Gentle comedy-drama 'Bunheads' returns to ABC Family

Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster stars as a former ballerina turned Vegas showgirl who is looking to make a fresh start in the ABC Family's original drama
Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster stars as a former ballerina turned Vegas showgirl who is looking to make a fresh start in the ABC Family's original drama "Bunheads."

ABC Family's "Bunheads" ended its first batch of episodes this summer with novice dance teacher Michelle (Sutton Foster) inadvertently Macing students at her mother-in-law Fanny's (Kelly Bishop) dance studio during a performance of "The Nutcracker."

This well-reviewed, gentle comedy-drama didn't draw as many viewers as some soapier, edgier ABC Family programs, but "Bunheads" gets a second shot with eight new episodes that begin airing at 9 p.m. Monday.

The story picks up several months after the "Nutcracker" fiasco with Michelle dancing for a small-time magician in Henderson, Nev., the dance studio closed and its students -- a quartet of teen girls -- at loose ends.

There's even a sly reference to the Pittsburgh-based "Dance Moms" at the end of Monday's episode when Fanny considers re-opening the studio and says local parents who object are "free to take their children to that enormous, crazy woman with the pyramid system whose students end up with knocked knees and post-traumatic stress disorder."

"Bunheads" is executive produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of "Gilmore Girls." Her writing style hasn't changed, so there are similarities between the shows -- fast-talking characters, pop-culture references, the presence of Bishop -- but "Bunheads" has capably carved out its own niche.

"My particular style of writing, love it or hate it, is very specific and when I find a particular person who can knock it out of the ballpark -- it's like Orson Welles and his group of mad, mad actors he would use in everything -- not that I'm Orson Welles, but I wouldn't mind being him except for the drunken and fat thing he had going on -- you want to write for them," Sherman-Palladino said, speaking as quickly as the characters on her shows. And she likes the theme of family, something at the heart of both "Gilmore Girls" and "Bunheads." ''I love family interaction. ... You never run out of stories because you're never not mad at your family."

In the "Bunheads" pilot episode, Michelle marries Fanny's son, Hubbell, who dies in a car accident. That sets up the show's themes.

"What do I do when all the plans I have made and all the things I thought were going to happen, that's actually not going to happen. I need a new plan," Sherman-Palladino said. "That, to me, is what Michelle's journey was in the first 10 episodes and, frankly, it may be her journey for the rest of her life."

As the new season begins, Michelle is surprised to discover that her departure has had an impact of the dancers at Fanny's studio.

"Michelle, who does not think much of herself in the grand scheme of things, is surprised to find out she means a lot to some people," Sherman-Palladino said.

The first season of any TV show is a shakedown cruise, and Sherman-Palladino said she learned about the differences in basic cable and broadcast ("how to spend money judiciously"), the capabilities of her cast ("Sutton Foster can do anything I throw at her") and the value of dance numbers, which she hadn't planned to feature so prominently ("it's something that made it special and specific to our world").

While some critics found the show's title obscure, one that doesn't explain the show in a way that might draw viewers uninterested in ballet, the showrunner defended it as enjoyably "ridiculous and insane." A larger issue, she says, is drawing viewers to a show that doesn't fit the ABC Family mold.

"It's not truly a teen show, it's not just about a 35-year-old woman or a 55-year-old woman; it's an amalgam of women," Sherman-Palladino said. "It's basically about coming of age at many stages of your life. It's been a challenge for us and ABC Family to make people understand there's a little something for everybody. It's a delightful grab bag of craziness."