As someone who’s half-way through my Masters in Scriptwriting — and somehow, due to the negligence of the British education system, 95% through my lectures — I often find myself over-analysing my favourite shows. Would Ann and Tom ever really sleep together? Would Alicia ever really ignore such an egregious abuse of privilege? Would [insert shocking moment from Homeland] ever really happen to anyone?
It’s a trait that I try to keep in check, and one that never really spoils what I watch. It’s just a symptom of having a fairly decent understanding of the ropes and pulleys required to keep a show running smoothly. They’re errors that other people probably spot, but I just have more of a tendency to say to myself: “Ohhhh, I know exactly where the writer went wrong here.”
The reason for this is that, by and large, fiction has certain mechanics that keep it going. Certain genres that we like or don’t like, certain plot developments that are earned or ridiculous, certain characters that feel real or hollow. There are things that you do, and things that you don’t do, and ne’er the yada yada yada.
And then there’s Bunheads. For the uninitiated, Bunheads is a show on ABC Family about a Vegas dancer forced to set up shop in a small seaside town, teaching a group of teenage girls at a dance school she inherited. As far as stakes go, it’s buried somewhere under the floorboards. If something about the premise feels familiar, it’s created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose work on Gilmore Girls proved that small-town-told-wacky is her wheelhouse-in-trade.
Premiering last year to relatively little kerfufflage and drawing in modest, if steady, ratings, Bunheads could easily have flown under my radar. But the good people at the AV Club were singing its praises, so I thought I’d dip my toe, and I found one of the most loveable and impossible to pin down shows I’ve ever seen.
For those familiar with Gilmore Girls,, there’s obviously a lot of overlap here. Replace Stars Hollow with Paradise, Lorelai Gilmore with Vegas showgirl Michelle Simms, and Rory Gilmore with a foursome of varied young women — you could almost say that a little bit too much has been ported across. That said, fans of Gilmore Girls aren’t necessarily looking for something different, so Sherman-Palladino could pump out the same old same old and still be doing something watchable.
In fact, now that I take a moment to mull it over, she’d be doing something more than watchable. There’s a great love of Gilmore Girls in my circle of friends, and it’s certainly not because they’re lazy viewers or willing to settle for less. A show that set itself some fairly saccharine boundaries, Gilmore Girls always managed to plumb emotional depths, hit comedic high notes, not to mention keeping Melissa McCarthy percolating for a decade before she hit the big time. Not bad, and as fair and touching a portrayal of single parenting as you’ll ever see.
But let’s say that Bunheads had to bring something else, something with a little more frisson. And to the established heady mix of small-town wackiness and realistic leads, Sherman-Palladino has added dance.
Dance, you say? Yes, dance.
It’s hard to say whether or not Bunheads was an attempt to hop on the Glee craze (either way, that’s probably how it was pitched to the network), but regardless Sherman-Palladino has fused her pre-existing talents with dance in a way that blows the aforementioned Ryan Murphy show out of the water.
This is what makes Bunheads’ appeal so difficult to explain. When describing it to friends, particularly friends unfamiliar (or in some cases, negatively familiar) with Gilmore Girls, I get stuck some point after I mention funny, touching, dance. And those are some vital commas right there.
The show boils down to some basic constituent elements. Michelle is a great dancer stuck in a run-of-the-mill Vegas show, with nowhere to go but side-ways. Constantly fawned over by a regular visitor named Hubbell, one night she cracks and goes to dinner with him. She wakes up the next morning being driven across California by Hubbell, wearing a wedding ring and the distinct smell of stale vodka.
Arriving at Hubbell’s home town Paradise, she immediately meets his mother Fanny, who he lives with (Kelly Bishop, reprising a very different matriarchal role from that on Gilmore Girls). Fanny runs a dance school on the property, and Michelle stays long enough to consummate her relationship with Hubbell, butt heads with Fanny, and meet some of the students. Then, just as things are looking up, Hubbell is killed in a car accident. Michelle inherits the property and the dance studio, and the odd couple pairing of Fanny and Michelle kicks into gear. With predictably hilarious results.
This is strong fodder for any comedy drama, and Hubbell’s death is a surprisingly dark end to the pilot of a fairly light series. What adds an extra dimension to the show are two components: the students and the dance.
The four teenagers we follow throughout are Ginny, Melanie, Sasha and Boo. At the opening they fall into four broad stereotypes: the uptight one, the tomboy, the popular girl, and the innocent. It’s a good choice with so many characters to bounce around, but it doesn’t take long for them to be fleshed out into something far more interesting. Sasha particularly grows from a fairly one-dimensional creature into a sort of latter-day orphan, taken under Michelle’s wing and forming a slightly more distant version of the Rory/Lorelai pairing that anchored Gilmore Girls. The concept of Fanny being a mother to Michelle, who in turn is a mother to Sasha, creates a great emotional ladder on which to hang multiple story lines.
