With bags of energy, and Pitch Perfect-esque wit, this Disney+ series about amateur dancers looking to hit the big time is an uplifting treat
I do not know how you defy the odds, the mood and the global direction of travel towards hell in a new-variant handcart in order to make an uplifting, joyful, uncynical show that is still funny, but the good people (and they must be good people, with uncankered hearts and unwithered souls) behind The Big Leap (Disney+) have managed it.
The 10-part comedy drama follows the lives of various Detroit residents who enter a reality show competition looking for amateur dancers to form a company of 20 to train under fearsome 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 part) wants the best backstories. Between them they settle on former factory worker Mike (Jon Rudnitsky), who has separated from his wife and is eking out a precarious living in the gig economy; breast cancer survivor (“Always plays,” notes Nick happily) Paula (Piper Perabo), who is also the executive responsible for the factory layoffs; and the disconcerting Lovewell twins Simon and Brittney (Adam Kaplan and Anna Grace Barlow). “Call research,” says Nick as he watches their audition piece, “and see how incest plays in the midwest. Twincest.”
There is also non-fearsome former ballerina Julia (Teri Polo), whose marriage and life as an influencer are imploding; and former high school sweethearts and Michigan state dance-team stars Gabby (Simone Recasner, a newcomer, though you would never guess it from her perfectly pitched, effervescent-yet-grounded turn ) and Justin (Raymond Cham Jr). It’s an ensemble piece, but with this pair slightly foregrounded, particularly in the early episodes as they reunite after seven years of no-speaks since the high school rager at which Gabby found out that Justin was gay and that she was pregnant from a one-night stand. Justin’s dad threw him out; Gabby kept the baby – so college and dance scholarship plans did not work out for either of them. Thus is The Big Leap (the show within the show, not the show-show) fulfilling a need for everyone – including the final addition to the ensemble, footballer Reggie (Ser’Darius Blain), who is haemorrhaging money and sponsors after a video of him under the influence went viral on social media.
The show-show doesn’t bother to hide its influences, but weaves them into something bold and colourful of its own. Its unflagging energy, as well as the official and impromptu dance scenes, remind you of Glee, but its witty, intelligent Pitch Perfect vibe prevents it becoming as emetic. It’s Unreal with heart and without the depth of cynicism. It offers an hour or so of realistic escapism, which is probably the best the market can bear at the moment. Gabby’s life as a single mother is harder than it would have been had her original ambitions been realised, but it is not dreadful. She is not miserable or defeated – just ready to take another shot. Julia is not downtrodden but equally ready to make a change when she finds that most of her husband’s overtime consists of watching porn in his study. And Mike has not (yet) been ground down by the system he now finds himself working in. It feels like a programme about second rather than last chances, and is all the better for it.
It’s also just funny. There’s nothing I love more than a comedy montage scene of auditions, and The Big Leap makes it into my personal pantheon of greats, thanks to a) the fact that most of the auditionees turn up as Spider-Man, and b) Monica’s bad faith (“All we’re going to find here is type 2 diabetes”) and appalled commentary. “Oh,” she says as one maladroit attempts to dance their way to glory, “that just gave me a UTI.” Nick is the comic gift that keeps on giving, whether he’s being squirted with too much hand sanitiser by an overzealous assistant (“Am I going to reach in and flip a breech baby later, Alan?”) but the rest of the cast have their own comedy as well as dramatic chops too.
It’s also got an ineffable charm that allows it to add up to more than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts. So take a leap – not even a big one – of faith, and just enjoy.