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On the Importance of Bunheads

ABC Family's delightful, little-watched dance drama-comedy is the kind of show that TV, for all its newfound ambition, doesn't have enough room for.

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ABC Family

Spoilers for the season finale of Bunheads below:

Here’s what happened on the explosive season finale of Bunheads last night. Michelle (Sutton Foster) left the quirky confines of Paradise, California, auditioned for a musical, knocked it out of the park, but didn’t get the role. Her quartet of high-school ballet students–the Bunheads of the title–consider losing their virginity and consider a puzzling array of condoms on a store rack. It culminates one night, after Michelle’s lousy day, when Bunhead Ginny (Bailey Buntain) confides to her that she’s already lost her virginity, to a beautiful guy who is probably not going to have much to do with her anymore. Then there’s a dance number.

It could be the last episode the show ever airs. And if you haven’t seen it, you might think, from that plot-level description, that it’s just as well. But Bunheads is a lot more: Amy Sherman-Palladino’s crackling, hilarious dialogue; the connection between former showgirl Michelle and her kids, staring down at each other from opposite ends of a difficult dream; the way life can be so exciting, painful and ridiculous that the only rational response, the only fitting expression, is to dance.

Over it’s first season, it’s been a joy to watch, funny, charming and bittersweet, and that’s reason enough for me to want it to stay on the air, despite not-great-even-for-ABC-Family ratings. But TV also needs this show to stay on the air, to prove that there are different kinds of stories worth telling outside the usual genres.

I’ve been working on an essay about the profusion of gory violence in TV dramas today–it’ll be out in this week’s issue of TIME–and one explanation for it that comes up over and again is that you need “stakes” to hook viewers. You need, that is, a sense that that the characters stand to gain or lose something important, and in the “important” sweepstakes “getting violently murdered” generally trumps everything.

That’s understandable, and it’s at least somewhat related to real life. You, I, and everyone will die someday–though probably not at the hands of a biker gang or zombies. But death is not the only thing that makes your life worthy of your attention. There’s growing up, finding your limitations, learning who you are. There’s being grown up, being forced to reassess your life, figuring out who you still can be. There’s wanting things and pursuing a calling–which does not always have to be building the largest meth operation in the Southwest.

That’s what Bunheads has been for a season, and it’s been a delight. It did start out with a death–Michelle was briefly married to the son of dance-studio czarina Fanny (Kelly Bishop) before he died in a car crash–but that was mainly a device that started Bunheads’ real story, disrupting Michelle’s life and introducing her as a disruptor to the lives of her neighbors in quaint Paradise.

And it’s the kind of story that TV–as ambitious and fantastic as it has become in the past decade or so–has found less room for. Or, at least, where it’s found room for low-key, non-explosive stories–without either abundant gore or constant potboiler twists–that place is usually marginal and precarious. TV creators are free now, but within a limited range. TV is capable of having the power and ambition of literary novels now, but it does not yet have nearly the scope of subject matter.

I’m part of the problem, of course. I’ve plugged shows like Bunheads and Enlightened here, but like many other online blabberers I pay a lot more attention to (entirely worthy) shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, with their higher profiles and abundant holy-shit moments. I probably don’t give enough attention, in terms of sheer word count, to how much I enjoy the gleeful absurdities of Bunheads, where a figure ending an episode dancing to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”—in, good Lord, a single continuous take!—can be as memorable as a druglord getting his face blown in half.

So let me leave you with that, and a plea for ABC Family to keep this show around, and keep expanding the scope of TV’s storytelling. (Also, I would really like the excuse to keep typing the name “Bailey Buntain.”) Don’t let Bunheads get the works.

44 comments
desrtrse
desrtrse

I could not agree more!! We need more shows like bunheads, it is delightful, fun and a wonderful look at people acting normal instead of pushing the drama of lying, murder, coverups, and all the negative ways the other shows are presenting. We so much need this kind of show on tv. Please do not allow only the negative role model shows to rule. There is a huge fan base for this show and we want it back!!!!!!!

KimScruggs
KimScruggs like.author.displayName 1 Like

Our family LOVES Bunheads...and the video above is one of my favorite scenes. My son has been dancing since age 5 (he is now 14)...my daughter, who is 8, has been dancing since she was 3...and about 5 years ago, I went from being just a dance mom waiting in the lobby for class to be over to working as the studio manager. My husband does sets every year for recital, and my mom comes for the entire month of May, just to help us through the crazy, wonderful busy-ness that the end of school and recital time brings. Even my son's twin gets into the act, helping give out programs, working as a stage hand on occasion, and generally supporting his sibs. This program is a POSITIVE picture of dance studios - and it is right on target. I hear our own director mulling the exact same decisions that Fanny does...and we can all identify with Truly's costume challenges!  We would be totally disappointed if this show were cancelled.

