The advent of serious, thoughtful, artistically ambitious television has brought us many marvelous shows: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife. And the growth of comedies with strong points of view has allowed oddball projects like 30 Rock and Community to emerge and earn praise.
But what doesn't always get its due in the current climate is simple, affable, funny, relaxed, well-written, sunny television that's not formula-busting or arch; it's just very well executed entertainment that doesn't really invite a close reading of the text — it invites you to sit down, put your feet up, and have a lemonade. And that's what Bunheads is.
Bunheads, which premieres tonight on ABC Family, is a comedy-drama produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also created and ran Gilmore Girls.
The two shows have a great deal in common in mostly good ways. There is a lot of Lorelai Gilmore — a lot -- in Michelle, who begins the pilot as a Las Vegas showgirl who aspires to do real theater. Played by genuine Broadway song-and-dance megastar Sutton Foster, she drunkenly marries a nice man she isn't in love with (Alan Ruck) out of sheer frustration and goes with him back to Paradise. Literally, Paradise — that's the little coastal California town where he lives with his mom, Fanny. Fanny is a dance teacher, and delightfully, she's played by Kelly Bishop, who is playing a sort of bohemian dancer instead of an upper-crust rich lady, but who otherwise brings a lot of the same bite to the role of Michelle's mother-in-law that she brought to the role of Lorelai Gilmore's mother, Emily.
Foster turns out to be an exceptional fit for Sherman-Palladino's brand of motormouthed, quippy dialogue, and like Lauren Graham before her, she can be subtly amused, broadly strange, wearily knowing, and totally baffled in the space of a single scene. It might sound chaotic, but it feels very human. Though it can be tough to rescue a character who is introduced in the context of a decision as bad as an impulsive marriage, a couple of key conversations bring out a fundamental good nature in Michelle and a real reluctance to actually hurt anyone. (Sherman-Palladino did this on Gilmore Girls, this weird use of unconsidered marriages as plot points, but without spoiling the pilot, it's safe to say she doesn't intend to build this show on that dynamic going forward.)
The pilot also introduces some of Fanny's dance students, including one hostile one, one insecure one, and two that aren't much defined yet, and it sets us on the path we know is inevitable: Michelle will work at Fanny's school and teach these girls, just as she teaches them about auditions in a charming impromptu lesson.
Much of this setup isn't very believable, it's just likable. What are the odds, after all, that Michelle's mother-in-law would be a dance teacher? That she would have a studio at home? That this man would propose? That she would accept? If you think about it a whole lot, it can only be the setup for a TV show, the whole thing.
But despite the somewhat hackneyed setup, Bunheads works very well. Gilmore Girls was always a fundamentally good-natured show, and this one feels very similar, so adding the occasional opportunity for Sutton Foster to dance makes an awful lot of sense. There's a lot to be said for TV that's lovely and satisfying, even if it doesn't motivate you to take apart every shot and every moment like you're studying calculus. I'm glad highly cerebral shows exist, but in some ways, it's now good pure entertainment that feels like a breath of fresh air.