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Dance Your Ass Off: The Summer-Specific Appeal of Bunheads

June 21st, 2013     by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite     Comments

There are some TV shows that keep you on the edge of your seat from episode to episode (Scandal, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones come to mind), and there are some that require a little more patience for a big payoff in action, romance, or some other development that is integral to the show. One of these shows is Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman Palladino’s newest show, Bunheads, an ABC Family drama/comedy about a dance studio in a tiny California town. From this description alone, many people will write off this show before attempting to watch it. It might be weird for me to be writing about Bunheads now, considering it hasn’t been on the air for almost a year and its second-season renewal has yet to be confirmed. I might be going through withdrawal, but I felt compelled to share my feelings about this great program with you all. Perhaps some new fans is just what ABC Family needs to cement Bunheads’s return to the small screen. To those individuals, I plead: try it. The payoff is worth the wait.

If you’ve avoided all manner of television criticism or discussion for the past year, you may not know what Bunheads is about (and its title doesn’t help). In the pilot episode, the show’s protagonist Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), a dancer turned Las Vegas showgirl, impulsively marries her biggest fan, a shoe salesman named Hubbell (Alan Ruck). He whisks her off to the sleepy town of Paradise, California, where it is revealed that he lives with his mother, a dance studio owner named Fanny Flowers (Kelly Bishop). By the end of her first day in town, the suspicious residents of Paradise have dubbed Michelle “the pole dancer from Reno” and give her dirty looks at her own wedding party. When Hubbell dies in a car crash at the end of the pilot, he leaves Michelle with his house, his money, and his mother.

The cast of Bunheads

Michelle’s marriage to Hubbell and his untimely death are admittedly strange plot devices, clearly designed to get Michelle to Paradise in the first place, and it creates a bit of awkwardness for the first few episodes of the series. The writers had to contend with Hubbell’s death while establishing the comedic tone of the series, creating a bizarre contrast between scenes and characters as the show found its feet. At first, the writers do this by focusing separately on the grief-stricken lives of the adults (Michelle, Fanny, and Hubbell’s ex-lover Truly Stone), while dealing with the funny day-to-day activities of the teenage dance students at the studio–Ginny (Bailey Buntain), Melanie (Emma Dumont), Sasha, (Julia Goldani Telles) and Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins).

Because of this comedy/drama confusion, I almost stopped watching Bunheads after its fourth episode. It was going very slowly, and things that I thought might happen–Michelle might start teaching at the school, Ginny might break up with her boyfriend, etc.–were not happening yet. If you don’t have the energy to sit through the growing pains, I suggest starting with “No One Takes Khaleesi’s Dragons,” the ninth episode. It is at this point that Fanny, Michelle, and the girls get to interact with one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced or fake. This is satisfying and ultimately more realistic because it takes so long to develop. While the slow-approach tactic made the first bunch of episodes frustrating, the pacing of Bunheads allows for greater attachment to the characters throughout the rest of the season. As Sherman-Palladino herself said: “I wanted the journey to be slow… If you thought you were going to be one thing, to suddenly just shift to something else takes time.”

Bunheads star Sutton Foster

For Gilmore Girls fans, Bunheads offers both a return to form and something to be desired. The similarities between the two shows are numerous, from the fast talking and pop culture references, to the musical interludes between scenes. The writing is also excellent. Even when something seems stereotypical and derivative, the actors and writers turn it into something that is at once hilarious and poignant. And unlike the teens on Dawson’s Creek, Sherman-Palladino’s bunheads feel like real people, with the addition of many more pop culture references. One of the best parts about the show is the teenage minutiae experienced by the dancers, from trying to get boys to like them (“I can’t be always interesting and never hungry!” Ginny wails at one point) to navigating parental difficulties through performance (Sasha’s weird and awesome “Istanbul” dance).

The girls of Bunheads

In terms of (straight) sexuality, one of the things the show does well is discuss sex and virginity without presenting sex as a be-all-end-all of relationships, nor as something that everyone does all the time really well. There is a really lovely episode called “It’s Not a Mint” in which a couple of the girls decide to take their sex lives to the next level with some off-centre logic and a lot of research, rather than let their boyfriends handle things. We see a whole range of responses to the possibility of sex, from Boo deciding that she’ll wait until prom like she planned, to Sasha thinking that sex might solve the imaginary problem that her boyfriend doesn’t like her, to Ginny actually having sex with someone who “was just so beautiful” despite not being her boyfriend. Notably, none of these approaches is singled out as the “best” option, but rather represent the myriad feelings and dilemmas that arise when navigating sexual situations for the first time.

“It’s Not a Mint”

However, there are things about the show that are less than stellar. When Bunheads first aired, Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes criticized ABC Family for not casting girls of colour in the leading roles. Sherman-Palladino’s response to the criticism was evasive and not very satisfying, especially considering that she is usually pretty good at depicting and normalizing diversity of age, sexuality, body size, and race onscreen. On Bunheads, we see an interracial relationship (between Fanny Flowers and her musician boyfriend Michael), a gay parent (in Sasha’s no-long-closeted father), and a fat character in Boo’s mother, who is not the butt of any jokes about size but is instead just a normal person. It is unfortunate that the four main teenage characters in the show are white, and this may also be indicative of the world of ballet and performing arts in general (both onscreen and in real life). I can see that it might be difficult to find a balance between tokenism and authenticity when white showrunners cast people of colour on TV, but considering that Sherman-Palladino has done this on Bunheads and on Gilmore Girls, I don’t think it should be that difficult. It is my hope that she will introduce more characters of colour in meatier roles if the series is given a second season. Sherman-Palladino has shown that she is able to juggle multiple storylines and relationships onscreen, and if she is given the green light for a second season, there may be more opportunity to explore this avenue further.

On Bunheads, we see what can happen when people have to face the fact that their lives have not turned out the way they wanted them to. While this was an integral part of Gilmore Girls as well, Bunheads is also well-suited to tackle these issues because of the unforgiving nature of the performing arts. The show also allows for the intergenerational interactions that Sherman-Palladino does so well, particularly among women and girls. Bunheads is perfect summer television (so much song and dance!), but that’s not the only reason why you should watch it. The other reason is that it is a truly unique cultural product, and deserves some recognition for it. Try it now, and you’ll thank me when it gets renewed.

Tags: arts, gender, media savvy

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