The Big Leap seems like a show that shouldn’t work. It’s a broadcast dramedy about a dance reality show that takes a group of everyday people in Detroit and puts them into a 20-person company to perform Swan Lake. It’s an uplifting series about people looking for second chances in life and love, and it’s a cynical, biting send-up of reality TV. Juggling those typically disparate tones, a huge ensemble cast, the show-within-a-show framework, and, yes, all the dancing could easily result in a train wreck, but The Big Leap makes it work. It balances the cheese and the comedy well. (Of course there is cheese, people — it’s a dance show about second chances. Get on board!) The dancing can be extremely moving. There are several great performances going on that add some surprising depth to characters that could easily be one-note, led by Scott Foley, who seems to be having the most fun as Nick Blackburn, the outwardly cynical executive producer of the show who is, deep down (way, way deep down), a softy. For a broadcast show, it makes some ambitious moves and doesn’t seem afraid to be unabashedly itself. There are several elements in season one that seem risky — whether they’re plot points, character arcs, or, you know, bringing flash mobs back — but the show manages to pull it all off. It takes some big leaps, if you will, and sticks the landing. Let’s review the highlights of the just-wrapped first season.
(SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON ONE.)
The initial big leap: Gabby and Reggie’s audition lift
A pilot episode has so many things to accomplish, and a pilot episode for a dramedy about a fictional dance reality show has an extra-long to-do list. The Big Leap not only has to lay out its very ambitious tone, but it also has to introduce the show within the show and an eclectic ensemble cast of characters that we need to care about. So much of buying this show rests on buying the chemistry in this first episode between Gabby, a single mother whose unexpected pregnancy derailed her dance dreams, and Reggie, the disgraced NFL player looking for redemption. Do I fully believe Reggie would be so easily persuaded to let Gabby teach him choreography so they can both get on the show? Not really. But once they’re in a room together dancing, it’s easy to forget that minor plot issue. The chemistry is immediate. It all culminates in their actual audition, in which Reggie wants to really wow everybody with a lift, but Gabby’s dealing with self-esteem issues after years of being told she’s too big to be a dancer. Reggie lifts her anyway. And it’s gorgeous! And Gabby cries because she feels free. If you’re not into this show at that point, you probably won’t be into this show.
The hip-hop ballet set to the orchestral version of “Move Bitch” that takes place in a ’shroom-induced fantasy
I love every single word in that sentence, and if you watched The Big Leap, you would too. There are many things that happen on this show that sound insane on paper, but the trick is that the context around those moments is done so well that, for the most part, you’re already too swept up to question it. Like, obviously when two cast members aren’t getting along, they’re going to have a dance-off to Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” to see which one can stay on the show, and obviously “there’s a shaman in transpo” who is going to give tightly wound choreographer and executive producer Monica mushrooms, and she’s going to have a vision of how to save Swan Lake, and that vision is this hip-hop ballet. It honestly all works in the moment. And, yes, sure, I might be trying to download this version of the song. You don’t know my life!
The “getting married before the bride dies” wedding between two characters who only met eight episodes prior
With only 11 episodes in the first season, The Big Leap sometimes feels like it is moving at warp speed. There are certainly moments and story lines that could use some breathing room for a more profound payoff, but mostly, thanks to some really dialed-in performances and writing that doesn’t waste too much time on exposition, it’s easy to get emotionally invested. This is especially true for the bevy of romances the show sets up — there are so many! And they are all good! I want to talk about Justin and Simon’s first kiss forever! — including the doomed one between Mike (an out-of-work auto-factory worker trying to win his wife back) and Paula (a onetime HR executive with breast cancer). In the span of eight episodes, these two go from strangers, to dance partners, to friends, to hooking up, to breaking up because Mike learns Paula was the exec who fired him, to Paula pushing him away because she’s dying, to Mike making a very emotional hospital-bedside declaration of love. Then, in episode nine, they decide to get married. And you know what? It all lands! Part of that is because Jon Rudnitsky (Mike) should be in every rom-com from now on. Part of it is because, like the rest of the show’s romances, there is an easy, immediate chemistry between Rudnitsky and Piper Perabo (Paula). And part of it is because The Big Leap has worn me down with the dancing and the second chances and the people to root for. It’s nice to root for nice people!
