Why Bunheads Is the Best Show on TV

Slate's Culture Blog
March 22 2013 5:34 PM

Why Bunheads Is the Best Show on TV

The eponymous bunheads.
Emma Dumont, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain, and Kaitlyn Jenkins.

Photograph by ABC FAMILY/Adam Taylor.

The New York Times has said it on the front page of the Style section, and regular Slate-ster Alyssa Rosenberg has said it eloquently at ThinkProgress. I’ll add my voice: ABC Family needs to renew Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fantastic ballet dramedy Bunheads, the best original, scripted show on TV. Yes, the best. I say this as someone who owns a copy of The Walking Dead #1, and benefits handsomely from that show’s success. I say it as an employee of a magazine that covers Mad Men the way vintage Nintendo Power covered the release of Super Mario Bros. 3.

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

The premise of Bunheads is simple, and a little unsettling. (So’s the name of the show, which might explain why it hasn’t taken off.) Michelle Sims (Sutton Foster) is a Las Vegas showgirl who’s fallen permanently into the background, even though she’s gorgeous and cracks jokes like an Amy Sherman-Palladino character. When we first see her she’s dressed skimpily, smiling knowingly through a set, and then snarking when the topless dancers rush to the front of the stage.

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“It’s a great message we’re sending to the girls of America,” she tells her fellow struggling friend, Talia. “Hey, girls! Forget about learning to dance! Just take off your top and stand there!” Keep in mind that Michelle is dressed like Princess Leia on Jabba’s sand-ship when she says this. The discussion quickly turns to breast implants, then to an audition that could save Michelle’s career, then to the nice-but-creepy suitor who keeps showing up after Michelle’s shows—Hubble, played winsomely by Alan Ruck. By the next commercial break, Michelle will wake up hungover in Hubble’s car, newly wed and en route to his hometown of Paradise. By the end of the episode, Hubble will be killed in a car crash and Michelle will own the house where her mother-in-law lives and runs a ballet studio for precocious high school girls.

That’s the premise: A thirtysomething woman thrown from one life of disappointment into a more whimsical life of disappointment. Sherman-Palladino’s first series, Gilmore Girls, spent seven seasons exploring the relationships between mothers and daughters and goofy townspeople. But Gilmore Girls had obvious momentum, and obvious romantic interests; its first season ended with the female leads literally running into the arms of the men who’d spent 22 episodes courting them. The first season of Bunheads ended with Michelle getting unfairly cut from an audition, then comforting one of her students (Bailey Buntain) who worries she’s given away her virginity to the wrong guy. The dramatic climax of Michelle’s storyline came after she met-cute with a play’s producer, slept with him, and then—in a hotel room, at the worst possible time—wept over what she’d lost with Hubble.

I’m making this sound awfully dark. It isn’t! Foster, a Tony-winning actress, is an extraordinary singer, dancer, and comic. Her mother-in-law, Fanny, is played by Kelly Bishop—another Tony winner, who I only recognized from Gilmore Girls, but who has much more to do here. Most dancing and music on scripted TV is played for camp, or parody. (Glee’s a fun show, but too many of its routines just copy music videos to prove that this can be done.) The dancing on Bunheads is whimsical and completely earnest. Early in their long, awkward bonding process, Michelle watches Fanny’s mini-ballet about the waste of supermarket shopping. It manages to show off good technique and parody southern California liberal angst at the same time—while also moving the plot along.

As the first season progressed, and we got to know Sherman-Palladino’s new characters, the portrayal of art and artistry only got better. Bunheads avoids the cliché of the rising star and the jealous mentor. Michelle is old enough to be dismissed by casting directors (Foster is 38), but she flits back and forth between acceptance (helping build an ampitheatre for the dancers) and resilience. It’s completely believable—and completely compelling. In the penultimate episode, Ginny (Buntain) wants to audition for the school play, and asks Michelle to school her. That’s exactly what happens, as the frustrated dancer pushes Ginny, shaking the dust off her performance, and finally stepping in and nailing it herself.

The strangest thing about watching Bunheads is catching the commercials for other ABC Family product. You’ll watch a perfectly funny or moving scene, and then you’ll see that the kids on Pretty Little Liars (which has been renewed) just set a barn on fire, or something, to cover up an affair. Good for them! But we’re in the middle of a fascinating show about art, female-to-female relationships, and the lessons people learn from failure. It would be nice if you people at ABC renewed that, too.