KarenReneeWilhere
KarenReneeWilhere

I love this show and hope it will still come back on with new episodes.

ojodepez
ojodepez like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm so glad someboday noticing that amazing closure of an Episode with the one take shot, I think it was sublime, and its refreshing to see some seroius dancing on TV. I love Amy Sherman-Palladino and I really think the show shoud be given a chance to fully develop the story and the characters and the dialogue and make us fall in love with them as we fell in love with the Gilmore Girls beacuse of the brilliant non stoping stream of conciousness out loud of the characters. I suscribe to every word you write (also huge fan of GOT) I think television needs to keep their doors open to different kinds of story-telling. I used to watch gossip girl just because the characters never used bad language but insidously planned insults, and that I was graetful, for a change. Anyway, ABC please keep Bunheads alive!!! BTW Sutton Foster is amazing and Godot the surfer guy...absolutely adorable!!!

rabbit116
rabbit116

Importance? Boy, this USED to be Time Magazine.

lynnechildress1
lynnechildress1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

I agree. I was DVR'ing this and Rizzoli and Isles, then I realized that my heart needed more fast-talking dancers and hugs and Sutton Foster and less murder and stuff. Bunheads is so sweet, and it is what we need more of.

BethanyH.
BethanyH. like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

I love this show, as well. The dialogue is wonderful without a bunch of the unnecessary foul language that some shows believe is necessary for every sentence. It also shows a different side of life. The side where things go wrong and you have to work to get through them. I also love the connection between Michelle and the "bunheads". I believe it teaches young people, girls and boys alike, that having a mentor or just someone to talk to about certain topics, such as losing your virginity in the last episode, is important. ABC Family should keep this show because even though it doesn't have blood and gore, it has a lot of heart.

CassandraClinton
CassandraClinton like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I will be so, so sad if Bunheads doesn't come back!  I think this show is an acheivement in that it manages to touch on very real topics without falling into the gutter OR being saccharine, in a very whimsical way, with so much feeling and no shortage of wit and humor.  We do need this kind of show.  If they replace it with another show about vampires or other monsters I may just have to throw out the television once and for all.

dressagegirl18
dressagegirl18 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I love Bunheads and appreciate this article. Hopefully it will come back for another season and many more after that!


montanamomma
montanamomma like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

I love that Bunheads is a show I can watch with all 5 of my children and not worry about inappropriate content. Even the season ender with Ginny admitting to "naming her banana Frankie" allowed for a "this is our values" brief about pre-marital sex. My family loves this show because it is not violent, drug-filled, potty-mouthed, or "reality" television! We can only hope that ABC Family gives us more seasons to enjoy.

wyogal
wyogal like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I love Bunheads.  I am becoming jaded about watching new shows because I know that there is a very good chance that they will be cancelled after a season or two so I begin to feel as if there is no point to watching new shows.  Which, in turn, dooms more shows from the beginning.  They need to give new shows the chance to find their audience and grow.

heygirlhey
heygirlhey

ABC family is starting to turn down hill and wont be getting many views soon. If they keep cutting these shows i will no longer be watching the only other show i watch is switched at birth and i know many people who have stopped watching abc family because of this.

JoycePetrone
JoycePetrone like.author.displayName 1 Like

I Love Bunheads and have from the very first show. It has all the fun and creativeness that Gilmore Girls had. It is funny and sweet, for me the fact that it's not full of death and such is wonderful. I truly hope it stay on air. I am getting sick of ABC Family cutting off good shows if Bunheads gets cut it will be the third show in like the past year that I have loved to get the boot. First was The Nine Lives of Cloe King, than Jane by Design so it would really upset me to see it happen again.

DarleneAllisonAndersSanner
DarleneAllisonAndersSanner like.author.displayName 1 Like

I love Bunheads The dialogue,the characters, the dancing So hope they keep this show around for a long while 

Hmm
Hmm like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bunheads is clever, creative, beautifully written, joyfully acted, brilliantly danced, and a wonder to watch. I hope it gets its second season as it has so much more story to tell!

veela_valoom
veela_valoom like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I think you hit it on the head when you said that these real life type shows are getting pushed on TV for the flashier stuff.  I hope ABC family keeps Bunheads around. 

cw345@att.net
cw345@att.net like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

My daughter and I look forward to bunheads every week. We love the dancing! It's enjoyable to watch a great family show. We literally enjoy every minute of it! Please don't cancel.