Making a case for flash mobs again
I thought I was done crying over flash mobs in 2009, and yet here we are. The first flash mob in the season is more good, clean fun than it is emotional — it’s your typical “will you go to homecoming with me?” flash mob that takes place when the show is filming at Gabby’s former high school. Simon takes the reins, which makes sense since he has “a dove guy” on standby, and it’s set to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You,” and it’s great, and the girl says yes. The second flash mob of the season, well, I had to lie down afterward. It’s the cast’s gift to Mike and Paula at their aforementioned death-wedding, and it is a joyous celebration of love set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Even Mike’s auto-factory friends join in. It’s the best, and it makes me cry just thinking about it. So, I guess, fuck this show? (In a good way.)
Making a case for random public dancing
One thing you’ll have to immediately get over when watching The Big Leap is that people just start dancing by themselves in public places. Somehow it’s not that hard of an ask. (Okay, that duet at the pickup basketball game was stretching it.) It’s not like a movie musical, in which people just randomly break into song and dance; it’s surprisingly grounded (again, let’s not talk about the basketball scene, okay?) and another instance of the writers building up enough context so that you don’t question it. The best use of this mechanism is Justin’s solo dance in episode eight (honestly, I could watch Raymond Cham Jr., who plays Justin, dance all day). It takes place after Monica and Justin’s father, two people who have been tough on Justin, tell him how special and talented he is and that his life is going to change because of his dancing. Justin’s feelings about dance are wrapped up in his grief over his late mother, who believed in him before anyone else did. He celebrates his successes by dancing out in the street, as he imagines dancing with both his younger self and his mom. It’s one of the most moving moments of the season, and maybe we should just all be dancing out in the street to express ourselves more!!
Making us believe Julia wouldn’t hook up with the hot Australian sound guy immediately
Of all the items on this list, this is the one that almost fails. I’m sorry, but are we really to believe that Julia would wait weeks — WEEKS — to put her mouth on this nice, hot man’s mouth? It requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief. Linus the sound guy is, again, hot, he’s super into her, he’s somehow pulling off the name Linus, and he does that Cool Hot Guy thing where he cuts an apple and eats the slice right off the knife. Why do hot men do this? I don’t know, and I don’t care. In the end, though, I can get on board with the waiting for two reasons. First, most of the romances on this show are pretty much full steam ahead from the beginning, so having at least one real slow burn (I mean, the season is only 11 episodes long — how slow burn can we get?) is a smart change of pace. Second, the waiting ties nicely into Julia’s character arc: She was a ballerina in NYC in the ’80s but stopped dancing completely when she lost two friends to AIDS. She’s in a soul-sucking marriage until she learns her husband is addicted to porn and he ran off with all their money. Her self-esteem is low, and after all that time, she’s terrified of opening herself up to someone new. But then she finally does! And it’s great!
The entire finale performance of Swan Lake
Holy hell, does the Swan Lake performance have to do a lot. Within the confines of what is supposed to be a live broadcast of the show within a show’s big, uh, swan song — which kicks off with a blackout, by the way — every story line from the season needs to be somewhat tied up. That’s so many story lines! Will Simon and Justin reconcile? What about Gabby and Reggie? Will Julia go back to her husband? Will Nick shed his sleazy producer ways once and for all, or will he use some VERY SENSITIVE INFORMATION that would make for a great season two (wink, wink)? On top of all this going on, there is the dancing. There’s Mike dancing with Paula’s little ballet students! There are all the callbacks to dances from the rest of the season! There is a number set to an orchestral version of “No Scrubs,” by TLC! It’s all a little wild, but it works! Who cares that they decided to change the ending of Swan Lake to be about loving yourself? I mean, did you hear the part about “No Scrubs”?