Fifteeen minutes in, this lively, endearing but unsentimental drama about the goings-on at a reality TV show called The Big Leap will have you jumping for joy.
Here’s the pitch: Amateur dancers are selected by audition, then rehearse to perform a modernized Swan Lake while also letting cameras film them offstage and at home in Detroit. (The series, shot in Chicago, is inspired by an actual 2014 U.K. reality show, Big Ballet.) The underdogs who make the cut all hunger for some kind of second chance, while savvy executive producer Nick Blackburn (Scott Foley) just wants ratings gold.
“He’s looking for a love triangle, for people to fight, for tears,” says Foley, whose divorced character’s redeeming trait is his love for his tween daughter. Foley just hopes he won’t be asked to dance after the internet poked fun at his moves on Scandal. “I’ve offered the executive producers quite a bit of money back from my salary if they don’t make me,” he jokes. But he’s “mind-blowingly impressed” with his costars’ ballet, jazz and hip-hop numbers, choreographed by Christopher Scott (So You Think You Can Dance), which are woven into the story.
A standout duet in the premiere is when the heart of the show-within-a-show, lovable single mom Gabby Lewis (charismatic newcomer Simone Recasner), tracks down her estranged gay high school boyfriend/dance partner Justin Reyes (Raymond Cham Jr., an accomplished B-boy). Once college-bound on dance scholarships, both veered off course, and seven years later, she works a desk job while he mans a bowling alley. He scoffs at her request to audition together until she cues up Madcon’s “Beggin” (“Junior year, partners final!” she exclaims), and they fall back into step—energizing each other and ready for change.
“That dance is a celebration of friendship,” says creator and writer Liz Heldens (Friday Night Lights). “The theme of people coming back from a punch and trying to rebuild their lives fits the times.”
The personalities in the troupe certainly do sound familiar. Gabby falls for Reggie Sadler (Ser’Darius Blain), a celebrity pro football player who’s recently been “canceled.” Former ballerina Julia Perkins (The Fosters’ Teri Polo) is a disappointed wife and mom seeking fulfillment via social media. And autoworker Mike Devries (Jon Rudnitsky, Catch-22) hasn’t been himself since he lost his job and his wife. He sparks with musical theater major turned corporate executive Paula Clark, a cancer survivor played by Covert Affairs’ Piper Perabo. (“I’m just happy to see her dancing not on a bar top,” Foley quips, referencing her breakthrough film Coyote Ugly.)
Unexpected comic relief comes from two ballroom dancers, twins Brittney and Simon Lovewell (Disney alum Anna Grace Barlow and Broadway vet Adam Kaplan), whose racy choreography is so not appropriate for siblings. “When [the actors] auditioned together over Zoom, they got into a fight in character,” Heldens shares. (“Best characters ever!” Foley enthuses.)
All are under the watchful eyes of the show’s cohosts/judges, the encouraging Wayne Fontaine (Kevin Daniels) and biting prima ballerina turned choreographer Monica Sullivan (Mallory Jansen). Her prickly relationship with Nick “becomes interesting,” teases Heldens, whose goal for Fox’s The Big Leap differs from Nick’s: “I want a slightly sweeter world where people are holding each other up, and everybody can have their dignity.”
The Big Leap, Series Premiere, Monday, September 20, 9/8c, Fox
This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s 2021 Fall Preview issue. For more inside scoop on the new fall TV season, pick up the issue, on newsstands now.