Fox has lately made its name, and its success, on televised music competitions — everything from “The Masked Singer” and “Dancer” franchises to a revived “Name That Tune” to the amiably strange “I Can See Your Voice.” And so it makes a certain kind of sense that this fall, it launches a new scripted series about … the inner workings of a reality-TV contest.
On “The Big Leap,” various Detroit residents are wooed by a series of the same name, one that aims to find the cast for a televised reimagining of “Swan Lake.” These folks are not necessarily trained ballerinas, just people who have something inside to get out. That “The Big Leap” follows the story of a reality show makes its storytelling economical — we see the big themes of these characters’ lives easily in part because a near-omnipotent producer (Scott Foley) points them out.
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This show parcels out its emotionality with a very heavy hand: It’s lost on no one that dance is an outlet for people who are otherwise stuck, whether in a bad marriage (as is the case with Teri Polo’s character) or in coming to terms with one’s sexuality (Raymond Cham Jr.) or in the modern economy (Jon Rudnitsky, as a gig worker) or just in every conceivable facet. Simone Recasner, an instantly likable new performer, plays Gabby, effectively the show’s lead. Recasner conveys her character’s multifarious forms of angst — a young single mother whose own mom is something less than supportive, she craves the opportunity to express herself. Having been paired by production with a disgraced athlete (Ser’Darius Blain) who’s looking for a second chance of his own allows both to blossom.
But she won’t necessarily have her epiphanies on reality TV’s terms. An interesting tension in the show’s first two episodes is Foley’s character’s desire to push storylines on each of his puppets — a role Gabby refuses to play. As a fictionalized test of which is more powerful, the TV machine or one person with a crystalline idea of what a shot in the spotlight could mean on her own terms, “The Big Leap” generates real interest.
There’s plenty onscreen that needs a bit of work. Polo works to bring reality to a character who, on the page, is a classic type — a brittle, perfectionist social-media addict with a collapsing marriage; she deserves an assist from the writing. And the travails of the Rudnitsky character are at once an admirable attempt to address what the economy has done to ordinary people and a somewhat underbaked look at the same. (It’s good to stay positive, but Rudnitsky’s character treats radical optimism as the solution to problems that feel systemic, not personal.) And the central premise is a little baffling — though it’s fun to see the cast rehearsing, why this fictional production is reviving “Swan Lake” at all, let alone reimagining it, for a mass audience is a little hard to fathom.
Perhaps as it goes on, though, “The Big Leap” will embrace some of the right-there-on-the-surface implications of the ballet that were present in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” It certainly seems likely that — in a sunnier version of the fate that befell Natalie Portman a decade ago — Recasner’s Gabby will embrace the performer within. And the process of seeing her get there, and of seeing a new star deliver a charming, game performance on a well-intended and sweet drama, has its own rewards.
“The Big Leap” premieres Monday, Sept. 20, at 9 p.m. E.T.
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