by Carl Wilson
Let’s just say it: The TV series Bunheads, which returned from a five-month hiatus this week, is not cool. Its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Gilmore Girls, also was not cool. They are frantic and twee, tell not show, lacking all restraint. Unconventional but not transgressively. Awkward about sex. Oblivious about race. Bunheads is on ABC Family for god’s sake, though there isn’t a traditional family anywhere in it.
It’s not a comedy the way 30 Rock is a comedy nor a drama the way Breaking Bad is a drama, nor even a comedy the way Breaking Bad is a comedy, all self-aware and taut and a hundred paces ahead. In the schoolyard smoking area that is smart TV today, it’s not invited. In a way it’s an evolutionary holdover from the stage between network TV and post-Sopranos cable.
That was also the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s significant that both Sherman-Palladino and Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon were once staff writers on Roseanne. They’re carrying on Roseanne Barr’s project of exploring what role feminism can play in making popular art.
(By the way, did you ever see Whedon’s 2006 speech accepting an award from feminist group Equality Now? Worth the time.)
Roseanne’s was a more realized populism because Barr thought more deeply about class than her younger middle-class protégés would. But their shows strive for populism in a way sophisticated cable shows aren’t trying to do – they don’t seem interested, and they don’t need to be because that’s not their economic model. Those shows need to be cool because cool is what excites the tastemaker, social-media-savvy, dinner-party-going audiences they sell to networks, advertisers and aspiring fellow cable subscribers.
Watching Bunheads can be a reminder that cool takes its own toll.
Sutton Foster’s Michelle, the central character of Bunheads, is a lot like Lauren Graham’s Lorelai, the lead of Gilmore Girls: a witty, mouthy, knockout brunette who at some point has fallen from grace. Lorelai had a daughter born when she was 16; Michelle was a serious dancer whose fuckups reduced her to Vegas showgirl. Ducking out of the life script liberated them to be their own inventions. But as each series opens the women are reaching ages when it’s more difficult to slide by on charm, when what they’ve sacrificed for their originality, whether in income or intimacy, is becoming more painfully clear. It’s like what Elizabeth Wurtzel was addressing in her now-infamous New York Magazine verbal purge, without the crippling entitlement and spotlight syndrome. (Or at least with less.)
Sherman-Palladino’s (henceforth AS-P’s) way to make this very specific kind of dilemma more universally accessible is to surround it generationally: The core of Gilmore Girls was the love triangle between Lorelai, her estranged parents and her daughter Rory. On Bunheads, the triangle is more oblique: Without spoiling too much, in the opening episode she precipitously gains a husband, who is then excised from the narrative as efficiently as the parents in a children’s adventure story. Michelle is left in possession of his California homestead, inhabited by his mother (Kelly Bishop, who also played Lorelai’s mom) and the dance studio where she teaches ballet to apparently every teen girl in town who isn’t a cheerleader (and a few boys).
Thrust upon Michelle, then, are a mother figure and a bunch of surrogate daughters, as she becomes their teacher too. Her quest, just like Lorelai’s, becomes to adapt herself to these mature relationships and burdens without losing her unique spark. As a safety zone for working all that out comedically, on each series AS-P exiles her characters to a Shakespearian “green world” (as Northrop Frye put it) in the form of a quaintly eccentric imaginary small town. The laboriously quirky townie characters are her most gratingly uncool creations, but it’s also a sitcom-populist device that goes back to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry – with the difference that her quirk-arcadias are more or less female-dominated, less matriarchies than perhaps sorarchies. The difference is that by the time we met Lorelai she was a firmly established, beloved figure of Stars Hollow, Conn., while Michelle is, literally, a stranger in Paradise, Calif.
Even more than Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai and Rory’s respective romances took up space from the start, Bunheads is gunning for high score on the Bechdel Test: It features almost no one but women, who do almost nothing but talk to each other, about almost anything other than men. About work, their pasts, ethics, real estate, money, food and most of all about dance. About the pain and strain it extracts. About what’s worth doing for it, and about what would be dumb to do. It stands not so much for art as for geekily driven self-realization: Only one girl shows clear dance-career potential, and it distances her from those for whom the gratification is shorter-term, though it gives her a special link to her ex-pro teachers.
The young cast make credible student dancers although I suspect they’re all sneakily more expert, and for a show about ballet there’s a decent range of body and character types. Like Lorelai’s, a lot of Michelle’s jokes have to do with her gluttony, which in both cases would require superhuman metabolisms but is a lot more refreshing in this context than bulimia – Bishop’s matriarchs are left to do the shuddering and criticizing (though her character here is way less uptight, way more post-hippie west coast than Emily Gilmore).
When they are not talking they’re often dancing, but the dance sequences are held back from becoming production numbers, kept just amateurish enough, a casualness that actually makes them better. Even in this bigger setpiece, for instance:
Compared with Glee or Smash, this seems partly a choice to be female instead of camp. Not that it’s not campy, but it ain’t drag. In fact the way AS-P’s shows skirt queerness can be disconcerting; maybe here is the downside of populism. But perhaps it’s also a way of keeping the eye on girlhood and womanhood, insisting they’re complex enough in themselves, without being distracted by something shinier and “more interesting” – even if that means excluding certain experiences of girlhood and womanhood. AS-P’s shows are vulnerable to a lot of the same criticisms that were directed at Girls last year, with fewer aesthetic outs. (Though what they do have is age diversity.)
None of this means you would like and should watch Bunheads. If it weren’t for my general weaknesses for faux-screwball-comedy pacing and teen (especially teen girl) drama I might not watch it, either. The first season has just resumed after five months’ hiatus and it may well be too geeky to make it to a second. There’s no question that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and many of the other post-Sopranos, post-Arrested Development shows that we’ve been lucky to watch in the past decade have greater dramatic and comic scope, have deeper existential, psychological and philosophical strains, and are more compelling viewing.
But their aims and their economics dictate that they will lean to the dark, the odd, the sexually outré, the violent, the startling. That leaves a lot out, or at least relegates many of the perplexities of life to subplots and subtexts, or to allegory at best. (I exempt Girls and Louis here, though not altogether.)
Many of those plotlines particularly shortchange women, despite their creators’ best intentions – or at least reduce the feminist point to “and the women get fucked over,” all too literally. Think of Joan on Mad Men last season.
Before Bunheads, I might have guessed that Sherman-Palladino would attempt to join the lionized “better than the movies” TV crowd. Maybe she’s not up to it, or maybe she didn’t like what it would have demanded.
Instead she’s kept the lamplight burning in her fantasy town with its mirrored room where girls take up and trade positions, mangled toes concealed, bleeding and keeping on smiling, with the idea that perhaps something in this move, or the next, will be a clue to what they need. Perhaps a grace not learned and submitted to but earned and commanded. A grace the new wave of TV, in many ways, has yet to know.