I don’t know how you challenge the odds, mood, and overall direction of the journey to hell in a new handcart variant in order to make an uplifting, cheerful, non-cynical show that’s still funny, but the right people (and they have to be good people, with a non-blighted heart and non-withered soul) behind The Big Leap (Disney +) got it done.
The 10-part comedy-drama follows the lives of various Detroiters who enter a reality show competition looking for amateur dancers to form a company of 20 to train under the dreaded former ballerina Monica (Mallory Jansen) for a televised performance of Swan Lake. She wants the most talented dancers. Producer Nick (Scott Foley, having the time of his life in a Wonderful Party) wants the best stories. Between them, they settle on former factory worker Mike (Jon Rudnitsky), who has separated from his wife and earns a precarious living in the odd-job economy; breast cancer survivor (“Always playing,” notes Nick happily) Paula (Piper Perabo), who is also the factory’s executive layoff manager; and the baffling twins Lovewell Simon and Brittney (Adam Kaplan and Anna Grace Barlow). “Call the research,” Nick says, looking at their audition piece, “and see how incest plays out in the Midwest. Twincest.
There’s also the fearless former ballerina Julia (Teri Polo), whose marriage and influencer life implode; and former high school friends and stars of Michigan State Dance Team Gabby (Newcomer Simone Recasner, though you’d never guess from her perfectly launched, effervescent and yet grounded turn) and Justin (Raymond Cham Jr). It’s an ensemble piece, but with this pair slightly in the foreground, especially in the first few episodes as they reunite after seven years of silence since the high school wrath during which Gabby found out Justin was gay and that she was pregnant with a- the nightstand. Justin’s father threw him out; Gabby kept the baby – so college and dance scholarship plans didn’t work out for either. So, The Big Leap (the show within the show, not the show-show) fulfills a need for everyone – including the latest addition to the set, footballer Reggie (Ser’Darius Blain), who is bleeding from money and sponsors after a video of him under the influence went viral on social media.
The show doesn’t bother to hide its influences, but weaves them into something daring and colorful all its own. Its unwavering energy, along with the formal and impromptu dance scenes, reminds you of Glee, but its witty and intelligent Pitch Perfect vibe keeps it from becoming so emetic. It’s unreal with heart and without the depth of cynicism. It offers about an hour of realistic escape, which is probably the best the market can handle at the moment. Gabby’s life as a single mother is more difficult than it would have been if her initial ambitions had been fulfilled, but it’s not terrible. She’s not unhappy or defeated – just ready to take another photo. Julia is not oppressed but just as ready for a change when she finds out that most of her husband’s overtime is watching porn in his office. And Mike has not (yet) been crushed by the system he now finds himself working in. It feels like a second chance program rather than a last chance program, and that’s all the better for it.
It’s also just funny. There’s nothing I love more than a comedic audition cut scene, and The Big Leap makes it my personal pantheon of greats, thanks to a) the fact that most of the auditioners pose as Spider. -Man, and b) Monica’s bad faith (“All we’re going to find here is type 2 diabetes”) and a dismayed comment. “Oh,” she says as a goofy tries to dance to glory, “it just gave me a urinary tract infection. Nick is the comedic gift that keeps on giving, whether he’s sprayed with too much hand sanitizer by an overzealous helper (“Am I going to reach out and turn a siege baby later, Alan ? “) But the rest of the cast have their own comedy as well as some dramatic chops as well.
It also has an ineffable charm that allows it to add up more than the sum of its significant parts. So take a leap – not even a big one – in faith, and enjoy it.