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Monday, July 29, 2013

31

Why I'll Miss Bunheads: Because I'm a Mess, Too

After a day during which one mini crisis inspired a second, which invited crises numbers three and four, who brought along their friends, until my mood turned into an impromptu house party filled with unwelcomed guests who drank all my booze and left regret, despair, and used Kleenex as their parting gifts—after that kind of day—this was the news I came home to: “Bunheads has been cancelled.”

I couldn’t be too surprised at the announcement. Despite the cultish passion it inspired in a handful of critics, Bunheads was a weird show with a clunky name and a premise (former showgirl turns small-town dance teacher) that didn’t exactly grab potential viewers by their remote controls and demand to be watched.

My usual reaction to the cancellation of beloved shows is quiet resignation. When Alcatraz was cancelled—after mystery upon mystery ended in a cliffhanger that would never be resolved—I remembered its poor ratings and shrugged. When Fringe got a truncated fifth season before closing the bridge between its universes and mine once and for all, I was thankful that the plot would have a chance to be wrapped up before the show was done. When AMC’s drama about a 1940s radio station Remember WENN vanished from the network, I reminded myself that I was literally the only person on the planet watching that show, so what did I expect? No surprise at the Bunheads cancellation; one more show dead before its time.

What did surprise me was realizing how much I would miss the show’s main character, Michelle Simms. As she'd done with the denizens of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino populated the fictional town of Bunheads’s Paradise with the memorably idiosyncratic, from the haughty coffee connoisseur who crafted lattes one bean at a time to the Frankie-and-Zooey-esque wondertwins who coordinated in-school wardrobe changes and spoke uncountable languages. The characters of Bunheads were characters, each eccentric in his or her own way.

Michelle, as portrayed by Sutton Foster, is an interloper in Paradise. She’s a weirdo, too, but a different kind of weirdo and new on the scene besides. The other weirdoes don’t immediately take to her, leaving her to falter and embarrass herself and step on toes and keep on talking long past the point when she might have just shut up at the first of many straight-up open-mouthed, are-you-done-yet stares. Over the course of the short (too short!) first season, Michelle struggles to fit in, gives up on trying to make a place for herself, runs away from her problems, comes back chagrined and only half-heartedly determined, reluctantly takes on responsibility, shirks responsibility, chases after a dream, and fails more often than she succeeds at most things.

Which is to say, she’s a person. More specifically, she’s a person like me. I’m no dancer, I don’t know how to play the ukulele, and I’ve never impulsively married Alan Ruck only to lose him in an off-camera car accident. But I look at Michelle and I see in her, more than in any other female television character, a reflection of what it’s like to be a thirtysomething woman trying to square what I’d hoped my life would look like by now with reality.

Although television is still heavily weighted towards male heroes (and anti-heroes), I'm not here to bemoan the lack of strong and distinctive female characters. We've got Leslie Knope, Jess Day, Liz Lemon, Peggy Olsen, and at least a handful of shows that pass the Bechdel test on a semi-regular basis. But none of these shows do so as consistently as Bunheads did, and none of these women is Michelle Flowers. Michelle, while remarkably intelligent and savvy and talented, is not thinking about "having it all." Rather, she's thinking about having something, anything stable, anything at all: unlike almost any female character on TV, she's truly floundering, and in the end may very well not succeed.

I can relate to this—and so, I’m willing to bet, can a good number of women still stuck in some iteration of their post-college mid-twenties existence. We’re still working jobs that feel like filler, still composing online dating profiles and suffering through blind dates that feel like job interviews in pursuit of a relationship that’s going to last. We're figuring out what it is we’re supposed to be doing while our friends marry off, have kids, get promoted, buy houses. I feel not only like I slept through the class where everybody else learned how to move forward into adulthood, but like I never heard about the class in the first place.

Like Michelle Flowers, and unlike many of the other superficially messy female characters on TV, my own confusion is not of the charming sort. My scrapes are not adorable. I loved Michelle for the way she buried her considerable appeal under cynicism, snarkiness, and occasional laziness, and for the way that her ostensibly light-hearted escapades were often true Hindenberg-level disasters (macing the entire cast of The Nutcracker, for example), and they didn’t make her cute—they made her infuriating. Like a lot of regular people, Michelle’s got a good heart, but she’s also capable of being unfair, disappointing her friends and flaking on her responsibilities. Her friends don’t like her because of these qualities; they put up with the ragged parts of her personality only because they like her.

Maybe the most relatable thing about Michelle, though, is how—even in her mid-thirties—she was openly still negotiating the nebulous boundary between adolescence and adulthood. When Michelle starts teaching at her mother-in-law’s dance studio, she takes her place at the head of the class to call out ballet positions, and you can see how, simultaneously, she could almost be one of the teenagers—uncertain, unserious, often insecure—while she’s also clearly separated from them by years and experience and pop culture (Michelle:  “Thornton Wilder should’ve mentioned the creepy side of small town life.”  Melanie: “Who?”  Michelle:  “No one.  He was in Menudo.”  Ginny:  “Who?”  Michelle:  “I’m gonna go be old now.”)

