Ballet fans have been looking forward to ABC Family’s “Bunheads” for weeks now, since it advertises—from the title down—that it’s all about ballet. But the first episode, at least, had a lot of plot exposition to get out of the way before digging into anything truly “bunhead”-y. A very quick summary: Onetime ballet dancer but current Las Vegas showgirl Michelle (Broadway star Sutton Foster, who is fantastic) is tired of performing in a feathered bikini but unable to get a “real” Broadway job. She impulsively marries a devoted, if dopey, fan (“He wears gym socks with a suit,” she laments) and moves to his tiny coastal town in California. Little does she know that he lives with his mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop, who you’ll probably recognize from “Gilmore Girls,” which was also produced by “Bunheads” executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino). Fanny, Michelle discovers, runs a ballet studio. And that’s where we begin to get into the ballet side of the story.
Fanny and the young would-be ballerinas studying at the studio are great TV characters. Are they ballet stereotypes? Well, in a way. Fanny danced with the Ballets Russes but gave it up when she got pregnant (even the show admits that’s “very Turning Point“). Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) is dying to dance but frustrated by her technical limitations. Ginny (Bailey Buntain, who is going to be a Megan Hilty lookalike when she grows up) is equal parts fascinated and horrified by her ever-growing chest. Sasha (the gifted Julia Goldani Telles, channeling Eva from Center Stage) is talented but has a bad attitude. They’re all at risk of becoming a little two-dimensional, but the dialogue is funny and clever and does a good job avoiding over-the-top clichés.
They girls are all preparing for the big Joffrey Ballet School summer program audition the following week (so real!), which leads to the scene that feels the most off, dancewise. Foster is a Broadway baby all the way in real life, so maybe it’s not a surprise that when she finds the girls in the studio, worrying about the audition, she leads them through a verrrry Broadway-like version of what they might have to look forward to. (It involves a mean casting agent and many, many pony steps.) The script does hint at the fact that that might be a little off-base. Snotty Sasha notes at the end that “Next week’s ballet, with toe shoes,” and when Michelle explains to a skeptical Fanny that she was “teaching [the girls] about auditioning,” Fanny asks, “For what?” But wouldn’t a dancer who—as Michelle’s bio supposedly reads—was once a member of American Ballet Theatre know how to prepare these students for a real ballet audition?
In the end, though, I think this kind of nitpicky study of the dance aspect of this show is besides the point(e). “Bunheads” is not going to tell you anything you don’t already know about ballet, and that’s fine. It’s pretty charming regardless. And if the ballet world ends up a fruitful setting for what seems like it might be a franker-than-usual family drama, all the better. I’m guessing realistic discussions about body issues and ambition are on the way, and that’s something to look forward to.