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.
Better late than never, here’s my run-down of my personal top 10 television shows of 2012. (This list was created on a weird, internal sliding scale between “best” and “favorite.”):
1. New Girl (FOX)
Around the middle of its first season, when New Girl finally figued out how to do what it had been trying to do, watching it became an almost transcendental weekly experience. What the writers (and Max Greenfield) had done for Schmidt since the beginning–reveling in his specificity–they figured out how to do with the rest of the cast. They gave Jess a platform to claim her own adorkability, to stand up and say, “I rock a lot of polka-dots.” They figured out how to work with Jake Johnson’s gift for grump, so that Nick’s prematurely old nature still fit with the rest of the ensemble. And they weirded Winston up a little more every week, showering him in bizarre anxieties and pairing him with characters that made him pop. By the time the show arrived at the Fancyman arc, the characters were well-defined enough that Jess wouldn’t get buried under the personality of an older boyfriend, and the roommates could spend most of an episode playing an incomprehensible drinking game without the show feeling shapeless.
I hope that, as New Girl goes forward, they’ll figure out how to tell more stories focused on Winston, and I’d like to see them expand the female cast a little–it was nice to see Jess’ friend Sadie return a couple of weeks ago, and my newfound non-hatred of Olivia Munn has made her a mostly welcome addition to the cast. But I am largely complaint-free when it comes to New Girl. (And honestly, any show offering the kind of chemistry that New Girl has with Nick and Jess–and it’s hitting Sam and Diane levels these days–would probably top my list. They’re electric.)
2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Breaking Bad is the sort of tv that leaves me literally gasping for breath. It’s suspenseful, sometimes terrifying, often maddening, but it grounds itself in its most ordinary moments, letting the audience learn its characters as people, to make them that much more horrifying when they’re at their most monstrous. Breaking Bad works because it doesn’t just ask you to believe in its world, it shows you why you should. It takes a bumbling loser of a man out of a moment of desperation and, over the course of 5 seasons (though only one year in its internal time), turns him into an over-confident ruler of an already crumbling empire. It shouldn’t work, but it does, because Walter White has laid all the traps for himself, we’ve watched him do it, and he only trips them out of his own hubris.
3. Bunheads (ABC Family)
You’ve already heard me go on about my affection for Bunheads, for the warmth and charm and patter of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest creation, and I don’t have that much to add on the subject. Bunheads made this list (and made it so high) because it’s television that fills me up in the best possible way. It’s not an ooey-gooey sweetheart of a tv show (Sherman-Palladino’s creations are far too cynical for that), but it offers cultural sustenance. And surprising, delightful dance numbers.
4. Hart of Dixie (The CW)
Maybe the most appealing thing about Hart of Dixie is the way it takes the inner lives of its characters seriously, even when it doesn’t necessarily take itself all that seriously. I’ve described Hart of Dixie, again and again, as charmingly goofy, and that’s absolutely true, but it’s also got a bit of meat on its bones. The characters, particularly Zoe Hart, the confident, sex-positive, deeply flawed main character, and Wade Kinsella, who could so easily be written off as a clichéd bad boy, are richly imagined and well portrayed. The cast is talented, AND they all have CW good looks, and the town of Bluebell, though perhaps built from the wreckage of a handful of other little TV towns that came before it (it’s literally filmed on the old Stars Hollow sets), is fully realized.
Hart of Dixie, particularly in this second season, has become one of my favorite hours of the week, and while it may not be revolutionizing the television landscape, that’s worth something.
5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation has done something impressive–it’s hit its fifth season without breaking stride. Most shows, at about this point, start to broaden. While Parks and Rec does occasionally wobble on the tightrope between character and caricature (usually when Eagleton is involved), it’s mostly kept its footing by refusing to fear change.
