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Bunheads: “Next!”

Please don’t let it end this way.

I get it: Television isn’t just a form of expression—it’s also a business. And businesses need customers and investors, and if a certain amount of viewers aren’t tuning in to Bunheads, then advertisers will stop paying ABC Family the money it needs to keep making Bunheads. The show is by no means a runaway hit—it rarely, if ever, shows up among the top 100 cable broadcasts reported in the overnight Nielsen ratings. ABC Family touts the show’s clout among adult females under 34, but Bunheads doesn’t pull blockbuster (by cable standards) numbers like Pretty Little Liars. Nor does it garner Entertainment Weekly cover stories on the merits of its social media dominance. (Want to feel old as dirt? Read the first paragraph of this article and then feel your back go out while you type “What in the Sam Hill is a ‘Keek video’?” into Google.) If the executives at ABC Family turn suddenly obsessive about the bottom line, they’d be justified in sending this weird, wonderful little show out to pasture. But I sincerely hope they don’t, if only because the crumpled face of Bailey Buntain, the bummed-out blonde Bunhead, shouldn’t be the last imprint this frequently joyful show is allowed to make.

Yeah, yeah, I know that “Next!” technically ends on a more fanciful note: a trip to the Dream Theater for some old fashioned button-pushing from a dance sequence that’s Eddie Cantor via Vladimir Nabokov. But “Makin’ Whoopee!” or no “Makin’ Whoopee!,” the lasting mark of this winter finale is that tender moment between Ginny and Michelle outside the studio, where the former admits she slept with Frankie and the latter realizes she doesn’t have to say anything in a situation like this—she just needs to be there for the girls who look up to her. It’s affecting, but like the end of Bunheads’ previous “finale,” it’d be an especially blue note to go out on.

Bunheads doesn’t typically offer much in the way of finality, and “Next!” is no exception. For the one door that’s symbolically closed in Michelle’s face, plenty more open for storylines involving Scotty’s assimilation to life in Paradise, the Stone sisters’ rivalry for the new kid in town’s affections, and wherever Michelle channels her creative instincts now that another audition has ended in rejection. The episode seemingly operates under the assumption that Bunheads will return—even if Amy Sherman-Palladino herself isn’t fully convinced—and it’s all the better for not straining to put a bow on the threads of these last eight episodes. ABC Family’s method of ordering Bunheads 10 or eight hours at a time must be the source of tremendous work-related anxiety. However, there must also be a certain amount of freedom in being able to compartmentalize a season of episodes within those constraints.

Look at it this way: Bunheads’ first season neatly breaks down into a pair of miniseries with the same setting, same characters, and complementary themes. The show’s summer season reflected on how Paradise changed Michelle; this winter season looked first to be about how Michelle changed Paradise, but as the show proved more capable with the individual voices of its teenaged stars, it started to be more about the way their characters reflect and contradict different characteristics of their friend and mentor. With steadier footing, the winter season (which, given its tone and subject matter, is more of a spring/autumn mix) also managed to display more facets of Bunheads in less time: Michelle’s backstory was filled in, Truly got a sister, and the Bunheads showed off an increased sense of worldliness and poise while never betraying the fundamental fact that they still have a lot of growing up to do. 

That last thread gets one of its best treatments to date from “Next!”’s sex-self-education montage, wherein Ginny, Boo, Sasha, and Melanie (listed, with a tip of the hat to Todd VanDerWerff, in accordance to this week’s Bunheads Power Rankings) cull carnal knowledge before staring awed at a monolith of birth-control options. The sequence benefits from a marvelous visual flair, and it never once sexualizes the Bunheads—it empowers them, documents them seizing the reins of their own destiny that, despite the playacted innocence of headbands, cardigans, and smartly packaged baked goods, is still likely to impress the women responsible for Roman’s only brush with Russian literature. (Sasha: “You read anything Russian?” Roman: “Pussy Riot’s liner notes.”)

