2012: The Year in TV Moments
Entry 12: Bunheads: Michelle’s cathartic one-night stand.
ABC Family, August 6, 9:45 p.m.
In the eighth episode of Bunheads, Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), widowed in the pilot only minutes after first consummating her marriage, slept with another guy.
True, Conor (Chris Eigeman) seemed like a good match for Michelle. Like her, he’d had a disappointing career as a performer. They met cute, exchanging witty banter at a matinee performance of the play he was directing, and bonded when she pointed out its many flaws. He was so impressed, in fact, that he invited her to see how much her notes had improved it, and shortly after curtain, they were in bed together. The good news is that the sex was great. The bad news is that it reminded her of her dead husband, Hubbell, whom she also slept with just once, so she dissolved into confusing, inconsolable tears.
This was surely the first TV show in which screwing a stranger released the emotion that the entire season had been building toward: grief for Hubbell and the life she might have had with him. On any other series, Conor and Michelle’s budding relationship would’ve been the focus of every episode that followed. Instead, Conor was never heard from again.
Every episode of this quirky show featured scenes and storylines that challenged the established conventions of character building and storytelling. On another occasion, a (lovely) dance performance came without introduction or discussion, apparently just to fill a few minutes at the end of the hour. And always there was endless circular dialogue, chock full of pop-culture references and odd lines that are to jokes what buds are to roses: not quite formed but full of potential.
To some viewers, all this might seem random and annoying. To others—including me—it was gloriously, invigoratingly unpredictable. Television has too many equivalents of Chekov’s gun: procedurals shuffling through the same old plot lines, actors too famous for the apparent bit part they’re playing.
The modest success of Bunheads—its ratings were mediocre, but more episodes were ordered and will start airing in early January—probably doesn’t presage a revolution in basic-cable storytelling. Amy Sherman-Palladino gets to abandon traditional story arcs and instead point a camera at a bunch of odd people because she’s Amy Sherman-Palladino, the showrunner of Gilmore Girls, with a track record and a few million fans who’ll eat up whatever she serves them. In the Age of the Showrunner, there are no guarantees of success—neither Huge, made by My So-Called Life’s Winnie Holzman, nor Luck, from Deadwood’s David Milch, made it past the first season—but at least a creator who has proved that she knows how to tell a great story sometimes earns the freedom to break the rules.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.