TheresaSantoro
TheresaSantoro

It is a lovely show to be sure, but the problem lie in that it is too close to Gilmore Girls, in character, background music, and script.  If you were a follower of Gilmore Girls, and still catch it on the very same station that airs Bunheads, you quickly tire of the staccato banter and sarcasm.    Character name changes, but the actors keep so much of their original Gilmore Girl personalities.  I appreciate the creators allegiance, and the charm, but the recipe is too much the same.  Much like tonight's episode in which Michelle tried and failed at her audition, she was led to believe it was a legitimate performance.  But alas, it was rigged, and the choreographer used the same dancers as always.  Amy Sherman-Palladino did not dig deep enough to make for original content.  Sad...because the show has a lot of potential!

desrtrse
desrtrse

@TheresaSantoro i disagree with you completely, I love the show because of its similarities to Gilmore Girls. It has all the charm and quirky characters that we loved and need more of. I love that she took it to the dance world and shows a positive view that we never see anymore in entertainment. I loved GGs and I love this show. It is one that you can be comfortable allowing your kids to watch and it is a fun light change from all the drama and negativity we see on tv now. I want shows like this to go on forever because you never get tired of watching them and the characters are loveable! It makes you want to live in this town and know the people in it. This is the type of world we need to show more of, a positive change on all the negativity we see constantly thrown at us. There is a huge fan base for this show and we want more!

ballerinamom8
ballerinamom8 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

@TheresaSantoro While some viewers may share your opinion, I disagree. There are many young viewers out there that never watched Gilmore Girls and this is probably the first experience for them with this style of writing and fast paced dialogue. It would be a shame if the show was canceled because it seemed too "Gilmore Girl" like, the future generation would be loosing out on a lot. Besides, most Gilmore Girls fans are delighted to have more of ASP wit and humor back on the air. 

susanthom
susanthom like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

@TheresaSantoro It's for this very reason that I am delighted to watch Bunheads. There are enough differences between it and GG to make the show enjoyable on its own. I love seeing former GG actors appearing in new roles on this show.

GFIdiot
GFIdiot like.author.displayName 1 Like

I truly hope they keep this show, it is WONDERFUL. When you compare the writing and acting chops of Bunheads to "Secret Life...." one is left utterly baffled that the latter lasted so many seasons, yet Bunheads is on the chopping block so soon? 

desrtrse
desrtrse

@GFIdiot i agree with you, have no idea why a show like "Secret Life" stayed on air beyond the first episodes, it was so boring to the point of ridiculous...


sarahs22
sarahs22

I love love love Bunheads, and I'm a 25 year old grad student :)  I think the simplicity, the innocence, and the humor are exactly what adolescents need right now.  Shows with sex, violence, and drugs are so prevalent that they have become the norm for our kids; let alone violent video games!  It is so refreshing to see this show on tv with the main character being a true star in her field.  It's so sad to see quality television ousted by B class shows.  The only negative I have is the quick fire talking style of the characters reminiscent of Gilmore Girls.  Drives me nuts.

debTO
debTO like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I don't get the channel Bunheads airs on here in Canada so I have to wait till the following day and watch it online via a spotty Internet connection that often leaves me wanting to throw my computer out the window ... totally worth it.

Majnun
Majnun like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I won't even let my brain imagine that the show won't be coming back.

It worked for terriers, which I'm still holding out for

pb_mama
pb_mama like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

One more quick comment, James - Thank you for the work you do.  Seriously.  Many of the shows I watch come from your previews and reviews, and they often become my favorite shows.  The Good Wife, Parenthood, Breaking Bad, Bunheads, etc.  Sadly, many of them don't make the cut after a season.  It's a real shame intelligent programming doesn't get good ratings. :-S

Exballerinawriter
Exballerinawriter like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

How can people let ABC Family know that they want the show? I was in ballet training as a young girl and I completely relate to these characters, much more than a show like HBO's Girls. The characters on Bunheads are believable and Sutton Foster is fantastic as Michelle. Where can viewers who appreciate the show make themselves heard to ABC Family? 

