More Than Words: Thoughts on Bunheads, Season 1

Television, we're often told, is a writer's medium.  The combination of limited budget and little scope for fancy visuals, and the need to keep feeding the hungry beast of continuous story--be it a serialized drama, a character-based soap, or even a procedural--serves to prioritize the writer's toolbox.  It's the reason, I think, that television so easily amasses obsessed, engaged fandoms, and that TV criticism has become such a vibrant, quickly proliferating field.  Even the most inaccessible and deliberately opaque TV series usually comes down to the basic tools of storytelling--the progression of a story, the development of a character, the emergence of a theme--that are fun to talk about and easy to put into words (by "easy," I mean requiring little formal training or specialist knowledge, which is a category of critic in which I obviously include myself, and to call this kind of criticism easy is by no means to ignore how often it can also be intelligent and insightful).  In the last few years, however, I've had the sense that this is slowly changing.  A few months ago, in a review of a second season episode of American Horror Story, AV Club reviewer Todd VanDerWerff suggested that our ideas of what constitutes "good" storytelling, with their emphasis on coherent plots, believable characters, and "realistic" behavior, have become restrictive, and that it's equally possible for television to reach its viewers through gonzo, over the top storytelling choices, or through television's audio-visual aspect (which a show with "horror" in its title would be perfectly situated to take advantage of).  I was dubious about this argument where American Horror Story--whose second season struck me as having a thoroughly conventional core of story, padded by the series's trademark outrageousness for outrageousness's sake--was concerned, but as a broader point I think it bears consideration.  There are, for example, more shows, like Hunted, Banshee, and most of all Utopia, that seem to be trying to achieve an emotional effect less through dialogue or performance, and more through visuals and atmospherics. And if American Horror Story feels like a bad example of a series that short-circuits "the rules" of storytelling to reach directly for the viewer's emotions, a much better--and to my mind, more successful--example would be the comparatively little-watched, little-discussed Bunheads.

Bunheads, which premiered in the summer on ABC Family and wrapped up its first season last week, marks the return to television, after several years' absence, of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.  Depending on how you choose to look at this, this is either yet more proof that "respectable," mainstream TV is becoming increasingly inhospitable to female producers and characters, relegating the creator of a successful, critically-acclaimed, but female-centric series to the kiddie league, or yet more proof that ABC Family is slowly becoming one of the most interesting channels on TV (it gave us The Middleman, a show that it is almost impossible to imagine airing anywhere else on TV, and though I haven't watched either one, I've heard very positive things about its shows Huge and Switched at Birth).  The series begins with former ballet dancer, turned aspiring Broadway star, turned Vegas showgirl Michelle (real-life Broadway superstar Sutton Foster, utterly stunning here), suffering yet another blow to her determination to keep plugging away at her career when she shows up to audition for Chicago only to be turned away by the director without even a chance at a tryout.  In this despondent state (and under the influence of a great deal of alcohol) she impulsively marries a long-time admirer, Hubbell (Alan Ruck), who sweeps her off to his small California home town, called Paradise, where Michelle discovers that Hubbell lives with his mother, imperious dance studio director Fanny (former Gilmore Girl Kelly Bishop).  No sooner have the two women grudgingly agreed to try to make their newfound family work than Hubbell is killed in a car accident, leaving Michelle the sole owner of Fanny's home and studio.

It's an awkward premise, and the pilot has to work overtime to get all its pieces in place, but, especially given its emphasis on four of Fanny's teenage students--Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), the star pupil who is turning to bullying and mean girl-ness to compensate for a rapidly deteriorating home life, Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), a wallflower whose dreams of dancing professionally may be scuttled by her body type, Ginny (Bailey Buntain), a high-strung perfectionist who spends the season making her first real mistakes, and Melanie (Emma Dumont), who mostly plays a supporting role in the other girls' stories, the show having reached its limit for main characters before it came time to give her one of her own--it's easy to assume that this is all in service of setting up a template, in which Michelle joins Fanny as a dance instructor, gaining stability and self-confidence from her mentorship of the young dancers, and forming a family with Fanny, with whom she spars but also comes to respect.  What's interesting--and, at least to begin with, quite frustrating--about Bunheads is how much it resists this template.  It takes Michelle the better part of half a season to even consider becoming a teacher, and even after she does, the school doesn't give the series a structure.  Bunheads, in fact, lacks structure entirely.  Its first season is loose and meandering, with subplots coming in and out of focus, secondary characters popping in and out of the main characters' lives, and a prevailing sense of aimlessness.

