This might sound slightly perverse, but the fact that ABC Family hasn’t renewed Amy Sherman-Palladino’s wonderful Bunheads yet is something I’m taking as a good sign.
To be perfectly honest, the show’s ratings last winter weren’t strong enough to suggest an instant renewal. Indeed, they slumped so much following the first half of the series’ first season (which aired in the summer of 2012 and did respectably, building on its lead-in slightly in total viewers) that ABC Family could have been forgiven for an immediate cancellation of the program. It’s certainly what a lot of TV journalists, myself included, expected. And yet Bunheads has hung in there. It ended in February, shortly before the second season of Enlightened wrapped up, and while that show was done for within the month, Bunheads has survived month after month of little to no news.
Yes, there have been bits of bad news here and there. Sutton Foster is doing a concert series this September, but a little digging revealed that was booked long ago and was always planned to work around expected Bunheads shoot dates. The sets for the show were taken down and stored a few weeks ago, but that’s not uncommon for series undergoing lengthy hiatuses—just recently, the sets for Community were taken down after season three, then put right back up when the show was picked up for season four. Taking down the sets gives the network and production studio a little more flexibility, and sometimes, a series will actually try to save budget by moving those sets to another backlot, where renting out a soundstage might cost less.
But the teardown of the sets and the lengthy wait are hard to interpret as unequivocally good signs. And yet there’s a part of me that thinks if ABC Family wanted to cancel Bunheads, they would have just canceled it already. Officially, the word was that the network was waiting to see how its two new summer shows, The Fosters and Twisted, would do when they debuted. Both have settled in at levels above where Bunheads was at last summer, and yet the older show has yet to be canceled. At every junction where it might have made sense to cancel the show, ABC Family has kicked the can further down the road. And as Vulture’s Denise Martin writes, it’s not as if this is a network that’s averse to swift, brutal cancellations, having removed the pretty good Nine Lives Of Chloe King and the not-so-good Jane By Design from its schedule without much sturm und drang. Indeed, both were canceled within a month of their final airings. The closest previous case to Bunheads would be Huge, which attracted similar critical acclaim and similar low ratings and made it just over a month before being canceled. As Martin points out, another ABC Family show—The Lying Game, which exists more in the Pretty Little Liars section of the network’s DNA—was in this weird limbo until Monday, when it was canceled. (And if ABC Family is going to renew one of its struggling shows over the other, then that can also be counted as good news.)
There are rumblings that a decision on Bunheads will come this month. And while I could try and make a bunch of quantitative arguments as to why the show should be picked up for a second season—chief among them the fact that Sherman-Palladino’s most famous series, Gilmore Girls, only really picked up in the ratings during its second season, after The WB sweated out a far-from-likely season-one renewal—but let’s forget about those, because they’re mostly speculative and driven by a lot of hopes about the show finding its audience between now and a theoretical season two. No, probably the best argument to make at this point is the qualitative one: This show is so good that ABC Family should renew it simply on those grounds. TV history is littered with one-season wonders, but it’s got even more shows that started out slowly in season one and were renewed by gutsy network execs who either really liked the show or saw the potential for growth in it, against all odds. Some—Cheers, Seinfeld, Gilmore Girls—went on to be hits for their networks, while some—Better Off Ted, Boomtown, Enlightened—didn’t manage that trick. But all of those shows and many more that made it to unlikely second seasons have something in common: They made the qualitative argument first, giving them more time to make the quantitative one.
Fortunately, the qualitative argument is very easy to make for Bunheads. It’s by several orders of magnitude the best show ABC Family has ever aired, and it’s not like that’s an easy task or anything. This is the network of Huge and Greek and the terrific (and still airing) Switched At Birth, as well as the more-promising-by-the-week The Fosters. But Bunheads has something special. It’s not just Sherman-Palladino’s whip-smart, lightning-fast dialogue, which has been gone from our TVs for too long, nor is it the show’s commitment to telling stories that don’t gin up artificial life-and-death stakes, instead finding real drama in a teenage girl losing her virginity or a woman in her 30s confronting her aimlessness. It’s not even about how thoroughly the series imagines a community of women of all ages, where the men are the eye candy and the women are the ones with complex, soulful problems that aren’t easily solved (though that, too, sets it apart from every other show on the programming grid).
No, what makes Bunheads worth saving is the dancing. As my colleague Carrie Raisler pointed out for our Emmy This! series, Bunheads funnels almost all of its intense emotions into ballet routines, routines that run the gamut from a teenage girl expressing her emotional turmoil to a woman exploring the grief she feels over the death of a husband she was married to for only a few days to a musical theater number that contrasts the promise of a talented young girl with the desperation of an adult woman who’s never found her way to that big break. Unlike Glee, the show whose success obviously opened the avenue for Bunheads to be on the air, Sherman-Palladino’s series uses dance and musical performance not as an emphatic underlining of the point but as a rumination on the emotional subtext. It gives everything that happens an occasionally mysterious, often ethereal quality, and that’s particularly true because it involves the amazing Sutton Foster, who’s giving one of TV’s best performances, a raw, mesmerizing look at a woman who’s spent most of her life floundering and isn’t sure how to stop.
Even more importantly, Bunheads is a show that draws its drama not from a murder of the week or from serial killers stalking their prey or from zombies pouring in an open door. It draws its drama from the frustrations of real life, from the way that things don’t always turn out like you’d hope, from the way that parents and children let each other down or the way that our mentors are often more flawed than we’d like them to be. There’s nothing wrong with heightened drama, nor is there anything wrong with a show that finds its emotion and its stakes in larger-than-life situations. But TV has, recently, become too dominated by these kinds of stories, and there’s a weird sameness to even the best dramas on the dial. Bunheads, like Parenthood, Enlightened, and Rectify, is a part of a new—low-rated—movement to look less at the end of life and more at all of the things that take place in the middle of it, the messy drama that comes from growing up, no matter what age you are. The stakes come not from fear or from trauma, but from disappointment, regret, and doubt. The stakes, then, are much closer to those we confront every day of our own lives.
TV has never really been completely lacking in these shows—particularly since the rise of thirtysomething in the late ’80s—but recently, there’s been a distinct paucity. Bunheads marks a break from TV as usual, even on ABC Family, where the most popular shows go in for murderous jolts (Pretty Little Liars) or the comforts of melodramatic twists and turns (Switched At Birth, which beautifully uses those twists and turns as an excuse to explore class and social issues). This is not to say that Bunheads is necessarily better because it eschews those qualities, just that it’s different, and few would have expected any of that from a series that’s ostensibly about fast-talking teenage ballerinas. Like all series of this type, it very much feels like a work in progress at times, but at its best, Bunheads is capable of staggering emotional complexity and depth.
So Bunheads shouldn’t be renewed because of some argument about potential ratings growth—even though such arguments exist and could be made. It should be renewed because it’s one of the best shows on TV, one of the funniest, and one of the most heartrendingly performed. It’s a show that doesn’t speak down to its adolescent audience, but it also reminds adults how horrifying and poignant those emotions of adolescence could be. It is, in so many ways, the perfect show for parents and children to share, the way that Gilmore Girls and Friday Night Lights were before it. The most likely result of all of this is that Bunheads is still canceled, but the hour is at hand, and somebody somewhere at ABC Family must like the show, or it would be dead already. So here’s a plea: Put this thing on streaming services everywhere. (It’s already on Amazon.) Make sure its audience finds it. And bring it back for another season. It’s too good to let die in limbo.