By the time a showrunner becomes a household name, they’re usually known for a diverse legacy of shows: The wide sitcom stables of Norman Lear and Garry Marshall, Aaron Sorkin’s line of walk-and-talks, the many kingdoms of Shondaland. Amy Sherman-Palladino, however, is still primarily known for one show that ended nine years ago.
But that one show was legendary. After cutting their teeth on sitcoms like Roseanne, Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino took a fateful trip to to the east coast, stopping over in the small town of Washington, Connecticut. Charmed by her surroundings, Sherman-Palladino was inspired to create Gilmore Girls and the idyllic New England village of Stars Hollow. The show revolved, Mayberry-like, around the goings-on in Stars Hollow, particularly the lives and loves of its resident innkeeper Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel).
Affection for Gilmore Girls and anticipation for its upcoming Netflix revival can be traced back to two roots: Graham’s performance as Lorelai, and Sherman-Palladino’s hilarious, pop-culture-literate dialogue. Scripts for Gilmore Girls were notoriously twice as thick as the average hour-long TV episode, requiring the cast to speak extremely fast while playing off of one another. Graham shimmered as Lorelai, who rarely paused for breath between bon mots.
Sherman-Palladino left her own creation following some failed behind-the-scenes negotiations during the sixth season; one year later, Gilmore Girls was no more. She tried her hand at a more standard sitcom in 2008 (The Return Of Jezebel James), then set up The Wyoming Story at The CW in 2010. The latter series never made it to air, though its small-town setting, prodigal-child protagonist, and supporting turn from former Stars Hollow inhabitant Rose Abdoo might have struck a chord with the Gilmore faithful—as would her next production.
Bunheads also took place in an idyllic small town (Paradise, California), and featured a thirtysomething woman dealing with the adolescent girl (or four) in her life. The show wisely drafted from the supporting ranks of Gilmore Girls, casting Abdoo, Liza Weil, Sean Gunn, and, most importantly, Kelly Bishop. (Alan Ruck, the villain of The Wyoming Story, came along as well.) There were the familiar soundtrack guitar strums, “la la la”s, and impossibly cluttered yet charming living spaces, too.
Meanwhile, Sherman-Palladino was able to make leading-lady lightning strike twice. Visiting New York, she caught the 2011 Broadway revival of Anything Goes and immediately fell for the show’s Tony-winning star, Sutton Foster. She phoned ABC Family during intermission: “I’m literally basing this on nothing, because I’ve never met her,” Sherman-Palladino recalled at the 2015 ATX Television Festival, “but there’s something about her that I feel like when you get the [Bunheads] script, you’re going to read this character, and I feel like it’s her.” The enthusiasm was mutual. “I wasn’t necessarily looking to do television,” Foster recalled at the same ATX panel, “but Gilmore Girls is my favorite show of all time […] So when my agent called and was like ‘Amy Sherman-Palladino wants to have lunch with you,’ I was like, ‘Uh, what?’”
The addition of Foster helped lead Sherman-Palladino, who grew up taking dance lessons, to Bunheads’ overarching dance theme. Foster played Michelle, a ballerina-turned-Las Vegas showgirl who impulsively marries an admirer (Ruck as Hubbell Flowers), returns to his Californian hometown with him, and discovers that his mother (Bishop as Fanny Flowers) is a former dancer who runs a ballet school. Unfortunately, Hubbell is killed off in a car accident at the end of the pilot; at this crossroads in her life, Michelle stays in Paradise with Fanny, starts teaching dance, and discovers that she’s actually good at it. The Paradise Dance Academy led to Bunheads’ second stroke of genius: How do you improve Gilmore Girls? Add dance numbers!
