At heart, Bunheads is a fantasy, a show that is removed from an realistic view of how the real world operates as much as a Marvel comic or an episode of Star Trek. It presents as something else, sure — who would think that a comedy/drama about a ballet school in Southern California would be anything other than realistic, or at least as realistic as any other TV comedy/drama? — but, in reality, it’s a show fueled by wishful thinking and what ifs as much as anything else.
That isn’t a complaint; just the opposite, in fact. Rewatching the show now, seven years after its all-too-brief life on air, it’s the magical realism of the thing that bewitches, still; not just the way in which Paradise, the town protagonist Michelle moves to after getting married to Hubbell, is filled with characters too quirky to exist anywhere else, but also the way in which no situation or problem exists outside of its narrative purpose, with that narrative purpose almost certainly to push a relationship into a new area to explore.
Everyone involved with the show seems fully aware of what is going on; Sutton Foster’s central performance plays like someone from a 1950s musical, filled with manic, can-do energy that feels at odds with everyone around her. The teenage ballet students of the show’s title have self-aware dialogue that nods at how removed from real teenagers they actually are as they reference how they prefer old movies because everyone talked faster and make Heathers shoutouts the very next line. Kelly Bishop is, well, Kelly Bishop. It’s all a self-aware, self-conscious joy to watch.
Rewatching now is also revelatory in light of what creator/showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino did next. Of course, after this was canceled, she made The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and of course that was more warmly received; as a period piece, its fantasy elements are more easily explained away, its unstoppable dialogue deemed more believable and authentic. (She’s a comedian, of course she is.) Watching Bunheads again, so much about Mrs. Maisel feels like a retreat into acceptance and away from the boldness and rejection of reality that the former show got dinged for.
The new show gets awards and critical plaudits, and I’m glad for everyone involved, but I wish we’d gotten more Bunheads instead. If only because that last episode was, in almost every respect, an unsatisfying conclusion to the series. (Not because it was bad; because it was in no way a conclusion.)