Chris_Kw
Chris_Kw

If anything, some people say that Heath Ledger won for The Joker because he had died. Those people are stupid. So is anyone who thinks he won because the Acadamy was making up for a Brokeback snub. I couldn't even remember the other nominees from 2008 until I looked them up. Who should have won that award? Robert Downey Jr. playing an overly devoted Australian actor who wears blackface? No. I think The Joker performance was just as worthy of that award as Waltz's Landa in '09 or Bardem's Anton Chigurh in '07.

blindamann
blindamann like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I love love love this show !! Its so refreshing and lighthearted and realistic and just a joy to watch, being part of the young adult generation I think this exactly what TV needs. More shows like this and less shows like real housewives and bad girls club which are poisonous. I really do hope they keep this show on

ShelTurtlestein
ShelTurtlestein like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

This is easily my favorite show on TV right now. Easily. I feel like lately I watch a lot of things, but with few exceptions am rarely excited. Not so with Bunheads, which has actually done the impossible and made me look forward to Mondays. It's so smart and unique and just fun. Sutton Foster is a gem. The girls have all grown so much in character over the season that the idea of not getting to spend more time with them is just unthinkable! I hate that the ratings have been bad, because the show has only grown better each week. 

I worry that there's a 0% chance of renewal because of the ratings, but I beg the ABC execs to look at message boards all over the place that express the exponential improvement and growth of every aspect of the show since the beginning. I truly believe that if more people watched it and hung on for a little while, this would be ABC Family's next megahit. I'm hoping against hope that it somehow gets renewed and that they market and rerun the hell out of it in the meantime. Wishful thinking, I'm sure, but I was just so bummed last night at 10:00. That simply can't be it. I refuse. 

Think of how long it took Friends to find its audience, ABC Family! Bunheads' quality is worth the 2nd chance!

ErininBoquete
ErininBoquete like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Such a Winner..thank you Amy and ALL....

the episode tonight had me laughing out loud, thrilled to see the "chourus line" feel audition where we really get to see Michelle 'perform", cringed and howled at Fanny's sex takes/talk, perked up at Scotty's connection with Truely and Milly, Oh Yeah fun stuff coming there!....and finally was blown away by the admission " I already had sex..last week"..what a moving scene!

No drama,build up talking about it with her friends...just a sad little one who opens up to Michelle. I cried.

Please keep this on...our young people need to see this quality of writing trasformed on their tv screens...and we "oldtimers' relish the creativity and intelligence.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie like.author.displayName 1 Like

I don't exactly begrudge all the ink that oxygen-suckers (...ink-suckers?) like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Girls get (they're worthy of it!), and I do understand (and don't resent) the fact that the page-view tail often wags the blog-post dog (I mean, welcome to the Internet), but I do sometimes wish that we in the writing-and-reading-about-TV community could, say, designate *one* critic to write the definitive reviews and think pieces about a given show. Like, Maureen Ryan, whose last piece on Girls was pretty much the only one you had to read, could be _the_ Girls critic (whereas those dudebros at Slate should be forbidden to ever mention the show again). It would just save us all a lot of time. :-)

Even though he cops to being "part of the problem," I've always appreciated how often James shines a light on worthy and underappreciated shows, from my late, lamented Rubicon to Enlightened. James's really excellent multipage Dead Tree article on the return of Enlightened (and its fantastic pictures) is one of the best things I've read this year. Thanks!

pb_mama
pb_mama like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Bunheads is a real gem - one of the only shows I watch when it airs.  I love it, just as I loved Gilmore Girls before it.  It'd be a shame to lose it.  It's been a blast watching the show evolve and find its footing - from letting the girls become more of a focus, to watching Sutton Foster become more comfortable in front of the camera. (In the early episodes, it was clear she's a stage actress.)  Not only is much of what's on TV now rife with violence and gore (tho, I do love Breaking Bad!), but ABC "Family" certainly doesn't air much family-friendly content.  I mean, two of their biggest hits have the word "Liar" in their title.  What is this teaching the teen generation?  Bunheads is welcome balance to all the "drama" on other shows.

mmontano
mmontano like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The show hit its stride this season with the broader scope giving the delightful young girls a bigger share of the story.  Amy Sherman-Palladino was getting back into her Gilmore Girls patois, full of wit and cultural references.  I did wonder how she got away with such an obviously expensive production what the choreography, extras, and locations. But that's what she does so well. She creates wonderful little worlds that are at once grounded and fanciful.

NealCampbell
NealCampbell like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bunheads is the best written show on TV. I don't want to live in a world where this show doesn't have a place. ABC Family would be wise to give it time to find its audience because that audience will be loyal, vocal, and purchasers of season after season of DVDs.

anon76
anon76

Sorry to be part of the problem, but with very limited TV time Bunheads is still unlikely to make my list.  I did enjoy the clip though, and wasn't expecting the They Might Be Giants version for a ballet show.  Thanks!