Bunheads

February 26, 2013

Bunheads

At this awkward but significant time in the television calendar, there are any number of reasons why this viewer could be prone to anxiety, consternation, jubilation, or excitement.  The impending return of Mad Men and Game of Thrones, the final season of Breaking Bad, the gaping hole in our collective chest as 30 Rock has come to an end, the decline (something that’s both exaggerated and unmistakable) of the beloved curio Community, or ABC’s seemingly willfull destruction of the fantastic Happy Endings are all likely to weigh on my mind from time to time, but the one that causes me the most grief is, of all damn things, the slim renewal prospects of ABC Family’s Bunheads.

Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls fame, along with Lamar Damon (whom I do not know, so he is going to be horribly underserved for credit here…sorry) has created something strange and special on the that most snubbed of networks, and it is not terribly surprising that its ratings are sub-par even by their generously low standards.  Whilst I have only seen episodes here and there of the network’s other offerings, they seem to have a tendency for the more simplistic virtues of teen soap operas aimed at 14 year olds, and despite the network name have made some effort to attempt to catch up with the supposedly faster-maturing of young people today.  Landing like some alien relic in the middle of teen murders and switched-at-birth intrigue, Bunheads is from the very start pure Palladino.  Indeed, it begins with so many elements similar to Gilmore Girls it was a little off-putting.  An attractive, fast-talking smart-alec woman in her 30s, a small quaint town right out of a wet dream from 1950’s conservative minds, Kelly Bishop as a fast-talking (okay, let’s just assume everyone on this show can be described as such and leave it), matriarchal figure that’s not interested in nonsense but is still quite savvy, etc etc etc.  All in all it smacks of a complete redux (the first episode is also very pilot-y, which doesn’t help, but that are pieces to put in place), but at the end of the second episode, when there’s a gorgeous ballet number to Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame”, I was, not surprisingly, hooked.  Still, it took a number of episodes for it to move from viewing afterthought to appointment television, and I think part of that is due to the way I’ve been trained as a viewer to understand shows and their relative “importance”.  

Television critic James Poniewozik just posted an article about the importance of the show and how it is necessary to make room for it in our increasingly violent TV landscape, thus effectively horning in on the area of what this post was originally going to be about.  Still, he is right about what the media landscape seems to favour for a number of reasons (mostly prestige and, of course, vocal viewers), and I think it’s easy to get swept up in labelling certain shows “minor” versus “major”.  Straight-up dramas tend to gain the most from these distinctions, as they probably should generally (The Wire, after all, is about modern America in a post-capitalist environment, and what could be more crucial?), but even the hugely discussed sitcoms like Community and Parks and Recreation tend to get more respect just for being more inventive or emotionally satsifying – not to mention on broadcast networks with larger reach.  Prestige, then, is saved for the extraordinary or the HBO, not for ABC Family, and certainly not from the seemingly-light fare of a Palladino show.  This is also partly because of the modern tendency for cynicism, something that has caused classical Hollywood musicals to fall firmly into the realm of kitsch viewing even as the clever-clever (not-so-clever) Glee briefly held the public’s imagination, or Tom Hooper’s grittily dull adaptation of Les Miserables manages to make some cultural and box-office headway.  I’m being somewhat general here, but it’s not at all a stretch to watch the lives of the denizens of Paradise and see the heightened, pleasant nature of their world.  There is snark galore, to be sure, and people are always getting into minor tiffs, but that underlying sweetness of their world is inescapable.  In an age of anti-heroes we can only condescend to watch good-natured people going about their good-natured lives.  This is a huge mistake, and one that took me a bit of time to come to grips with.  Like Gilmore Girls, I spent much of the season only recommending Bunheads to a select few, and always qualifying that recommendation with “well, if you can handle the cutesyness and the pop culture references and just get into the rhythm of it, it’s really good!”  I am part of the problem, but no longer.  Everyone should be watching Bunheads, because it is currently one of the most audacious and emotional and intelligent television shows on the air.

The basic premise is as such: Michelle (Sutton Foster) is a once-aspiring broadway dancer working as a Las Vegas showgirl.  She has been publicly admired by a salesman, Hubbell (Alan Ruck), for years, and when he decides to propose, she decides very quickly, “why not?” and agrees.  She then moves to his hometown of Paradise, where she finds his mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop), still lives on his property and runs a dance studio there.  A tragic turn leaves her seemingly out of place but also inextricably tied to the town, and the early stages of the show sees Michelle struggling to form a relationship with her new mother-in-law.  Meanwhile we follow a group of four close-knit friends in Fanny’s dancing class:  Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), Ginny (Bailey Buntain), and Melanie (Emma Dumont).  Though they’re not terribly assured when it starts, the kids grow better and better throughout, particularly Bailey Buntain and Julia Goldani Telles – only Emma Dumont is as of yet a bit underserved.  The relationships grow, the comedy starts to gel and gets delivered with a relative ease, even allowing for some fairly broad stabs at humour and simple reaction set-ups that work a treat.  I always thought of Gilmore Girls as vaguely Whit Stillman-esque (thanks in no small part to its setting amongst East Coast WASP elites), but it’s intriguing how Bunheads resembles in terms of tone and broad comic oddities Stillman’s latest feature, Damsels in Distress.  It is heavily stylized, though perhaps not so much as that work, but it is also less tonally jarring for the uninitiated.

