The smart-aleck heroine at the center of ABC Family’s new dance drama Bunheads isn’t a mess — though she sure thinks she is. She has, however, messed up several times over.
In the show’s pilot episode, Michelle (Sutton Foster) reveals that she let a promising dance career slip away, gradually sliding from the American Ballet Academy to the life of a jaded Las Vegas showgirl. She lives in a bare apartment with a broken air conditioner and a fridge containing precisely one six-pack of beer.
That’s Mess #1.
Mess #2 happens when Michelle is summarily dismissed from a Chicago audition that she’d hoped would be the start of a comeback. Fearing that she’s over the hill, she opts for a different kind of overhaul. Thanks to a perfect storm of desperation, martinis, and the kindness of a mild-mannered yet ardent suitor named Hubble, she marries a practical stranger. The next morning, she wakes up in the passenger seat of a car bound for the sleepy coastal town of Paradise, California. She ogles her wedding ring, stares open-mouthed at Hubble, and falls back asleep.
As a sucker for heroines who make big mistakes and live through them, I’m already pretty much set to love Michelle without reserves. As played with screwball-comedy jauntiness by Broadway darling Foster, she’s a complicated woman: brittle, warm, goofy, disappointed. She’s willed herself into tailspin for most of her life, using parties and drinks and easy laughs to muffle the nagging doubts that clip at her heels.
“You’ve squandered a lot of potential,” her new mother-in-law tells her. She’s a former professional dancer herself, so she knows what she’s talking about.
“I know,” Michelle says.
“Are you sorry?”
“Every day of my life.”
It’s rare to see that kind of career regret play out for a woman onscreen. Whereas male characters frequently cope with Willy Loman-levels of despair, echoes of “I coulda been a contender” looping through their brains, female characters are more likely to moon Miss Havisham-style over lost beaus. But men hardly have exclusive rights to professional ambition, or to the fierce dissatisfaction that can tear people up when they ponder the opportunities they’ve lost.
Of course, there are exceptions. Mama Rose, for example — one of my favorite fictional characters of all time — takes barely suppressed regret to grand heights in Gypsy. And in the dearly departed Gilmore Girls, Lorelai Gilmore had a poignant sense of herself as a screw-up, despite all that she’d achieved as a young single mom and bed and breakfast manager (and eventual owner).
It makes sense that Michelle follows in Lorelai’s tough yet rueful footsteps, since both characters are the creations of showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino. Bunheads has plenty of other characteristics in common with Gilmore Girls as well, from quirky small-town characters to guitar-strumming interludes to the excellent Kelly Bishop.
Bishop plays Fanny, the aforementioned mother-in-law, former dancer with the Ballet Russe, and current owner of Paradise’s only ballet school. She’s tart and self-possessed, but she has regrets of her own. That means that she both relates to Michelle and is wary of her: they’re locked into a fragile pas de deux. Rounding out the cast are four teenagers at the ballet school. There’s frustrated, sharp-tongued Sasha; bouncy and self-conscious Boo; sarcastic Ginny, who worries she’ll grow up to be just like her real estate broker mother; and Melanie. (I can’t tell what Melanie is like yet.)
If you’ve detected a theme running through these character descriptions, so have I. All the women of Bunheads are reaching for something, even if they can’t quite articulate what, and all of them fear that they’re never going to get it. What better force to unite them than ballet, a ruthless discipline that demands devotion and perfectionism? It can be unforgiving even to the most dedicated. Through dance, the women bump up against one another’s ambitions and insecurities — and when they lose themselves to music and movement, they get to break free of them too.
It’s wonderful to see a new show focusing on the relationships between complex female characters, and with witty writing and a talented cast, Bunheads has a ton of potential. But as Shonda Rhimes pointed out on Twitter, the show suffers from a lack of diversity. All of the main characters — heck, all of the secondary characters as well — appear to be white. If Bunheads is serious about exploring how different kinds of women come together, and it seems to be, it should get serious about representing women who look different from each other too.