Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bunheads 1x11 - "You Wanna See Something?"

Bunheads' first batch of episodes was good; don't get me wrong.  They were competent, enjoyable, and packed with potential.  But the show wasn't quite firing on all cylinders yet.  It was still figuring out its own strengths and weaknesses.  Luckily, ABC Family picked it up for more episodes, and as a result, I had high hopes for what its return might bring.  Here was an opportunity for the show to step back, consider its strong points, and capitalize on them!  This premiere, “You Wanna See Something?" did exactly that.  It stands as a turning point, an episode that reintroduces the show we knew and presents the new show we're going to get - with sophistication, confidence, and some pretty solid storytelling.  I couldn't be more delighted by this turn of events!

"You Wanna See Something?" picks up right where we left off: after having accidentally maced the dancers during a performance of "The Nutcracker," Michelle flees Paradise and attempts to pick up the pieces of her old life.  Of course, being that the entire premise of this show hinges on Michelle living and working in Paradise, we know coming in that Michelle won't stay in Henderson forever.  However, Bunheads lets us reach that conclusion emotionally, with the narrative itself - and takes its time.  All of "You Wanna See Something?” successfully communicates the dramatic need for Michelle to return.  Everyone is miserable without her.  

And the episode brilliantly shows these two concepts - Michelle is gone and Michelle must return - in the opening sequence.  Our first reintroduction to this world is exactly what it should be: Michelle is comedically involved with ballet class instruction.  She's warm, she's goofy, she's effective.  This is what Bunheads is all about.  But, alas -- it's not real.  Fanny Flowers is watching a recording.  Instantly, we know what is supposed to be, and what is lacking.  It's a perfect setup for us to want Michelle back, and a perfect pang to the heart of these characters' situations.  

Every character in Bunheads is in some level of distress or ennui as a result of Michelle's absence.  I loved in particular the idea that all four of the girls have graduated into little mini-adults, which is a smart choice for the show in general.  We have a fairly sizeable age range that naturally limits the logistical possibility in overlapping storylines and themes.  But with Ginny acting as a pint-sized realtor, Boo as a fill-in mother, and Melanie as a caretaker to the elderly, each girl is scaled up into a miniature version of an adult.  In fact, with Boo and Ginny in particular, they are actively scripted as stepping into a role that an adult (their mothers) cannot currently fulfill.  It's a great choice, both comedically and dramatically, and tweaks the foundation of the show just enough to be an improvement.

But there are two characters in particular whose Michelle-less state goes beyond simple boredom or stress: Fanny, and Sasha.  And it's with these two dynamics that "You Wanna See Something?" delivers its best material.  Let's start with Fanny.  Without Michelle, Fanny is listlessly redecorating her home, while Truly manically manages the actual work involved.  In the process of going through old crap, she comes across Michelle’s wedding video, and decides to venture to Henderson and get Michelle back.  The glorious reminder here is that Michelle and Fanny are family, whether they like it or not.  They are connected permanently, even despite the odd circumstances and the fact that they can both disappoint or get mad at each other.  Their conversation in Henderson was wonderfully even-footed in that both Michelle and Fanny weren’t let off the hook for their roles in precipitating this estrangement.  (“Macing their children is not a ‘whatever!’”)   They argued, they blamed one another, they griped.  But even with that, Hubbell’s prediction is teetering on fruition: Michelle is important to Fanny, and Fanny’s life involves Michelle.  There’s no running away from that to Henderson, Nevada, where she’s the third wheel in a husband-wife magician’s act.

Of course, Fanny leaves the wedding DVD for Michelle, and we get to see what Fanny saw, what Hubbell said, and what ultimately will make up Michelle’s mind the same way it made up Fanny’s.  Hubbell saw something in Michelle.  Hubbell wanted to make sure Michelle did the great things she was clearly capable of.  Now, I know the Michelle-Hubbell connection is a bit tenuous, considering that they got married when Michelle was super drunk, and that Hubbell displayed slight obsessive-stalker tendencies.  It’s murky territory to tread.  But I love that Bunheads isn’t afraid to dive right in and explore it, legitimizing it without handwaving it.  Yeah, Michelle was drunk.  Yeah, it maybe wasn’t the best idea to get married in that state.  But it made so much sense for the character, who was aimless and rejected.  Hubbell made Michelle a promise, and it’s hard to refuse a promise.  Especially when the promise involves the other person seeing you as not just a showgirl, but a spectacularly wonderful human who’s capable of doing great things.  