Beyond Sasha, the other girls do strongly in the first season. Ginny evolves from having had a boyfriend since she was four years old to being a single young woman with sexual curiosities and an insane mother (played by go-to insane person Kiersten Warren). Her progression in the first season is perhaps the greatest, and the season ends on Ginny making a heartbreakingly realistic confession to Michelle.
Boo begins as the innocent of the group, but is the first to bag a real boyfriend (we’re ignoring Ginny’s initial mainstay) and by the end of the first season she’s on the pill – even if she isn’t planning on having sex for another year and a half. She comes into her own as a responsible adult, and has some fantastic material where she tries to match her body type up against the possibility of a career in dance.
Rounding out the foursome we have Melanie, arguably a character that took some time to get off the ground. Realising fairly quickly that “tall” isn’t really a character trait, Mel found her strongest work when she sought friendship outside the group with sworn enemy Cosette. The writers also tapped into her more violent tendencies, especially when she was responsible for one of the more vicious smackdowns I’ve seen on television in some time.
I’m also holding out hope for Melanie to be the lesbian of the group, which would probably explain her attempt to find friendship outside her past allies, and her ongoing relationship with Cosette.
You might have noticed that at this point I still haven’t talked about the dance element of the show. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I can so often see how things work in fiction, and why they work, and how the elements come together to make something truly affecting.
But the way dance is used in Bunheads is something that I still have difficulty grasping. All I know is that it’s spectacular.
The above is the ending of an episode where Sasha had to confront the impending dissolution of her parents’ marriage. What does that have to do with Istanbul being Constantinople? Not a lot. Yet there’s a spectacular fuck-you element to Sasha’s movement (and Julia Goldani Telles’ performance) that says so much more than something more on the nose would be able to.
This is where the comparisons to Glee happily end. As someone who championed Glee well into its faltering second and third seasons — and gave up on it some time ago — I can see the similarities. But where Glee tends to punctuate its emotional story lines with songs that contain the exact same feelings, Bunheads always realizes that any piece of art should complement and add to (and not just mirror) the art to which it is being added. The next scene in any show should not be obvious, so why should the next song, or dance, or anything else be?
For instance, when needing to show the gap Michelle leaves in people’s lives when she is forced to flee town for some time, they don’t go the maudlin route. Instead they show what Michelle meant by showing her in action:
In my character descriptions, the issue of sex came up more than once, and though its tone is light and its graphic-ness almost non-existent, Bunheads has managed to address sex with surprising realism. The girls are all obsessed with sex, whether it’s from actual desire or from societal pressure to do it (or to wait), and this clash of conjecture vs. reality comes to the forefront in the first season’s finale. The dramatic plotting sees sex as something comic or terrifying, and in a heart-breaking final scene one of the girls confesses to a less-than-ideal loss of her virginity. But the final minutes of the season, and if it is not renewed the show, deal with the subject in a way that is to my mind much more effective.
The reason that these sequences work is the same reason why so many of Glee’s fail. Bunheads uses dance as a day-to-day activity for these girls. And then sometimes it uses it as an oblique commentary on the characters’ difficulties. But it is never obvious, and characters never burst into dance for no reason. In essence, if you hate Glee and hate musicals then you’ll love Bunheads’ rigorous partitioning of the real and the imaginary.
And technically, the work is flawless. The choreography is always unexpected, inventive and sprinkled with the kind of magic choreographer Marguerite Derricks has built her career on – in fact it’s hard to fathom where she gets fresh ideas after so long in the business (seriously, check out her incredible list of credits).
The four teenage leads are similarly skillful artists, and it’s particularly satisfying to see Kaitlyn Jenkins tear things up on the floor as arguably the strongest dancer. Here we have someone whose body type would probably prevent her from dancing professionally in the real world, who gets to work professionally playing a girl going through the exact same things.
There is a spectacular moment late in season one where the girls engage in a full-on argument while performing a complex dance sequence, a scene that is hilarious, well-acted and — terrifyingly — shot in one take. Can’t embed, but see it here. The direction in this show is endlessly inventive, and the thought of how difficult it must be not to get the camera caught in those mirrors is more than my brain can handle.
Dance is also used as an unusual way to deploy humour, such as when the dancers perform an arrangement to “It’s Time To Dance” – an Internet auto-tune hit pulled from the news, after an incident where Michelle accidentally maced the entire cast of The Nutcracker a few episodes earlier.
But in the end, the moments that work are the ones that can’t be nailed down. Where something about the visuals and the music and the skill of these dancers creates spectacle greater than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible to describe, especially for someone like me who’s never shown any interest in dance before, but it’s the heart of a show that stands head and shoulders above most anything else on television right now.
So I salute thee, Bunheads, even if I’m not sure why.