The Big Leap, Fox’s new hour-long dance dramedy, wrapped up its first season in early December and is streaming now. Read our review of the network’s most impressive 2021 offering, which is well worth a watch over your Christmas break.
If I told you the best new show of the year was on a broadcast network, I would fully expect the raised eyebrows and sputtering disbelief that inevitably follow. After all, it would be a show without the edginess of cable or the blank check budgets of streaming. However, that is precisely the scenario we find ourselves in thanks to The Big Leap.
I can’t speak for everyone, but after the last two years, I want television that’s comforting. You can keep your antiheroes and your violent delights, I want a show about people that I would actually want to welcome into my home, a show that’s funny and heartwarming and may cause a good cry on occasion.
I began the pandemic bingeing Downton Abbey, then Chuck, then Modern Family. Last spring, I extolled the virtues of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which feels like The Big Leap’s spiritual predecessor (earnestness accompanied by big dance numbers.) And this fall, amid the usual glut of new cop procedurals and reality shows, The Big Leap proved to be exactly what I wanted.
For those unfamiliar: Fox’s The Big Leap, created by Liz Heldens of Deception and Friday Night Lights, takes place behind the scenes of a fake reality show (which shares the show’s title) about down-on-their-luck amateur dancers putting on a production of Swan Lake. The premise was inspired by Big Ballet, a real British reality/documentary show, but The Big Leap is a showbiz satire, a dance show with some epic numbers, and a heartwarming dramedy about second chances all rolled into one.
It’s that last aspect that makes it speak to viewers, even those with no prior interest in watching dancing or in peeling back the curtain of reality TV. The characters of The Big Leap wear their hearts on their sleeves, and are earnestly trying to just stay up when life keeps kicking them down. No one is unlikable (though many are prickly,) and no one is truly the villain beyond life itself.
The dancing is glorious – let’s just establish that right off the top. And the showbiz satire is on point: the personalities are big, and the jokes fly fast and furiously. (“Call Research and see how incest plays in the Midwest!”) To the extent that The Big Leap has any sort of villain, it’s Zach Peterman – a hilarious Tom Lennon – as the network’s head of programming, who fires off cluelessly callous bon mots about the television industry with no regard to the people involved. (He’s got the rights to the Bible for his next TV show, and highly recommends the producer read it!)
But there is a key difference between The Big Leap and its showbiz-inspired predecessors: a decency and camaraderie to the characters. The first shows that come to mind as comparisons are UnREAL and Smash, which look behind the scenes of staging a reality show and a stage production respectively (The Big Leap is doing both at once!). So if we’re doing loglines, here’s how I pitch The Big Leap: “Imagine UnREAL or Smash, but nice!”
Back in 2015, UnREAL was heralded, rightfully so, as delivering the first truly perfect female anti-hero just as the genre had been saturated with men. The first season was a terrific bit of television. But the show was always more concerned with bad behavior and toxicity, and only allowed a few glimmers of humanity to peer through the scathing portrayal of the sociopathy of show business.
Smash, which premiered almost ten years ago, took audiences behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. It was not as openly nasty as UnREAL, but it was still very much about the draaaaaaamaaaa. *insert jazz hands* Team Ivy versus Team Karen! (There is a right answer, and it’s Team Ivy.) Sleeping with people to either get ahead or exact revenge! Poisoned smoothies and shady art deals! Smash did great at capturing the competitive side of theatre, but never captured the camaraderie and friendship that form so immediately and burn so brightly behind the stage curtain.
I loved both UnREAL and Smash. (Although there’s a somewhat worrying pattern: both of those shows, as well as Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, derailed to various degrees after their first season. One hopes that The Big Leap defies the odds, but perhaps I should start checking my expectations.) But I wouldn’t call either of them comforting, the way The Big Leap is. The Big Leap understood the assignment of being a new show in 2021, and defied expectations at every turn.
In the pilot, we meet all the archetypes one expects in a show about showbiz. A ruthless producer. A demanding diva choreographer. A hypersexual homewrecker. A beautiful blonde mean girl, and her over-the-top flamboyant brother. But the show is not content to keep its archetypes, and immediately begins infusing them with humanity. Halfway through the season, you look up and suddenly find that you like all the characters, empathizing with them and rooting for them, and you’re not quite sure how it happened.
