‘The Big Leap’: On feel-good Fox series, amateurs pin their hopes on a ballet TV show
Made in Chicago, the escapist drama follows likable characters while spoofing the reality genre.
Sometimes you just have to take a big leap on a feel-good series that’s equal parts sentimental, goofy, inspiring and escapist, and the “Glee”-ful Fox drama “The Big Leap” perfectly fits that bill.
A series airing from 8 to 9 p.m. Mondays on WFLD-Channel 32.
If you check your cynicism at the door and allow yourself to be swept up in the broad comedy, the crisp writing and the wonderful performances from an eminently likable cast, “The Big Leap” can become appointment viewing. Set in Detroit but filmed at the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios and the Rialto Theater in Joliet, this is a fun, breezy, dance-centric drama/comedy about a group of misfits who are stumbling their way through life and for various reasons jump at the chance to audition for a reality TV show in the hopes one big break can change everything — and yep, that’s kind of dopey, but also not beyond the realm of possibility, seeing as how there are approximately 5 million reality/competition shows these days.
“The Big Leap” (premiering Monday) is inspired by the British documentary series “Big Ballet,” in which a famed theater director and a prima ballerina worked with a troupe of amateur dancers to mount a production of “Swan Lake.” In the show-within-a-show format here, Kevin Daniels plays Wayne Fontaine, a former dancer and the host of the program; Mallory Jansen is Monica Sullivan, a tart-tonged former ballerina and choreographer, and Scott Foley is Nick Blackburn, the temperamental and jaded reality show director who is an expert at manipulating contestants to pour their hearts out — with the cameras rolling, of course.
The first two episodes of the show serve as an introduction to the aforementioned behind-the-scenes personalities, as well as the myriad of diverse and empathetic contestants, including:
- Simone Recasner’s Gabby Lewis, a zaftig single mother who dreamed of becoming a competitive dancer in high school before life got in the way.
- Raymond Cham Jr.’s Justin Reyes, Gabby’s gay best friend from high school who is an amazingly gifted break dancer but is working at a bowling alley when Gabby comes calling and persuades him to join her in tryouts for the show.
- Piper Perabo’s Paula Clark, a cancer survivor and former high-level auto exec.
- Ser’Darius Blain’s Reggie Sadler, a disgraced NFL player hoping to rehabilitate his image and return to football.
- Jon Rudnitsky’s Mike Devries, a laid-off auto worker who is trying to make ends meet by working as a spin class instructor, a Lyft driver, an Instacart shopper, you name it, and hopes the show will serve as a vehicle for him to win back his estranged wife.
- Teri Polo’s Julia Perkins, who was a ballerina years ago, but these days is a middle-aged social media influencer and married mother of two girls who is rapidly losing followers and sponsors because she has committed the crime of … AGING! (“I’m helping an entire community of women feel less alone,” Julia tells her boss, who replies, “You’re competing with influencers who have existed for less time.”)
- Anna Grace Barlow’s Britnney Lovewell (now there’s a name to grow up with!), a young and talented and beautiful dancer who’s not here to make nice.
Episode 3 is set primarily in Chicago (with Chicago standing in for Chicago, hooray), when the contestants take a bus trip to see a world-famous ballet company perform “Swan Lake.” Cue the shots of the Loop and Lake Shore Drive and the reference to Portillo’s — and we also get an innovative and uplifting choreographed sequence set in the hallway and a number of rooms in the Drake Hotel, where the whole team gets their groove going to the sounds of Passion Pit’s brilliant cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ classic “Tonight, Tonight.” It’s the early season highlight of the show.
“The Big Leap” sets up a number of storylines, from the pending dissolution of Julia’s marriage to Mike’s bro-buddies not exactly understanding but supporting his quest to Gabby finding herself smitten with Reggie. Whenever a conflict emerges or it appears love might be in bloom, director Nick always seems to be hovering around the corner, herding the crew into place to record the moment, because if it doesn’t happen on camera, it might as well not have happened at all. In between the “Chorus Line”-type audition sequences, there are plenty of pop culture-heavy one-liners, as when one competitor says, “Name one ballet dancer” and the response comes: “Natalie Portman’s husband.”
This is a mild, mostly affectionate lampoon of reality shows and the people who make them and the people who compete in them. It’s hardly groundbreaking to see how the producers of these shows might well care about their subjects, but also intend to exploit them and manipulate events if necessary. Of course, even as Fox is poking fun at the genre, it’s also the home of “The Masked Singer” and “Masterchef Junior.” You can have your reality cake and take a bite of it too.