Cultural Commentator

What’s So Bad About Small-Stakes TV Shows Like Bunheads?

Cultural Commentator

What’s So Bad About Small-Stakes TV Shows Like Bunheads?

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If you want to be taken seriously as a TV series in 2013, you need to be big. Your world must be big, your cast must be big, your themes must be big, and more than anything else, your plots need to be big, big big. Major characters must die on a regular but unpredictable basis, to show you are willing to take risks, and those who survive must change significantly season over season. Meaningful crises have to hit every few episodes, there must be at least three plots in play at any time, and plots need to stretch out over multiple seasons, with episodes in the fourth season reliably calling back to ones in the first. “Stakes” is a key word here, as you can see from its recurrence in the writing of almost every major TV critic working today: they must be high and always rising, or else a show is just falling back into the bad old habits of TV, when the gang had an adventure each week but everything returned to normal by the end of the episode. And the major dramatic shows of our time have succeeded on these merits, as the bigness of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire attests. (The greatest trick Mad Men ever pulled was convincing the audience the characters had arcs.) This bigness is a thing viewers have come to want in their quality dramas.

But TV is known as the small screen for a good reason. Until sometime around the end of the 1990s, the best TV shows, including many still lauded today, were resolutely small. Often the biggest mystery was whether or not two characters would sleep with one another, as happened — twice! — on the (still great) Cheers. Occasionally, a show would get some traction for addressing big themes, as with civil rights on All in the Family or whatever thirtysomething was about, but most of the action would still be small, and take place at home. Shows big in plot and casts, like Dallas and Dynasty, were seen as cheesy and overblown, while dramas like Hill Street Blues were praised for their gritty, realistic localism. Even the respected comedies, like Seinfeld, It’s Gary Shandling’s Show and The Simpsons, were good precisely because of their smallness. Something about this narrow, repetitive focus works for the medium — even if it’s not something we currently value very highly.

All of this is to say that I really hope Bunheads gets renewed.

Bunheads is a show on the ABC Family network created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also created Gilmore Girls. After a wonderful debut season, the show is now in limbo as to a second, and fans are nervous it won’t return. The show is about a competitive dance school in a small California town and the Vegas showgirl/classically-trained ballerina named Michelle who accidentally ends up working there following a drunken marriage to the owner’s son. It features the same snappy, wit-soaked dialogue Palladino has been producing for a decade now, and alongside the precisely drawn characters of both Michelle and the teenage ballerinas-in-training, it was a consistent pleasure. Most notably, in each episode there was a dance number, at first worked into the regular action, but eventually becoming unmoored from the reality of the show and existing as stand-alone impressionistic expressions of the episode’s themes. These can be moving, as the out-of-nowhere routine at the end of “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” that evokes head ballerina Sasha’s experience of being essentially abandoned in an empty house by her divorcing parents. But they can also be gloriously ridiculous, as in “It’s Not a Mint” when the dance studio is being used as an evacuation center and the girls dance to Sparks’ “I Predict” while wearing coal-miner headlamps — all in the midst of an episode about teenagers’ confusion about sex, where “fumbling around in the dark” is an apt metaphor. (This, I should repeat, made total sense within the show’s reality.) It does what good art does best: use beauty as a way of getting at some fundamental emotional truth.

Bunheads is resolutely small (one recap by a very good critic!) says of the show that “the individual stakes of each episode are so small-scale that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees”), and in an environment where fans talk excitedly of a character’s death on an HBO show or the cliffhanger of an AMC drama, it feels like a commercial weakness. But this smallness is in many ways the point. Like Gilmore Girls, Bunheads is fantastic at expressing the rhythms and tenor of small-town life. The shows are similar enough that you might cry foul if it weren’t for the effectiveness of the small differences. Where Gilmore Girls was about mothers and daughters, Bunheads is a show about ambition, and the fraught process of balancing that with living an emotionally rewarding life: Michelle enjoys working in the small town, but is filled with regret about what she may have been given up, and keeps trying to return to her dance career; Sasha, the most promising dancer, can’t decide if this is the life she wants, and turns to Michelle for mentorship; and Boo struggles with the gap between her dreams and her talents. (In one of the season’s most memorable moments, she returns from an audition she’s failed after working for weeks to get down to the right weight, only to find a cake, ordered before anyone even knew she failed, iced with the words “Better Luck Next Year!”)

None of this is to say that critics are generally taking an anti-smallness position. Indeed, Bunheads has been widely lauded. But it does seem like it can’t possibly succeed by the dominant standards we now use to judge shows. Even if critics are willing to praise both the big and the small, the pro-bigness position, which rewards shows for breaking with the bad old TV of the past, is the one that’s been adopted by the more adventurous segment of the audience that’s fueling this golden age. Indeed, the same sort of lovely but small shows that would have had trouble breaking through in the 80s and 90s — shows like Enlightened, Terriers, and Pushing Daisies &mdash are still getting canceled after short runs. These are shows the critics love, but that these darlings are getting axed while Mad Men enters its sixth season is indicative of how persuasive the cases for largeness and smallness have. Take this, then, as a plea to embrace the smaller stakes of Bunheads for what it is, rather than what it’s not: a lovely and wonderful consideration of adolescence, ambition, and art in small-town America. And to renew the damn thing already.