Foster’s Michelle spoke as quickly as Lorelai, adding a sardonic world-weariness that completely sold the character. She also played well off Bishop, a former Anything Goes castmate who was enjoying a role much closer to herself, as opposed to her stone-cold Gilmore Girls matriarch. (“It was my life,” the Tony winner for A Chorus Line said of Bunheads’ ballet-school material.) Foster not only delivered the dialogue, she delivered the singing and dancing—a true triple threat. In the scene below, Michelle’s leading the dancers, while hilariously bemoaning the fact that the number takes a lot more out of her than it does them:
Disenchantment aside, Michelle tossed off classic Sherman-Palladino riffs just as effortlessly as Lorelai did. The Gilmores might quiz each other over the unofficial Heathers motto, “What’s your damage, Heather?”, a phrase that became a Bunheads episode title; a hungover Michelle casts off a “Sing out, Louise!” to one of her charges. Only the most well-steeped in their musical history would get the Gypsy allusion, coming from Michelle in a fit of maniacal-stage-mother pique. Either way, Foster always made it work.
Because for all of Michelle’s snappy patter, she was never better than when she was with her students. The eponymous “bunheads” were all aspiring dancers, leading an involved but pertinent dance routine every episode, usually featuring the four core school-age characters. Queen bee Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) had the perfect dancer’s body but an imperfect home life. Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) was a beautiful dancer with an atypical body shape for ballet, a definitive casting choice by Sherman-Palladino: “I needed Boo, who had to not have the body type… but she had to have the technique. That was particularly difficult because I needed a rockstar dancer, someone who had it all, except she’s not two pounds. And thank God we found Kaitlyn.” Earnest blond Ginny (Bailey De Young) started the series with a long-term boyfriend but they soon broke up. Laid-back Melanie (Emma Dumont) rounded out the quartet. The girls all loved dance, and to them Michelle was like an alien visitor from that world, who’d already unlocked the secrets of auditioning or memorizing steps in a few short seconds.
Even non-dance fans could find something to appreciate in the Bunheads’ modern- esque numbers, whether it was Sasha defiantly twisting to They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul Not Constantinople” or a large group dance with the girls dressed as miners, stomping to “I Predict.” For those who don’t speak choreography, Fanny helpfully narrates the modern ballet she wrote, Paper Or Plastic?, in which Sasha, as a canvas tote, emerges as the hero against Boo’s evil supermarket cashier.
The secondary characters were more difficult to nail down: Pathetic Truly (Stacey Oristano) never rose to the occasion like Melissa McCarthy did as Sookie on Gilmore Girls, and Liza Weil’s Milly was just a Paris Geller retread, without any of Paris’ endearing insecurities. We never really got a feel for Paradise the town, outside of the ballet studio and one oyster bar. Any attempt to draft some kind of leading man chemistry for Foster fizzled: Chris Eigeman struck out in yet another Sherman-Palladino production, while surfer boy Godot (Nathan Parsons), although undeniably cute, he shouldn’t even have been allowed to hold Michelle’s tap shoes. Michelle rightly cracks upon first catching sight of him: “What’s up, Moondoggie?”
The lack of romantic chemistry wasn’t really a hardship, as it allowed the show to focus on Michelle and how she was dealing with this uncertain phase of her life. She could have been a real performer, but instead settled for Caesar’s Palace, and is now trying to figure out if she wants to audition for New York or stay in Paradise, where she proves to be an inspired teacher and has more fun leading classes and crafting choreography than she would have expected. Lorelai Gilmore had the perfect job for her and loved her small town beyond comprehension; Michelle is still searching, which makes her a bit more interesting. Tossing aside the apparent creepiness of Hubbell going after a dancer just like his mom was this: It’s a struggle that Fanny understands better than anyone else, as she gave up the Ballet Russe to stay in Paradise and raise her son. Who is now gone. In the pilot, Hubbell gives Michelle a watch, a nice visual nod as she wears it throughout the series, a constant reminder of his presence, even though the mourning period appears to wrap up after the first few episodes.