When one of the show’s teenage characters, Sasha, ends up becoming semi-emancipated from her parents and moving into her own apartment (it all makes sense, trust me), the line that separates the sixteen-year-old from the thirtysomething becomes even more vague; Michelle has the wisdom of her years to offer (“Don’t bond with the old lady next door […] before you know it you’re picking up their prescriptions at eleven at night and driving them to the hospital when their hips break”), but she’s also undone by the fact this kid seems to have her shit more together than she ever will. (“I was twenty-five before I owned an appliance.  It was a used microwave that had permanent soup stains and I’m pretty sure radiated my ovaries.”)

As someone who on a near-daily basis wonders when (if) I will ever get my shit together, it was frankly refreshing to watch Michelle fail to get hers together on a weekly basis. In terms of successes, she’s consistently a one-step-forward, two-steps-back gal. The difference between watching other female TV characters and watching Michelle is the difference between knowing things will work out and hoping they will, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Actually, it’s the difference between aspirational television and comfort TV:  When I watch Leslie or Peggy, I can admire their moxie and aspire to be more determined, more driven, more generous, just like they are. I look at those ladies, and I feel like they’ll be just fine, motoring forward off-camera when their shows finally retire to perpetual rerun status.

Now that the show's been cancelled, Michelle is just an idea, but a remarkably full one all the same. I don't know whether she’ll ever pull it together. I suspect she’ll do what I do: revive after her breakdowns, then greet the next crisis with a snarky remark, freak out, run away, eat a pint of Phish Food while watching an America’s Next Top Model Cycle Four marathon, forget to do her laundry, then pick herself up and try again. I’m rooting for her as much as I’m rooting for myself, but there are no guarantees for either of us.

“It’ll all work out,” people like to say—implying that there’s some sort of endpoint, a sort of plateau you’ll reach that will tell you, once and for all, that you have achieved adulthood and maturity and will no longer doubt your own abilities or make disastrous decisions. Unique among female television characters, Michelle was evidence that there’s no plateau. There’s just the episodic nature of life, one thing happening after another. Today you feel on top of it and put together and there’s not cat hair on your skirt or spinach stuck in your teeth; tomorrow you wake to find a possum in your bed. Either way, you just keep dancing until your show is cancelled.

Jamey Bradbury lives in Alaska and is working on her first novel.  When she's not grieving over cancelled TV shows, she hikes and sometimes writes about it.

31 Comments / Post A Comment

caddyr

YES YES YES YES YES to all of this.

MCakes

I have also been mourning the loss of Bunheads but mostly because we have lost another positive representation of female friendship on TV. Amy's shows have heart and rich characters and her world isnt like anything else on TV. I will miss it, but I hope that some lady showrunner will pick up the slack so that we can finally have something to watch that isnt murder or rape or multi-cam.

ponymalta

@MCakes YES. Also how rare is it to go a whole season where the plot isn't propelled by a romantic interest for the female lead? Like, a show where we can be interested in a character's life beyond the hope of a marriage proposal? I loved Gilmore Girls totally and completely but it still had all the usual romantic comedy tropes.

MCakes

@ponymalta I know! I was so glad that for once we got a show that wasnt just "girls talking about boys." Don't get me wrong, I love a good rom-com, but here were girls with ambition! Talent! A non-traditional role-model!

Can we please start sending bobby pins to ABC Family to keep it on the air?

Canard

RIP, Bunheads. I will talk very quickly about pop culture in your honor.

queequeging

I'm so glad to see that I'm not the only person mourning the loss of Bunheads. I completely unironically adored that showed. I loved how every conflict on that show was so easily, neatly resolved within one or two episodes. I loved the snappy dialogue, I loved the reappearance of all actors who played the minor Gilmore Girls characters (Kirk as the snobby barista! Paris as Truly's sister!), I loved Kelly Bishop. I loved the honest, nuanced and funny portrayal of teenaged girl sexuality in that last episode! It was just such a sweet, delightful hour of television every week; there's nothing else on tv that compares and I will miss it terribly.

proudsquarepeg

I never saw Bunheads, but I just wanted to say YOU WERE NOT ALONE in mourning the loss of Remember WENN. God, I still miss Betty.

sydwi

@proudsquarepeg Another one! Man, I knew I liked this site.

I have bootleg DVDs and I still watch the Christmas episode every December. I liveblog it on Facebook. It's a tradition. Hilary Booth in Hilary Booth's A Christmas Carol. <3

hopelessshade

@sydwi My parents let me watch it as a wee one and it and TNG are some of my earliest TV memories!

Paul Dushkind@facebook

@proudsquarepeg Can you share your source for Remember WENN DVD's?

honey cowl

So it sounds like I should watch Bunheads.

supergirlieque

YES to everything! Personally, I feel a major downfall of this show is the NAME and the way it was marketed. From the beginning it looked like the show was going to be another "dance" show, thus severely limiting the audience. With a new name and a new marketing campaign advertising what it's actually about, this show could go far!

misdamina

RIP Bunheads. I still miss Gilmore Girls and this filled the void. I often wondered if Amy Sherman-Palladino was actually inside my brain.