The key here are the dance sequences, which fit so perfectly into the show it makes no difference whether it’s an actual performance for the story (Fanny’s ballet about plastic bags and the environment is a particular treat) or whether it’s totally non-diegetic (and even irrelevant to the emotions of the characters, a la the wonderfully incongruous “Istanbul [Not Constantinople]” sequence).  There is an understanding among the creative team that this show is not like the heightened, technicolor worlds created in the Hollywood musicals and Broadway shows of yore.  It’s not our reality, but it’s an emotionally logical one, and when Sasha has a falling out with her parents and performs a stunning ballet, or when Michelle attempts to coach Ginny for a showtunes audition, and takes over herself, the payoff isn’t just about the words or the dance or the music, but with the emotional journey we know she’s been on.  This isn’t new stuff – musicals have themselves been using this forever – but it’s surprising to find it fit so comfortably on a television show.  The formal experimenting with the dancing and, most notably, the visuals is as audacious as anything else on television (take, for instance, the dance in the darkness with the miners’ helmets on to Sparks), and yet it can switch to gorgeously classical (“Makin’ Whoopee” in the finale).

From here on out there will be spoilers so beware.

None of which would mean much if the characters weren’t so well formed (even if it takes a bit time with the kids), and there wasn’t an extremely intelligent understanding of human emotions and teenage awkwardness.  What seemed for a while to merely a plot device to get Michelle into her new circumstances turned into something gutting and beautiful when she sees her drunken self on the wedding video, and Michelle’s constant unease with her new station (adult, responsible, no longer a dreamer) is all wrapped up in her unshakeable feeling that she’s a fraud (she was married to Hubbell for 24 hours and barely knew him), and has never acted like enough of an adult to have kids look up to her.  The kids have all moved at different paces, and though Melanie still hasn’t totally struck out on her own terms, they’ve done a damn good job in 18 episodes with the other three, most recently (and perhaps better than the others) with Ginny.  To take an easy example from the finale, the girls (led, as ever, by Sasha) have decided to learn about sex and set goals for when they should have it, only for them to find their own differing ways on how it is to be done (Boo finally stands up to Sasha and says she and her boyfriend are going to do it two nights before prom – the extra day being in case it’s awful and they have to do it again so they won’t be awkwardly looking at each other at the dance itself), and in the final reveal, that Ginny has already done it with her quiet crush of mystique.  It’s a heartfelt and honest moment, and impressively doesn’t rely on the average teen drama cliches (why won’t he call me!? does he love me?), but rather her emotional distress at having done it just because he’s so beautiful.  It’s a small thing, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted in American television (or anywhere in our culture) when there’s an admission that teenage girls have sex drives too, and when they see someone attractive, they want to do something about it, and that’s not mutually exclusive from feeling confused and even upset about it.  The show is aggressively female at it’s center, and it’s refusal to give us a will-they-or-won’t-they cliche to hang the story on (Lorelai and Luke, anyone?) is one of many examples at just how smart this show is.  It’s about women, and girls, and finding themselves at different times in their lives.  What can be more ‘major’ then that?

-M

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3 Responses to “Bunheads”

  1. Greg Says:

    Precisely right. We should all revel in shows like Bunheads. That it doesn’t overwhelm us with cynicism and anti-heroes (seemingly like all else that’s on TV these days) ought to be applauded. Incidentally, its antithesis is probably Scandal, a show in which there is basically no good guy and in fact may be worse in which it tries to paint someone who stole the election as someone with whom we should sympathise with.

    A similar fare which was sadly cancelled last year was the Andy McDowell vehicle, “Jane By Design”. Formulaic to be sure (for both shows) but honestly, what isn’t?

    Shocked to find that Bunheads is on the verge of cancellation though in part it may be how it teases its watchers. For two seasons now we’ve basically been teased with Sutton Foster wanting to leave. If she really does despise her life, then just leave! I never watched Gilmore Girls so maybe it just might be a Palladino trope.

    Anyway, I love Bunheads.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      First off, it should be noted that this was all one 18 episode season, but that’s part of ABC Family’s weird production schedule.

      As far as Michelle’s reason for not leaving, I’d say she’s deeply conflicted. Initially because she feels like a fraud, but then later because she’s not sure she wants to give up on her dreams. That’s a pretty recognisable conflict IMO, and it’s exacerbated by her friend’s offer for a proper gig that she turns down for marriage.

      • Greg Says:

        That seems like a basic cable thing, splitting up one regular season between winter/summer (kind of like counter programming against the networks? anyway…)

        I would say that your reasoning while valid in the real world is basically just splitting hairs when it comes to plot device. Michelle leaving, whether because she considers herself a fraud or pursuing her real dream, is not relevant to the girls and Fanny. (And by extension, us viewers.)

        That said, I left my comment prior to watching the season finale earlier today and having watched it, I am slightly more sympathetic but still largely view Michelle leaving as essentially something to lord over the viewers and it’s kind of a cheap plot device.


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