What Makes “Bunheads” Great

Among my peer group, if one is going to watch any television at all, on an actual television, nonetheless, and not viewed on an ipad or tablet via hulu or a netflix streaming subscription with our parents login information, then it seems acceptable to view only the following programs: “Girls,” “Community,” “The Jon Stewart Show,” “Parks and Rec” and “Game of Throwns.” It’s deemed acceptable to be excited for the netflix premiere/reintroduction of “Arrested Development” but decidedly not coolto watch “Modern Family.”

Ian and I are sort of old-school when it comes to our television-viewing. We have one flat screen tv in our living room which is used mostly for sports and movies, and a teeny-tiny television we received from my family at our engagement party that rests in one of the spare rooms on the second floor. I primarily use this television, occasionally grabbing an hour here or there of “Nashville” or “The Middle.” I love tv, but I also love yoga and reading and working around our house and playing with our dog, so I average about three hours a week of regular viewing.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a LOT to say about it.

Right now, it seems like I read about “Girls” more than any other series. I haven’t watched it yet but I’ve read enough articles and blog posts about it to place it pretty high on my radar. It sounds gritty and real and feminist and fun, but as a daughter of the Sex in the City generation, I also don’t have a huge desire to watch it, even though I am pretty confident I’ll like it once I start. I do, however, have a group of girls I’m currently watching, and they can be found on ABC Family’s “Bunheads,” which, if you are a fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino and her previous series, “Gilmore Girls,” you are probably watching as well.

“Gilmore Girls” explored the relationship between Lorelai Gilmore and the daughter she had when she was sixteen, Rory. There is a WHOLE LOT MORE to the seven year show, of course, from the way the fictional town they live in, Stars Hollow, functions as a character in and of itself, to the flawed relationship between Lorelai and her wealthy parents, to romantic conflict. It was a fast-paced, pop-culture filled, lovelyshow, appealing to a wide variety of people (okay, mostly women). If you wanted a television show with heart, GG had it. If you wanted excellent characters AND character development, GG had it. You could feel super smart watching it (hey! I get that Grey Garden reference!) or totally zone out. One of the aspects I found most impressive about the show is how much, as a viewer, I wanted Lorelai and her parents to work through their differences – I desperately wanted to see Lorelei cut her parents some slack and vice-versa. I yearned for the Gilmore family to become more honest with one another, to love one another the way television families SHOULD. The writers and producers never gave us that emotional satisfaction and while it could be frustrating, the show also felt, despite the picturesque home town and quaint storylines, terribly real.

Sherman-Palladino repackages this approach for “Bunheads,” placing her characters literally in Paradise – or at least a town bordering the Pacific ocean named Paradise. She stocks this town with quirky, compassionate characters (many played by actors from GG) and then throws messed-up with a heart of gold dancer Michelle into the mix, a classically trained ballet dancer who lost her way in Vegas. How she ends up in Paradise isn’t nearly as important as the fact that she does so, and ends up teaching at the local ballet studio run by her former husband’s mother-in-law.

By using actors from her previous series, and by creating a west-coast version of Stars Hollow, Sherman-Palladino essentially forces comparisons between GG and Bunheads. Fast-talking, neurotic Michelle = fast-talking, fun-loving Lorelei…the four dancers the story centers around = Rory.

“It’s like Gilmore Girls except with FOUR Rorys,” my friend Mary claimed, joyous over the debut of season two of “Bunheads.”

And it is, it is…except Sherman-Palladino blows it all up. With GG, you knew fundamentally that the characters had support structures to “fall back on” – no matter how dire the situation grew for Lorelai, in the back of your mind you knew there was enough love in her family that ultimately she could rely on her parents. The love and stability Lorelai provided for her daughter, Rory, allowed Rory the luxury of rebellion when she felt like it, which wasn’t very often. At the heart of GG you generally knew the characters were going to be okay.

In Paradise, things are a bit more dire. The four dancers the series focuses on – Sasha, Jenny, Boo and Melanie – have relatively troubled lives at home. Sasha’s parents essentially abandon her to live on her own because they are too caught up in their own personal lives to make room for her, Jenny’s mom falls apart after her ex-husband remarries, Boo comes from a home with too many children and a mother unable to be present in her life because of that and Melanie has rage issues that need to be addressed. What ties the friends together is their love of dance, and when Michelle enters the picture as their new instructor, she is friend, mentor and teacher rolled into one.

What’s fantastic about Michelle’s character is, while she seems to enjoy teaching and gets along well with the girls, she still longs for to perform. Even when her life in Paradise seems to be going splendidly, she is easily emotionally derailed by the success of fellow actresses. In many ways she has “aged out” of her dreams and recognizes the smart thing to do is to make a life as a teacher in Paradise, but being a bit older doesn’t make her dreams any less real.

When I think about what I want for Grace as she grows up, I often return to the idea that she has some sort of art to love, whether that art is theater or pottery or (please, not) an instrument or (most preferably) dancing. An art form can be there for you when others fail you, much in the same way reading can. Ballet, and other forms of dance, but mostly ballet, provide a safety net for the girls of Paradise, and one for Michelle, as well. The redempitve powers of dance come through beautifully in this series.

I actually think this show could be really good for teen girls with their mothers – issues of body confidence, peer pressure, sex, and lots of to thine own self be trueth crop up. Why I’m watching I really don’t know. I guess because when it comes to emotional wreckage set in a place of stunning beauty, with a whole lot of heart and smart, smart writing, Sherman-Palladino can’t be beat.

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4 thoughts on “What Makes “Bunheads” Great

  1. I watched the first couple of episodes of Girls and I really didn’t like it. I don’t think it’s nearly as clever or witty as Gilmore Girls. It doesn’t have the sparkle that Sex and the City had and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the lives of the characters. I’m kind of over the self absorbed lives of angsty arty privileged post college 20 somethings in New York/other hip urban US places- and I get that Girls is satirising it all somewhat- but I still don’t find it very interesting.

  2. Am an averred Girls fan (though have found series two slightly less satisfying than series one), but will now seek out Bunhead – thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Ms. Make Tea – I think you hit the nail right on the head – I am tired of the self-indulged, angsty post-college urban stuff as well – I think it’s something we just end up growing out of at some point! And all the glitter really did make Sex and the City!

    Charlotte – I will be really interested to hear what you think about Bunheads if you do watch it – it might be a good show to watch with your girls!

    Amy! Oy! Best line ever!

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