Some of this comes down to practical considerations--for budgetary reasons, most episodes feature only two or three of the four young dancers, and Bishop is only contracted as a recurring character, so Fanny disappears for weeks on end, and the relationship between her and Michelle, which we might have expected to give the series its backbone, is instead more of a background presence.  Equally, at least part of Bunheads's shapelessness is a result of the show finding its feet.  In the first half of the season, there's a strong sense that the show is trying to make Paradise into another Stars Hollow, complete with a raft of quirky, larger than life inhabitants, and much of the second half of the season is concerned with backing away from this Gilmore Girls imitation, paring down the recurring cast (and replacing most of it with another former Gilmore actress, Liza Weil, who is one of the season's best additions), and focusing the show's stories away from the town's quirkiness and towards the main characters' emotional arcs.  But even with these factors taken into consideration, there's no denying that Bunheads has very little interest in committing to a structure.  It seems perfectly happy to float in and out of its characters' lives, dropping minor climaxes and crises on them, introducing incremental change, but usually bringing them back to where they started.  The season finale, for example, feels almost deliberately anti-climactic.  Bookending the pilot, it sees Michelle trying out for the chorus in a new musical, and having a great audition only to be told that the open call was a union formality, and that the roles have already been cast.  Meanwhile, the four girls are nervously and somewhat curiously studying up on sex, which prompts Fanny to give the class an excessively frank sex ed talk.  It's not that nothing important happens in the episode, but if you're looking for a final statement about the season, the characters, or how Michelle's presence in Paradise has changed her or the town, you won't find it here.

This, however, is to create the impression that Bunheads is a naturalistic character-based show, along the lines of Treme, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Bunheads is a comedy, and more specifically an Amy Sherman-Palladino comedy, which means that it is heavily stylized, and often suffused with a kind of hyper-realism that means that every character's attributes, good and bad, are turned up to eleven--the controlling Sasha gets her own apartment, and immediately becomes a Martha Stewart-esque domestic goddess; flighty Fanny turns out to have been managing the school's finances through a system based on hat-boxes, into which she sorts bills that she plans to pay, wants to pay, and plans to ignore; Hubbell's former girlfriend Truly (Stacey Oristano) is a master craftswoman who, as she tells Michelle, "[knows] everything about everyone except myself," while her sister Millie (Weil), is a ruthless businesswoman who surmounts every one of life's difficulties by sneering, "Please, I own property."  The dialogue, similarly, is vintage Sherman-Palladino, riddled with rapid-fire, Who's On First-style exchanges that quickly ascend to the realm of surrealism.  So Bunheads is a show that is consciously, deliberately artificial, and that at the same time rejects the artifice of structure and shape.  It's pretty easy to call this bad writing--and as I've said, at least in the first half of the season I think that this is a reasonable explanation a lot of time--but the result as a whole is so weird, and weirdly compelling, that I'm not inclined to dismiss it so easily.

Especially when you consider that I've left out what is perhaps Bunheads's most interesting--and, given Sherman-Palladino's reputation as a wordsmith, most surprising--attribute, the fact that it is often willing to stand back and make its points through something other than dialogue.  Bunheads is a show about dance, and it has a cast of talented dancers--Foster, of course, but also the four girls, and Fanny's students are often supplemented by professional dancers--which means that it often features dance interludes.  As you might expect from Sherman-Palladino, there has been a dance-and-talk scene, and productions such as Fanny's environmental-themed spring recital, "Paper or Plastic?", or Michelle's take on the rat dance from The Nutcracker.  But where Bunheads differs from shows like Glee or Smash, which also intersperse drama with performance, is that it's willing to let those performance stand on their own, as dance is supposed to.  In "Paper or Plastic?" and the rat dance, Fanny and Michelle explain their meaning, giving the dance a narrative.  But when Fanny's students perform at Hubbell's memorial, it's left to us to understand their meaning--and more importantly, to understand that the kind of art they're performing doesn't have to have a story, or a clearly-expressed message.  The show ups the weirdness quotient even further when it introduces dance interludes that clearly do not occur in the show's reality--as when an episode that centers around Sasha's troubled home life ends with her dancing to They Might Be Giants's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," or when the season finale, which has focused on the girls' conflicted and sometimes sorrowful feelings about sex, ends with a gleefully risqué number set to "Makin' Whoopee."  You could argue that these scenes are happening in the characters' minds, but what I think is happening is something both simpler and more interesting--I think they're the show acknowledging that it is possible to convey emotion through something other than storytelling, and that in a show that centers on an artform that is precisely about that effect, it's only fair to try to achieve it.

