Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left that still-in-syndication WB/CW show (along with husband/frequent creative partner Daniel Palladino) in 2006 when contract negotiations ended unsuccessfully. Since then, she has developed several series scripts and/or pilots but none has been a success. Now she has found a home at ABC Family with Bunheads, a summer series about a ballerina-turned-Vegas showgirl (Tony-winner Sutton Foster) who unexpectedly finds herself teaching at her mother-in-law’s small-town dance school. (ABC Family is part of the Disney-ABC Television Group cocktail party at TCA this evening.) After its June 11th premiere, Bunheads immediately ignited controversy when mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, who is black, tweeted: “Hey@abcfbunheads: really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kids watching this show? Not ONE?” The outspoken Bunheads co-creator (with Lamar Damon) and executive producer talks to Deadline TV contributors Diane Haithman and Allison Hope Weiner about the new series, failed projects, what’s next, and her response to Shonda Rhimes.
DEADLINE: Dance insiders know the word “bunheads” describes ballet students who pin their hair up for class. Will the general public get it?
AMY SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It’s the term I grew up with. We were called bunheads, and when I threw it out there it seemed to stick and people seemed to like it. I’m sure there was a conversation behind closed doors: “Perhaps we should call it Debbie Dances On Pointe.” And there was one phone call that said: ‘The title is Bunheads???’ ” And that was it. It was not a point of contention… I just like the word.
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DEADLINE: How did this series come about? Did it have anything to do with the popularity of today’s dance competition shows, NBC’s Smash or the movie Black Swan?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It is coming at a time when there’s a lot of dancing on TV. But no, I wasn’t sitting at home saying, hey, the zeitgeist is into dancing. I’ve ever been that kind of producer, unfortunately. I wish I could be, because I know there are people who make a lot of money sitting there going: ‘This is in right now, let’s go pitch this.’ I’d rather be at the Grove unless I have a real idea, where I see the people and want to write the words coming out of their mouths. I really, really like to shop.
DEADLINE: So where did the idea come from?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I was working on a play that was sort of based on my ballet school growing up, about four little girls and the mothers of the four little girls outside the glass window. My whole background is dancing. My mother is a dancer. My whole interest is Broadway and musicals. Even on Gilmore Girls I had Miss Patty’s dance school. When Kate [ABC Family EVP Original programming and Development Kate Juergens] came to me, it was for a project for a specific actress they were trying to woo; they were looking for something in the Glee kind of genre. I said to her, well, I don’t really want to do Glee because there is a Glee. And I didn’t really want to do a show where I have to do a musical number every week, because I like to do shows about people.
DEADLINE: You are also known for rapid-fire dialogue.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It’s important to me because I have a very short intention span. I do not understand why on television somebody asks you if you want a cup of coffee and it takes you 10 minutes to answer. I find my conversations with my friends in life go fast. People overlap each other, you answer quicker, you’re walking down the street, there’s an energy. I like to watch shows like that.
DEADLINE: Why ABC Family? It’s known as a channel programming for teenage girls.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I think they’re trying to expand their audience. My show is definitely not just for that audience. My lead character is 35. But look, Kate knows me from Gilmore Girls, she was at the WB [replaced by the CW in 2006] when I sold Gilmore Girls. She knows exactly what I do. There is no mystery surrounding what she’s going to get. And ABC Family, if you really look at it, they are one of the main networks just doing stories about characters. Everything doesn’t have to be a gigantic, supernatural high-concept or doctors or cops. It’s old-school WB, it’s what made the WB so great in the Dawson’s Creek, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls days. I never pictured myself as an ABC Family chick. But the opportunity to work with people who appreciate what you do, you can’t turn your nose up at that.
DEADLINE: What’s the atmosphere like at ABC Family?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: They’re not a restrictive network. They are not looking at this like were doing smushy, cushy family shows, they are looking at it as, what are the shows that we like? It’s a small group over there, a lot of chicks, which is awesome. You walk into these meetings and it’s just a bunch of women sitting around eating salads. It really is like, does Kate like it or does she not like it? I know there’s marketing, I know that other people weigh in, but when you go to the networks now, the voices that have to chime in, there’s hundreds of them, all with different agendas. It’s very tough to get a show on the air these days.
