me,” a nod to Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk, helps cap the episode while shedding further light on their relationship. They use it to move past their blow-up in a way that reminded me of how my sister and I used to diffuse our own arguments, by simply sharing space and not even bringing up the tiff. There’s a lot of love and history in the scene – no dialog needed.

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Reader Comments (14)

Tonight's ep is "Take The Vicuna" which is from...where?
tick, tick, tick..
(I directed it -so I know)

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Eigeman

Chris -- happy to know you directed it. Any chance your character comes back or was this a one night stand thing ;)

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Absolutely love this show. I was a major Gilmore Girls fan but until reading your article it didn't dawn on me that it was the same writers as I had followed Sutton Foster to the show . It amounts to getting a double dose of fandom good stuff. You do have to pay attention, but that is one of its unique and delightful charms in a sea of TV mediocrity.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Wait, Chris Eigeman reads this blog? Love your work! I fail the vicuna challenge, though.

Enjoyed "Bunheads" from the start but it really seems to be a more confident show since the season break. Glad to have Palladino vibe/voice/style back on TV, there's really nothing else like it.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDS

Chris -- Thanks for commenting. I'm a fan, so now I'm even more excited for tonight's episode. I admit I didn't get the reference, but my husband says it could be from The Godfather, "leave the gun, take the cannoli."

Jamie -- you do have to pay attention. I didn't even try to list all of last week's references (like the Casablanca dialog between Michelle and Godot) in my write-up. I'm sure I miss plenty of them on a weekly basis!

DS -- I agree, the show has definitely come back strong since the summer episodes. I also loved it then, but the characters and Paradise just feel more organic and real now. Maybe it's because Michelle is finally "settled" there (as much as she can be)?

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

Hi Susan! Really nice post.

(it's from "suset blvd")

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Eigeman

Thanks, Chris. And thanks for the clarification. Been a long time since I've seen Sunset Blvd and I never would have guessed that reference.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

So many tv shows use pop cultural references in lieu of meaningful dialogue or narrative progression. Yes, Sherman-Palladino has perfected the rapid-fire dialogue, but I love her shows because, among many other reasons, they pack an emotional wallop. It's kind of similar to Wes Anderson--call it charming, quirky, and quaint at your own peril.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

This was one of my favourite episodes of the show (and no mean feat considering both Fanny and Sasha were absent). The Foster reunion was great, no doubt, but I especially loved Bailey Buntain's work this episode - the Mel Brooks mention in her manic monologue was so well placed and it's the use of pop culture things in ways which enhance character issues that makes this show so wonderful to watch.

But, yeah, "Tonight You Belong to Me" basically slayed me.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Very nice write-up, Susan. I, too, am a "Gilmore Girls" virgin, but I had to try "Bunheads" because ballet school + Sutton Foster = you must see this. I've really enjoyed the run of the show, but this episode was a real standout -- the first truly great one, I think. I loved the shorthand between the siblings, with them running from hot to cold so fast because they knew each other so well. And, as Andrew pointed out, there is the sheet brilliance of "Tonight, You Belong to Me."

And thanks, Chris, for your posts. My husband and I are crazy fans of "Last Days of Disco." I'm so looking forward to your episode tonight.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Yes! "Take the vicuna" is from Sunset Blvd. I know this because when I first saw it, I had no idea what vicuna was and had to look it up later.

I tried to watch Gilmore Girls, and it really is the kind of show I should love, but I couldn't get much further than a few episodes into season one before I got tired of it. Bunheads, however, I adore. And I got ever so excited when Hunter Foster showed up in this episode. (I tried to explain to my friends and family how exciting this was for me, but since none of them are musical theater nerds except for me, they didn't get it.)

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHannah M

Ironically I don't watch Bunheads but I'm here to encourage you to watch Gilmore Girls -- amazing show and incredibly rife with pop culture references. I swear it contributed to a great deal of my own pop culture education growing up. I could probably re-watch Gilmore Girls when I'm 80 and find references to old movies, actors, and actresses that I didn't recognize in my teens.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I find Bunheads a bit too manic at times but it wins me over because it just isn't like anything else on TV right now. I also have never been crazy about ballet and the show hasn't changed my mind about that. But the cast is winning and I thought the brother-sister episode was a delight.

The only show I watched before on ABC Family was Greek, which was refreshingly sweet.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

I bought a season pass to Bunheads in iTunes on a lark, really. Having never heard of Sutton Foster and not being a big fan of dance (and, like others, not having watched ABC Family at all) I'm not sure why, but it was one of the best decisions I made in 2011. Her playing and singing Tonight You Belong To Me with her real-life and TV brother made me buy a ukulele with the intention of adding and completing another 'bucket list' item -- learning to play two ukulele songs (Tonight You Belong To Me and Somewhere Over The Rainbow, as made famous by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) to sing to my grandchildren.

It's become a must-watch program for me. And having bought them, I can enjoy the entire series over and over.

February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Wilkinson

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