Press Tour: ‘Bunheads’ talks fast, plots slowly, and is better for it

ABC Family’s “Bunheads” is a show that many critics (myself included) felt took a while to find itself in its initial summer run. But when the dramedy about a showgirl (Tony winner Sutton Foster) who becomes a dance teacher in a small California beach town returned with new episodes on Monday, it had very clearly figured itself out. There was a very strong balance between comedy and drama, and between Foster and her younger co-stars – who seemed like afterthoughts way back in the pilot.

When the cast and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino came to press tour(*) this morning to discuss the show, all acknowledged that there was something of a learning curve.

(*) The very fact that ABC bothered to devote a panel to the show was a hopeful sign, given that the ratings haven’t been great and the show seems only tangentially tied to the channel’s brand. If they were willing to spend money and time on having a panel, it suggests “Bunheads” hasn’t been written off just yet – which it shouldn’t, given how good it is.  

Casting Foster as Michelle was easy – and Sherman-Palladino quipped that “I’m never working with anyone but Sutton Foster for the rest of my life. Once you work with Foster, everyone else is going to disappoint you. There literally is nothing she can’t do.” – but finding four young actresses who could both convincingly dance and deliver Sherman-Palladino’s rat-a-tat dialogue was much harder. She had four basic types in mind, and there were so few actresses who both fit those types and could dance that she wound up with essentially only one choice for each role.

“These four girls were the four girls,” Sherman-Palladino said. “Then you have to adjust to the fact that I’ve got four girls who are new to speaking 77 pages of dialogue in 7 days… It was really sort of boot camp for the first time.”

In time, she would realize that, “‘Oh, Bailey (Buntain) can turn a joke like that! Let’s give Bailey a joke!’ And that just makes me throw more and more stuff at ’em. I got lucky. I got lucky on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ and I got lucky here. If I didn’t find the people who are basically on the stage right now, then ‘Bunheads’ would’ve been, ‘Ah, just have a cocktail and call it a day.'”

It was an even bigger adjustment for the actresses.

“I was a really big fan of ‘Gilmore Girls,’ so I was used to hearing that style,” said Bailey Buntain (the blonde bunhead). “I was really excited to try and tackle that, but pretty much for the first 10 (episodes), I wrote in big letters across all my scripts, ‘PACE AND VOLUME! PACE AND VOLUME!’ Because I was used to being yelled at – in a loving way.”

Julia Goldani Telles recalled that Sherman-Palladino would often tell her, “‘Julia, just talk in a human language.’ Also, it’s important to breathe or else you die.”

“I will say that these four young ladies almost talk too fast sometimes,” said Sherman-Palladino. “And I’ve never experienced that before. On ‘Gilmore,’ it was, ‘That’s great, but twice at fast.’ Alexis Bledel, that was not her natural rhythm. It was (Lauren) Graham’s rhythm… These four girls sometimes, I sometimes find myself saying, ‘Okay, can we slow that down a little? I have no idea what you’re saying, and I wrote it.'”

The machine gun pace of the dialogue is one of the reasons Sherman-Palladino has been so quick to bring in “Gilmore” alums as “Bunheads” guest stars.

“We have 77 pages, 7 days, ‘Here’s your budget, it’s ABC Family, we love you, we support you, but you have to do it for this,'” Sherman-Palladino explained. “Anybody I bring in, there’s no learning curve. If they don’t come to play, it ain’t gonna work. So when Liza Weil shows up, she comes to play. She’s loaded. Sean Gunn? You know you can only write a monologue like this for Sean Gunn. I think it would be ridiculous for me to ignore this wonderful stable of actors and characters I know who will hit the ground running.”

And one of the things that’s always been distinctive about Sherman-Palladino’s writing is that the dialogue is fast, but the actual storytelling is quite slow. Everyone assumed from the “Bunheads” pilot that Michelle would wind up teaching the girls, but the show took its sweet time making that happen, for instance.

“Television has changed,” said Sherman-Palladino. “I’m an old, tired broad. I do my thing, I know what I am. But television has changed. I think that storytelling on television has changed… I look back at the stuff we did on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ and it’s a very similar pace to ‘Gilmore Girls.’ ‘Gilmore Girls’ was three acts and a teaser, and we are six acts and a teaser. The actual structure of television has changed. If you write to an act break, then every act has to have something big. I’ve never written to act breaks.

Sherman-Palladino invoked her early days as a writer on “Roseanne,” and noted how low-concept the early episodes were.

“I got trained there,” she said. “It was pounded into my head: ‘Make the small big, and make the big small.’ That’s the way we structure our shows, and it may feel like we’re not (doing anything) because no one’s dying in every single act,” but they will occasionally do a very plot-heavy episode like the summer finale. “A lot happened in that hour, and yet we’re the nihilistic weirdo crazy show that’s an hour of, ‘Why are they just talking?’ I’ve always believed that if you burn through all of your plot points in one episode, how do you get five years out of a show? Longevity is important for somebody with my Nieman’s bills. It’s important that this continues for a while.”

As someone who’s really come to enjoy this charming, oddball show, I hope Sherman-Palladino will continue to be able to pay for her hat collection.