Amy Sherman-Palladino on the Bunheads Finale and What’s Next

And so, Michelle left. And we cried. But before that sad last moment, there was dancing! And young love! And a zombie apocalypse Vegas slut bag! We called up Bunheads boss Amy Sherman-Palladino last week to talk about Monday’s whirlwind finale, which we screened early. She hadn’t yet gotten the good news about the show’s pick-up, but she still downloaded all her thoughts on choosing to end things on a bummer note, that crazy rat ballet, and the idea that her show is about nothing. Spoilers ahoy!

My emotions are all over the place. Boo and Carl, The Nutcracker, pretty mace, “O Captain, My Captain”…
Delightful. I’ll take it.

That said, you chose to end on Michelle leaving, which is kind of a bummer note, and with no guarantee of a renewal at the time. What was the thought there?
The way ABC Family picks up their shows, every ten episodes you sort of need a “season finale.” They don’t run things consecutively, you’re gonna be off the air for awhile, and dramatically you want to arc into something. We took Michelle on a big, wham-bam life journey in the first ten episodes and I wanted to make sure that when we got to that last episode, it wasn’t about, “OK, now I’ve figured my life out,” but more about “OK, I think I figured my life out — but actually I’ve figured nothing out whatsoever.” Because Michelle is a very wise, very smart chick, she just doesn’t think things through. She doesn’t look into the future. She’s a very in-the-moment kind of gal, which is fun and exciting but when you’re thinking about long-term self-preservation, sometimes you need five minutes of “now if I do this, what could possibly happen?” And because she’s not that kind of character I wanted to highlight that.

I wanted to set Michelle and Fanny back a notch. It’s no fun to watch people getting along. I have no interest in happy people. They can all bite my ass. I like the rest of the people who are grumbling and having problems and having breakdowns. Those are my peeps. At the very least I wanted to give people who have invested emotionally in this show a good wham-bam SLAM.

Assuming Michelle is coming back, will that relationship always be kind of antagonistic?
The thing about any relationship is if there’s true emotion and connection there, it’s fraught with peril. It’s only very surface-y relationships that sort of sail along like clockwork, you know? If there’s truly something to share, it’s scary. Then there’s somebody who can suddenly have something on you, who understands you. Being understood is a frightening thing. They know why you’re pulling the shit that you’re pulling. And because Michelle has been sort of a loner figure, building this connection with someone when she’s a girl who’s used to keeping all that at bay, that’s a very frightening place to go. So, there’s got to be stops and starts to a relationship like that. We spent a lot of time having Michelle get comfortable in Paradise, having her and Fanny build a rapport and getting in with the girls.

But, Michelle and Fanny can’t just hold hands and have coffee. They’ve got to be able to go some place and combat each other. They’re two women whose relationship started because of Hubbell and almost ended because Hubbell died. There’s always going to be a little something there deep down. You know, 40 years from now at Thanksgiving, one too many glasses of wine and someone’s gonna say, “You know, Hubbell might have … ” It’s always going to be there. The thing about Fanny and Michelle is they’re actually very similar in a lot of ways so it’s a nice way to give Fanny a daughter figure, and give Michelle a best friend or a family figure that is going to force her to invest emotionally in something that is not in her comfort zone.

Fanny put on two unconventional ballets during the season: Paper v. Plastic and The Nutcracker turned upside down. Where do the ideas come from?
Because of who Fanny is, just doing the straight Nutcracker would not have been as satisfying. I wanted to put a spin on it. It’s fun to come up with these things! It’s not even necessarily part of the story plan. It’s just as I’m writing it, I’d go, “Oh, you know what would be funny is if they were like Wall Street rats.” It was just an idea. I knew I needed the rat ballet. I don’t know. Look, I don’t have time for therapy, if I did maybe I could figure all this out but in the meantime it all comes out in the ballets. In the finale, it was just an opportunity to go all dancing madness mayhem.

