I had kind of a tough winter this year. The details aren’t important, let’s just say I was stressed and frustrated at work and starting at about 5 every Sunday afternoon my chest started to fill up with acidy dread that wouldn’t leak away until the next Friday at around 4:30.
It was awful. It made Mondays especially awful.
But then there was Bunheads.
A glass of red wine and an hour in Paradise every Monday night may not have cured all of my problems, but it was enough to push away the tightness in my chest for a little while each week, a warm, safe place to land when everywhere else seemed cold and thorny. It’s a tribute to the world that Amy Sherman-Palladino built, and that Sutton Foster, Kelly Bishop, Julia Goldani-Telles, Bailey Buntain, Emma Dumont and Kaitlyn Jenkins infused with life, that a little show that lasted only 18 episodes could feel so much like home.
Bunheads was a show about growing up. Vegas showgirl turned dance teacher Michelle was attempting adulthood and committment for the first time in her mid-thirties as the accidental mentor to teenagers Sasha, Boo, Ginny and Melanie, and her mentees were just starting to grapple with responsibility and crushed dreams and blooming love. While the teenagers often seemed to act like mini-adults, moving out on their own, practically raising their younger siblings, selling real estate, under the surface they were full of messy teen hormones and insecurities. Sasha could throw together a housewarming party that looked like it had been staged for a Martha Stewart Living photoshoot, but she was too scared to spend the night alone in her apartment. Melanie’s relaxed attitude about most things betrayed some serious anger management issues. Boo could bounce from strict parent to naïve child and back in a single scene. And Michelle, for all her inexperience with responsibility and lifetime as a fundamentally selfish person, learned how to take charge pretty quickly. She wasn’t always traditional in her methods, but she proved to be an excellent teacher to her students.
Take the scene where she agrees to help Ginny prepare for an audition for the school musical. By high school standards, Ginny isn’t bad, this is a performance that probably would have landed her the lead at my high school. But Michelle, who has shown up depressed about her own career and hung-over to boot, takes a tough love approach to coaching Ginny. Good enough for high school isn’t good enough for her, and she keeps pushing Ginny to be better until she pushes Ginny out of the spotlight and does it herself.
And she’s amazing. Sutton Foster’s a two-time Tony winner for a reason. (No really, if you’ve never seen her perform “Anything Goes” at the Tonys you are living a sad and incomplete life and you should remedy that immediately.) But it’s not just Sutton Foster that’s amazing, it’s Michelle, too, and you can see all of her wasted potential bubbling below the surface as she takes the stage, all of her desperation and frustration and disappointment. She’s already wallowing in jealousy because her best friend’s just been offered a real part without even an audition and she feels like she’s missed her shot and then she sings.
It’s maybe not the most traditional teaching technique, or an advisable one, but it works. “She was mean and called me names and then she showed me how good she is and how bad I was and then she threw her water on me,” Ginny says, but she’s smiling and she gets a call-back.
And then there’s Michelle’s relationship with Sasha, who is not an especially trusting person, but finds a kindred spirit in her dance teacher. Sasha is stand-offish and angry even around her closest friends, but she opens up to Michelle. Even when Michelle has just (accidentally) maced her, she leaps onto a chair for an impromptu “Oh Captain! My Captain!” She cries on Michelle’s shoulder and asks for her advice about sex and, when her parents leave her on her own in Paradise to live their own lives, it’s Michelle that she turns to for help.
Every time I sit down to write about this show I promise myself that I won’t also talk about Gilmore Girls. It’s a show that deserves to be praised for its own merits and not just as a successor to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first series about quick-witted women. But the two series are undeniably similar in style and tone. They’re both set in small towns full of good-hearted oddballs, both star women who often act more like teenagers and teenagers who act more like adults, both are scored with the warm “lalalas” of Sam Phillips, and Bunheads drew heavily from the Gilmore Girls cast, to the extent that I’m not sure there was an episode without a familiar face, even when you don’t count Kelly Bishop, who had a lead role on both shows.
But while Bunheads often looked and sounded like Gilmore Girls, it took pains to differentiate itself from its big sister. The series was far more stylized, often employing thematic dance numbers that were removed from the show’s narrative context, or choreographed set-pieces like the sequence in the series finale in which the bunheads partake in a sex-ed independent study.
The increased stylization felt like a natural progression from Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls, which did similar things to a lesser degree. Scenes like the cold open to “Double Date,” in which Lorelai and Rory get ready for work and school, or the attempt to get Lane the new Belle & Sebastian CD in “It Should Have Been Lorelai” are early experiments with using music to tell the story, and they’re rare moments without dialogue in an otherwise verbose show. Bunheads feels like a true evolution in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s voice. Recognizable, but distinct.
I don’t know if there was a single episode of Bunheads that failed to bring me to tears. Not necessarily sad tears–generally speaking, the stakes on Bunheads aren’t high enough for, for example, Doctor Who level crying–just tears because I was so full up on feelings. The series wrote to something fundamental about growing up, so that even when it seemed to exist outside of the real world it nailed a genuine emotional complexity.
Whether it was Michelle and her brother closing out a massive fight with a duet of “Tonight You Belong To Me,” or dueling Tommy Lee Jones impressions, or Sasha’s angry and now infamous dance to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” Bunheads found some vessel inside of me that only the show could fill, and boy did it runneth over with the antidote to that acidic dread. There should be more shows about complex women on television, more shows telling anti-cynical stories that pass on the high-stakes, life-and-death craziness that makes up so many TV dramas these days, and as of today there’s one less. Bunheads was built out of warmth and light and it has been snuffed out too soon, and to say I am sorry to see it go doesn’t do the feeling justice.