Oct 26, 2015

personal best: TV dramedy: the unbearable lightness of bunheads

[Formatting note/advance precaution: all links open in a new window.]

"I think that the film Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it's true lightness." – Alicia Silverstone

“A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person.”  Milan KunderaThe Unbearable Lightness of Being

It’s just that a mantle of sadness hangs over this most stylish of comedies — weightlessly, like a silken web — and afterward, I always feel as if it’s quietly drifted onto me, too. “Holiday” never cheers me up, but it always opens me wide.
-Stephanie Zacharek

Not to take away from the excitement from the next phase of Lorelai squared, but someone has to…years from now, after Netflix informs us of those four words, when Dean and Jess and coffee-cubed are nothing but dust…

‘Bunheads’ will stand as Amy Sherman-Palladino’s masterpiece. If there is justice. Which there is not always.

The biggest compliment I could pay to the show is that I don’t have words to do it justice. I mean, I’ll try, but if the excessively verbose banter at the speed of Sorkin-squared dialogue of the gals of Stars Hollow could always be summed up as such, the Bun Broads always add up to more than the sum of their quips.

This has become a cliché in the Tumblr era, but I mean this as sincerely as possible – Michelle is my spirit animal.

I don’t necessarily mean that in the aspirational way – if Lorelai was the mother we always wanted to have or to be, Michelle is the – well, not a mother, exactly.  Or a daughter. Or a teacher.  Or…she’s not anything but being. 

Becoming.  It would be easy to sum up Gilmore Girls as Rory’s coming of age story, but Bunheads dares to ask – how long can one still live in that story?  At what age are we really grown up?  And, most importantly, what happens when the stories we tell ourselves to survive differs from the narrative hand we are dealt?

As Carrie Bradshaw might put it – Bunheads can’t help but wonder – when can we say “get me rewrite?” And what happens when we do?  What does it look like to transverse the hundred decisions and revisions that we can’t quite reverse?

Kushner said the world moves in only one direction – forward. But that’s a lie.  Zacharek cautions us against the desire to rewind and rewatch a perfectly choreographed combo move – Bunheads shows us the steps behind it.  How we run to stand still.  How a double pirouette is, itself, a thing of beauty. Even if one only makes it to one and a half turns.  How sometimes, when one runs out of words or excuses, it’s time to dance.  Even if that dance, like Robyn's, that dance is entirely on one’s own.

All these grand pronouncements might make it seem important.

But Bunheads never pretends to be a great drama.  It has nothing but quips, nothing but low stakes, nothing but moments.  But those moments become…well, everything. 

If Mad Men is the one prestige drama I could live with for the rest of my life to endlessly rewatch as it illuminates how life actually is versus how life is on prestige shows, Bunheads is the only comedy/dramedy I’d put beside it. 

As James Poniewozak stated in Time Magazine:

"[Gory Prestige Dramas think] you need "stakes" to hook viewers.  You need, that is, a sense You need, that is, a sense that that the characters stand to gain or lose something important, and in the “important” sweepstakes “getting violently murdered” generally trumps everything.

That’s understandable, and it’s at least somewhat related to real life. You, I, and everyone will die someday–though probably not at the hands of a biker gang or zombies. But death is not the only thing that makes your life worthy of your attention. There’s growing up, finding your limitations, learning who you are. There’s being grown up, being forced to reassess your life, figuring out who you still can be. There’s wanting things and pursuing a calling–which does not always have to be building the largest meth operation in the Southwest."

Growing up, learning who you are, figuring out who you can still be.  Even in episodes where nothing, narratively, seemingly “happens,” what could be more valuable as a mirror to our lives?
[Look how it echoes Zacharek’s love letter to Holiday, the most under-rated of Grant and Hepburn’s films:
"With characteristic ease, director George Cukor poses some big questions — What do you want out of life, and whom do you want around you while you do it? — but he’s so nonchalant about it, they dissolve like cigarette smoke in the air."]
Also, more than any show in recent memory, Bunheads demonstrates the value of the pleasures of music and pop culture and dance and MAKING art and living through the crappy day to day minutia and trials of life being totally intertwined.  Which is to say, it shows that sometimes art for arts’ sake gives us enough to live.  There are no ‘Glee’-like narrative build-ups over a season to regionals, no reality show-borrowed episode long ‘challenges.’
The only challenge is living. And dancing.
And accepting that sometimes having the audition is enough.
Even if one never gets a callback.
That even if one leaps into one’s dream ballet to express oneself to “Istanbul,” one’s toe shoes always have to crash down on Constantinople’s earth.
This makes Bunheads seem WAY more depressing than it is. But it is precisely the opposite – it’s a filigreed and engraved gossamer-silked party invitation.  Yet paper cuts hurt deep.
More than any show in recent memory, Bunheads doesn’t switch between the two modes of comedy and drama – rather, like the ideal romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, any sweetness is made more valuable by the underlying darkness and vice-versa.
I am trying my best to avoid spoilers, as I was, and this show is best experienced blind, so…
Let’s focus on the pilot, in parts, then:

Michelle gets quickly engaged. She is sent to ‘Sparkles’ by her mother-in-law and everything plays out as a comedic scene which it still is until… :


And it’s a laugh line because Truly is telegraphed as a kinda crazy person but…

It’s also not.  It’s also so real it hurts.

Then there's, well, the "fat" girl, going to her ballet mentor/teacher (KELLY BISHOP IS QUEEN YASSS) for advice:

- Madame Fanny?
 - Yes, boo? 
 -Um, about the Joffrey auditions next week, I was thinking I was going to try out, so I just wanted to ask you should I? 
- Well, it certainly can't hurt.
- I know but should I? I mean, am I wasting my time? I mean, I know that if I could dance like Sasha And I know that I can turn and I can jump, but I'm not a boy, so I just wanted to ask you should I try? 
-Ballet is very hard, boo.  And a lot of it does depend on how you're made.   You have to be realistic.  You're a big-boned girl.  You have a tummy.  Your waist is very short 
- Okay, thank you.
- But none of that means you shouldn't try.  Right?

I am not remotely joking when I say that this devastated me more in the pilot than 2.5 seasons of Emily and Lorelai fighting.  Because with Gilmore, Emily and Richard are OBVIOUSLY the most perfect actors but they are written as villains...

Actually, that's not the most amazing HOLY SHIT line in the pilot:  It's Fanny SNARLING



Bunheads is what happens if Lorelai gained self-awareness - genuine, actual, human self-awareness rather than "look at me, ain't I cute!?" self-deprecation.  And if all the Rories could actually act.

Minor dialogue spoiler for episode 2:
Truly: "I blame you"
Michelle: (genuinely, not quippy) "Me too."

Again, Zacharek: "It may be that “Holiday” scares me a little: I love it not just for its wit and its tenderness, but for its ruthlessness."

This is...my perfect show,  The quips function as barbs, the barbs function as quips and everything is bittersweet.  Not too bitter nor too sweet.

Again, to paraphrase from Stephanie's Holiday essay - one day, I'll ask someone for another Bunheads and they'll say, "there isn't one, sweetie."

It isn't like another show that has ever been on TV.  It's a dramedy.  It's a musical.  It's serious and sweet.  Bittersweet.  It's a high school show, a gilmores spin, a soap, a melodrama.  It's sublime and it's ephermal and it's lasting.  It is about being a teacher and student and mentor of...well, as Chaz and Roger taught us.  Life itself.

I once pitched it to Zacharek via Twitter as "Pitch-Perfect's snark with a Jacques Demy heart."


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