“Inherit the Wind”
June 25th, 2012
I haven’t weighed in on Bunheads in any official capacity to this point, although I’ve been watching it and largely enjoying it. The pilot left unanswered questions, and the two episodes since then (“For Fanny” and this week’s “Inherit the Wind”) have done a pretty good job of answering them.
On some level, that covers my basic evaluation of the show, but tonight’s episode raised two points for me about the viability of the show’s future. One has to do with Sutton Foster, who is tasked with a lot of heavy-lifting as the audience’s surrogate into this small town, and the other has to do with the style of dialogue that she and the rest of the cast have to deal with. As much as I largely enjoyed “Inherit the Wind,” and liked some of its larger moves toward stability, I think there’s still something about the show that doesn’t sit right without outright sitting wrong – and, apropos of tonight’s episode title, it’s partly something the show inherited.
As a bit of background, I’m mildly obsessed with Sutton Foster at the moment. I’ve been watching YouTube videos, listening to songs on Spotify (including the recording of a 2011 cabaret/concert/shindig/whatever that is just enormously charming). She’s been great at various moments throughout the show, particularly during the fake audition during the pilot, which felt so natural despite being a clear “setpiece” in the structure of the episode. In fact, that scene makes for a nice microcosm of when Foster’s performance works best: when it appears like she isn’t playing to a crowd. Fanny is an audience for that scene, but Michelle doesn’t know she’s there, and there’s something valuable in the observational quality to the scene.
And it is here where I have a few quibbles with Foster’s performance. While I don’t want to go to “She’s a theater actress” as a default criticism of Foster’s performance, that observational—as opposed to performative—quality is occasionally missing. This was particularly true with her meet cute with the “Millionaire with the Private Drive,” which Foster plays in a broad fashion that gets some laughs initially, but somewhat lingers even when she starts to enter into more grounded, emotional territory. It’s almost as though Foster is capable of shifting gears faster than me as an audience member: she largely nails the dramatic moment, but she shifts so quickly and effortlessly from the broader comedy that my mind can’t make the adjustment, struggling to reconcile what Foster has no trouble seeing as part of the same performance.
It’s not enough to ruin anything, and she’s very good at merging the two modes together (rather than mashing them side-by-side) in scenes like her confrontation of Sasha as the dancer hides out at Fanny’s. That being said, though, it also coincides with the other lingering issue, which is the Amy Sherman-Palladino dialogue we’ve come to know so well. While The Return of Jezebel James was technically Sherman-Palladino’s first post-Gilmore Girls series, this is the first one that I’m actually watching, and the first one that seems to be aiming for similar aesthetics and “style.” And while I like many parts of Foster’s performance, and consider her to be very adept at delivering Sherman-Palladino’s rapid fire dialogue, the sense of mimicry implied by the association makes it feel even more like a performance. It’s Sutton Foster doing Gilmore Girls, at least for now, something that doesn’t help with the sense that certain scenes become performative.
One could argue the same for Gilmore Girls, in that the way Lorelai talked always felt a bit ridiculous or “unrealistic.” However, even if you felt that, you met the characters at a time when that dialogue felt distinctive, and therefore your introduction to Sherman-Palladino’s style was paired with your introduction to the people who spoke it. It was as much Lorelai’s style as it was Sherman-Palladino’s, whereas Michelle is at least one step removed from its origin in the eyes of viewers who have seen both series. It’s a good association for the show initially, offering a comfortable familiarity with some positive nostalgia for a long-running and generally well-received series, but there’s a point at which the show’s style needs to become its own.
Will we reach that point? It’s hard to tell, honestly. Being Sherman-Palladino’s first post-Gilmore series of any substance, it’s possible that there will be no point where Bunheads gets out of that shadow (much like The Newsroom can’t get out of the shadow of Aaron Sorkin). It’s also telling, though, that this was the first episode of the show that wasn’t scripted by Sherman-Palladino herself, which means this was something approximating her style (Sarah Dunn, in particular) even if that was then filtered through her own revisions. There’s a certain science to balancing a particular authorial voice with a new set of performers, and rhythms, and stories, and for every scene that doesn’t work (the meet cute) there’s one or two that crackle with energy.
I get the sense that Sherman-Palladino realizes this, which is why some parts of the show are moving so slowly. Michelle’s storyline tonight seemed to cover a lot of ground—literally, given the tour of the estate, the trip up the neverending driveway, etc.—but the show lets her discover the guest house on her own time, in a silent sequence that is not subtle about the utility of the new location but which consolidates the rest of the episode in a strong link between space and the episode’s themes. Similarly, while the girls’ dance recital held plenty of drama with Boo and Sasha (including some somewhat exaggerated emotions brought to the surface quite quickly) despite only happening over a couple of hours, the sequence ends with Sasha and Michelle’s scene at episode’s end. There’s a chaos to the Sherman-Palladino style, and it’s evident in the middle sections of both storylines, but the quiet Sasha and Michelle get to experience in their respective searches for a sense of home, for a sense of roots, becomes more meaningful as a result. It’s a strategy the show can’t continue to use for its entire run, but it’s incredibly effective as Bunheads continues to quickly talk its way through a slow period of self-discovery for the characters and the show itself.
- I always get weirded out when two storylines seem to be operating at completely different paces. Michelle’s storyline seemed to take all day, with various periods of waiting and walking, but the dance recital covered a shorter period of events within the same sense of narrative time. It was wonky.
- When Michelle went to look at the little guest house, it was pretty clear where the storyline was headed, but it doesn’t help the show’s comparison issues that my first thought was “That’s like where Lauren Graham lives on Parenthood.”
- Thanks to TV Line’s Vlada Gelman, I now can’t see the really rather terrible opening credits without realizing they look/sound exactly like a tampon commercial. I just don’t understand what they were going for if it wasn’t that – a puzzler, that.