There's a moment in the sixth episode of Bunheads I rewound and watched over and over. I've talked about it, oh, a dozen times with my friends who watch the show, and the friends I'm trying to convince to watch the show, and I acted it out for the people I know I'll never be able to sell. It's halfway through the episode, and the four teen girls who comprise the titular bunheads are trying to convince various people at the movie theater to switch seats, so the four of them can sit together. Boo, by far the most interesting and endearing of the bunch, asks a man listed in the credits as "Smelly Guy" if they can swap seats. "Nope!" he announces, almost cheerfully, and then raises a gross can to his lips, spits in it, and rattles it around. It's five seconds long. And it's great.
That's when I went from liking Bunheads a lot to being sure there was a legitimately excellent show in there somewhere. Any show that could take such a throwaway moment and turn it into a perfect, complete little moment has huge potential. It's just buried beneath several layers of pretty lousy teen acting (even by ABC Family standards), a weird lack of chemistry, and some underdefined characters.
Amy Sherman-Palladino swears to us that she "[has] plans up the ass" for the teen characters. That's great, but the problem isn't really that the bunheads don't have enough to do. The problem is that they're not very good actresses. Perhaps in the off-season, they'll improve, and maybe as the show goes on, the zippy dialogue will start to sound more natural from them. Rory's lines on Gilmore Girls didn't always sound quite right either — but at least Lane and Paris were landing every single quip.
That detached, awkward affect makes it even harder to invest in any of the bunhead storylines. The line deliveries are so flat that it drains any momentum or tension from the story; the actors don't connect to the characters, the characters barely connect to each other. Sasha wants to quit ballet and go be a sulky cheerleader? Who cares? Ginny (the blond one) wants to break up with her long-term boyfriend? Uh, okay! Melanie is the tall one who hates her brother? Yeah, that's about all there seems to be for her. Boo's the only one with a point of empathy or an internal struggle: I'm trying to be a confident person, but it's hard. I'm not as good a dancer as my friends, but I love it more. The show doesn't have to be My So-Called Life to give these girls distinct drives. Switched at Birth* manages to give its characters some depth. Awkward manages. Hell, even Teen Wolf's teen wolves contain multitudes.
The teen characters are not the only flimsy part of the show. Fanny's motivations are still surprisingly murky. We know she has regrets about leaving professional dance; we know she's grieving the death of her son; we know she has very peculiar ideas of what The Nutcracker should look like. It's not quite clear yet how all these things work with each other, though: It seems she's always been something of a harsh teacher, and her completely bonkers pedagogy doesn't faze anyone except the audience and sometimes Michelle. We have a collection of facts about Fanny, but they don't seem to quite hang together.
Going into its next season, Bunheads has a few key assets: One, Sutton Foster, who's gotten a little looser and sillier (plus a little bit sadder and more vulnerable). Two, Kelly Bishop, who is a global treasure. Three, Bunheads strikes a tone that other shows don't even attempt, bouncing from light humor and pop references to surprisingly grounded anxiety and sorrow. Plus, they can always bring back Smelly Guy.
* This article previously misidentified this show as Separated at Birth. Vulture regrets the error. Either way, give that show a try!