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Of all art forms, dance is perhaps the most fleeting, the most ineffable, the most in-the-moment. You can film a dance, but that tends to feel like a mimeograph compared to the grace and sweat, the sense of connection between dancers and each other and the audience, of seeing dance in the moment. It’s a SportsCenter highlight of a Peyton Manning touchdown compared to goal line seats at Mile High: a moment captured, but not fully felt.
It is sadly fitting then that the TV show that most deeply understood dance and the complex and kooky characters drawn to it is also the most criminally short-lived of modern times. Masterminded by Amy Sherman-Palladino in the same spirit of her Gilmore Girls, ABC Family’s Bunheads is television’s wordiest show about physicality since Friday Night Lights, and the most hilarious one about tragedy since M*A*S*H*.
Befitting a show with a dancer’s heart, Bunheads has a precise rhythm all its own. Yes, the characters talk faster than Kendrick Lamar raps, firing off references to Anna Karenina, Robert Downey Jr’s criminal past, and Pussy Riot faster than you can say “Rosalind Russell.” But every time it gets to be too much, the show stops you in your tracks with a dance routine—always in wide shot and without cuts—that’s as clever as it is touching. This one featuring They Might Be Giant’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” may have been the most talked about from Bunheads’ first-and-only season, but it wasn’t the show’s best.
Bunheads’ most magical dance sequence is from the show’s second episode and features Tom Waits’ “Pictures in a Frame,” a neglected track off 1999’s Mule Variations. It is a dance responding to the central tragedy that both jarringly kicks off the show and throws together its two protagonists: Michelle, a quixotic Vegas showgirl played by Tony winner Sutton Foster, and Fannie, the imperious yet somehow flaky owner of a Central California coast dance studio, brought to crackling life by Gilmore Girls’ secret weapon Kelly Bishop. I remember catching the sequence with my six-year-old daughter when it first aired in June 2012 after a particularly harrowing day at work and finding great solace that a show that had such a wickedly accurate tongue would choose to say so much with movement.
Much of the credit goes to the dancers themselves. Fannie and Michelle may be Bunheads’ heart, but its other major organs are made up by the quartet of young women who are their dance students and their disciples in the art of supercharged chatter. The friendship between these three young women is thrilling to behold. They cope with and talk about sex, food, and love with such a deft mix of comedy and seriousness that you sometimes don’t know which is which. Its patently absurd moments—that time Foster’s Michelle accidentally maces all the dancers ahead of a production of Nutcracker in one of its best episodes, “A Nutcracker in Paradise,” comes to mind—morphs quickly into its most touching.It’s safe to say that rarely if ever in pop culture has the Bechdel test been passed with more élan than in any given episode of Bunheads.
Bunheads is brightest in the corners, where wonderfully odd and fully formed characters pop imperfectly into existence, often thanks to beloved members of the Gilmore ensemble. They include Sean Gunn’s overly precious barista, Jon Polito as the proprietor of Sal’s Dancey Pants, and Liza Weil as Milly, a delightfully clueless financial manager. Not only do these actors get to deliver the kind of zingers here they are able to say nowhere else, but they give Sherman-Palladino the opportunity to sound off on the state of everything from coffee to arts funding.
While it is profoundly unacceptable and truly heartbreaking that this show never got a long, healthy life and chance to find its rightful place in the pop culture firmament alongside Gilmore Girls, the show itself was so brimming with joy and hope, it’s hard to feel too tragic about it. Truth is, we were lucky Bunheads existed at all.
It’s a complicated combination of feelings that is difficult to put words to. Maybe a dance will do the job?