Andrew here with a eulogy. Nathaniel just can't.
You have heard by now that ABC Family has officially pulled the plug on the comedy musical series Bunheads. It’s been five months since the show aired the final episode of its first, and only season, ironically titled “Next”. Since then the network has failed to definitively address the issue of whether or not the show was done for good. The statement the network released Monday afternoon reads, thus:
“Bunheads is a wonderful series that we are very proud to have aired," ABC Family says in a statement. "The series had amazing storytelling, the most talented cast and a passionate and loyal fan base. Recognizing all of this, we took extra time to try and find ways to bring the series back for another season, but in the end it simply wasn’t possible. We wish the cast and crew the best in their future endeavors”
It’s difficult to speculate on the veracity of a claim like “we took extra time to try and find ways to bring the series back” but to the outside eye the line reeks of the disingenuous. [more...]
How much was ABC Family really invested in bringing back his oddity? They never even updated the official site with its last two episodes but most telling perhaps was the show's absence from the Emmy submission ballots (but for Sutton Foster). ABC Family's other shows – most of them far less acclaimed than Bunheads -- were submitted. They didn't even try to get Bunheads a choreography nomination! Logically, it would not have been unfair of the network to wait until the Emmy nominations to see if the show was worth keeping around, but only had they pushed it for nods. This makes the egregious five month waiting period between the final episode (airing February 25) and its cancellation that much more unpleasant and unnecessary.
Of course, television – like the film industry – is a business. It’s something we’re reminded of everyday. Numbers matter. Who’s watching matters. When the news broke on twitter yesterday (where else) and the myriad of (annoying) “But what IS Bunheads?” tweets started it was evidence that the cancellation of this show means nothing to most people. It’s a shame, though; underseen or not, Bunheads was a great show. When something ultra specific gets axed it suggests that individuality is not at all revered on television. Audience numbers are important, but it’s depressing to think it’s all that matters. When fans of the show say that television needs more shows like Bunheads, they're not exaggerating.
Former ballerina, turned Vegas showgirl, Michelle Simms imprudently gets married to an admirer one night and ends up in a placid Southern California town called Paradise. Her new husband dies the very next day and she’s left to deal with his mother and her ballet school. That description, like much about Bunheads sounds much more twee than it plays (though the show didn't object to twee either). With unusual warmth amidst the tragedy and a resilience not unlike its protagonist Bunheads gave us a chance to watch Michelle hilariously try to get her life on track. She would veer off said track and then right herself again repeatedly. According to the world of showbusiness Michelle, in her thirties, was past her prime and knew it. She vacillates between accepting her fate and defying the rules of the trade. Or trying to. Plot descriptions don't do its eighteen episodes of sweetness any justice though.
When the Emmy nominations hit on Thursday, people bemoaned the omission of their favourites while noting that the excellent quality of output on television has made it so difficult for all deserving shows to be honoured. And, as television has matured and changed so have the stakes which come with shows. You have to get noticed. Sitcoms exaggerate the mundane. Straight dramas seize hot button issues. Dramedies like Bunheads try to toe the line between. But for all its stylization Bunheads rarely went big, instead focusing on the truly small moments in life.
As far as high stakes go, one of the highest may have been the ballerinas being pepper sprayed by accident before a show. But television needs the small scale. Real life, after all, does not often revolve around FBI agents, covert drug dealers, terrorists, serial killers, and weekly life or death situations. Life can, gloriously, be about the very mundane and in classic Palladino style Bunheads made the mundane its focus. The characters spoke fast but the moments developed gradually, like life. And most significantly, Bunheads was about the minutae whilst juggling a mostly female cast of characters. Michelle never had to sacrifice her feminity to be seen as a role model even though she didn’t have her shit together. Bunheads as a feminist show, wasn’t about proving how equal to the men the girls were. There were hardly any men around! But that didn’t send its women into chaos – eighteen episodes of teenage girls and not once were their dilemmas relegated as subsidiary to the men around them. A rare breed of show.
As Nathaniel has repeatedly mentioned and TFE's Susan P pointed out in her reviews there was just nothing like Bunheads on television. Ultimately, that may have been its biggest problem. It was surely difficult to match the shows individual beats and moods with other things surrounding it on the network. What other show has teenage boys trying to impress a girl by imitating Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs (The Oscars should have been all over that joint!)? What other show would do a dance scene about the eternal paper or plastic question? Which other show would deal as honestly with sex education and set it to a montage of a “A Smile and a Ribbon”? The entire final episode of Bunheads hinged on its teenage dancers taking ownership of their bodies and approaching sex on their own terms. If that doesn’t stand out from the rest of television fare while simultaneously proving its feminist roots, what does?
The last time I remember reacting so viscerally to a show’s cancellation was in 2009 with Pushing Daisies (on ABC no less). Though they're very different shows Pushing Daisies, like Bunheads, was weirdly earnest and silly, sometimes foolishly hopeful, and defiantly warm even when it went dark or morbid. Neither show was able to fit into the television landscape it lived in. I mourn for Bunheads more though, not because it was better but because – no matter how quickly put together – Bryan Fuller, the creator of Pushing Daisies, had a chance to say goodbye to his characters. Bunheads leaves us not on a decisive cliffhanger but in a moment of suspension. Michelle had returned to Paradise after a failed audition to realise, yet again, how much her ballet students depend on her. In a moment which plays much darker now that the show has been cancelled Michelle does a brilliant audition for a touring company only to realise the process was rigged and they were never considering her in the first place. As she dances, the girls - unseen - whisper to the casting directors and producers. Look at her! But they're not watching Michelle. It doesn't matter how good she is, they don't want someone like Michelle -- their plate is already full. And it's the same for Bunheads. It dances great and with extra pizzaz, but the right people didn't care or weren't paying attention.
The coda of the young girls dancing, more suggestively than they ever have, while "Making Whoopee" plays on the soundtrack is a significant indication of their fledgling maturity and a look ahead at growing up. There’s no telling where Palladino might have taken them next but the movement has stopped abruptly in Paradise.
Paradise lost, I guess.
I’ll light a candle for you Bunheads. I hope I’m not the only one.