DEADLINE: You come out of network TV, with a sitcom history that includes writing for ABC’s Roseanne and NBC’s Veronica’s Closet in 1990s. How has network TV changed?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It’s a climate now where the network either wants you to do drama, or comedy. My feeling is shows are most successful when they’ve got both. If you have a lighthearted comedy, it’s more effective when you also kick someone in the nuts. There was a time where it seemed like there was going to start to be some crossover. But the networks, now especially, don’t want chocolate in their peanut butter or peanut butter in their chocolate. It’s just not the way I write. I want to write about people. I want real things to happen to them, and sometimes real things are sad. The separation of comedy and drama I’ve never understood.
DEADLINE: What do the networks want?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: A lot of fantasy, a lot of cops and doctors still. And if the cop or doctor is part-werewolf, even better. I don’t believe I could sell Gilmore Girls today. So while you get meetings off your laurels, they don’t really want that. They like it, and they say they want it, but that isn’t really want they want. I was lucky. I got into that in a particular time in space when dramedies were hot. There a was time when they seemed to be pushing to try to find the next Northern Exposure, the next show that incorporated both comedy and drama, but it’s not something that right now is in vogue.
DEADLINE: Are you speaking from recent experience?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: This year I wrote a pilot for a lovely bunch of people at a network. I pitched out the whole thing to them, we had delightful meeting, and they were very excited about it. Then they picked up the script and said: ‘Oh my God, there’s so much comedy in here, it’s not a drama!” I said OK, but there’s crying and fights that’s a lot of drama in there too. But because there was comedy, they didn’t know how to categorize it.
DEADLINE: What script are we talking about?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I wrote a version of The Nanny Diaries [for ABC as one of the first projects of The Weinstein Company’s TV division]. When I went into it, I said, I don’t want to do The Nanny Diaries that was already done, because it was already done [the Weinstein Co is also responsible for the 2007 feature film]. But I had a different take and a different point of view and a story that I really, really liked, and I was very, very happy with the script. But it wasn’t a soap opera, and it wasn’t a supernatural once-upon-a-time, and it wasn’t a straight drama-drama — it had a lot of comedy. They saw it more as comedy. To me, everything is comedy, and everything is drama. The Sopranos was one of the funniest shows on television, that show was just fuckin’ funny. I feel like lot of the shows I try to sit through on network television now, they’re so heavy-handed. There’s not a laugh. There’s no relief from “the bullet entered here.”
DEADLINE: Does that mean The Nanny Diaries is dead?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I’m sure they’ll have someone else do it. It’s a big title and lot of people are interested in it. They’ll have someone else do a version of it that they like. I don’t even think that they didn’t like my version, but you get into the network world and you need to fit into their slot. And by the way the people at the network were very respectful, it’s just that at the end, when they read the product, they did not have a place to put it. I find that a lot with my work in the last few years, it doesn’t fit anywhere. It is what it is.
DEADLINE: Tell me about some of the other projects that didn’t make it.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I did a pilot a couple years ago for the CW. It was called The Damn Thorpes [also known as The Wyoming Project]. It was a Western-y thing, about a young family on a horse farm. Seriously, when you think of me you think outdoorsy, but I’ve never spent so much time in horseshit in my entire life. But I did it, and I was very proud of it. I knew there was no way in hell they were going to pick this pilot up. I told them that three times, I tried to talk them out of buying it. No one else was going to pay me to produce this pilot, so I thought, what the hell? And of course they didn’t pick it up, but I got to see it produced. It’s very hard as a writer to put so much effort and love and care into scripts that sit in your drawer. It’s a painful process.
DEADLINE: Why didn’t it work for the CW?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It was jeans and cowboy boots. I don’t know what the new agenda for the CW is, but at the time that I was there everything was very urban, very hip, very stylish, very fashion-driven, very pop music-driven, and this was about kids on a ranch farm in Montana. It was just not cool enough for what they wanted. I sure enjoyed it. I think we did some nice stuff. And by the way I found some horses that hit a mark better than some actors can.
