With its first 10-episode run completed earlier this week, I can admit that ABC Family's Bunheads -- a show sold as being about four teenage ballerinas, but actually about many other things indeed -- went from a guilty pleasure to my favorite television show of the summer. Was it the pop culture references, the gentle humor or the joy of hearing "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" for the first time in years that made this happen? No, it was the very deliberate pacing and construction of the show's storyline.
By the time we'd reached the second-last episode of the show's run so far, I realized that Bunheads was the first show in television to have a nine-part pilot. If you watch the entire series to date, you'll notice that the character arc for Michelle and Fanny -- the show's two true leads, despite the commercials ABC Family runs to appeal to its core demographic -- is something that the average show would try and speed through in 90 minutes, tops: Woman marries man, doesn't get along with mother-in-law but is forced to live with her and work for her after husband dies? Done! Now on with the hilarity. But Bunheads spreads what is essentially the set-up for the entire series across its first run of episodes, making it seem both more organic and more honest; we as viewers get to experience the apathy and awkwardness of grief unfold in a way that mirrors the real thing, and because of that, it has more impact.
By taking what could politely be described as a leisurely wander around the high concept of the show -- less kind minds could call it "slow," I'll grant you -- Bunheads gains a surreality that matches the purposefully weird characters that populate each episode, a sense of things being not-quite-right that feels entirely appropriate considering its subject matter. For all the banter and the slapstick, after all, it's really a show about loss, a fact brought home with the final episode as Michelle dreams of her dead husband Hubble, and finds herself full of questions that he couldn't answer even if he were still alive. It's a heartbreaking moment where you realize how lonely she really is, something made all the worse when, moments later, she's forced out of her new home because of an accident that she already regrets.
It's a finale that punches you in the gut, a final scene that's merciless and wonderful because of its strength -- and something that couldn't have worked in a more traditional set-up. The show needed - we as an audience needed -- the nine weeks of nothing feeling right, of the feeling that things might one day return to, if not normal, then something comfortable and possibly enjoyable, for these characters, in order for Michelle's ultimate rejection to ring true. She couldn't have been an insider in the town's society for the eight weeks between the pilot and the final episode and then be pushed out; that would've felt wrong. It only makes sense if everyone were still at the stage of not knowing whether they were okay yet; that's when one small thing can seem like the end of the world, and lead to an overreaction.
Creator Amy Sherman-Paladino has given interviews where she's decried the "must have it now" mentality of modern television narratives, and there's no way that this show can seem like anything like a reaction to that when you know that. But there's more to the way this series has been paced than simple writer hissyfit; she has more to say with her characters than just keeping things glacial because she can. Bunheads' slowness may feel like a lack of intensity or purpose, it might feel slow or unsteady, but I suspect that that's the point. No other television show has really demonstrated the lack of gravity and stability that comes after a devastating loss like this one, I feel. It's not that you lose the ability to laugh, or find good humor in things. It's that the entire world shifts, and feels like you're out of place and can't get a handle on anything. By constructing a drawn-out season structure that keeps everyone from settling into anything resembling a routine, and focusing on the small stuff, Bunheads ends up making a grand statement without telling you. This is what real pain is like, it says, without drawing attention to itself. It's not the end of the world, but the feeling that the world doesn't have a place for you anymore.
I find myself looking forward to the return of the show in the winter, and seeing where it ends up going as its characters start to heal.