Iliana@twitter

Sometimes I forget that I am not the only one who doesn't have her shit together. Still bummed that Bunheads was canceled. I'm also still hoping for a Gilmore Girls movie.

lemonadefish

DANGIT! I was looking forward to more Bunheads. I don't pay enough attention to realize it had been cancelled.

beezus.

I adored "Bunheads," but I also knew it wouldn't last. So I sort of savored every episode - I watched it live instead of DVRing it or Hulu-ing it (which felt more special, somehow) and I just WATCHED and enjoyed instead of multi-tasking. Also, there was wine.

sydwi

JAMEY. NO. You were not the only one watching Remember WENN! There's a bunch of us! And we're still sad. And we made Rupert Holmes tell us how the cliffhanger was resolved.

I'll go back and read the article now, because I liked Bunheads too, but I did such a double take when I saw someone not my friend write Remember WENN that I had to post.

Yours truly,
Hilary Booth

(Nope. I'm such a Betty. But I can dream.)

Wordstreamer

@sydwi

It's off-topic, but WHAT IS IT that resolution?

*made an account just to ask this and now has to read the rest of the article*

sophi

This really resonated with me. I liked Bunheads a lot, but I stopped watching partway through the first season, I think because I went on vacation or something, I don't really remember. I identified pretty strongly with Michelle, as I am also an enormous wreck.

roadtrips

I've never seen this show, but I totally relate to the sentiment. To me, a lot of the frustration is that these models of "having it together" - marriage, a career, owning property, having kids, whatevs - are so obviously failing left and right. On top of that, those of us who build our lives around the arts often cobble together freelance, teaching, and contract work, which is exhausting and barely stable. My point is that it's not easy, and it's a tall order to build new models and new ways of navigating adulthood. I do think it's possible, and at times even exciting and rewarding, but it's not easy and can be so very frustrating.

Amanda Rosenberg@facebook

Thank you for this article. I shared it on my blog along with some of my own thoughts about the passing of Bunheads. http://theatergeek.net/post/56819895232/article-why-ill-miss-bunheads-because-im-a-mess

Pound of Salt

God I miss Fringe.

.abbey

i didn't know that bunheads was cancelled until i just saw this. unfortunately i am now so sad that i can't actually read the article, because it'll make me more sad, but i imagine i agree with all of the above.

i loved bunheads. i loved it. michelleeeeee.

18523838@twitter

"I can relate to this—and so, I’m willing to bet, can a good number of women still stuck in some iteration of their post-college mid-twenties existence. We’re still working jobs that feel like filler, still composing online dating profiles and suffering through blind dates that feel like job interviews in pursuit of a relationship that’s going to last. We're figuring out what it is we’re supposed to be doing while our friends marry off, have kids, get promoted, buy houses. I feel not only like I slept through the class where everybody else learned how to move forward into adulthood, but like I never heard about the class in the first place."

Exactly times a million. Thank you for your post. I feel like this everyday. I am technically in-between the Bunheads and Michelle, but I resonate more closely with Michelle. I'm 26. Not a teen, but not an adult. I feel like I SHOULD be an adult, but like Michelle, I'm just not there yet. Michelle was such an amazing character. I am devastated that the show was cancelled. I wrote a post about how fans can help try and get Bunheads picked up on Netfilx or another network. If anyone is interested, the contact info is here:

http://tumblingjill.tumblr.com/post/56383750952/oh-captain-my-captain-a-fan-quest-to-revive-bunheads

beezus.

Also I saw the adorable Bunhead who plays (played! :(( ) Ginny in a Pinkberry in Hell's Kitchen the other day.

swirrlygrrl

Hm. I'm sad at it's cancellation, because I love the style of Amy Sherman-Palladino shows (snappy dialogue! cynicism! friendships between women!), but I didn't love Bunheads. I found Kelly Bishop's character absolutely unlikable, and that irked me - she had such a compelling character on GG, I almost felt embarassed to see her reduced to a caricature of a cross between the worst parts of Miss Patty and Emily Gilmour.

I am sorry for your loss, though, fans.

gigglefest

Thanks for this post because now I spent a good portion of my night last night and my day today watching every episode of bunheads I could find. (something to make me feel like I'm not the biggest screw up! woohoo!)

WorldofSass

Sweet, weird "Bunheads." I loved Michelle and Thalia's friendship. I loved Boo's dorky strength. I loved Carl's. . .everything. I loved Carl.

beezus.

Making my THIRD comment on this post because I am a weirdo, but you guys who are missing "Bunheads" - search for the show's title on Spotify and you'll find this cool cobbled together soundtrack someone put together. It is really making my afternoon.

lucy snowe

I really loved this show-- though it was certainly a guilty secret. Even more so for me than my passion for Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle. The first season, the episodes were well-timed for some reason-- were they adjacent to Project Runway?

Michelle was appealing. I think you're right-- us awkward folk need those weirdos who are lovable but a mess, a not-so-different reflection in a pink mirror.

Huh. All of a sudden I'm thinking she's like a pretty lady version of Judd Hirsch from Taxi. And if you don't get that reference, it's okay-- I'll just go somewhere and be old. >g<

the leests

So it sounds like I should watch Bunheads.

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