Amy Sherman-Palladino on the Gilmore Parallels in Bunheads and Those Elusive Final Four Words

You may be pirouetting with excitement over ABC Family’s Bunheads (premiering Monday at 9/8c) because it promises all the balletic grace of Black Swan but with small-town charm in place of big-city psychosis. Or you could be tutu psyched because it stars Tony winner Sutton Foster as a fish-out-of-water Vegas showgirl. But the likeliest reason you’ll be making it a “pointe” to watch is that the series is the latest from the Wonder Woman behind Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Heck, even just in this TVLine Q&A, she manages to dish out reminder after reminder of why her work is so adored, waxing comedic on everything from the non-debate over the show’s title to the numerous Gilmore parallels. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, she finally delivers those elusive final four words (but, of course, there’s a catch).

TVLINE | Where did the idea for this show come from?
I danced my whole life. My mother is tragically disappointed at the ugly turn of events that my life has taken. She really counted on me being a dancer.

TVLINE | It’s an unusual title. Did you get any pushback from ABC Family?
I got one phone call after they picked up the pilot to say, “So, uh, is Bunheads the title?” I said, “Yeah.” And they went, “Okay.” [Laughs] I guarantee you that a conversation was had around a big table with a lot of Diet Cokes and worried faces and charts in front of them. [ABC Family executive VP] Kate Juergens knows me. She was at The WB when I pitched Gilmore. She understands the complicated yet charmingly delightful world of Amy Sherman-Palladino. And though it’s fraught with peril, there are many pleasures to be derived from the experience. [Kate and her team] will ask the occasional question but there has not been a wholesale demand for something.

TVLINE | How did Sutton Foster come into the picture? Were you familiar with her work?
I was familiar the name Sutton Foster, but I never met her or had any interaction with her. Sutton has never done any real TV. Her life has been so Broadway, Broadway, Broadway. When I started writing the script I went to New York and saw Anything Goes. And I was like, “I’m basing this on absolutely nothing. I may have had too many cocktails before the show. But I feel like this might be our girl.” So I called CAA — the most powerful dominating force in the world — and [arranged a] meeting. I wanted to see if she was crazy, if she speaks in tongues, if she eats kittens — how nutty is she?” So I met her between [performances] and, you know, on stage she ‘s this sort of brassy tall blonde bombshell. And then she takes her makeup off and she looks like she’s 12 years old. I’m sitting across the table from a 12-year-old eating chicken fingers. I as like, “There is something unbelievably strange and perfect about this girl.” She’s a chameleon. One minute she can be glammy and the next minute she’s the  girl next door and the next minute she’s Barney Fife.

RELATED | Gilmore Creator on Alexis Bidel’s Racy Mad Men Stint: ‘They Were Nice Boobs’

TVLINE | But could she handle your 16-page monologues?
First off, they’re 15 pages. Don’t get crazy. [Laughs] Theater folks tend to be good with dialogue. And, frankly, she came out here and I worked with her. We sat in a room together — she already memorized the script — and we worked on several scenes and, believe me, by the time the press release came out I was beyond positive that this is my girl. And [since then] Sutton has so far exceeded even my wildest expectations, and my expectations were pretty damn [high]. She’s really just incredible. Sutton is a dream to write for. There’s nothing she can’t do or try. You write a scene where [her character] Michelle [wakes] up in her underwear. On another show that’s 15 conversations. “My ass doesn’t look so good.” “Can I be in a teddy?” “Can I have an ass double?” “I don’t want to be in my underwear.” “Call my agent, I think I have an underwear clause.” It’s like a whole thing. With Sutton, the directions say “walk around in your underwear” and five minutes later I get a picture from wardrobe going, “Which pair of underwear do you want her walking around in?” She’s just an absolute gamer. She’s in it to play.

TVLINE | Did you always envision Kelly as the mother hen?
Kelly in real-life is this woman. Kelly is much more of a broad than Emily Gilmore was. Emily Gilmore was very pristine and precise. If you’ve ever sat down with Kelly Bishop and had a couple of cocktails, you know, she’s a broad. The problem with Kelly was that she lives back East and the show shoots in L.A. I knew she did not want to move to California. I knew her husband would never want to move to California. And then there was some concern about setting myself up for the, “Oh, so you’re doing Gilmore Girls all over again.” Which after a week of auditions was put out of my head immediately. After you hear the wrong people read the part, it’s just so clear who the right person is. [Laughs] So that led to my long journey to get Kelly to do it. There was a lot of heartbreak. We went back and forth and finally I found a system that worked for Kelly.

TVLINE | Even aside from Kelly, the show does have a very Gilmorian feel to it. The small town. The three generations of women. The banter. 
I write a very specific way. No matter who the characters are, they’re going to talk fast. There are not going to be a lot of close-ups. There is always going to be a feel. That’s my writing. When I go see an Aaron Sorkin movie I don’t want them to talk slow and stare deeply into each other’s eyes. I want that great Aaron Sorkin s— that he does. As far as the small town, it just became [small], honestly, by necessity. And as far as the generational stuff, look, I just like that. This time, I have four [young] girls that I’m centering on instead of one. It’s not a mother-daughter story. It’s not about that. But it is about home. And finding a home. And who are we going to become? Are there similarities [to Gilmore]? Sure. Are they on purpose? No. Am I unhappy about them? No. It’s a different world. It’s a fun world. My hope is it’s a world that Gilmore fans will feel comfortable working into, and [also] find different dynamics to fall in love with that they didn’t have on Gilmore Girls.

TVLINE | Last question — what were your final four words of Gilmore Girls.
[Laughs] For the rest of my life you’re going to be asking me that.  I am going to tell you. I am going to tell you. It’s not going to be today, but I am going to tell you. And I’m only going to tell you.

TVLINE | What are the final four words on Bunheads going to be?
[Laughs] Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.