Amy Sherman-Palladino is trying to get a scene just right. She is directing the season finale of her show ‘Bunheads’, an episode that could determine whether the ABC Family network returns the series for a second season.
‘Bunheads’ is a sweet drama about a Las Vegas chorus girl starting over in a small town by teaching ballet. Sherman-Palladino, a classically trained dancer turned television writer, is trying to start over too.
The pivotal scene of this episode is being filmed on location in Hollywood. The main character has just auditioned for a stage production only to discover that she might not have a shot. Her crushed expression, a look of rejection, captures the episode’s emotional underpinnings. But shooting is interrupted by laughter and shrieks of children playing outside.
“How do we get them to shut up?” Sherman-Palladino implores her startled crew. “C’mon, I’ll pay them. Five bucks a kid, and I am not kidding. Welcome to Hollywood.”
Sherman-Palladino, who garnered a cult following for her coming-of-age drama ‘Gilmore Girls’, started her career 23 years ago as a writer on ABC’s raucous ‘Roseanne’. Writers on the show were encouraged to “make the small big, and the big small”. Life’s little travails provided fodder.
But television has changed dramatically in the last decade, and producing ‘Bunheads’ has been an adjustment. The rhythms are different. Sherman-Palladino had eight days to shoot an hour-long episode of ‘Gilmore Girls’. Now, she must pull together a ‘Bunheads’ episode in seven days. Budgets for cable shows are much smaller than those for network shows and cable seasons often are interrupted by months-long hiatuses.
For ‘Gilmore Girls’, Sherman-Palladino wrote episodes that consisted of three acts. Now episodes have six acts. Scenes have to be quicker and involve more action, and writers must devise ways to create tension before the end of each act to keep viewers hooked during extended commercial breaks.
Sherman-Palladino would write 75 pages of dialogue for a single episode of ‘Gilmore Girls’, which was famous for witty, rapid-fire banter and frequent winks at pop culture. Sherman-Palladino writes 77 pages of dialogue for ‘Bunheads’, but even then, episodes sometimes come in a little short.
“More plot now is pushed into shows,” Sherman-Palladino told television writers last month. “If you look at the pilot of ‘Roseanne’, it was about nothing. Somebody cut a finger, they had a fight. But it was a story, it was about a family and it was about love.”
Now, Sherman-Palladino said, “The actual structure of television has changed.” She worries that the demands for heightened drama and more action will take a toll.
“If you burn through all of your plot points in one episode, how do you get five years out of a show?” Sherman-Palladino asked. “Longevity is important for somebody with my Neiman bills.”
‘Bunheads’ revolves around Michelle, who is in her mid-30s and struggling after her once-promising dance career stalls in Las Vegas. During a night drenched in booze, Michelle marries a nerdy scientist and agrees to move with him to Paradise, his California hometown. By the end of the pilot, he is dead and Michelle must come to terms with her new role as a widow — and with her mother-in-law, who runs the dance studio.
Michelle becomes a teacher for the ‘bunheads’, a dance world term for ballerinas who wear their hair in tight buns.
‘Bunheads’ would be an ode to the world that she once hoped to inhabit — “I was supposed to be a dancer,” she said — before she and a writing partner submitted some spec scripts and landed the gigs writing for ‘Roseanne’.
“It was just a fluke,” she said. “They needed someone to write for the teeny-boppers. We were chicks, and we were cheap.”
The ABC Family show was to be something of a comeback. After ‘Gilmore Girls’, Sherman-Palladino’s previous attempt was ‘The Return of Jezebel James’, a half-hour Fox comedy that lasted just three episodes.
The star of ‘Bunheads’ is Sutton Foster, who won two Tony Awards for her work on Broadway. The show was Foster’s debut in a prominent TV role. Up to now, she had scant TV credits, appearing in three episodes of HBO’s ‘Flight of the Conchords’, an episode of NBC’s ‘Law & Order: SVU’ and singing opposite Elmo on ‘Sesame Street’.
Sherman-Palladino had just sold the concept for ‘Bunheads’ to ABC Family in 2011 when she saw Foster perform in ‘Anything Goes’, which earned Foster her second Tony. Sherman-Palladino began to envision her for the lead of ‘Bunheads’.
Both show and star won attention. Amid a burst of publicity, the launch of ‘Bunheads’ last summer was praised by critics for stretching beyond ABC Family’s traditional fare. More than 1.6 million viewers watched the pilot in June, including 250,000 teenage girls, according to Nielsen ratings data.
But after 10 episodes, ‘Bunheads’ went on a network-imposed hiatus. When it returned last month, the show had lost ratings momentum. It now averages just more than 1 million viewers an episode.
ABC Family executives have not decided whether to bring ‘Bunheads’ back for a second season. They were encouraged by an uptick in younger viewers, particularly as stories centred on the younger ‘bunhead’ characters. Some wonder whether older characters, along with the breathless dialogue and cultural history references — recent episodes have been titled ‘I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky’ and ‘There’s Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit’ — have missed the mark with the channel’s target audience of viewers under age 34.
Scenes for the season finale were shot on a chilly February day at the United Methodist Church in Hollywood. Sherman-Palladino was well acquainted with the space. Years ago, it was a premiere venue for dance auditions. She spent hours there waiting for her chance.
This time, it was Michelle who was going through a cattle call to win a part she hopes will revive her career. Undercurrents of rejection laced the episode.
“It comes from life,” Sherman-Palladino said later. “You wake up and you get rejected. You walk outside, and you get rejected. You smile at the nice young man and he looks at you like you are 110 and a troll.”
Sherman-Palladino and Foster are grappling with not knowing whether ABC Family will bring back the show. They are striving for what’s most elusive in show business: success and longevity. “This could be the last job, the last moment,” Sherman-Palladino said. “This could be it.”
Foster asked Sherman-Palladino how her character would develop in a Season 2: “Will Michelle ever find success?”
Sherman-Palladino hesitated, then said: “She’s going to find a different way to measure success.”