‘Bunheads’ in the balance

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

I am a fan of the TV series “Bunheads,” about three (unrelated) generations of women and a small-town dance school, whose first season ran from last June 2012 to February 2013 on ABC Family and whose subsequent fate has still not been pronounced, to the growing consternation of its followers. Although the sets have been reported struck, the network has yet to issue a death certificate.

It doesn’t look good, one would say. But if this non-announcement is not just an exercise in executive sadism — a thing which we are all ready to credit, I imagine — the implication is that the relevant minds have indeed not yet been made up. And therefore, all is not lost.

Still, it is a tense situation, a crisis of sorts, and flares are being launched. “Bunheads” is a show that many critics like a lot (my own original testimony is here), and they are making their feelings known — even as the clock closes in on the end (or renewal) of its days, as (to make an inappropriately weighty analogy) editorial writers might at the 11th hour hopefully promote a reprieve for a death-row inmate. A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff, in a piece entitled “Hey, ABC Family, just renew ‘Bunheads’ already,” went on at emotional length; writing at Vulture (New York magazine’s culture website), Denise Martin gave the situation industrial and historical context; Louis Peitman at Buzzfeed offered 10 reasons, with embedded video, why the show should be saved; Esther Zuckerman at the Atlantic Wire noted the support (in a column whose title, “Why There Is a Quest to Save ‘Bunheads’,” seems a tacit acknowledgment that many readers won’t know a thing about it) and added her own — as I am doing here. There have been others.


PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot moments

While critical love has at times helped keep marginal shows alive, conferring prestige that might have made the difference in a close call — or giving a network good press at a time when good press was needed, as with NBC and “30 Rock” — it is not the first, or fifth, thing programming executives typically consider in a case like this. Nor is it the feelings of the most ardent fans — there are always ardent fans, for even the least-loved series — or, for that matter, their own likes or dislikes. The TV business, like other businesses of show, is an increasingly competitive one; different sorts of voices may thrive at its edges, and sometimes at its center, but the bigger the venue, the more each series needs to pull its own weight.

Nevertheless, we have seen the miracles happen and so live in the expectation that they can happen again. We have seen that a series killed off by one network may be reborn on another. (“Futurama,” “Cougar Town,” “Southland,” Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show and now “American Dad” are some recent examples, though there are others, throughout television history.) Since fans of “Roswell” got that show renewed, back in 2000, ostensibly by mailing thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce to UPN, it has become a thing to send stuff, often foodstuff, as a demonstration of support; I have lately received many messages from fans of the actually canceled “The Borgias,” who believe that sending tins of sardines to the suits at Showtime might somehow shock that show back into life, producing a “promised” fourth season. “Roswell” notwithstanding, this is quixotic — deluging people with things they don’t want and then have to deal with is possibly not the best way to win them to your side. I have seen no calls to save “Bunheads” by, say, sending buns to ABC Family; but this doesn’t strike me as a lack of ardor so much as having a sense of proportion, and even a sense of style.

I tend to be dispassionate about cancellations; there are always more shows to watch, and I don’t need (or even really believe in) closure. I loved “Freaks & Geeks” as much as it is possible for me to love a TV show, and yet I am happy with the perfection of its 18-episode single season. (There are also 18 episodes of “Bunheads,” I note.) “Wonderfalls” (Todd Holland/Bryan Fuller, Fox, 2004), which I’m currently re-watching on DVD, lasted all of 13 episodes — Fox aired only four — and I could not love it more were there 130. It is true that if NBC suits could have foreseen the afterlife of “Freaks & Geeks” and its now-legendary cast, it would have had a second season and, indeed, might be running today; but, their enormous salaries notwithstanding, TV executives cannot see the future.

That said, and in the full knowledge that my saying it matters more to me than to anyone in a position to Do Something About This, I would very much like to see “Bunheads” return. For one thing, there is at present a dearth of hour-long comedy on television — dramatic things happen in the show and are deeply felt, but I would hesitate to call it a “comedy-drama” or, ew, a dramedy — and it is a most fruitful form, allowing for slower pacing and more involved, emotionally subtle and true-to-life arcs than a 22-minute sitcom affords. It is a serious show, but also a sunny one.

VIDEO: Emmy 2013 contenders


Although not, in the prosaic sense, about family, it is truly a family show — unlike some other ABC Family series whose pitch is specifically to the sensation-seeking young. There are not so many of those around, on any network. Like show-runner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s earlier “Gilmore Girls,” which it structurally and tonally resembles, it respects the old as well as the young, and all those in between. Experience does sometimes confer wisdom, and children do not automatically know everything.

Dancing: There is dancing on television, mostly in contests, and almost none of it ballet (or serious modern dance). (The CW reality show “Breaking Pointe,” set in a Utah ballet company, is returning for a second season next week, and though it mostly a docu-soap, it does show you the work as well.) Sometimes things just stop and there is dancing, or it occurs at the end, after the hurly-burly’s done. It may have something to do with the plot, but it may just be an occasion to let something beautiful happen; these passages are as moving as anything TV cooks up in a week. One might wonder how a small California beach town has so much talent concentrated within it, but that is no more fruitful than asking why Sunnyvale was so full of demons. The dancing also speaks to discipline, and to working hard at a thing that may only be its own reward — “Bunheads” is not starry-eyed about stardom.

And Sutton Foster. The cast is uniformly fine: the four principal young women (Kaitlyn Jenkins, Julia Goldani Telles, Bailey Buntain and Emma Dumont each representing a different set of gifts, limits and possibilities -- and, not incidentally, body type); the great Kelly Bishop in somewhat the same matriarchal position she occupied on “Gilmore Girls.” But Foster is the force at the series’ center and such an offbeat presence that, although she suits Sherman-Palladino’s rat-a-tat theatricality to a T, I fear other producers will find her energy confusing. There is a goofiness about her, but a goofiness that allows for tragedy; and, though she is beautiful, it is not a standard TV beauty; I can’t imagine she would have been cast in “Smash!,” for instance, though she’s a Tony-winning Broadway star. I’m not worried for her own future (as long as there is a cabaret left standing, she will find a stage to sing on), but I would like to see her stick around in mine — on television, in “Bunheads,” just a little while longer.

h; on television, in “Bunheads,” just a little while longer.