Loved seeing Fanny dance a little as Drosselmeyer. Sutton seems to dance primarily in her dreams. She’s always auditioning which seems like an awful thing to dream about.
It’s a couple of things. First of all, everyone has anxiety dreams that play out and a lot of times they are recurring. I know I have mine. She’s someone who let a performing career possibly slip away from her by simply not paying attention. She’s someone who’s going to have regrets and anxiety. She’s gonna go to sleep and deal with some of this shit. It felt like a good fun place to go. It’s also a nice place to see Sutton perform organically, short of doing karaoke night at the Oyster Bar. When that happens, people have instructions to take me out. When I put karaoke in a script, someone is going to be able to shoot me in the head at a table read. There’s always a sense of fantasy in a television show, but you want to build as much reality as you can. Her dreams give us a place for her to play out problems that she can’t really talk to people about.

In the beginning especially, ABC Family was really promoting the show as if it were all about the four young girls. Were you ever at odds over the balance between Michelle and Fanny and the girls?
We were never at odds. They always knew what I was going to, and I always knew, in the end, what their business model is. They love Sutton, they love Kelly, they love their relationship, but their bread and butter is the teen audience. Their struggle is how to sell a show to the audience that they already have, keep them, and then expand past them. And that is, by the way, a tricky goal and this is very déjà vu. I ran into all of this on Gilmore Girls, like, I’m reliving conversations I had on Gilmore Girls. A little less fiery now because Kate Juergens, who is head of ABC Family, and I know each other and worked together before [at the WB] so there’s not as much mystery as there was.

On Gilmore Girls there was a lot of, “What is Amy doing?” Kate knows what I’m doing. Have there been a couple of phone calls like, “Can we get a few more scenes with Michelle and the girls?” Absolutely. The tricky thing is that at the beginning of the show I had four relatively green girls who were asked to dance en pointe, do all of their own dancing, all of their own acting. Now? These four kids are ready for battle, man. I’m sending these girls out into the world like, “David Mamet? No problem.” It took a lot of time and a lot of my discussions with ABC Family, me telling them, “Trust me, I’m going to get them there but Michelle doesn’t know these girls well yet, so she can’t suddenly be den mother to four girls that she doesn’t know.” It would’ve been weird. It would feel fake, and it would take Michelle off of her journey that I need her to go on.

Some people have written that nothing happens on the show.
I know there’s a lot written about the show like, “It’s about nothing!” “It’s surreal!” “It’s nihilistic!” By the way, being called nihilistic with ballet is one of the funniest and most delightful things I’ve ever read in my entire life. I want that on my tombstone. At the core the show is about something. It is Michelle’s journey. This goes back to your question: The show was also sold as, “This is about Michelle. She is the star of the show. It is about her journey and her world, and then by extension her relationship with Fanny and then her relationship with the four girls.” It takes time to define the world.

Melanie seems to be the bunhead with the least to do compared to Sasha and Boo and Ginny. Do you have an idea what you want to do with her in the future?
Yeah, we’re going to get into everybody. Sasha and Boo from the pilot were the easy ones to go to immediately because they had instant conflict. Sasha was the girl who everything came easy to but was terribly unhappy and unfocused and maybe a little like Michelle, and Boo was the one who had all the heart and just does not fit into the picture of what ballet is supposed to be. Then we had to focus a little bit more on Ginny and Melanie. Ginny had a little boyfriend stuff going on but also by bringing Ginny and Melanie together, we’ve got best friends, the Heckle and Jeckle, and they have unbelievable comic timing between the two of them. That sort of solidified that piece. I wanted to make sure we really start defining their lives and their relationships and their individual troubles, not just the four greek chorus girls who sort of come in and look at the show, like, “Yo, crazy!” So, yes, we absolutely have plans for her, we have plans up the ass for all of them.

I know it’s the age of Give It To Me Now, but I dole it out slow. I know that makes some people angry, frustrated, and I, uh, I apologize, but I think it gives actors a chance to figure themselves out too, so when you hit them with that arc, they’re ready to take it. There’s nothing worse than throwing an arc at someone and they can’t handle it yet. Or they don’t quite know what to do with it yet because we haven’t figured it out in our own heads.

Amy Sherman-Palladino on the Bunheads Finale