The Cancellation of Bunheads: Why TV's Most Underrated Show Deserved Better
Bunheads was an unlikely gambit from the beginning. The strange story of a Vegas showgirl who marries a stranger and ends up teaching dance alongside her mother-in-law, in a small coastal California town. There was dancing and singing, there were teens dealing with parents, drinking, sexuality, and there was grief and heartache in abundance. But the show, written with so much sassiness and hilarity was more than the sum of its parts, a meaty, intelligent offering that understood and showcased women at their very best and very worst. Also, dancing. Lots of dancing.
If you never watched the show, it starred Sutton Foster as a Vegas showgirl (Sutton Foster), who married a kind stranger (Alan Ruck) on the spur of the moment, and wound up in Paradise, California. Her new mother-in-law (Kelly Bishop) runs a dance studio, and the pair of them end up teaching and bickering for the next 18 episodes, imparting wisdom to the dancers in their care. The four main girls, Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), Melanie (Emma Dumont) and Ginny (Bailey Buntain) are all dealing with their own hefty dose of teen drama, from parents and divorces to body issues and boy troubles.
Fans of Gilmore Girls knew the show as the creation of genius writer and pop culture expert Amy Sherman-Palladino. Nobody in the business besides Aaron Sorkin can touch her for speed of dialogue or references per minute, but it isn’t because she wants to show off, but because there’s too much to say and in real life, there’s barely time to take a breath anyway. Yes, the cast wasn’t quite used to her brand of mile-a-minute banter, but Kelly Bishop was there to guide. Also a host of Star’s Hollow residents popped up, including Liza Weil.
And oh, god, the show was weird sometimes. Just so, so, damn weird. Fanny put on a ballet performance about recycling at one point. Michelle continually met men who seemed to be set up as possible romantic interests and then we never heard from them again. (Although it dawns on me that perhaps that’s the truest thing of all. How often we cast the male lead in our own TV show after a chance meeting, only to never even see or hear from him. Carry on, Michelle.) There was so many references and pop culture moments your head would spin.
Seriously, this is a two minute performance about paper or plastic that will delight/confuse you. “This is nuts!” says Michelle, literally.
The floundering realism of Michelle’s lack of ability to pull her life together, the nagging feeling that things weren’t supposed to be like this, and the realization that life isn’t going to get any easier, there was so much truth and wrenching honesty wound up in her over-the-top wildness that it was easy to miss. Michelle was strong, but not invincible. Her earnestness would break your heart, and this was a knockout role for Sutton Foster, who took it and ran with it.
Kelly Bishop was easy to re-cast as a kind of hippy Emily Gilmore, and in fact as Fanny Flowers she served many of the same purposes that Emily did. A wise, dependable but perpetually demanding mother figure, simultaneously loved and feared. The perfect foil to Michelle’s floppy, undisciplined, long-limbed self. Their relationship and the tenuous song and dance that took them from strangers to family was one of the season’s most rewarding arcs.
The four girls were friends in that way you’re friends with friends you’ve always been friends with. There’s the queen bee, the chubby one, the sweet one and the tom boy, hell it’s like that Homestar Runner sketch, but rather than some kind of terrible Sex and the CIty quartet-in-training, these girls were marked by real interaction, in-fighting, bickering, jockeying for position, and trying to work out what it means to become who you are in a town that has always known what you used to be.
Michelle, Fanny, the four girls and everything they dealt with was handled with such a deft touch, so much pride, power and belief in the idea that what makes up the details of life builds to a larger picture of who we are as people.That our history informs but does not define us, that we can will ourselves to be better and that the people who love us will do their best to cherish and support us. That we will fail, and fail spectacularly but that it won’t be the end of us. Bunheads was a proud believer that sincerity and sarcasm can co-exist, and that even though you’ve got an acerbic tongue in your head, you’ve got a beating heart keeping things even keeled.
The show hadn’t reached the heights that Gilmore Girls did, and yes, Bunheads had a load of problems. The thin as paper premise, the consistency with which side characters would pop up and disappear, never to be heard from again, the bizarre musical moments that littered many of the episodes and last but not least, the way the show floundered about, looking for where it put the plot. There were often too many balls in the air, too many missed opportunities, too many characters for anyone except the main girls to grow and flourish. Of course, that’s par for the course in the Gilmore universe, and as the show progressed, everyone began to find their footings. Lines of dialogue that the girls fumbled over in earlier days came easily to them in later episodes. Sutton Foster grew her character from a half-assed Lorelai Gilmore-wanna be to a real, living, breathing neurotic-on-her-own Michelle Simms.
The series did poorly in the ratings, starting out with a 1.64 million viewership, ending up at barely over a million. ABC Family is still finding its footing as a network, experimenting with a variety of shows, mostly about lying teenagers, with Pretty Little Liars leading the pack as their flagship show. Such a small network can hardly afford a misstep, and shows like Bunheads with extensive casts, expansive shooting locations and complicated storylines are more expensive to run than multi-cam sitcoms such as Baby Daddy.
The money to give the show a head start on a second season was already promised by the California Film and Television Tax program, which promised the series $5.82 million dollars upon completion of a second season. One wonders what the costs must have been for ABC Family to decide to leave $5,820,000.00 taxpayer dollars on the table. Hell, that’s even better than a Kickstarter would have been. The politics and business behind what stays on air often simply comes down to dollars and cents, and for whatever reason, Bunheads wasn’t making the kind of cultural impact that niche shows need to stay on the air when numbers don’t add up. In the end, there’s no way to know what happened.
What is disappointing, as with any loss, is the loss of the future, what adventures and bizarre musicals we’ll never get to experience now, stories and characters we’ll never see written to completion. Perhaps the second season would have crashed and burned, but we’ll never know. Girls interrupted, to be sure. We got a good thing for a time, and maybe one of these days we’ll learn our lesson about loving things. It was good, it was good for a while and we got to enjoy it. The fact that it’s gone doesn’t mean we love it any less, or that there won’t be plenty of new things to love in the coming months of new pilots and renewals.
Through it all, Bunheads was about women on the make. Making themselves and making each other into the kind of tough, sensitive, whole individuals that only the friendship of other women seems to be able to draw out. There just simply isn’t anything like Bunheads on TV, so full of light and originality, weird on top and wild at heart. We were lucky and knowing it just wasn’t enough.
Amanda Mae Meyncke has a blog about the ice cream she eats. She is more of a Sasha who wishes she were a Ginny.