Look, let me start by saying that I still enjoy re-watching Gilmore Girls. (As you could probably guess, Michel and Sookie are my favorite characters.) Yes, in hindsight there are some (Okay, many) problematic elements, but to me it’s still a funny, cozy, smart show that I love. (Obviously, I’m not talking about season 7, with which the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino was not involved, because I have standards and ethics.) Which is why I was surprised when my reaction to Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s short-lived show about a small-town ballet school that has a lot of Gilmore Girl-esque energy, was so conflicted. Is saying I’m conflicted too heavy-handed? I don’t know. Now I’ll be conflicted about my use of the word conflicted. The point is that I watched all eighteen episodes of this show and my feelings were very inconsistent. Let’s take a journey together through the series and my emotions.
Oh! But before we actually get started, here’s an important aside. As I was watching the show, I read about how Shonda Rimes (creator of, among other things, a short-lived little indie show called Grey’s Anatomy) tweeted, “Hey @abcfbunheads: really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?” She later followed up to say that she is a big fan of Gilmore Girls, and appreciates the diversity in body types represented in Bunheads. (For reference, Gilmore Girls was also lacking in diverse racial representation. There is an entire Tumblr called Gilmore Blacks dedicated to cataloging all the scenes where black actors appear, and noting the rare times they have lines.) Sherman-Palladino’s response, in part pushed by an interviewer’s leading questions, was to talk about how women don’t support women and how hard it is to get a pilot made, which is a problematic argument and doesn’t actually address the valid concerns from a woman of color about a lack of racial diversity in the principal cast of a show. Then Sherman-Palladino goes on to say how she doesn’t do “message shows” and you won’t see a bunch about eating disorders because “I don’t give a flying fuck about that.” And then she uses the word transvestite. And then she talks about how she’s making a show for strong women and girls. I mean… You guys…. I’m assuming she means…. Actually, I have no fucking clue what she means because if you believe yourself to be making a show about strong women and girls why wouldn’t you a.) take the opportunity to learn and grow from criticism from another talented woman who is clearly supportive of your earlier work, b.) care about the issues, like eating disorders, that disproportionately affect girls (especially dancers), c.) be respectful of transgender women, and d.) at the very least acknowledge ballet’s problematic past (and present) when it comes to diversity. (Even though, yes, the show does have dancers with a range of body types and does, briefly, address the idea of “perfect” ballet body, but it also makes so many references to “cutting back on carbs” that I felt like I was in an Atkins infomercial.) So, I guess it really is fair to say I was conflicted about this show.
By Sherman-Palladino’s own metric, Bunheads starts off without women supporting women. In the opening scene, Las Vegas showgirls Michelle (Sutton Foster) and Talia (Angelina McCoy) criticize the topless dancers for getting paid more just for taking their tops off. They don’t criticize, say, the motherfucking patriarchy for valuing and rewarding the size of a woman’s mammary glands above skill or talent. (Michelle and Talia compare a dancer of color’s appearance to Moummar Gaddafi, which I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even fully register until I read someone else’s review.)
Then Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), the guy who just won’t take no for an answer and who the Bunheads Wikipedia entry refers to as a “persistent admirer”—because that’s definitely a cute look on a guy—shows up at the stage door with flowers for Michelle. She doesn’t want to go out with him, but her friends insist because he’s just such a nice guy. (The alarm bells going off in my head were very loud at this point.) Anyway, he tells Michelle about the view from his bedroom (ew), Michelle gets really drunk (like, blackout drunk) and they get married (What. The. Fuck.) and, while she is passed out, they drive to his house in the small town of Paradise, CA where he lives with his overbearing mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop, i.e. Emily Gilmore), and her large collection of dolls. I mean, it could be the beginning of a horror movie, and maybe that was fully intentional, but I’m still not okay with the whole she was too drunk to consent, but it’s cute because he’s all nerdy and shit take. Nobody gets a pass on consent. That should be true whether you do “shows with messages” or not. Wait. Why did I keep watching after this? Sutton Foster’s charisma, the sheer appeal of the absurdity of the rest of the premise, and Gilmore Girl-laced nostalgia, mostly. (And I was in a nasty migraine flare, so being still and mostly passively entertained was important.)
From the start, Michelle and Fanny have a combative but jocular kind of relationship that makes it clear they are the focus of the show, and leaves me wondering how they’re going to get Hubbell out of the picture, when (POOF!) he is killed in a freak car accident, but having had the foresight to change his will to include Michelle. Bonded by their grief and shared assets, Michelle joins Fanny teaching classes at the dance studio, and, of course, in the many antics of imagined small-town life. Sutton Foster and Kelly Bishop both ooze the kind of charm and talent that I think are needed to not let the machine-gun fire dialogue, which is a hallmark of all of Sherman-Palladino’s shows, work.
