A fan-favorite writer returns to television following the swift cancellation of their previous attempt to follow up a big success that they were fired from, with a cable project that is criticized for racism, recycling of situations and character-types (not to mention actors) from past shows. Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom? Nope, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Bunheads.
Bunheads, which is into its third week on ABC Family, feels like the strange parallel to the much-ballyhooed Sorkin series; another incarnation that both falls victim to many of the same faults – Sherman-Palladino is one of the few writers in American television who could give Sorkin a run for his money in the “overly-wordy banter” stakes, as one of the few who remain so firmly in love with romance, slapstick and schtick as something to base a show around – but one that is, in some strange way, much more enjoyable and arguably just plain better, despite all of those faults.
The show is, without a doubt, an acquired taste; it’s unlikely that many (any?) outside of the core ABC Family demographic would’ve tune in without already having that taste, though, thanks to Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls, the series she ran for six years for the WB before being removed as the series continued for one final year on the CW. To be fair, it’s a very engaging taste, drawing from many of the same screwball comedies that Sorkin seems to have such fondness for, if used in parallel with much more “low culture” companions than the West Wing writer would admit to. Characters talk fast, with sarcasm and snark no matter who they are; everyone acts larger than life, and there’s an occasionally mind-blowing amount of sentimentality in the air.
Bunheads gleefully ticks all of these check boxes on the way to its destination. The set-up is rushed through in two episodes, when there’s so much meat to get through: A Vegas dancer who hates her life is romanced by a man she hardly knows, gets drunk and marries him, goes back to his hometown where she is soundly dismissed by polite society and (more importantly) the man’s mother. After the two disappear from a party to try to come to an understanding, the man goes looking for the two of them and is killed in a car accident, and leaves everything to his new wife. With hilarious consequences!
It’s a show that shouldn’t work, but does, in large part because of the performances; Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop work their hearts out in the central roles, with Ellen Greene and Stacey Oristano eagerly filling out their background roles with all the energy they can muster. Perhaps because the show has such an oddly positive tone (despite the events of the plot), it engenders goodwill from the viewer, unlike the holier than thou Newsroom; you want these people to succeed, both in the show and the show itself.
Perhaps that’s the key – and a lesson to learn for Sorkin; it’s not that shows should be soft in order to win audiences, but that they should allow audiences to root for the characters, instead of feel harassed by them. Ultimately, that’s the only real difference between The Newsroom and Bunheads… But it’s something that makes one show beloved, and the other… well, an experience that people seem to have trouble surviving.
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