Something else that makes the performance scenes in Bunheads different and special is how often the emotion that underpins them isn't--as it usually is in Glee and Smash--exhilaration, but sorrow.  When Ginny asks Michelle to help her prepare an audition for the school play in which she's to sing a song about longing and heartbreak, Michelle berates and harangues her through a technically flawless rendition, then steps in and actually performs the song, knocking Ginny's, and the audience's, socks off.  But as stunning as that performance is, it's clear that Michelle is putting a lot of her own disappointment and frustration into it--she has just learned that a friend who has been given a once-in-lifetime professional opportunity to turning it down to get married--and that what was missing from Ginny's version was a true understanding--the kind that can only come from experience--of the emotions that underpin the song.  When Michelle's brother Scotty (Foster's real-life brother Hunter, himself a Broadway performer) shows up, he and Michelle have a screaming, knock-down fight about their past and their childhood, but in a show of reserve that has become typical of Bunheads, Sherman-Palladino follows that fight up not with conversation but with music--Scotty finds Michelle strumming the ukelele that was the pretext for their fight, and instead of saying anything, simply joins her in a beautifully melancholy performance of "Tonight You Belong To Me," affirming their connection but also the sadness that underpins it.

In fact, the song and dance interludes are merely making explicit what the show's storytelling hints at more subtly--that what Bunheads, for all its comedic, quirky exterior, is really about is sadness, disappointment, and failure.  Michelle's story, after all, is the story of a woman with tremendous talent and ability who has somehow managed to squander them, and every opportunity she's been given.  And when she latches on to a Manic Pixie Dream Guy and his promise that he can fix her life through the power of his love for her (even more than on Gilmore Girls, Bunheads sidelines the men in its characters' lives in favor of their relationships with one another, but it's particularly interesting to note how neatly Hubbell is slotted into a role usually reserved for a woman--that of the saintly, lost love interest whose sole purpose, in life and in death, is to make the main character's life better), he vanishes into thin air and she finds herself once again forced to rely on herself--and, once again, getting in her own way and doing her utmost to destroy and undermine everything good in her life.  Fanny, meanwhile, is a woman who gave up the ephemeral life of a dancer for something concrete when she chose to have Hubbell, only to have it snatched away from her (though here Hubbell's Manic Pixie tendencies, combined with Bishop's limited presence on the show, undermine the note of tragedy--after the season's first few episodes, it's not really believable that Fanny is grieving the loss of her only child).  And while it seems almost too brutal to tell a story about teenagers whose main theme is disappointment, there is some of this too on Bunheads--on the day of her audition for a prestigious summer dance program, Boo discovers that her mother has already bought a cake that says "Better Luck Next Year," and the season ends with Michelle comforting a sobbing Ginny, who has lost her virginity to a boy who hasn't called or spoken to her since it happened.  It's the kind of sadness you could only withstand in a comedy, unleavened by anything except the characters' matter-of-fact determination not to be defeated by it--in the season finale, having followed Michelle to her audition, it's Boo who drags her friends out to join the auditioning dancers, not caring that their chances of being "discovered" are slim at best--but that determination isn't defiant or brave.  Bunheads avoids the temptation (often indulged by Glee and Smash) to romanticize or make heroic the choice to pursue a dream that almost certainly won't come true, and it does so by having the characters acknowledge their sadness and disappointment only when they allow those emotions to shine through their performances.

