Hatched by the same distinctive voice that created the WB’s well-respected “Gilmore Girls,” Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “Bunheads” represents the best bet yet for youthful cabler ABC Family to broaden its appeal and creative credibility. Toplining Sutton Foster as a Vegas showgirl transplanted to a quirky small town on California’s coast, the pilot delivers a more grownup perspective than the ABC Family norm, nicely balanced with a supporting cast of promising young actresses and the heart and humor that earned “Gilmore” devoted fans.
The decision to center the show around Foster as thirtysomething Michelle Simms — a classically trained dancer who saw her Broadway dreams devolve into a haze of Sin City drinking and partying — is enough to distinguish “Bunheads” from schedule mates “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Sherman-Palladino’s snappy banter and slightly melancholy characters only enrich the texture of a series perfectly pitched between comedy and drama.
The pilot takes its time introducing Michelle and her life in Vegas, which includes backstage visits from lovestruck fan Hubbell Flowers (likably played by guest star Alan Ruck). As Michelle feels increasingly boxed in, Hubbell offers her a way out when she needs it most: Marry him and come to Paradise, Hubble’s quaint hometown in the middle of nowhere, California. They don’t even have a movie theater. But they do have a dance studio, run by Hubbell’s formidable mother Fanny (“Gilmore” vet Kelly Bishop), who is more than a little leery of her son showing up with a stray showgirl.
Fanny’s ballet students fill the requisite teen roles to allow “Bunheads” a place on ABC Family, but do so without coming off as cloying or contrived. The initial hour focuses on sweet Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), who has the desire but not the tiny body required to be a star ballerina, and sour Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), who fits the physical bill but has none of Boo’s passion. There’s less definition afforded wide-eyed Ginny (Bailey Buntain) and Sasha’s sidekick Melanie (Emma Dumont), but despite minimal-to-zero prior onscreen experience, all four actresses fit in effortlessly enough to suggest the show should have fun fleshing them out later.
Foster, who seems to relish Sherman-Palladino’s rapid-fire quips and the rich complications of Michelle’s hot mess of a life, delivers a commanding turn in what already feels like a creative collaboration comparable to what Sherman-Palladino enjoyed with Lauren Graham on “Gilmore.”Foster has instant chemistry with Bishop, who retains the sharp-tongued delivery she utilized so well as Emily Gilmore, while trading that character’s high society rigidity for Fanny’s more bohemian looseness. It probably doesn’t hurt that two actors recently shared the Broadway stage in “Anything Goes.”
The biggest hurdle for “Bunheads” may be its awkward title — a colloquialism alternately viewed as a nickname or insult for young ballerinas, which goes unexplained in the pilot — but when the show itself is so immediately captivating, what’s in a name?