“Gilmore Girls” and “The West Wing” debuted a year apart from one another, and they’ve always been linked in my mind: Two shows with machine gun banter, two shows that at their best deftly balanced laughs and heartache, two shows with creators – Amy Sherman-Palladino for “Gilmore Girls,” Aaron Sorkin for “West Wing” – whose voices were unmistakable from anyone else’s on television.
Those two are also linked in my mind because both series continued without their creators – and were never the same without them
– and because their follow-up series (Sherman-Palladino’s leaden “The Return of Jezebel James” and Sorkin’s self-important “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) featured their styles applied to either formats (the traditional sitcom style of “Jezebel James”) or subjects (topical sketch comedy for “Studio 60”) for which they were ill-suited.
And now Sherman-Palladino and Sorkin are linked yet again because both are returning to television this month with new shows where the mission statement seems to be “Here is this thing everybody loved once upon a time, wrapped in a slightly different package.”
For Sorkin, it’s “The Newsroom,” a more serious spin on “Sports Night” that we’ll talk about closer to its June 24 premiere. For Sherman-Palladino, it’s “Bunheads,” a new dramedy that premieres Monday night at 9 on ABC Family. If it’s not exactly “Gilmore Girls 2: Acoustic Boogaloo,” it’s close enough to be reassuring – and, on occasion, distracting.
With Lauren Graham otherwise employed by “Parenthood” (and Alexis Bledel both too young and too busy appearing in Pete Campbell’s fantasies), the tall, quippy, self-deprecating heroine slot is filled by Tony winner Sutton Foster as Michelle, a classically-trained dancer nearing her expiration date while she works as a Las Vegas showgirl.
“If he says ‘no’ in under three seconds,” she laments after a humiliating non-audition, “it’s not ‘No, because you’re so young and hot,’ it’s ‘No, because you’re starting to look like an IHOP cashier.'”
Into her lonely, disappointing life comes Hubbell (Alan Ruck), a soft-spoken traveling salesman who dotes on Michelle during his periodic trips to Vegas, and who surprises both of them by convincing her to marry him and move into his house in a small coastal California town called Paradise.
Hubbell leaves out a few key details, though. Paradise is so sleepy that when Michelle asks some local teenagers what they do for fun at night, one tells her, “Sometimes, Mr. Feldstein forgets to lock the library door, and we go in there.” And his beautiful home overlooking the ocean already has a second occupant: Hubbell’s mother Fanny, played by “Gilmore Girls” alum Kelly Bishop. (Herself a former Tony winner for “A Chorus Line.” ) It’s a character who has Emily Gilmore’s imperious demeanor without her aristocratic bloodlines, and it’s obvious that Sherman-Palladino relishes the chance to have her words come out of Bishop’s mouth again.
Fanny runs a dance studio next door to the house, which gives Michelle both an employment opportunity and an opportunity for her to interact with the girls who study there. (This is ABC Family, after all.)
Between the obvious Michelle/Lorelai Gilmore parallels, Bishop’s presence, the strumming guitar transitions between scenes and even the dance studio (which was a fixture in the fictional “Gilmore Girls” town of Stars Hollow), “Bunheads” is clearly Sherman-Palladino retreating to her comfort zone. (And if you dwell on it too long, you’ll get confused about why Emily is doing Miss Patty’s job, or why Lorelai looks different.) But writing this kind of show turns out to be like riding a bike for Sherman-Palladino, and she didn’t forget how to do it during her time making “Jezebel James” and several unsold series.
Foster picks up the rhythms of Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue – “I’m like Godzilla! Men run from me! All nationalities! Not just Japanese men!” – quickly, and is unsurprisingly excellent in the dance studio scenes, even when she’s just role-playing with the girls to show them what a real Broadway audition might be like. Some of the best theater actors in the business come across as too big and broad when they give television a try, but Foster is utterly human, completely charming and has instant comic chemistry with Bishop. (And though Ruck is likable as always, it’s no surprise that, once Michelle arrives in Paradise, the show’s interest tilts entirely in favor of how she gets along with her new mother-in-law.)
I have two concerns about the pilot, which is the only episode ABC Family sent out for review. (The pilot’s been available online in several places already; I’ll do my best to step lightly in the next paragraph, but if you haven’t watched yet and want to go in cold tonight, you may want to skip to the one after.)
First, there’s a plot development late in the pilot that seems tonally at odds with everything that’s happened to that point. It suggests either a very different kind of series going forward, or one that’s going to have to work very hard to get back to the light quality of the earlier scenes.
The second isn’t an issue with the show itself so much as it is with the channel it airs on. “Bunheads” isn’t as off-brand as my all-time favorite ABC Family show, the comic book action-comedy “The Middleman,” which was delightful and had absolutely no business being where it was. But on a channel where the dramas overwhelmingly weight their stories in favor of the teen characters – even “Switched at Birth,” my favorite of their current series, is at best 60/40 kids/adults, and probably 70/30 – how will the target audience react to a pilot where the 90 percent of the screentime (maybe more) goes to a character in her 30s and another in her 60s? This is a premise pilot, and a lot of time has to be spent getting Michelle to Paradise and setting up the conflicts she has with Fanny, but if the plan is to feature the four young women in the cast – Kaitlyn Jenkins, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain and Emma Dumont – more going forward, then those characters are going to have to become a lot more interesting in a hurry to justify the time spent away from Foster and Bishop.
And if that’s not the plan – if the dance studio and its students are just a Trojan horse to get a more adult show onto a teen-oriented channel – then ABC Family is stepping way out of its comfort zone at the same time Sherman-Palladino is happily, entertainingly stepping back into the middle of hers.
NOTE: I’ll ask those of you who have watched the pilot online to similarly step lightly around certain plot points. I’ll have a talkback post going up on Monday at 10 where we can more openly discuss everything. My hope is that the show continues to be good enough to be a regular part of the blog this summer, but we’ll have to wait and see on that.