And that’s just one of the many sequences of “Next!” that argues on behalf of Bunheads’ potency and significance. At the risk of pulling a Sasha and over-intellectualizing the episode: Bunheads needs to continue because it speaks from and to several perspectives that are so poorly represented on the television spectrum. To echo a sentiment from Todd’s excellent take on “It’s Not A Mint,” I have never been a teenage girl, and can therefore only relate to the Bunheads on the most general of levels. I might not know exactly what it’s like to be part of a friendship like Sasha and Boo’s, but I do know the feeling of being bossed around by a friend. “Next!” represents that dynamic in terms that are both particular and universal, with signature doses of Sherman-Palladino earnestness and levity that increase the elbow room beneath the show’s tent. The patter, the pacing, and the focus will always endow Bunheads with some barrier to entry, but episodes like “Next!” demonstrate the warm, welcoming nature of a show that portrays specified experiences in a manner any viewer can grasp.

That goes double for Michelle’s portion of the episode, a storyline that further outlines Bunheads outlier status. You can see it in Truly’s plot tonight, too: Like two of TV’s other best ongoing concerns, Enlightened and New Girl, Bunheads follows female characters in their 30s who have met with failure—and portrays that failure genuinely and benevolently. Michelle isn’t mocked for her inability to make the cast of the Dark Victory musical—the cards were stacked against her. She put in a great audition (flashes of “A Nutcracker In Paradise”; any episode of this show where Sutton Foster sings live onstage  earns at least a “B”) and proved you don’t have to be young and hip to sell a few simple dance steps, but none of that was going to matter because the open call was a union formality. Hence the closing door—so cold and severe, so unlike the stained glass one Michelle walks through and into Fanny’s living room earlier in the episode. Another rejection in a life filled with them, no more stinging than the one-word dismissal of the Chicago choreographer from the pilot. Truly’s post-Sparkles mourning period could be read as a refutation of all of the above—but it also comes off as a comic exaggeration of Michelle’s experience in “Next!” Truly chooses to wallow in her failure; Michelle has gained a thick enough skin to brush off failure and appreciate the small victories on the way to the next inevitable road block. That doesn’t rob any of the comedy from Stacey Oristano whimpering “The tutus hate me—they know I failed,” though

But does either character admit defeat? Of course not—this is still Bunheads, after all. The denizens of Paradise aren’t living the lives they’d planned for themselves, but they’re not mired in those unrealized dreams, either. They reorient: Michelle continues to find as much (or more) fulfillment in her teaching as she once did in performing; to resurrect Sparkles, Truly reconciles with Millie—though that reconciliation may be derailed by Scotty, who, with his work around Fanny’s house, is filling in for Hubbell on multiple fronts. In the Los Angeles Times piece linked above, Sutton Foster asks Amy Sherman-Palladino about her character’s season-two trajectory: “Will Michelle ever find success?” The showrunner then suggests it’ll be a different kind of success—one Bunheads’first 18 episodes did a fine job of defining and illustrating. Perhaps “Will there be a second season in which Michelle can continue finding that success?” is a more relevant question. If it keeps turning out episodes like “Next!”—or, at the very least, moments like the “A Smile And A Ribbon” montage or the Michelle-Ginny gut punch at the end of the episode—Bunheads certainly deserves the chance.

Episode grade: B
Half-season grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • ABC Family sent out digital screeners of “Next!,” so I’ve watched the episode a couple of times now—the breadcrumbs to Ginny’s big admission in the coda are sprinkled liberally throughout the episode, no more obviously than when she’s shown reading the book Girls Who Said Yes.
  • Timely: The piano player at the Dark Victory auditions chafes at Michelle’s original audition piece with a “Frickin’ Hathaway”; he’s going to be up to his elbows in Les Misérables now that Frickin’ Hathaway has a frickin’ Oscar.
  • What are the Bunheads watching?: The girls’ slumber-party selection is 1958’s Bell, Book And Candle, the Jimmy Stewart-Kim Novak movie that isn’t Vertigo. Novak plays a witch who falls for Stewart’s everyday fella, a coupling that threatens to rob Novak of her supernatural powers. (Parallels to Michelle giving up on performing to stay in Paradise?)
  • Truly Stone on fate: “Some people can be the funniest guy in the sports bar and end up on late-night TV—and some people are me.” 
  • Fantastic Sasha callback at the end of the audition sequence: “Next time we say ‘Hi.’” Here’s hoping there’s a next time. (And with that, I bid you farewell, knowing not if we’ll meet in this space again. Thanks for continuing to read these reviews and maintaining the conversation on such a strange little show. The Sherman-Palladinoverse won’t be absent from TV Club for long: David Sims’ TV Club Classic coverage of Gilmore Girls begins next Thursday.) 

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