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'Bunheads' season finale review: A 'Nutcracker' and a cliffhanger

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Bunheads Nutcracker
Adam Larkey/ABC Family

Bunheads wrapped up its first season on Monday night with a production of The Nutcracker and a nifty cliffhanger. The series has become richer, to the point where it is easily the most engaging of the ABC Family channel’s series, and if it prods the younger members of its audience to take an interest in ballet and the Turner Classic Movie channel, well, jolly good for Bunheads.

The show had been building up to this production of The Nutcracker, a series of performances positioned as the big event every year for Kelly Bishop’s Madam Fanny Flowers, both in terms of a showcase for her Paradise Dance Company and a crucial profit-maker for the company. The season finale featured more dance sequences than any other episode, yet — as written and directed by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino — also crammed quite a bit of character development into the hour.

The biggest challenge for the series in its inaugural season has been to link what were initially two separate elements — the relationship between Sutton Foster’s Michelle and Fanny, and the various friendships and rivalries among the young dancers. Michelle needed to become more familiar with, and important to, the girls. With her dance background, it seemed like an easy development — after all, she inherited all of Fanny’s property by fiat of the will left by Fanny’s late son, Hubbell (Alan Ruck), so Michelle was free to literally waltz into the dance studio that she now owned.

But Bunheads deliberately set itself challenges a lesser series would have glossed over. It spent weeks making Michelle earn the respect of Fanny; it made Michelle take a long time before she felt she had any right to intrude upon Fanny’s teaching. The result has been that, now, the ballet class — particularly Kaitlyn Jenkins’ Boo and Julia Goldani Telles’ Sasha — knows and likes Michelle, recognizing in her a grown-up version of their own dance-crazy, boy-crazy, black-and-white-movie-crazy selves. I’m glad that Sasha got a strong subplot to go out on, since she’s emerged as the series’ most interesting girl. You can tell that Boo had been originally positioned to be our focal point among the dancers, but Telles’ sharp delivery of Sherman-Palladino’s tricky-witty dialogue, along with an air that artfully eludes smugness to achieve a clever self-confidence, has made rebellious Sasha a worthy protagonist. This evening she got to compete against the dancer that had been brought in to replace her (amusingly, referred to only as “The Ringer”) and was set up with a future love interest. And it’s not as though Boo has been neglected: She, along with Bailey Buntain’s plucky yet insecure Ginny, make a fine squabbling comic trio.

The series needed a crisis to give the finale a wallop, and having Michelle mar Fanny’s Nutcracker recital by accidentally using Mace instead of deodorant on the dancers was a funny way to achieve a serious rift between Michelle and Fanny. It also made dramatic sense for Michelle to inadvertantly cause a potential romantic problem between Fanny and her beau Michael (more Richard Gant, please). The return of Alan Ruck’s Hubble appearing in Michelle’s dream was a nice touch, even if the surprise was tipped by seeing Ruck’s name in the opening credits.

One challenge for Bunheads moving forward is to settle on a guy for Michelle to flirt with more regularly. Post-Hubble, she’s been through, what, at least three or four guys, and I have to say, Godot the Hirsute Surfer Bartender Dude is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I know it’s too much to ask for Chris Eigeman, who played the delightfully snippy theater director, to come on-board permanently, but I was intrigued by Grant The Rich Guy With the Long Driveway. Matchmakers, anyone?

Bunheads has sometimes carried an air of beleagueredness over its head. The series was initially dogged by inevitable comparisons to Gilmore Girls, but by mid-season, Foster’s Michelle had successfully thrown off the Lauren Graham/Lorelai parallels with the former character’s distinctive phrasing and attitude, a pleasing sweet-gal-wrapped-in-a-tough-gal package. Early on, Bunheads was attacked by Grey’s Anatomy auteur Shonda Rhimes for not including more actors of color in its cast. This was based solely on the pilot. Yet in the very next, second episode, there was at least one black girl prominent at the barre, and throughout the season, as we finally got a good look at the entire Paradise Dance Company, it was obvious that this was a multi-ethnic dance class in what is supposed to be a small California town. Also, I rarely get the feeling that ABC Family is doing as much to promote the show as it does, say, Pretty Little Liars or Beverly Hills Nannies.

Bunheads will be back with new episodes in the winter; I’m looking forward to seeing how the present plot dilemmas resolve themselves, and how the series evolves. How about you?

Twitter: @kentucker