The girls are more complex too, which deepened the series even more. Rory had a few momentary stumbles, but ultimately we knew that her worst crime (short of stealing a yacht) was likely to be an overdue library book. Of Sasha, Boo, Ginny, and Melanie, some were fleshed out more than others, with Sasha getting the most screen time, and Melanie getting the shaft (except for her late-in-the-series interest in roller derby). In the series’ excellent final episode, Sasha and Boo, who both have steady boyfriends, consider having sex for the first time. Sasha being Sasha, makes all the girls study at the library to read up on the subject. It culminates in a hilarious impromptu sex ed class at the studio by Fanny, complete with a crate of bananas and a variety of creepy plastic uterus models. (Fanny: “I know a midwife.” Michelle: “For who, the Borgias?”) When Michelle walks out after Fanny wants the girls to name their bananas, she’s followed by Ginny, who admits, “My banana’s name is Frankie.” Turns out Ginny’s the one who has actually lost her virginity to her longtime crush, who now doesn’t talk to her. It’s a strikingly more realistic take than Stars Hollow’s teens, who didn’t have sex until college, and a heartbreaking moment for Ginny and Michelle, who clings to the young girl who realizes her innocence is gone forever.
It would be a sad moment to end the series on, but again Bunheads’ dance numbers add valuable insight. The show chases Ginny’s confession with a modern performance set to the strains of “Makin’ Whoopee.” The girls are all dressed in wholesome, ’50s wear, but it’s a deceiving appearance: Their dance is sultry and, led by Ginny, they clearly command the boys they dance with. With all those hormones raging around, the dance serves to indicate the inevitability of teenage sexuality.
Although the 18th and final Bunheads episode ran in February 2013, there was no word on the show’s status until several months later, with fans hoping against hope for a renewal. On July 22, 2013, ABC Family finally released a statement announcing that Bunheads had been canceled:
Bunheads is a wonderful series that we are very proud to have aired. The series had amazing storytelling, the most talented cast and a passionate and loyal fan base. Recognizing all of this, we took extra time to try and find ways to bring the series back for another season, but in the end it simply wasn’t possible. We wish the cast and crew the best in their future endeavors.
The language was so remorseful it raised the question of why ABC Family (now Freeform) couldn’t have tried a little harder to make it work. Sherman-Palladino bitterly commented at the ATX panel: “It’s not enough to cancel you. They have to make you wait a year, and then cancel you. It’s a very humane system.”
She also hinted that the real problem, unsurprisingly, could have been financial, saying that the show had “like, no money.” For the pilot, the dancers in the Vegas number were all told to bring their own dance shoes, until Sherman-Palladino paid for some out of her own pocket. The dance numbers also added an extra stressful element, as the leads had to learn choreography in just two or three days, in addition to shooting the rest of that week’s episode. Sherman-Palladino stated that where Gilmore Girls had to do “80 pages in eight days,” Bunheads had to do “80 pages in seven days, with kids.” (Most hour-long shows top out at about 50 pages per episode.) And since some of the kids were still underage, they were not allowed to work extremely long hours, further complicating the shooting schedules.
Not surprisingly, the Bunheads leads were snatched up quickly after the show’s demise. Sutton Foster is now featured in Younger, where she plays a 40-year-old woman passing herself off as a millennial (but sadly, not a singing and dancing one). Julia Goldani Telles has been tearing it up as troubled daughter Whitney on Showtime’s The Affair. Emma Dumont was not as fortunate, and got stuck as Charlie Manson paramour Cherry on Aquarius. Bailey De Young wound up in Lifetime’s Petals On the Wind adaptation (shudder), as well as MTV’s Fakin’ It. But where is lovely Kaitlyn Jenkins? Kelly Bishop, fortunately, will be back for Gilmore Girls’ Netflix episodes.
After all, there’s a reason so many still-devoted fans are over-the-moon excited for the new Gilmore Girls chapter. But Bunheads expanded and grew from GG’s original premise, adding complexity and an inspired musical element. So while it’s great that there’s going to be a Gilmore Girls revival, a Bunheads revival might have been even better.
TVLine recently announced that Sutton Foster is joining the new GG cast—ostensibly as a new character, because why would Michelle cross the country to land in Stars Hollow? And wouldn’t Emily Gilmore look awfully familiar? Still, the casting offers unexpected hope for future Sherman-Palladino crossover-type efforts. Like all great showrunners, Sherman-Palladino has excellent taste, as well as a fierce loyalty to the brightest stars in her stable.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: An absolute wonder.