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Goodbye, Bunheads

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.

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Reader Comments (14)

Being a fan of Gilmore Girls, I was curious about this show and after a few episodes. I got hooked. I loved the sense of quirkiness as well as the dancing. It really bums me out that this show is cancelled. I love those characters. They were fun to watch and I wanted more.

Fucking ABC Family. Sticking to crap shows like Baby Daddy, The Fosters, Twisted, and all of that shit. Fuck them. Fuck them to hell!!!

July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

While I never watched Gilmore Girls and I will not curse ABC Family (I happen to like their other dramas to... their comedies, I can't defend), I did get hooked on Bunheads and the fact that it got cancelled is truly a shame. ABC Family is good for giving up on shows, though, so I shouldn't be completely surprised; but Bunheads had such potential.

July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Thanks for writing this. I too felt it viscerally. I've been really really upset. I think it's because most shows i've loved in the past several yaers have managed to get 2 or 3 seasons and this just seemed like unsupported by ABC Family. I loved Bunheads so much I actually tried a few of their other shows under the umbrella of "maybe I misjudged this channel?" but they all sucked.

July 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was WAY too emotional about this when I heard the news earlier today. Like, so emotional that I watched probably every single clip of it on YouTube at least a dozen times, on the verge of tears. It does sting much more than any other show I've ever lost (Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, and most recently Ben & Kate hurt the most), but this one feels different. Maybe because they held out on the decision for SO LONG. Maybe because it ended on such a melancholy note, with no real closure. But mostly because, far more so than any other show on TV right now (or possibly ever) that focused on the arts, Bunheads felt TRUE. It felt like real life, heightened ever so slightly for TV. To paraphrase a much longer-lasting TV show, it took the good, it took the bad, and there it had the facts of life. And even though it focused on young girls, a lot of the issues it dealt with were universal: wanting to be liked, needing to feel loved by your parents, trying to find/make a home, fighting to do the one thing you love more than anything else in the world because you know you're great at it... I could go on and on.

It really was unlike anything else on television - the main plot may have moved slower than Game of Thrones or Mad Men, but each episode just zipped by on the wings of its mile-a-minute quips and visual gags. I will miss every single goddamn one of these characters - most of whom were more well-developed and fully-formed than any other TV teenager on shows that have been around much longer (seriously, has there been a more talented group of teenagers on TV than the four title characters in this show?). TV needed Bunheads, and I don't see anything on the horizon stepping in to fill its place. A sad, sad day.

July 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Bunheads was a difficult show for me. The first half of the season felt like "Gilmore Girls: The Remake". The storylines were completely different but the dialogue was unmistakable. The second half was much better; the dialogue was still awesome in that very Gilmore way, but the characters became real people. I think there were a LOT of problems with the season, a lot of times when the show was trying to find its way, but there was so much right about it that I wanted to keep watching it. I honestly think if it had gotten a second season, the second season would have been a huge hit, both with audiences and critics. It literally improved from episode to episode, and it was pretty good right from the pilot.

But I'm not sad that it wasn't renewed. I think it could have had a phenomenal second season, but I also think it could have had a horrible second season. There really was so much that wasn't clicking, from the hideous half season finale (mace anyone?) to teenage girls living in spacious apartments and other girls being forced to be permanent babysitters for mothers who didn't care? There were mysterious additions that were talented and beautiful and annoyingly unreal. There were also several characters that changed motivations from one episode to the next (the ditzy designer girl).

I would have been happy if the show had continued. But I'm not upset that it didn't.

I am, however, happy I got to see the first season in full, flaws in all. Constantinople indeed.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Marx

ABC Family should know when they have a show that is critically acclaimed which is why I'm sad about the cancellation.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

I've just seen the first three episodes and I'm already hooked. Sadly I'll watch the rest of the season knowing it's the last one. I love Kelly Bishop, the dialogues and the lighting balloons at the ballet classroom.

Sutton Foster deserves another chance very very soon. She's uberly talented and the world need to know it.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

After all the time they took to decide, I can't say I was surprised when I heard the news yesterday. I feel extremely disappointed that something so original couldn't make it. But as Andrew points out, that was probably part of the problem (if not the main one). There is original, quality program that succeeds on television (Mad Men and Breaking Bad are the two shows that immediately come to mind) -- but that doesn't comfort me very much when I think of what could have been with this show! It feels like it was just hitting its creative stride....

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

Andrew, what a wonderfully written piece. I picked out three random early-season episodes on On Demand, and they were all magical. Sutton Foster's rapid-fire delivery of those comic gems is unbelievable. Kelly Bishop is a treasure. This show perfectly captured a quirky world of innocence tipping over into its next chapter. ABC has a sickening history of treating some of its loveliest shows--Eli Stone, Samantha Who?--like disposable wipes. This network has lost all goodwill with me.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

"Fucking ABC Family. Sticking to crap shows like Baby Daddy, The Fosters, Twisted, and all of that shit. Fuck them. Fuck them to hell!!!?

The Fosters is a good show and frankly a breath of fresh air from some of the branding trends ABC Family has, which Bunheads had going against it from the very beginning (even if many tweens discovered Gilmore Girls when they started re-running on the network).

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

In television today, like sports, you get one season (often not even that) to prove yourself, or you are out. I am very sad that Bunheads is over. I wish it had been shopped to other networks. It needed a different market. ABC tends to prefer very uneducated, low brow or salacious shows in order to pander to the type of audience it draws. Next ABC will have a 'Honey Boo Boo' rip-off in their line-up. It is the 'dumbing down' of America, and why CBS kills them in the ratings.

I wish all those involved in creating and producing Bunheads a bright future. So much talent. Thanks for a great season and the final 'goodbye'. Parting is such sweet sorrow...

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris

In television today, like sports, you get one season (often not even that) to prove yourself, or you are out. I am very sad that Bunheads is over. I wish it had been shopped to other networks. It needed a different market. ABC tends to prefer very uneducated, low brow or salacious shows in order to pander to the type of audience it draws. Next ABC will have a 'Honey Boo Boo' rip-off in their line-up. It is the 'dumbing down' of America, and why CBS kills them in the ratings.

I wish all those involved in creating and producing Bunheads a bright future. So much talent. Thanks for a great season and the final 'goodbye'. Parting is such sweet sorrow...

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Does anyone know why Bunheads has yet to come out on DVD?

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMJ

I miss this show. My daughter and I both enjoyed it.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJudy

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