“Bunheads” is a new series from Amy Sherman-Palladino, who, half a generation ago (or so), created “Gilmore Girls"for my niece Zoe to bond with her mother over. It premieres Monday on ABC Family Channel, where it will sit companionably alongside that network’s other series, built mostly around the travails of young women, and hopefully find the audience and corporate tenderness it deserves.
Sutton Foster, a Tony-winning star of Broadway musicals but rarely seen on television — she was Coco, Bret’s sign-holding girlfriend in the first season of"Flight of the Conchords"— plays Michelle, an aging Las Vegas showgirl at the end of her tassels. (An “over-the-hill loser” is how she describes herself.)
At a moment of particular dejection, she accepts a date with constantly, constantly rejected suitor Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck) — “odd and weird and technically a stalker,” but also kind and apparently harmless — and, dazed by drink and his tales of a home overlooking the sea in a place called Paradise, she winds up hungover, married and living in California.
The series has its origin in a script called “Strut,” by Lamar Damon, who retains co-creator and co-story credits, but the teleplay officially belongs to Sherman-Palladino, who has replaced a drill team with a ballet class and created a heroine that Lorelai Gilmore would recognize as a wilder, less directed sister. (In case there’s any doubt as to whose show this is, the pilot begins with a card reading “Amy Sherman-Palladino presents.”)
And centered again on the relations among three generations of women, “Bunheads” proves very much a child of “Gilmore,” much in the way that James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is of a piece with his “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” That is to say, there is no sin in the similarity.
Indeed, Foster herself bears a marked resemblance to “Gilmore” star Lauren Graham; and as if to strengthen that resemblance, Sherman-Palladino has cast Kelly Bishop, who played Lorelai’s mother Emily, as Michelle’s mother-in-law and sparring partner, Fanny. (“The quips, the chatter — don’t you ever shut up?” Fanny says to Michelle in what reads like a sly meta-comment on their creator’s favored form of discourse.) She’s also the proprietress of the dance studio where, unless I have learned nothing in my years reviewing television, the classically trained runaway showgirl will find her true home. (“Bunheads” is a term for ballet dancers, from the favored hairdo.)
The youngest generation comes in a standard set of four, helpfully introduced by Fanny as she directs their practice at the barre: “Shoulders, Melanie; lovely, Sasha; popo in, Boo; where are you looking, Ginny?”). Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) is the congenitally talented one, careless of her gifts, a bit of a mean girl, but not the one-dimensional sociopath that phrase usually connotes. Unsophisticated Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), who dances in a Snoopy leotard, has the desire but not the natural advantages; Ginny (Bailey Buntain) is resigned to being too short and curvy for a real career; and Melanie (Emma Dumont) is the one whose character is less well-defined — press materials call her “fun-loving.”
Paradise promises to be a somewhat less whimsical or welcoming community than was Stars Hollow (if just as white). The pop-cultural references that so defined “Gilmore” have been dialed back some, although you do get phrases like “serious driving-cross-country-in-diapers-to-kill-you potential” (said of Hubble’s distraught ex-girlfriend), “Penn and Teller coffee mug” and a long and oddly lovely Godzilla-movie metaphor to describe Hubble’s feelings for Michelle.
Foster is delightful throughout, and Michelle her own person, that Lauren Graham thing notwithstanding. She adjusts wonderfully to different partners and circumstances, and is never less than real, serious or joking, drunk or sober — a perfect fit for a show that, like “Gilmore Girls,” merits a wider audience than its rough outline would suggest. It’s a sweet summer treat.