A Requiem for ‘Bunheads’


Why did ABC Family cancel Bunheads in the summertime? It would have hurt so much less in the spring, when these decisions are made en masse. And more importantly, summer was Bunheads‘ season: it premiered on June 11 of last year and became an oasis of great weekday-night TV amid all the reruns and second-tier reality shows. You could watch Bunheads on a warm night, alone or with friends, a glass of red wine in your hand to match the one invariably in Michelle’s and Fanny’s, checking Twitter at the commercials to see what everyone was saying about the latest awesomely context-free dance sequence.

I’ll leave it up to others to argue for why Netflix should revive Amy Sherman-Palladino’s post-Gilmore Girls masterpiece, or dream of a feminist utopia where Bunheads and Enlightened are the most popular shows in the land and Two and a Half Men is canceled midway through its first season. All I want to do here is mourn a show whose likes we may never see again.

Bunheads began with one of the best — and perhaps the all-time most productive — series premieres I’ve ever seen, bringing Sutton Foster’s Michelle Simms from an unfulfilling life as a Vegas showgirl to a sleepy California town called Paradise after a spontaneous decision to marry a persistent longtime admirer. Then, before the hour is out, Sherman-Palladino has killed off Michelle’s new husband, leaving her in the awkward company of his mother Fanny, who runs a dance school out of her home. In retrospect, it’s funny that so much had to happen in the premiere to set up a show that was often teased for its lack of a plot.

It’s true that Bunheads couldn’t boast many shocking storylines or big reveals. (And while we’re nitpicking, we might as well let out a collective groan over its stupid title.) But at a moment when we’ve already got Homeland and Breaking Bad and Scandal and even Downton Abbey, TV suffers from no shortage of suspense. What Bunheads contributed was something subtler and more rare: not just the lively, pop culture-studded conversation Sherman-Palladino is so well known for, but also a close-up look at how relationships form and evolve, among new family members and friends and teenagers falling in love for the first time, and between adults and the kids they mentor. Encouragingly, most of these interactions cast girls and grown-up women not as romantic or professional rivals but as each other’s sounding boards and support systems — an especially notable feat for a show that happened to be set in the notoriously competitive world of ballet. Yet these supportive relationships between women never read as prim, by-the-book, eat-your-vegetables feminism; there were flaws and spats and moments of mistrust, too, although they never overpowered the characters’ genuine affection and concern for each other.

In fact, all the attention that has been paid to Bunheads‘ positive representation of its overwhelmingly female cast of characters can obscure just how much fun the show was. There were throwaway jokes that could make you spray that mouthful of wine across the room. There were genuinely tender moments between friends and lovers that would have elicited an audible “aww” from even the most cold-hearted of cynics. There were the impromptu dance numbers to Björk and They Might Be Giants — some connected and others entirely unrelated to the themes of the episodes in which they appeared, each one a strange and beautiful gift in a medium that has never had much time for that particular art form. There was, admittedly, the soothing fact that most of the characters’ problems were relatively minor, and all of them took place against the backdrop of a carefree California beach town. It all added up to one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences of the 21st-century television renaissance, which would have been so much richer and more diverse had Amy Sherman-Palladino’s odd, little show made it another few seasons.