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'Bunheads' and the virtue of not 'getting' all the references

Randy Holmes/ABC Family

One of the ways young people of any age educate themselves, accrue knowledge more quickly, is to be faced with things with which they are unfamiliar: emotions, plot twists, history, words. The natural impulse for everyone, adults included, when confronted with something new, is to say to him- or herself, “What is that? Do other people understand what that means? I’ve got to find out what that means!”

These thoughts occurred to me last night, watching the latest episode of ABC Family’s Bunheads. The show, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the auteur behind Gilmore Girls. Bunheads‘ ongoing saga of the doughty Paradise Dance Academy, its struggling but essentially good-natured, mostly-female students, overseen by Kelly Bishop’s Madam Fanny and underpinned by the noodle-shaped sprite that is Sutton Foster as Michelle Simms, is one of the year’s more pleasurable debuts for ABC Family, a kind of televisual cleanse before the Tuesday junk food of Pretty Little Liars.

Last night, some of the girls could be seen in the hour’s opening moments engrossed in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. “They talked faster in those days,” whispered one young student in admiration. Another remarked upon the filmmaking technique, how the dances were shot “all in one take.” There followed rapid-fire references to Martin Scorsese, Eugene O’Neill, Spinal Tap, and Peter Dinklage.

How much of these cultural reference points were already common knowledge among the youthful viewers of Bunheads? I’ll bet not all of them. But unlike many TV makers, who assume that introducing even slightly arcane names will alienate TV-watchers (TV execs live in fear of this sentence followed by this action: “What are they talking about?” CLICK!), Sherman-Palladino insists on stuffing her shows with stuff she likes, and blithely assumes we will like it, too, or at least — and this is the important point — become curious enough to seek out who this creature Fred Astaire was, or what that dude O’Neill wrote.

In the hour, perennially put-upon Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) was paired up with a weisenheimer named Carl to do a Fred-and-Ginger number for the upcoming Paradise Gourmet Food store opening extravaganza. Carl has a crush on Boo, and at their first rehearsal, brings her a bottle of celery tonic because he overheard her say she loved celery tonic a couple of years ago. The point of the scene is to establish how long Carl has pined for Boo, but the subtext was, how does a girl in 2012 adore celery tonic and have you ever had it?

Bunheads inspires TV viewing of the healthiest sort, by which I do not mean it force-feeds you your educational vegetables (although there’s a certain amount of positive-messaging built into every hour, such as the ongoing implication that just because Boo is pear-shaped and not as knife-like intense as the other dancers, she should never give up on her dream). Rather, the show is over-flowing with cultural references, low and high, that will inevitably inspire some percentage of its audience to actually go and YouTube an Astaire-Rogers dance scene, or Wikipedia “Eugene O’Neill.”

I should add that another bonus of last night’s episode was the presence of former Whit Stillman mainstay Chris Eigeman as Michelle’s new love interest. (Eigeman was a Lorelei beau for a while there on Gilmore, some of you will recall.) Don’t know who Whit Stillman is? Look it up!

Do you agree that we and our kids frequently learn things simply because the makers of the better pop culture cannot help but share their enthusiasms and inspirations with us? Why, it’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as, oh, Rocky and Bullwinkle...

Twitter: @kentucker


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