Tuned In

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.