Added into the mix is Truly (Stacey Oristano), Hubbell’s ex-girlfriend and a magical seamstress who owns the only clothing store in town. Truly is truly (oh, yes, I meant to do that) bizarre and endearing, and I do not feel conflicted about her being my favorite character.
Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), Mel (Emma Dumont), and Ginnie (Bailey Buntain) form the core group of teenage dancers that Bunheads also follows through parental meltdowns, crushes, dance auditions, fights, and other escapades. I wrote in my notes that Sasha was “Bad Rory,” but really all the teenagers are some sort of Rory to Michelle’s Lorelei, which sometimes works better than you might expect. (I’m sorry if these Gilmore Girl references mean nothing to you, but you should probably watch that before you watch this anyway, and also get used to pop culture references you may not get if you’re going to watch either.)
If you did watch Gilmore Girls, then so much of this show will feel intensely familiar—from the appealing artificiality of the quirky small town to the look of the dance studio to the transition music between scenes. About a bazillion actors from Gilmore Girls show up here in small roles. Sean Gunn (who played Kirk) shows up as Bash, the most Kirk barista possible. He smells individual beans before deciding whether to grind them. It was funny and then it just kept going. To me, ultimately, a lot of the show felt like that, like a bit that I enjoyed until it just kept going. There was a whole thing about the movie Hope Springs, complete with Tommy Lee Jones impersonations that JUST. KEPT. GOING. It was like a Saturday Night Live skit that should have been kept to five minutes (or cut all together), but went on and on for an eternity.
But that’s not to say I didn’t like a lot of the absolutely unmoored zaniness of the show. I think it was a lot of what kept me watching. It was as if they decided on a starting point and then just winged it from there. Or like they decided to make an entire show of subplots with no main plot. I admit, I was close to taking a break from the show until episode 5 when they put on a ballet called “Paper or Plastic,” which Fanny explains “tells the story of Nature’s struggle against the forces of industrialism.” It begins with dancers as free and happy bees (complete with kohl black eyes) and then the evil supermarket cashier enters, “blinded by money and corruption.” Look, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the hero is a canvas tote. (Though not even she is enough against an “army of non-renewable resources.”) It’s smart and entirely off the rails, and if you decide not to watch the show at least watch that. There are many of these kinds of odd, otherworldly, fever-dream scenes with dance that somehow tie into some aspect of the show. Sometimes it’s Michelle’s recurring nightmare about auditioning and sometimes it’s nightgown-wearing teenagers doing a modern dance that explores the trauma of absentee parents. They’re weird and well done, and if there had been a second season I might have kept watching to see more of them.
On the other hand, I think the show often let bad ideas go unchecked in ways that are more troubling than teenage boys having a Tommy Lee Jones impersonation competition. For example, there’s a whole exchange between Michelle and her brother (who is an entire character, and not the only one, that I felt like was an unchecked bad idea) about trying to get his clothing back from his ex-wife. “Get my purple sweater back,” he tells Michelle. “You have a purple sweater?” Michelle asks. “Does [your ex-wife] know you’re gay?” …You know what? I’m tired. I’ve been staring at this blinking cursor for five minutes trying to think of something pithy to say in response to this, but all I can come up with is FUCK THIS NOISE! I mean, come the fuck on, this is homophobic and perpetuating a toxic version of masculinity, and if you think I’m overreacting, come talk to some boys I know who are routinely shamed for not fitting into some gender normative box. Entrenched mindsets don’t change without work, and exchanges like this (of which there are more in the show) undermine that work.
On the other, other hand, toward the end of the season the four teenage girls decide to educate themselves about sex before deciding whether to have it. They read books, visit the condom section at the pharmacy, and even end up getting advice (wanted and unwanted) from Fanny and Michelle. It’s a touching kind of storyline that feels like it has an important and urgent message about girls finding sexual empowerment through knowledge. But I don’t know if, for me, it’s enough of a reason to watch all eighteen episodes.
Honestly, over 1,000 probably un-needed words later, I think if someone were to ask me (which you obviously did not, but here we are anyway), I might steer them toward other kinds of escapism featuring strong female characters, of which there are many—think, Younger or Jane the Virgin. Or, if fantastical flights of fancy in the form of song and dance numbers are strictly what you’re seeking, something like the always wonderful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which, over the course of its four-season run, had 157 songs that explored everything from sex with strangers to the miracle of birth to self-hatred to getting a mental health diagnosis to facing your fears to parenting to much, much more. It’s a show that also feels like a fever dream—or a meditation on the absurd, at times—but a fever dream with a message of inclusivity and hope. But then again, I wouldn’t tell them that they absolutely should not watch Bunheads. See? Conflicted.