Last night, ABC Family’s “Bunheads” aired its “winter finale” — the last episode in the show’s current order of 18 episodes — and without any official word from the network about the show’s future, it may have also been the series finale. That would be a shame.
The dramedy from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is a gem, but judging by the ratings it remains something of a well-kept secret. Prior to last night’s episode, the show has been averaging 1.27 million viewers and a 0.5 rating in the 18-49 demo. Those are not embarrassing numbers by cable TV standards, but they’re well under ABC Family’s biggest hit, “Pretty Little Liars,” and also a dropoff from “Bunheads” lead-in “Switched at Birth.”
“Bunheads” fares better in the young female demos prized by the network, but judging strictly by overall viewership no one would be surprised if ABC Family threw in the towel. Judge the show by its creative strengths and potential for future growth, however, and there’s only one reasonable conclusion: We need more “Bunheads”!
Here are five reasons why:
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s unique voice
It all begins with Amy. Any “Gilmore Girls” fan can tell you that no one writes like her. She got her start on “Roseanne” and takes the best of that series’ wry realism and nuanced family dynamics and brings her own screwball dialogue packed with clever pop culture references and dazzling wit. And Sherman-Palladino doesn’t name check titles like “The Wire” and “Twin Peaks” in the way someone like Seth MacFarlane does — throwing 100 things at the wall in the lazy hope that a half dozen will stick. Instead, Sherman-Palladino and her writing staff craft smart, sharp, specific jokes that both entertain and enlighten viewers about the real purpose of the show: its characters.
The standard episode of “Bunheads” isn’t driven by mind-blowing plot twists or life-altering events. It’s focused on people who make any situation interesting simply by opening their mouths. The joy of “Bunheads” has a lot to do with spending time with those characters and — especially at this early stage — discovering more and more about who they really are, from former showgirl turned small town ballet teacher Michelle (Sutton Foster) to her students sarcastic Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), optimistic Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), neurotic Ginny (Bailey Buntain) and tomboy Melanie (Emma Dumont).
Even though each character delivers Sherman-Palladino’s deliciously witty banter at a similarly rapid-fire pace, they’re all far more distinct and complex than a single adjective adequtely conveys.
Quick, name another show with eight great roles for women!
Yes, eight. “Bunheads” features not just the five full-time regulars already mentioned but three prominent recurring players: Michelle’s free-spirited mother-in-law Fanny (Kelly Bishop) and polar opposite siblings Truly (Stacey Oristano) and Milly (Liza Weil).
Even shows with multiple strong female characters — “Mad Men,” “Parks and Recreation,” “American Horror Story,” “Enlightened,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Good Wife” and “Suburgatory,” to name a few — have just as many, if not more, strong roles for men, leading to a fairly even gender balance. Other than HBO’s “Girls” and its quartet of female leads, it’s difficult to even think of another quality show currently on the air that’s so completely driven by women.
It’s not that “Bunheads” has no use for men — there are several charming, amusing, intriguing guys who pop in and out of the show, including Michelle’s brother Scotty (played by Foster’s real life brother Hunter Foster) and Boo’s boyfriend Carl (Casey J. Adler, the best of a generally pleasant group of recurring love interests) — but rather it’s perfectly satisfied letting the ladies drive the action.
There’s nothing unusual, or necessarily wrong, about series centered on men that only make room for one or two well-developed women — “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “Louie,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Sons of Anarchy” are all various degrees of great — but TV desperately needs more shows able to skillfully flip the gender disparity. “Bunheads” is doing it right now.
And if it means that some men will never watch “Bunheads,” well that’s too bad for them.
Its dramatic punch is just as powerful as its comedic bite
In the mold of “Gilmore Girls,” Sherman-Palladino knows the power of disarming an audience with comedy before delivering a knockout dramatic blow. The more we laugh at Michelle’s quick wit or Sasha’s sarcastic comebacks, the more we like them. And the more we like them, the more it hurts when they feel pain.
There is no core character on “Bunheads” who exists simply as a joke machine without feelings, emotional attachments, hopes and dreams. “Bunheads” got off to a bit of a controversial start in its pilot episode: Feeling down and out in Vegas, Michelle agreed to marry longtime admirer, Hubbell (Alan Ruck), and moved with him to the coastal town of Paradise, California, where the show is set. And then, in the pilot’s final moments, we learn that Hubbel has died in a car crash within 24 hours of marrying Michelle.
It’s a bleak and extremely unconventional way to begin a series. HBO’s “Six Feet Under” launched with the death of a patriarch, as did ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters,” but those were serious dramas about family ties. “Bunheads” was presented as a light dramedy about a woman looking for a fresh start. But there’s a tragedy at its core that can never be erased and that’s absolutely vital to a show committed to exploring both the lightness and the darkness in any human life.
Unlike “Glee” and “Smash,” “Bunheads” knows how to make musical numbers matter
This has rarely ever applied on “Smash,” but there was a time several seasons ago on “Glee” when the musical numbers would enhance, inform or illuminate the emotional state of the character or characters performing it. By comparison, every number on “Bunheads” — most of them danced, a few of them sung — actually furthers our understanding of the person performing it.
Whether it’s Sasha pouring her barely repressed anger at her parents into a furious “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” or Michelle and Scotty demonstrating their unbreakable sibling bond by singing “You Belong to Me,” the “Bunheads” musical numbers become magical moments. They’re not created
to sell iTunes downloads, they’re perfect unions of art and artist. Anyone could make a show about dancers, but Sherman-Palladino gives us a show about song and dance as a form of self-expression.
There’s simply nothing else like it on TV
That should be clear by now. “Bunheads” — with its distinctive voice, exemplary ensemble, wit, emotion and innovative use of dance — is one of a kind. And anything this original and rewarding a show that could easily find a broader audience through word-of-mouth and Netflix marathons (if — or, when? — the show finally becomes available on Netflix Instant). There are people out there who wouldn’t normally think of watching an ABC Family series, or anything called “Bunheads,” or a show with four teenage girls in leading roles. They would be shocked by how smart and creative “Bunheads” actually is. Let’s just hope that ABC Family gives them a chance to find it.