Parks was smart–it solidified its relationships early on, built them to be unbreakable, so that the show could be a workplace comedy that did not have to remain in the workplace. Sure these people all met through the Pawnee Parks department, and many of them do still work there, in some capacity, but they aren’t tied to their office. Leslie can venture into the wider world of government, Tom can set off on his own business venture again, with a little more wisdom and guidance this time, the characters can learn and grow and stretch their wings and they’ll still have a reason to spend time with each other. These aren’t people who are trapped together, waiting out their time in some office purgatory, they’re friends.
And Parks and Rec proved that repeatedly last spring with the campaign arc. It brought its characters together in a new venue, only tangentially related to the titular workplace, and told a story that resonated emotionally, without sacrificing comedy (the scene where most of the cast tries to make their way across an ice rink to a looped Gloria Estefan clip is simultaneously one of the sweetest and funniest scenes they put out in the fourth season). Season 5, meanwhile, has taken on long-distance relationships, new jobs, several storylines about various characters’ attempts to find themselves, and perhaps the best proposal I’ve ever seen on television.
6. Girls (HBO)
In my worst moments, as my worst self, I am Hannah Horvath, and her continued existence as a television character is immensely comforting.
Girls also offered up one of the most honest and authentic fights between two characters that I have ever seen on television when Hannah and Marnie “broke up.” It would have made this list just for that.
7. Mad Men (AMC)
There were times this season when Mad Men got a little too English-major-y even for me, and I’m a former English major, but the way Matthew Weiner and company built the tension across the fifth season to the point where some act of violence was inevitable was beautiful to watch, as was Roger Sterling’s discovery of LSD, Peggy’s resignation from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Sally’s quest for independence in go-go boots, and Ginsberg’s overconfidence. There were some misfires along the way–I love that Joan’s a partner, I hate the contrivance that got her there–but overall, the fifth season was a tour-de-force of storytelling.
8. Parenthood (NBC)
I’m not sure that there’s a better ensemble on television than the one that makes up Parenthood. Even when the story hits snags, as it has at various points along the way, the cast is so strong that they’ve managed to overcome anything that’s been thrown at them. Lauren Graham, Peter Krause and Mae Whitman have always been the acting powerhouses, but this season Monica Potter has shone especially bright in a cancer storyline that has mostly avoided the trite clichés (though it has still made me cry on an almost weekly basis), and Ray Romano has joined the cast to do what Ray Romano does, and well. I can already see the angry blog posts six months from now when the cast is overlooked by the Academy once again.
9. Community (NBC)
Much of the second half of Community’s third season, the half we awaited so anxiously during the unexpected mid-season hiatus that kept it off the air for a mere six months last winter (it’s now entering its eighth month in the much longer wait for season four), is a kind of hazy blur. There was a Law and Order episode, the study group got expelled from Greendale, Abed and Troy went to war with each other in a Ken Burns documentary…the details have gone fuzzy around the edges. But it’s a good sort of hazy blur, the kind you think back on fondly. I miss Community so much because I love Community so much, and I’m eagerly awaiting its return.
10. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
The Vampire Diaries did something really gutsy at the end of its third season: it killed off the main character. Of course, Elena’s death doesn’t mean the end of Elena as a character–this show is about vampires, after all–but that didn’t make her loss any less sad. In its first three seasons, Vampire Diaries did enough to establish its characters and its mythology that when Elena woke up on a coroner’s slab in the season premiere you knew she wasn’t going to be quite the same person, and you knew she was on a path that she never wanted.
The fourth season of Vampire Diaries hasn’t been as strong as the first three were. Elena lost a lot of her agency in the transition, and when the season arc was introduced as a possible cure for vampirism it was hard not to roll my eyes. But the way the show packs in plot has always been impressive, and that’s still true. Vampire Diaries turned a questionable arc on its head in the second season–the strongest season to date–and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to do that again. And while not every episode this season has been a winner, a couple have been outstanding. “Memorial,” early on, gave the characters a chance to breathe for the first time in awhile, and offered an incredibly moving tribute to the loved ones that have been lost over the years, and the final episode of 2012, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” had one of the show’s most elegant…slaughters. If they can maintain the quality of that episode, there’s no reason to believe they won’t have an outstanding 2013.