For instance, there is Brittney Lovewell, who starts out as the foil to Simone Recasner’s Gabby. Brittney is insincere and conniving, played to perfection by Anna Grace Barlow. As her brother says, “She’s a psycho. Don’t you dare agree with me!” But over the course of the season, we meet Brittney’s monster of a mother, and come around to feeling sorry for her – rooting for her to be forgiven for her crimes.
Brittney’s sassy brother Simon is the scene-stealer of the show, with Adam Kaplan firing off zingers that are destined to be immortalized as GIFs. The show even has a nod to that, when the audience for the in-universe reality show is shown holding signs with Simon’s quotes. Frankly, if someone were to get me a t-shirt declaring “The default is always Slay,” I would be thrilled. But Simon is so much more than the sassy gay friend (or brother, as the case may be) – he shows his vulnerability when he falls in love with Justin (Raymond Cham Jr.) and when he finally stands up against his toxic mother.
The characters that surprised me most are the producer and choreographer, Nick (Scott Foley) and Monica (Mallory Jansen.) The former is gleefully planning to manipulate people to make good television, in scenes that are totally reminiscent of UnREAL. The latter is a deranged diva, throwing chairs in tantrums, with Jansen clearly having a ball. When they sleep together at the top of the show, no one expects anything good to come of it.
However, the way both of them grow over the course of eleven episodes is astounding. Monica has a mercifully brief storyline about drugging herself so she can dance, but then she turns her energy into nurturing Justin’s talent, and it turns out she is just as fierce an advocate as she is a taskmaster. Nick, meanwhile, finds his humanity over the course of the show, with some truly excellent work by Foley. He stealthily becomes the protagonist of the ensemble, struggling between the affection he feels for his cast and the shenanigans he knows make for good television. As the season drew to a close I couldn’t believe how invested I was in their romance, and how touching it was to see Nick wrestle with grief.
Yes, grief, because The Big Leap is also emotionally devastating in parts. Paula (Piper Perabo) has cancer, and the show doesn’t pull punches on its handling of her terminal illness. What I appreciated was that it never went for overly obvious “You shall cry now!” beats with prolonged speeches. Instead, there were understated quiet moments throughout, as we got to see the characters all wrestling with this truly awful thing, and it proved far more effective at eliciting sobs from the viewers.
Just as important as the four swoon-worthy romances in the show are the platonic relationships we see. In particular, the storyline of Julia (Teri Polo) is superb in this regard. Her husband runs out on her after becoming addicted to porn (and one particular camgirl, who is among the cast.) This show could so easily have become about Julia getting her own back against the husband or the homewrecker, or about finding love again. Instead, the true relationship at the fore is the friendship Julia builds with her would-be rival, a friendship that is given billing just as significant as the romance. That shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, but it’s wonderful to see.
And that’s the heart of it: this entire cast of characters feels like a tight-knit family. They are there for each other in tough times, and they throw epic dance parties in hotels in good times. They capture the feeling, familiar to everyone who’s done theatre and enviable to those who haven’t, of becoming ride-or-die friends in a matter of weeks. The writing on The Big Leap is masterfully efficient, building characters and relationships and developing them in only eleven episodes without ever rushing. I’ve only delved into half the characters, and the rest are just as complex and likable. It’s really a master class in screenwriting.
And there is one more thing worth lauding: The Big Leap takes place in our world, after the coronavirus pandemic. Among the dancers looking for a second chance on the fictional dance show are frontline workers, who speak in haunted tones of what they’ve endured and why they now want to escape into the world of Swan Lake. To my knowledge, almost no shows on TV have done this yet. Sure, shows like WandaVision serve as very apt allegories for what we’ve gone through, but there’s something really powerful about hearing the actual words said aloud.
The Big Leap, like its characters, is funny and earnest and really well-developed. It illustrates the best of what broadcast television can do: craft a show of decent people trying their best, one that’s inclusive and progressive without preaching at the audience, a show that can be savored at an hour a week as well as binged. It wasn’t enough to save Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist from an untimely demise, but it is this writer’s fervent hope that enough people experience the joy of The Big Leap to grant us more seasons. Fox has not yet renewed the show for season 2.
If you haven’t yet joined the ranks of the Leapers, check out The Big Leap (on Hulu in the US, and on Disney+ in many other territories). And if you are hesitating, then all I can do is quote the show’s mantra: “Get up, you stupid little bitch, you’ll do whatever is asked of you, and you won’t get any food or water until the job is done!”
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Irvin K. Hear Irvin on Episode 11 of Prophecy Radio, a Subjectify Media podcast.