"Why Netflix, Amazon, Or Hulu Should Save ‘Bunheads’ From Cancellation"
While it’s become common for fans of recently-cancelled television shows to take to social media to beg for a savior to help their late-lamented favorites rise, Lazarus-like, from the dead, I’ve rarely been convinced to get on board for any of these campaigns. Showrunners of many dying shows see the inevitable coming and help their shows coast in for a smooth ending that it would be awkward to undo, or shows die because frankly, they deserve to be cancelled. But today, I’m making an exception, after ABC Family made the long-delayed announcement that it was canceling Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s great, strange, female-centric story about the women who teach and take classes at a California ballet school, and the small town where it’s set.
It isn’t just that Bunheads is an excellent show, which it is. The program’s wildly inventive ballet performances brought high art to the small screen, while also moving Bunheads character development and plots forward. Showcasing dance always would have been parts of Bunheads‘ mandate, but the commitment to long sequences, and the show’s determination to teach viewers that ballet is a vibrant form more than capable of expressing contemporary ideas and emotions, rather than a relic of the past, elevated those elements of the show beyond feel-good drivers of emotion. In a way, the show’s use of dance reminded me of Oz‘s incorporation of spoken-word poetry more than, say, Glee‘s musical interludes–Bunheads and Oz knew that audiences might not be entirely familiar with what was happening on screen or sure how to read it, but it trusted them to come along for the ride anyway, and maybe even to learn a little bit about the power of poetry or dance while they were doing it.
And that wasn’t all that Bunheads had going for it. The show’s roster of female characters was both wide and deep. Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster) was a type of character we rarely see on television, the artist who’d abandoned her ambitions for steady, but low-paying work as a chorus girl, and got a surprising second chance to recover both her artistic integrity and sense of self when she moved to California. Fanny (Kelly Bishop), her mother-in-law from her short-lived marriage was the sort of figure who plays a critical role in so many communities, the influential arts teacher, and someone whose widowhood allowed her to devote her energy to artistic and professional pursuits.
Their students at the ballet school they eventually ran together were specific, sometimes to the point of eccentricity. Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins) was a lively, nice girl with a short, sweet boyfriend for whom her body type meant that ballet would never be more than a hobby. Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) had the perfect body for ballet, but a neurotic, sometimes angry reaction to the art at which she excelled, and vacillated between the sort of perfectionism that turned her into a junior Martha Stewart when she moved out on her own, and a realistic set of fears and anxieties about living by herself and forming a new emotional attachment to her boyfriend, after her parents’ divorce left her shattered. Ginny (Bailey Buntain) was a case study in how difficult the uneven rates of growing up can be for teenagers: she was anxious about Boo’s attachment to her boyfriend Karl, Sasha’s new apartment and new boyfriend, and her best friend Melanie’s (Emma Dumont) growing interest in roller derby in addition to ballet. Eager to have some new interest of her own, Ginny became the first of the girls to lose her virginity, in a development the show recognized as an understandable act of overcompensation.
The show even knocked a rivalry between real sisters, the desperate-to-please Truly (Stacey Oristano) and the hilariously overachieving, wheeling, dealing Milly (Liza Weil), out of the park. Bunheads was maybe the best illustration of the richness of primarily female worlds since Sex and the City, and proved that sex isn’t the only thing that women have to talk about. Whether they’re teenaged girls or grown women, female characters can be fantastic vehicles for stories about money, artistic ambition, land deals, blue cocktails, sibling rivalry, and building and inhabiting a physical and emotional life that looks and feels like a grown-up’s.
A defense like this could be mounted for many, many rich, interesting shows that have bared their necks to the cancellation guillotine in recent years. But Bunheads stands out for me as a show that some outlet, be it Netflix, which recently announced a plan to expand into original documentaries and stand-up specials, and possibly news and talk shows, Amazon, which just ordered its first round of original shows, or Hulu, which is engaging in a wide array of content experiments, ought to save not just for artistic reasons, but for good business ones. As I’ve written before, Amazon and Netflix are both betting big on children’s programming in an aim to lock in one of the most under-served segments of the population while they’re young, and also to appeal to parents who would cut the cord if better options were presented to them because they’d like to avoid exposing their children to advertising. Netflix struck a big deal with Disney, and Amazon actually greenlit more children’s programming in its first round of full series orders than it did shows aimed at adults.
Bunheads, in the current television environment, is the rarest of beasts: a show children (at least ones old enough for mild sex talk) and adults can actually enjoy together. Unlike animated cartoons that are primarily meant to provide educational enrichment for very young children, but offer no entertainment value for adults, it’s created a deft continuity between the identity challenges faced by its teenage characters, and the problems its adult characters are still trying to figure out in their thirties and fifties. It’s funny on multiple levels. It’s kind. That may be a narrow sweet spot, but it’s also one where potential classics can blossom and flower. And it would be smart for somebody to invest in giving Bunheads that soil, and giving audiences who want it a true family show.