The broadcast networks used to churn out a fair number of relatively light shows that were often centered on female characters and/or offbeat towns. But after UPN and the WB merged and became the supernatural-and-socialite-obsessed CW and USA Network became the Mecca of escapist programming (much of it starring eccentric male characters), shows that recall "Gilmore Girls," "Northern Exposure," "Veronica Mars" and "Everwood" have been few and far between.
That's why the debut of "Bunheads" (9 p.m. ET Monday, ABC Family) is so welcome. The show isn't quite "Gilmore Girls" plus dancing, but it's pretty close, and that is not a bad thing at all.
"Bunheads" comes from "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and if you liked her previous program, you'll find a lot of familiar elements here. Sutton Foster stars as the fast-talking Michelle Simms, a Las Vegas showgirl who ends up in the small town of Paradise after a night of questionable decisions. Soon she runs into the formidable dance studio owner Fanny Flowers, who looks down her aristocratic nose at the insecure yet good-hearted newcomer. Flowers is played by Kelly Bishop, none other than "Gilmore Girls'" Emily Gilmore, and it's wonderful to see the masterful Bishop on TV again, doling out witty putdowns and occasionally showing Fanny's protective side, which is well hidden underneath a commanding exterior.
Sherman-Palladino is very good at setting up insider-outsider dynamics that reverberate through all the characters' relationships: Michelle is an outsider in the clannish town, but some of Fanny's dance students -- all of whom are longtime Paradise residents -- feel like freaks or rejects due to their body shapes and sizes. And both Fanny and Michelle, who tasted early success as dancers, feel shut out by life's possibilities after their early opportunities dried up. For one reason or another, everyone feels excluded from something, and the show begins to explore those themes in the pilot (and thankfully, it doesn't feel the need to sugar-coat them with too much adorable small-town eccentricity).
It's not easy to make Sherman-Palladino's rapid-fire dialogue flow naturally, but Foster manages the trick, and the rapport shared by Fanny and Michelle is alternately prickly and conspiratorial. It'll take time to fill in the teen characters who frequent Fanny's studio, but Sherman-Palladino managed to do that kind of world-building well in Stars Hollow on "Gilmore Girls," so I'm not too worried on that score.
Where Sherman-Palladino has run into problems in the past is in pursuing narrative dead ends, in hurriedly applying slapdash storytelling solutions and hoping no one notices, and in making characters act in inconsistent and/or selfish ways. When "Gilmore Girls" was good, it was very good, but it wasn't the most consistent of shows, to put it mildly. And I'm still deeply scarred by the fact that she waited far too long to get (and keep) two key "Gilmore" characters together (my fellow fans know to whom I'm referring).
I'm still recommending "Bunheads" to anyone who'd like a lighter dramedy on their summer viewing roster, but those are the pitfalls I'm going to hope this solid new show works hard to avoid. And it worries me a little that Bishop is listed as a guest star; she's the best thing about the pilot and it strikes me that episodes that don't expand on the core Michelle-Fanny relationship could feel less energetic and vital.
Having said that, the pilot for "Bunheads" moves at a brisk, refreshing clip and it even packs an emotional wallop or two. The relationships that are sketched out in the first hour are promising. Sherman-Palladino has long been interested in characters who are dancing as fast as they can, and in this show, she has a whole new set to play with. If we're in any luck, the four lead students at Fanny's dance school could become four very different Rorys, and that's not a bad idea to take out for a spin.