Yesterday brought the news that HBO had cancelled Enlightened, Mike White’s brilliant series about how to live in accordance with your principals in a corporate world — particularly when you have a lot of debt, or the costs of activism have grown extraordinary. For all that I’m disappointed in the decision and think that it was a mistake for HBO’s brand — despite Enlightened’s extremely low ratings, it was the kind of show that couldn’t have been produced by any other network — I don’t see it as a tragedy for the story White was telling. After Amy Jellicoe blew the whistle on Abaddon Industries and was fired, Enlightened had her walk off into a sunny California day, anonymous again among the crowd, alone with the knowledge of what she’d accomplished and unsure of what came next for her. But her time at the company was finished, and Amy had decisively acted in accordance with her beliefs. That story was concluded.
But there’s another brilliant, strange, female-centered show that’s still awaiting a decision on whether it will be renewed or cancelled. And I dearly hope that ABC Family decides to make the right decision and save Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dramedy about the proprietors of and students at a California ballet school.
Bunheads has a less determined story arc than Enlightened, and by design, smaller stakes. It follows Michelle (Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl who marries a fan, moves to California with him, and ends up owning a great deal of property when he’s suddenly killed in a car accident — and tied to his mother, ballet teacher Fanny (Kelly Bishop), as well. Her students Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), Ginny (Bailey Buntain), and Melanie (Emma Dumont) are intelligent, idiosyncratic young ladies who find themselves galvanized by Michelle’s arrival, which coincides with them reaching the stage of life where they’re deciding how serious they want to be about dance, whether they want to have sex, and what their relationships to their parents are going to look like. The characters don’t have life-or-death problems — at least not after the fatal car ride in the pilot — but they don’t lack for gravity.
Bunheads is a relentlessly female show, more so than any other program on television, and therein lies many of its strengths. Where Girls, after the fight that fractured Marnie and Hannah’s relationship in the first season, has moved its focus away from female friendships, the relationships between women are always primary in Bunheads. Much of the first half of the season followed Michelle and Fanny attempting to navigate an exceedingly difficult situation. Fanny was surprised by the arrival of Michelle as her daughter-in-law and even more disconcerted when her son’s death left Michelle the owner of Fanny’s home, business, and land. Gradually, they’ve navigated a professional and personal partnership, finding a way to run Fanny’s ballet school together and to build an amphitheater on the land left to Michelle. That amphitheater brings them into collaboration with two sisters, the constantly self-deprecating Truly (Stacey Oristano) and bulldozer Millicent (Liza Weil) Stone, who, in one scene, explains to Fanny that she doesn’t actually want to know about the arts, she just wants to be perceived as cultured. Truly and Milly’s rivalry is one of the best examples I’ve seen of exaggeration serving the truth: there’s no way to make a relationship between sisters stranger and more hilariously tortured than they can be in real life.
And the friendships between the students have delightfully specific, and believable, contours. Ginny is hurt when Melanie hides from her that she’s joined the roller derby in addition to ballet. Sasha calls Boo, rather than her parents, when she finds the door to her apartment open and is afraid to go inside. Ginny, Melanie, and Boo feel betrayed when Sasha makes a foray into cheerleading. The four research sex from every conceivable angle together when they’re considering sleeping with their boyfriends, only to be stumped by the condom options at the local drug store. And they’re all invested enough in Michelle to follow her on a road trip when they catch her sneaking off to Los Angeles for a dance audition. Michelle may not be the mentor all of them need in matters of the heart or how to run their lives — judging by her brief, impulsive marriage, she has enough trouble of her own. But they need creative inspiration as much as they need basic life skills advice, someone who can act as a reminder to them that the world is bigger than a little town in California, and that they’ll face bigger decisions than whether or not Boo and her boyfriend Carl should jump up their timetable for the first time they have sex. I could spend an infinite amount of time with these clever young girls and their daily dilemmas.All of this would be enough to make a specific, brilliant, rare show. But Bunheads is something more. Its characters have pop culture addictions that rival Community’s. It’s the unusual show about women that has good male characters — Carl, Michelle’s maybe-boyfriend bartender Godot, Michelle’s hilariously shiftless brother — but that hasn’t subverted its female characters to their development, creating an unusual degree of gender balance. And it’s a show that’s not afraid of real sadness, but that doesn’t need to beat up on its characters to let them fail: when Michelle accidentally pepper-sprayed her students on the eve of a critically important performance for the school’s financial health, we were allowed to feel the weight of her accumulated past missteps without being disgusted by or feeling distanced from her. That’s a deft balance.
And if ABC Family wants to level up on its brand, to be something more than the network where Shailene Woodley worked before she got famous, it should keep it up, and renew Bunheads.