People people people, can we talk about Bunheads on ABC? Because holy moly, I have been on pins and needles all week waiting for tonight’s episode. I have been wanting to watch it since about halfway through last week’s episode, honestly, because it was poppin’ fresh, as the kids like to say, and I’m really excited to see Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the saddle, kicking ass and taking names. Seriously, usually I hate pilots and force myself to sit through a few early episodes to let a show establish itself, but Bunheads was delicious right out of the gate, and I’m fervently hoping it only gets better from here.
If you’ve been living with your head under a rock or something, Bunheads stars Sutton Foster as Michelle, a former ballerina who became a Vegas showgirl. The show opens with her in the revue struttin’ her stuff, making snarky comments to another dancer in the lineup, and from there we see her getting married to her creepy stalkerfan (more on that in a minute) and moving to a postage-stamp sized small town on the California coastline called Paradise.
There are a couple of things going on with this show that I am really excited about, and then some things that I am less excited about; no media can cover all possible bases and sometimes things are not addressed in ways that are ideal. Bunheads is so new that it doesn’t really need to be called on the carpet to answer for its sins just yet, because it has considerable room for growth and it could go in some really interesting directions. I’m just taking note of some of the problems I observe to see if they’re resolved, or if they get worse.
So, the awesome things. First of all, this is a show about women, and multigenerational women at that, which is really, really exciting. From Fanny, Michelle’s mother-in-law, to the quartet of ballet students Fanny and Michelle mentor, Bunheads has a lot of women of different ages onscreen, and they are communicating with each other and doing things together and generally building a better world for each other. There are genuine friendships and connections and it’s a marked departure from the way women are often depicted in pop culture.
These women talk to each other. About lots of things. That are not men. And they have fun, and they genuinely love each other, and the catty undertone that so often lurks beneath the surface of ‘best friends’ in pop culture isn’t there. Which isn’t to say everything is hunky-dory between the characters and they all love each other and hold hands and sing kumbaya, but it does mean that they are willing to work through their problems and support each other. In a world where women friends are so often depicted as backstabbing man-stealers, it’s really nice to see some genuine female friendships.
Also? It’s, like, funny? It has some amazingly snappy dialogue and the jokes are good and I think there’s a lot to build on there with the humour. It’s also not resorting to the cheapest and fastest route to the laugh, which is the kind of humour that usually leaves me cold and tingling with an underlying sense of irritation. It’s a show written by funny people, for actors who are great at that kind of comedy, for audiences who appreciate funniness that is actually thought out. It’s enjoyable. I chortled. There were a number of memorable lines. These are all good signs, especially, again, in a media landscape that has certain Opinions about ladies and comedy.
Like, that ladies can’t do comedy, and that shows of this nature are inherently sappy. It can definitely be easy to slip into that, but strong comedy can prevent this, and keep the show brisk and fun even when it’s covering serious subjects. It’s one of the things that worked so well for Buffy, that even in the heat of the moment, even when things were getting really intense, people were still cracking jokes and making wry observations. That kind of dry humour is what I love in my pop culture, especially when it’s mixed with some social commentary. And, let’s face it, daring to depict multiple generations of women as friends rather than mortal enemies is some social commentary in and of itself.
I am also loving how quickly the individual characters of the show are getting established, and how the creative team really worked on avoiding stereotypes to get them there. I’m so used to seeing ‘the bitchy girl’ and ‘the smart girl’ and so forth, but Boo, Sasha, Ginny, and Melody don’t quite fit into neat stereotype boxes, even if there are hints here and there. They’re also completely distinct from each other, which is something that’s actually pretty hard to convey in 45 minutes when you’re establishing a whole setup, introducing the main character, and trying to have some kind of storyline to keep people entertained.
But. And there’s always a but. There are certain, shall we say, similarities between Bunheads and Girls, the other big lady empowerment show of the year, one that has sparked a lot of very productive and fascinating discussion. Some of those similarities are the very ones discussed above: authentic women’s friendships–featuring, of course, specific kinds of women with particular experiences–where we see women connecting with each other on a level that doesn’t revolve around relationships, and does include supporting and mentoring. Both are going for a slightly charming, quirky, off-beat representation of life. Yay! Lady power!
Some of those similarities, though, are more in the bad territory. Like the fact that Bunheads is severely melanin-deficient, something which Shonda Rhimes took to Twitter to discuss almost immediately. Because, hello, we already went through this earlier this year with Girls, do we really need to do it again?! Repeating our mistakes over and over again despite clear object lessons is kind of a thing people do, but it’s especially irritating in this case because Girls sparked so much conversation about diversity in Hollywood and the need for a broad representation of experiences in television. And that conversation could have influenced Bunheads, but it apparently didn’t, unless the show is planning on adding characters asap in this season.
Even if it does, we could end up in the terrible token trap, where a character is added essentially as seasoning and nothing else, which doesn’t do much to increase the diversity of representations, or to benefit the show as a whole. Clumsy inserts show, and they sting. If the creative team is planning on addressing the Whitey McWhitebread-Whiterson problem, they had better do some research and bring some serious deftness and sensitivity to the project, or they could end up with quite a hot mess.
There are also, of course, no disabled characters on the show, something I have come to expect from my pop culture unless a show needs a Very Special Object Lesson. Yet, it’s still disappointing, because it indicates the creative team is working very much from within a specific comfort zone, just like they are on Girls. They’re writing what is broadly known and represented, which is to say the lives of white women living reasonably comfortable lifestyles; even Michelle, struggling artist as she is, has had the advantage of advanced dance training.
Her quirky funness, as well as clumsiness, may land her in wacky doings like marrying one of her fans while drunk after being rejected at an audition, but it doesn’t seem to get her into serious trouble. We’re supposed to find Hubbell cute and kind of endearing even as he’s kind of tragic for repeatedly wooing someone who doesn’t really want him, instead of dangerous and scary. How bad could he be, he’s a nice white man in plain suits who likes taking showgirls out to dinner! Of course it’s not creepy and gross that he repeatedly shows up in the dressing room with gifts and pressures Michelle into spending time with him! As in Girls, there is a certain element of documenting the wild and silly lives of hip young things in a way that may strike some viewers as too flippant; while we may not be looking for All Serious, All the Time, glossing over serious issues is not necessarily the best way to handle them.
This can be a hard line to walk, because there will some people who will always say it should be more serious, and others who say it should be handled in a more lighthearted manner. Particularly on a show like this one, which is airing as part of ABC’s family programming, there’s also an element of wanting to make the show appeal to all ages, which means the network is bound in some ways in terms of the kind of content it wants to present. My mind is already wandering ahead to the things that inevitably come up on teen dramas like this one; will one of the girls get pregnant, for example? Could we even just this once let a character get an abortion and have it not be a huge saga? What does the creative team have planned for these characters, and how will it tell their stories?
Bunheads could turn into a great show, or a terrible one. It’s too early to tell which way it’s going to fall, and I’m not hiding the fact that I hope it turns out to be great, because we could really use more great television. Along the way, though, it’s going to need to address some of its faults.