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Amy Sherman-Palladino hopes 'Bunheads' gets a callback

The ABC Family show about a Las Vegas chorus girl's fresh start is about to finish its first season with no guarantee of a second.

February 25, 2013|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Amy Sherman Palladino, right, and actress Sutton Foster share a laugh during a location shoot of "Bunheads" at United Methodist Church in Hollywood.
Director Amy Sherman Palladino, right, and actress Sutton Foster share… (Christina House, Los Angeles…)

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, which airs Monday night, 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.

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"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."

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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 out 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."

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