Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bunheads 1x18 - "Next!"

What a bewildering season finale!  Where most season-enders would find closure, or leave questions dramatically unanswered, "Next!" just kind of scuttles off into an episode-long exploration of teen sex and auditioning.  But, with Amy Sherman-Palladino at the helm, the result is an elevated hour of television where honest moments are doled out in an alternating pattern of stylized comedy and emotional depth.  Few shows can stitch these two polarities into something coherent, let alone engaging and likeable at every turn.  For that, "Next!" earns its stripes.

Conceptually, this episode is a bit weird.  While the girls spend most of the hour stressing out over sex, Michelle drives to LA so she can audition for a Broadway show.  Bunheads nudged Michelle here through her interactions with Talia in “There’s Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit,” and “It’s Not a Mint,” so it only makes sense that the narrative would follow through on this pursuit.  At first, I didn’t know what good could come of this endeavor.  Like the girls, I was afraid this would cause Michelle to run again, which is a character retread, even if realistic.  Further still, taking Michelle away from Paradise deflates the whole purpose of the show.  So what's the point of working against yourself, even if Michelle's dreams are still in the big lights?

But Amy Sherman-Palladino did something smart to manage the risk: it didn’t quite matter if Michelle got the audition or not.  This wasn’t a plot expansion or character development.  It was closure.  Michelle’s auditions bookend the show’s first season - in the pilot, she bombs her audition, gets wasted, marries Hubbell, and here we are.  That wound has not healed.  It’s hung over Michelle through her dream performance of “Maybe This Time” in the midseason finale, through her takeover of Ginny’s audition for The Bells Are Ringing.  Narratively speaking, Michelle doesn’t necessarily need to get a role.  She just needs a successful audition.

And “Next!” provided that for her, even though the cattle call was just for show.  With that heartbreaking twist, it keeps Michelle in Paradise a little longer, and suspends that sense of failed potential that identifies Michelle’s character identity.  And even despite that, it reminds us that Michelle is talented as all hell, and reiterates its own suggestion that just because you have potential doesn’t mean you’ll have success.  In all, this mini-arc was the perfect step for Michelle as a character, without messing up her role as the central fixture on Bunheads.  A delicate balance of pushing her forward without loosening the strings on the core tension of the character or her place in the narrative.  Well-played, ASP.  Well-played.

The girls followed Michelle to Los Angeles, to make sure she wasn’t running away again - which was a pretty cute reason, I have to say.  “Next!” was a great showcase of these four girls’ talents and chemistry in a group dynamic, which is rewarding to see in a season finale.  This back half has brought each of the girls into their own, especially Melanie and Ginny, and it's great to see everything firing on all cylinders.  They’ve all gelled so nicely, even with their distinct personalities, and it’s completely entertaining enough to just watch them function as a unit as they traipse through the narrative.  Of course, having four voices for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s screwball dialogue doesn’t hurt.  

Let’s back up for a minute.  The girls also had group content this week thanks to Sasha being obsessed with researching every little detail about sex and dragging everyone in on it.  This turned out to be surprisingly funny, from several angles.  From its most basic concept, it’s pretty hilarious to watch Sasha tailspin herself into a preparedness tornado as she bakes pot roasts, reads Sex and the Single Girl, and requires Tolstoy-inspired letters of romantic inquisition.  But the way she swept everyone up in her path also mined a lot of comedy.  Roman affably - if bemusedly - just kind of went with it, as needed.  Michelle was blindsided, but listening - and gave us the delightful bit of dialogue “I overintellectualized it, y’know?” / “…no, no I don’t.”  (Even in tiny moments, the appeal of these two as a poorly-matched yet effective mentor/mentee duo is wonderfully present and specific.)

But perhaps the funniest - and most interesting - stretch of Sasha’s obsession was the extension to Boo.  The Boo-Sasha dynamic is one of the show’s more complicated and affecting dynamics, simply because there’s a push-pull there that doesn’t ever escalate into actual antagonism.  They are very different, and they may not be best pals, but there’s a level of tolerance and affection there that rounds out their interactions and makes them incredibly engaging.  Boo gamely suffers Sasha’s relentless opining, and Sasha kind of keeps Boo under her wing.

“Next!” demonstrated this dynamic with all its edges, and proved that comedic content goes a long way between these two as well.  Sasha co-opts poor Boo into her tailspin about sex, substituting every “I” for “we,” and forces Boo to try and get an Anna Karenina sex letter out of Carl as well.  (Carl, sweet Carl, sends a comic book.  I mean, graphic novel.)  Boo drags her heels, Sasha badgers her, and eventually Boo fights back - only to have Sasha back down without any ounce of drama.  The whole endeavor was amusing, yes - Boo’s hesitant reply of “…with each other?” in response to Sasha’s boorish “We need to consider having sex, now” slayed me, especially with that little dab of face mask on her cheek.  But it also was an interesting demonstration of the Boo-Sasha dynamic.  Sasha tries to boss Boo around enough, and Boo fights back.  And instead of Sasha rising even higher and summoning wrath, she backs down and lets it happen.  Escalation of drama doesn’t ever quite come to blows.

