As an alternative to my griping about The Newsroom, here’s a summer TV series I’m enjoying: Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s ABC Family followup to Gilmore Girls. It works more like a prequel — Sutton Foster’s Michelle is what Lorelai Gilmore would have been like unfettered by a teenage pregnancy, or at least before it. (I still expect Michelle to wind up with a pregnancy from her dead stalker husband by the end of
next week’s episode the season.)
Bunheads isn’t perfect by any means. Jacob Clifton at Television Without Pity is one of the few writers recapping it regularly, and I totally get and enjoy his mounting hysteria at how nonsensical the show can be. (Though I’ve kind of embraced it and all its crazy, inexplicable Istanbul (Not Constantinople) dance routines.) The pacing is totally off — major plot points often happen as the credits are literally rolling. And I’m disappointed that the show a) killed off Michelle’s stalker husband at the end of the first episode and b) has largely bungled the handling of his death’s aftermath. Michelle’s hysterical breakdown tonight in the bed of her random date was not convincing after several episodes in which the show’s bright colors and strummy Gilmore Girls guitar music and quirky small-town-shenanigans took far more precedence than actual mentions of the death of a longtime resident and son and last-minute husband.
But while I don’t love all of its execution, Bunheads is still one of the most fascinating shows on television right now, largely because it’s a show completely about failure and moving on from failure. Every significant character in the show has failed, and failed big. Fanny abandoned her professional dreams when she became pregnant, building a life around a son who died off-screen. Michelle frittered her ambitions away when she left ballet for the party life of a Vegas showgirl. Boo, the most sympathetic of the younger generation, knows and is regularly told that she doesn’t have the body to succeed in ballet, despite all of her efforts to prove otherwise. Sasha, the least sympathetic of the younger generation, has all the physicality and talent to succeed in ballet but is hell-bent on throwing it away and becoming a second-generation Michelle.
I’m watching this while I’m trying to get caught up with Girls, which is fine and interesting in some parts and has me largely admiring Lena Dunham, but which still feels like a chore to watch rather than something I look forward to. Girls isn’t ultimately about real stakes to me, because its characters are too young or diffident or uncommitted to have real stakes in play, or at least stakes that I buy into. Girls flirts with the fear of failure rather than its actuality.
“You squandered a lot of potential.”
“Are you sorry?”
“Every day of my life.”
Bunheads could be grim and devastating on a channel like AMC or HBO, in the hands of a different writer and a cable network devoted to Serious Drama That Says Something About Humanity. ABC Family is anything but — and to be fair to it, grim isn’t in Sherman-Palladino’s paintbox. I’m sorry that Michelle’s brief husband died, because I really wanted to see them navigate a marriage where both knew that she wasn’t in love and had accepted him as an escape rather than a life partner. But that would probably be a different show and a different writer. Somehow, with its cutesy name and awful title sequence and quirky-comedy veneer, Bunheads still manages to come at failure and its consequences sideways, sharply. It’s probably the best, most light-hearted show about tragedy I’ve ever seen.