As of this writing, Bunheads's future is uncertain, and its chances of a second season are not high (this is the flipside of ABC Family's intriguing bent towards experimentation--The Middleman and Huge also lasted only one season each).  Which means that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly--unlike other one-season wonders, there's nothing sufficiently complete about its first season to make watching it in the knowledge that there will be no follow-up a satisfying experience--but nevertheless it is one of the most interesting and promising new shows of the last year.  It has a brilliant cast (I haven't said enough here about the young castmembers and how terrifyingly talented--as dancers and singers as well as actresses--they all are, but it's hard to imagine another show that will give them the same scope to show off their talents), it's very funny and very moving, and the song and dance scenes are beautifully done (as you might imagine from the number of them that I've linked to here--almost every one feels like something worth sharing excitedly).  But most of all, it's a show that is doing something that I don't think any other show currently running is doing.  There are a lot of shows right now that center around art and artists--Treme, Glee, Smash, Nashville.  I tend to single Treme out as being the only one of these shows that treats art as work, something that has to be perfected and constantly improved, not something that falls into the characters' laps through their god-given "talent."  There is some of this in Bunheads--it is, after all, a show about a school--but it also does something that neither Treme, nor any of these other shows, with their emphasis on music that spells out the characters' thoughts and feelings, even try to do.  It treats art, and particularly dance, as something that can't, and shouldn't, be put into words.


Anonymous said…
A thought-provoking piece of criticism; thank you for it.

The idea of focusing a show about artists on disappointment sounds utterly un-USian, and very intriguing. I am sorry to hear the future looks uncertain, as it sounds worth checking out.

I would recommend ABC Family's _Switched at Birth_, which has apparently beaten the one-season curse by calling what would have been considered 3 series elsewhere in the world all one season. It does some fascinating things with character and culture, and of course as a representation of disability it's a game-changer for US TV.
The idea of focusing a show about artists on disappointment sounds utterly un-USian

Ha! It's interesting, though, because I think that when it started there was actually a deep seam of this running through Glee - the whole premise of the show, after all, was that a frustrated, incompetent teacher was working out his frustrations over never having amounted to anything by trying to live vicariously through his students, who were almost certainly never going to get out of their home town. I stopped watching Glee fairly early on, so I don't know if that undertone is still there, but what I've heard about the show (Rachel and Kurt are in New York City, Mr. Schuster got an offer to perform on Broadway) suggests that it was, at the very least, toned down.

But on the whole you're right that there's often a sense in shows about artists that talent should be rewarded with success. This can be well-handled - the characters on Treme, for example, are all aware that they're not making the kind of music that could ever make them superstars, and their definition of success is a moderately-selling album or a well-paying steady gig - and it can be extraordinarily annoying - a subplot on Nashville revolves around a young singer who is so talented that people keep throwing contracts and gigs in her path even though she's at best ambivalent about a singing career.

I think Switched at Birth, which did enjoy some ratings success, is already on its second season, though you're right that the first one was incredibly long. I am planning to catch up with it, but probably not until I have more free time to make it through thirty-odd episodes and counting.
Anonymous said…
My sister and I watched the pilot for Bunheads back when it first broadcast, mostly because of our enjoyment of Gilmore Girls, and we didn't finish it. The weirdness of the premise was just too off-putting, the characters all felt like they were trying too hard to be quirky, and it felt aimless. But mostly weird, and not the good kind. I hadn't even realized it had been picked up for a full season, so seeing an essay about it was a bit of a shock.

The theme of failure and disappointment you mention here reminds me of The Venture Brothers, although that's more generalized sadness regarding one's life rather than just in the artistic sphere.
The pilot (and the first few episodes, since the premise is too complex to set up in a single episode, and as I've said the show is in no hurry about it) is definitely where the season is weakest, and on the whole I thought its second half as a great deal stronger than its first. That said, I certainly can't claim that the show gets less weird or quirky.
Noppera Bo said…
Thank you for this considered piece Abigail; I was sufficiently intrigued as a result to check out the show myself and I'm very glad I did.

The narrative structure that you mention, where story lines and characters drop in and out of focus felt surprisingly realistic to me. A good example is when Michelle discovered she hadn't completed High School; in most shows this would have gone on to be a driving force for future plots, but much like in real life Bunheads had it be an initial shock, regret, and then just something else that had gone wrong in the distant past.

In defence of the first few episodes I thought not just the comedy, but the drama was very well written: there were a couple of arguments in particular that were powerful, realistic, and moving.

I hope the show gets a second season, if for nothing other than introducing great ballet to a wider audience.

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