So Hubbell made Michelle a promise, and Fanny is keeping that promise.  And Michelle, in choosing to return to Paradise, is taking responsibility for that promise.  How great is that construct?  How lovely and character-driven is this idea, which validates not only the show's entire premise but also serves as a plot point and a step forward in character development?  It’s a genius device that meets the needs of the story, that’s fueled by character instead of contrivance.  And this is why Michelle’s exile, odyssey, and return is so emotionally effective - it’s tethered to her relationship with Hubbell, and shines a light on her relationship with herself, which is revealed to be a bit malnourished and shriveled.  From here, Michelle can wholeheartedly embody Paradise, and foster emotional connections, and freely let her life take this different direction.  It was a necessary step for the show, which will only benefit from creating meaningful ties between its ensemble, and “You Wanna See Something?” facilitated it beautifully.  They even went one step further, and capped off the hour with Fanny and Michelle giving disclaimers to their reunion: Michelle still may want to return to NYC; Fanny still may want time off.  And that’s fine.  Life may point them in yet another direction, and that’s fine.  But for now, they’re here in Paradise.

The other character who’s adrift without Michelle is Sasha, and although Fanny and Michelle get more of an explored dynamic in “You Wanna See Something?”, the single interaction between Sasha and Michelle is perhaps the episode’s most emotional moment.  Sasha, having arrived home from Joffrey’s Summer Program without informing her parents, is splitting her time staying with Boo, Ginny, and Melanie.  She refuses to go home, and when her usual plans fall through, she winds up on Michelle’s old doorstep, in the empty space she left behind.  

What Bunheads does with Sasha and Michelle in this episode is careful, specific, and genius.  The first half of season 1 hinted at a narrative parallel for these two characters, yet never quite manifested that into an actual dynamic between them.  This culminated with Sasha initiating the “O Captain, My Captain” moment for Michelle, but ultimately the devotion to exploring this dynamic wasn’t quite there yet.  In this premiere, however, Michelle and Sasha were constructed in parallel, and given an actual emotional payoff that served to illuminate their character-to-character relationship.

At the beginning of the episode, it’s Michelle and Sasha who are mysteries.  We don’t know where either of them are, or what they’re up to.  We catch up with Fanny, Truly, Ginny, Boo, and Melanie before the credits.  Only after do we cut away to Henderson, and it’s later still when Sasha enters the picture.  In this way, both Sasha and Michelle are symmetrically portrayed, as two souls in self-inflicted exile who refuse to make the journey home.  Sasha moves from couch to couch, Michelle lives in accessory to Talia, and both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the difficult truth: you have to go home sometime.  It is therefore no accident that Michelle’s first reappearance in Paradise involves Sasha, and only Sasha.  Michelle finally comes home, and the instant she does, Sasha throws her arms around her and tells her she’s glad she’s back.  It also suggests that Sasha is finally home too - or at least has someone that serves as a safe place for her, someone with whom she can rest her stubborn wandering.  

Ultimately, you can’t really argue with the notion that Michelle and Sasha have now been set up as each other’s homes, and it’s an emotionally powerful character dynamic to suggest.  In doing that, Bunheads seems to be creating a “found family” lineage, from Fanny, to Michelle, to Sasha.  Fanny, in honoring Hubbell’s memory, serves as someone who cares about Michelle when she needs it, and Michelle, in turn, serves as someone who cares about Sasha when she needs it.  Sure, in structure it’s starting to look like the core of Gilmore Girls - the bloodline from Emily to Lorelai to Rory - but it’s fantastically constructed and executed on Bunheads as well as it was on Gilmore.  I’m not complaining.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I’m immensely enjoying the choices Bunheads is making for these characters and their place in the show.

As such, “You Wanna See Something?” does exactly what it needs to as a hinge from Bunheads 1.1 to Bunheads 1.2, and it does so with panache.  What, on most shows, would be a simple inevitability, is instead explored as a moment of choice, an insight to character development, and an opportunity to redefine character interactions.  Any reservations I held previously about the future of this show, creatively, have effectively been swept away.  Of course, now that I’ve reinvested in Bunheads emotionally, I’m terrified that ABC Family is going to cancel it.  I really, really, really hope they don’t.  

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: A
Character: A+
Joke of the Night: "Nothing is more terrifying than a canoe."
Scene of the Night: "Hey, kid." / "I'm so glad you're back."
Episode MVP: Fanny


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