Feb 28 2013
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Dance of the Happy Shades

The opening credits sequence implies a tired schema: the literally colorful mentoress brightens the drab routine of black-and-white ballerinas. We can imagine a danced-up, distaff riff on the inspirational teacher genreperhaps an unusually quick-witted one if we know the métier of series creator Amy Sherman-Palladinobut still a hoary vision of the worldly woman coaxing episodic maturity out of naive girls, one plié at a time.

One of the many surprising pleasures of Bunheads is the ease with which, depending on the episode, it either ignores this template or reshapes it into something meaningful. The would-be mentoress is Michelle, a tough-minded Vegas showgirl who impulsively accepts a marriage proposal by a near-stranger that brings her to a gently quirky California burg called Paradise. Uh-oh: dude dies in a car accident within 24 hours of consummation, leaving Michelle to inherit a house, a difficult mother-in-law, a ballet school, and high-stakes decisions about the direction of her life as a sudden widow. Meanwhile, four teenage dancers enact a künstlerroman that runs the mazes of adolescence with an acuity and wit that makes me wonder why people still think Freaks and Geeks is such a big deal.

For much of the first season—which, unless ABC Family announces good news soon, could be the full series—Michelle and the bunheads travel along parallel narrative tracks, intersecting patiently and organically and sometimes not at all. The double perspective allows Bunheads to follow both of Tolstoy’s proclaimed plots at once: hero goes on journey and stranger comes to town. Michelle’s shaky tenure as an accidental role model is always threatened by her itch to ditch Paradise and pursue the showbiz success that has yet eluded her. She shares with her charges the rapid-fire chatter and allusive loquacity with which Sherman-Palladino’s characters assert control over life’s unpredictability, but all that gamified dialogue masks grave themes: failure, anxiety, sex, death, the fragility of friendship, the wobbly pursuit of happiness, and yes: dancing.

Dance is the constant for these girls and women—order amid chaos, and, like the marathon sentences that spill from their mouths, a weapon against whatever uncertainty brings trouble to Paradise. When Sasha—the bunhead who tends toward prickly affect and contrarian thinking—forsakes the dance ritual in favor of empty cheerleading, she returns almost immediately, having realized that ballet is more than an after-school activity. Befitting an act of such significance, Bunheads’ presentation of dance is among the loveliest and most aesthetically radical things on television. Elaborately choreographed, sometimes expressionistic routines play out in front of a fluid camera, separate from each episode’s narrative business but often commenting on it or providing a counterpoint. These nonverbal interludes are especially welcome in a show with such verbally hyperactive scripts; the effect is not unlike the tension between Aaron Sorkin’s writing and David Fincher’s intense mise-en-scene in The Social Network. Unpinned to a particular style, the show’s formal approach to filming dance has continued to evolve; one pre-credits showstopper integrated nonstop verbal sparring into a full ballet routine in one long, unbroken take.

In some ways I’m an unlikely Bunheads devotee (don’t call us Broheads), not just demographically, but because I never got past the second season of Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girlsa show that felt slightly stiff-jointed and clumsy compared to the dancer’s grace and fluidity with which Bunheads is written, performed and shot. TV’s permissiveness has expanded in the years since Gilmore such that Bunheads is able to get away with honest, though never prurient, inquiries into teen sexuality on a network with the word “family” right in the name. I’m powerless not to compare this aspect of the show to another funny-femme-melodrama, Girls, which couches an absurd(ist?) vision of a world where sex is literally everywhereon the surface, in all male-female interactions, at all times—in the guise of “brave” frankness. On Bunheads, girls make choices about sex—choices foregrounded in the season finale, which features a peppy musical montage of the bunheads reading books with titles like Girls Who Said Yes—without Lena Dunham’s self-congratulating tawdriness.

The bunheads make a great rhythm section, but Michelle is the lead guitarist, and she fucking shreds. Or rather, Sutton Foster shreds. It would have been enough for Foster to handle Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue like a reincarnated Rosalind Russell, but she also intermittently busts out mind-blowing song-and-dance chops—not merely for showmanship, but as an expressive reminder that our conflicted heroine has talents and dashed dreams beyond helping teenage girls find themselves. The sharpest example of Bunheads’ affective pendulum: a recurring dream sequence in which Michelle crushes a musical-theater audition in a dark void, only to face cold rejection and a visit from her dead husband. Joy and despair, trouble and desire, comedy and errors, cacophony and silence, all co-exist casually in Paradise. It’s cruel but perfect that Sherman-Palladino only puts Foster’s theatrical skills on display in rare and unglamorous moments, like Spielberg keeping Jaws out of view for as long as possible. To modify Dino Di Laurentiis’ ill-fated promise for the ‘70s King Kong remake: Nobody cry when Jaws die, but when Michelle belts “Maybe This Time,” everybody gonna cry.

It’s true that I’ve felt a certain anxiety about my affection for Bunheads, as if the primarily female cast and imprimatur of a network that airs e.g. Pretty Little Liars renders the show verboten for a 26-year-old straight male. But when I’m watching it, I don’t feel like a trespasser. In a show about acceptance and adaptation, Sherman-Palladino’s most lasting lesson to the audience might be how we can accept her work in the capacious spirit in which it was intended. Bunheads is for everyone.