“Bunheads” (8 p.m. Central Mondays on ABC Family starting June 11, with the first episode online now) is refreshingly familiar for “Gilmore Girls” fans in that executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino brings back the la-la-la background music, the quirky small town and the rapid-fire, witty exchanges. I’ll definitely be coming back for more, but the first episode is also slightly darker and weirder than “Gilmore Girls.”
Eventually, the pilot episode gets to the point where the series’ stage is set: Michelle (Sutton Foster, a stage actress who makes an effortless transition to the screen) is a former Las Vegas showgirl who takes a job as a teacher at a ballet school in the no-movie-theater town of Paradise, California.
But in getting to that point, “Bunheads” is more bizarre than believably quirky. A traveling shoe salesman by the unlikely name of Hubble determinedly keeps asking Michelle out. Frustrated after being turned down for “Chicago” for being too old, she not only gives in, but she marries him. Michelle’s behavior maybe works on the page, but not on the screen, where she seems to be following a script rather than her heart. And although I want to like the self-centered, self-pitying Michelle as much as Hubble does, I can’t, at least not based on what we’ve seen so far. Lorelai Gilmore she is not. (Still, I’m confident I’ll like Michelle more as the show moves forward.)
Eventually, if “Bunheads” becomes a great series, we’ll look back on the first half-hour and think “That was weird.” The next half-hour finally introduces the young ballet dancers, and the pilot’s best scene finds Michelle showing them how an audition works, getting them to use fun, modern dance moves rather than stiff ballet positions. One girl looks kind of like Alexis Bledel, which can’t be a coincidence; she’s the one that doesn’t love ballet, but it comes easily to her. Another girl has a heftier build that hurts her chances of winning roles, but she loves ballet. A couple other characters aren’t really developed yet. Overall, they are a likable group of kids worth rooting for; not as drama-oriented and overly sensitive as, say, the girls on “Make It or Break It.”
Stacey Oristano (Mindy Riggins from “Friday Night Lights”) is on board as Truly, a dress designer who is Michelle’s a rival for Hubble’s affections. This being a Sherman-Palladino show, Truly politely helps Michelle pick out a great outfit for her wedding reception even as she openly cries about losing Hubble. Also returning to TV is Kelly Bishop (Emily Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls”) as ballet studio director Fanny. (I had to look up her character’s name on IMDB. She’s still Emily to me.) Fanny isn’t as abrasive as Emily; she takes a fairly quick liking to Michelle.
Although not every moment of the pilot rings true and “Bunheads” doesn’t have the instant lovability of “Gilmore Girls,” there’s still a lot to like. And it’s a nice feat by Sherman-Palladino that she captures the feel of her trademark series yet doesn’t repeat any of the plot or themes; she’s trying something new, not reliving past glories. I look forward to exploring Paradise more, seeing Michelle find a purpose in her life, and following the four girls through their trails and tribulations.
What were your thoughts on the first episode of “Bunheads?” Will you be back for more?