This brings me back to the interest in watching these four girls interact in their group dynamic - especially with regards to Sasha.  Clearly the de facto leader, Sasha actually flirts with dictatorship over these girls.  She singlehandedly ropes everyone into group study sessions about sex, even when at least two of the other three aren’t interested.  She also unilaterally gets everyone in the car to LA, with the proverbial snap of her fingers.  But they also clearly tolerate her, even love her - and Sasha is also clearly not a monster.  She makes pot roasts and popovers, and still agrees to do night masks, and manages to make bitchy also really gooey.  She’s become such a wonderfully fleshed-out character, and “Next!” showed that in full display.  How hilarious was it to see her go full-on dance mom over Michelle’s audition?  “Suck your stomach in, for god’s sake!” she hisses from the wings, and then complains that the anxiety shaved ten years off her life.  She gets in a pretty mean backhanded burn in response to Michelle’s claim that “artists are so temperamental,” replying, “So’s Ginny.”  But she also coos “look at her!” at Michelle singing and dancing, and lets Boo take a piece of pie home for Carl.  It’s basically a treat to watch Sasha interact with anyone in any scene, simply because there’s no telling what exactly the snarky-to-soft ratio will be.  At this point, she’s Bunheads’ most effortlessly expanded character.

There’s one result of the sex storyline that was pretty unpredictable: Ginny had sex with Frankie, whom she's pretty much stared at like a creeper for several episodes now.  She confesses this to Michelle, then cries because Frankie hasn’t said anything to her in a week.  She’s not entirely sure he knows her name.  He was just so beautiful.  I have to say, I can’t imagine this is quite what they were planning for Frankie and Cozette when they arrived on the scene back in “Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor.”  In fact, it’s kind of a random conclusion on a storyline that seemed to be more about Cozette’s relationship with the girls.  Of course, that’s assuming that Cozette and Frankie won’t be back, on the assumption that Bunheads even gets a second season.  

Regardless, it’s safe to say that this turn of events has catapulted Ginny into the stratosphere of Most Tragic Bunhead.  Usually Sasha is queen of this domain, but lately she’s so freakishly well-adjusted that it was only a matter of time before someone usurped her.  Because really, how crappy was this back half for Ginny?  All her friends found new interests outside their group, she felt betrayed by her best friend, and her home life consisted of her holding her mom together as her dad remarried.  When you add up all those events and realize what stands on the other side of the equals sign - an inconclusive one-night stand with Frankie - Ginny basically becomes the most tragic character.  Her scene with Michelle was painfully honest, and the subsequent dance number to “Makin’ Whoopee” only served to sharpen the emotional blade through contrast.  Even though the girls wore coquettish costumes and danced flirtatiously, the staging was still dark and hazy, accented by swaths of red light - a stirring mix that highlights the complicated message about teenaged girls, adulthood, and sex.  Of course, it’s an obvious choice to make Ginny front and center in this number, but I was intrigued as well by the attention given to Cozette.  There's not really enough evidence to conclude anything from that; but it’s an interesting choice.

There was one actual wrap-up in “Next!” - with some prodding by Fanny, Milly gives Truly a new space for Sparkles, which has apparently died since its eviction in “Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor.”  This little storyline was handled nicely, in that Truly’s depression manifested in gloomily charming ways - writhing sadly in a pile of tutus, for example - and it paid off in a great scene with the two sisters finally making some sort of peace.  Milly offers up a mostly asbestos-free business space, and promises to waive the rent.  Truly accepts, and all is well with the sisters… until Scotty Simms comes in.  Yes, Scotty’s back, and it seems the only real reason why is to give him some chores and also eye candy for the Stone sisters.  Both Truly and Milly found him cute (“He kind of looks like [Michelle]!” / “Except cute.”) only to realize that… they both found him cute.  “Ugh, crap,” Truly complains.  I hope this is just a little one-off capper on the scene to provide some humor, and Milly and Truly will not actually compete for another man’s affections in a Hubbell redux.  As is, it was a charming finish on a poignant scene.

Also, Fanny was back, mostly to be a responsible adult about sex education, even if it involved using the phrase “clandestine carnal knowings.”

I do want to mention, lastly, some of the heightened moments of both comedy and truth Amy Sherman-Palladino dug out, because there were quite a few.  Michelle making her way through the long audition line was a great bit, in that the line was so exaggeratedly long for comedic purposes as well as illustrating Michelle’s chances at success.  The same goes for the four girls’ sex research montage; it did such a great job of finding a kernel of truth (what smart teen wouldn’t do a little research?) and then expanding it into something quietly madcap.  The moment where all four girls step up to the wall of condoms, in sync, and then fold their arms?  Genius.  Also genius?  Boo reading a Judy Blume book, then just switching to The Hobbit.  Another moment of genius, this time foreshadowing?  Ginny was reading Girls Who Said Yes - perhaps a heartbreaking clue to her offscreen timeline.   (Her desperation to be better at art also makes more sense, in a completely awful way.)

In all, “Next!” manages to be highly stylized yet completely grounded.  It’s still an oddball season finale, especially considering what Bunheads had set up for its back half, but as an episode unto itself it works remarkably well, and looks like nothing else you’d see anywhere else on television.  For that reason alone, I hope dearly that ABC Family renews the show and we’ll see it again for a second season.  And if not, maybe they’ll pick up the Melanie-Ginny spinster buddy comedy.  I’d watch it - especially since Frankie might want to hire a bodyguard if Melanie finds out about his tryst with Ginny.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A+
Plot: A
Character: A
Joke of the Night: Between Boo and Ginny, at the Methodist church where auditions were being held - "I'm not supposed to be here."/"You'll be home before dark."/"No, I'm Lutheran."
Scene of the Night: The sex research montage
Episode MVP: Tied between Sasha and Ginny.  Sasha for the versatility, Ginny for the sheer power of sympathy.

2 comments:

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