DEADLINE: Then there was Jezebel James, a 2008 mid-season replacement for Fox. It lasted three episodes.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: There were a lot of things that went wrong on that show. The first thing was, the guy that picked it up left, and Kevin Reilly came in, and it was not his show. You are always up against it when you are about to premiere and a new guy walks in the door. Number two, Fox is not really a place for a relationship comedy between two women. New Girl is sort of working for them, but it’s a group comedy, it’s more Friends-y. My pilot for Jezebel had like a 15-page scene where the two of them were sitting at a diner talking. The third problem was shooting in New York. At the time we were shooting, there was no infrastructure for multi-cam in New York. You had to bring in all these people. There was not a plethora of guys who know how to do warm-up, because warm-up is not stand-up. So we were starting from scratch, and the problem with TV today, certainly with network TV, is there is no room for growing pains. And look, frankly, they never got the show. One of my most vivid experiences in the business is going to the Fox upfronts, and we sat in that theater and I watched the clip they showed of Jezebel, and I turned to Dan [Palladino] and said, we’re canceled, because they don’t know what the show is. There were no jokes. It was all just hugs. It was supposed to be a sitcom, but they did not put any of the comedy in. Usually when you are at a network that absolutely does not understand what you are trying to do, there is not enough time to make them understand. And we went on strike. There were so many things.
DEADLINE: Would it have worked if you’d shot it in Los Angeles?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It would have worked technically here, because the infrastructure was here, but neither Lauren Ambrose or Parker Posey was going to move to LA, so there wasn’t an option on that. And frankly, when the regime change happened on Fox, we should have gone to lunch then. Nobody’s fault, it’s just the way it happened.
DEADLINE: Well, Gilmore Girls worked — until you left. Right now, Gilmore Girls is back in the news because journalists are comparing your departure to the situation at NBC’s Community, predicting that series won’t survive the ouster of creator Dan Harmon as showrunner. Can a series successfully outlive its creator?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I think certain shows can. Great shows like Cheers went on and on after the original guys left, but you have to be able to train people in the style. I think procedurals can go on because you are doing cases. When a show is about a singular voice or a singular relationship, I think it’s a lot harder. When you’ve got the guy who basically was Community, and you get rid of him in year four, I don’t understand that position. You either keep the guy for a fourth season, or maybe you just don’t pick it up. I don’t know Dan Harmon; some people say terrible things about him. I don’t know, maybe he is Lucifer. But if we based everything in Hollywood on who was a nice guy, holy moly, we would have no movies. No actors would work. This is not an industry that is ruled by kindness and generosity. But maybe Community will be a fucking phenomenon this year, who knows? I didn’t watch Community, I don’t have a dog in this race, but all the things I read about it just felt weird.
DEADLINE: Was the end of Gilmore Girls inevitable after you left?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: Gilmore was tough and the cast was tired. It was a hard show, and I think that once I left there were pressures to do it cheaper, to really streamline it, to do things that they could not get me to do. But there are practicalities. If you are new, and they are telling you to do something and you would like to remain in your job, you need to do that. I think Gilmore Girls could have gone on another couple-three years. I was sad the way it went down and I don’t think it had to go down that way. But I don’t control the business, although I would like to. It was a great and wonderful experience, and I was lucky to have it.
DEADLINE: Sounds like that’s TV.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: It is TV. If I had any other transferrable skills, any other way to make a car payment, I would do it. It’s the one thing I can do. You talk to people and they say, the business is changing and it sucks and it’s awful. Well OK, but what’s my option? This is it. It may suck, it may be awful, but you’ve got to just keep going.
DEADLINE: Any chance of a Gilmore Girls movie?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I thought so for a long time, I was into it, Lauren [star Lauren Graham] was into it, but the studio just does not seem to want to discuss it, so I’m thinking it probably won’t happen. She and I were totally there, we were game, I had stories, I had a way that I thought would have worked for fans and non-fans alike, but Warner Bros right now is not interested in doing that kind of movie.
DEADLINE: What’s next?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: I would love to do a musical on Broadway. I think that would be delicious. (Laughs) Yeah, I got something I’m talking to someone about, I’m vying for a gig, I’m out there trying to push myself on somebody, it’s in the works. In the meantime, I’ve got this.
DEADLINE (ALLISON HOPE WEINER): Do you think that maybe it was inappropriate for another woman (Rhimes) to be writing and criticizing another woman showrunner when there are so few on television?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO: Look, I’m not going to get into a pissing match with Shonda Rhimes because she has like 15,000 shows on the air, she’s doing just fine for herself. I don’t know what’s in Shonda’s heart. I’ve never met her before. Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t go after another woman. Frankly, I wouldn’t go after another showrunner. It is so hard to get a show on the air.