Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Smile and a Ribbon: Bunheads Tackles a Worn-Out Story With Surprising Grace

"The bigger my toothy grin is, the smaller my troubles grow
The louder I say I'm happy, the more I believe it so" 
-Patience & Prudence 'A Smile and a Ribbon'

When making a show about teens, there are a few boxes that you have to check in terms of ground that is going to be covered.  Perhaps the most common of all them though is the subject of characters losing their virginity.  Like any well-established trope that's been done frequently and for many years, there are only so many broad ways in which you can classify the methods of execution of these storylines.  One fairly common category, which felt especially popular for teen shows in the 90s, was the couple who waited for a long time and finally decided to seal the deal.  But for every David and Donna on 90210, there's the story of a pairing where the choice was a mistake and things don't end so happily.  Either way, both avenues share the themes of anticipation and regret and the idea that losing your virginity "changes" you in some way.

Even the two shows that did my favorite tackling of the virginity story, Buffy and Friday Night Lights, don't stray too far from that general template of storytelling.  Buffy, a show that always used its supernatural elements as a metaphor for growing up and the general teen experience, found its most potent metaphor in the middle of season 2 when Buffy loses her virginity to Angel.  When you strip away all of the plot elements and mumbo jumbo about gypsy curses and losing souls, the arc is really just about sleeping with a guy who turns out to be different than you initially expected him to be.

Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, handled the topic of teen sex on multiple occasions through its five season run, but perhaps its most famous episode about the subject is the stunning season 1 episode, "I Think We Should Have Sex," in which nobody even ends up having sex.  In that episode, it's all about the anticipation and hand-wringing over the big event between newly formed couple Matt and Julie.  Once Julie's parents catch wind of this idea, it becomes more about the how they react to and handle the situation.  Despite the slight spin the episode puts on the structure of The Virginity Plot, it still explores the idea of sex irrevocably changing you and just the idea of having regrets is enough to postpone the deed from being done.

Sexuality and virginity weighed heavily on the mind of the final two episodes of this season of Bunheads.  Initially, when it was introduced in the penultimate episode, it seemed like a bit of a throwaway plot; a planted seed to be harvested at some point in season 2 (which, at this point, we don't even know is going to happen).  However, the finale showed that this idea isn't going away as Sasha, masking her own anxiety about taking the leap with her boyfriend, forces the rest of the three girls to dive headfirst into a crash course in sexual education.  For a while, it seemed like the show wasn't going to be up to the task of tackling this topic with the depth and nuance I hoped it would.  Bunheads is a show that seems to exist in its own little universe, where everything is breezy and low-stakes, and it would be easy to imagine the show approaching this episode with the same level of quirk and light charm with which it approaches every other episode.  And indeed I was a bit disappointed with the execution at first.  The girls seemed a little too naive and innocent about sex (I was 17 recently -- 17 year olds know alot more about sex than Sasha, Ginny, Boo, and Melanie seemed to).

At a certain point, the episode slowly and continually begins to show its hand, with creator Amy Sherman-Palladino revealing a sly depth to the proceedings.  The entire theme of the episode is about the harsh realities of adulthood, exhibited by when the girls follow Michelle to her audition and see just how ruthless the process can be.  Being a professional dancer, much like having sex, is something that you can't just know about from hearing stories and reading books.  It can seem exciting in the abstract, but frightening when made real.  These girls are set on a collision course between adolescence and adulthood, at no point more apparent than in one of the highlight scenes of the episode, a montage set to Patience & Prudence's "A Smile and a Ribbon".  Juxtaposed together are the girlish tone of the song and the womanly images of the bunheads standing in front of a rack of condoms at the store or checking out books on sex from the library, a perfect representation of the mysterious void they find themselves within.  All the while, the show is taking a very sex-positive stance on the matter, a nice change from the "sex = BAD" tone in teen shows of days past.

Upon further inspection, "A Smile and a Ribbon" seems to serve another purpose.  The lyrics I quoted at the top of this post could be interpreted as optimistic -- as changing your fortune by the sheer force of effort, but to me there's something so wonderfully sad about having to will yourself to be happy.  Throughout the episode, the focus was being put on Sasha and Boo, who actually have boyfriends, as the ones confronting virginity head on.  However, near the end, in the most gutwrenching scene of the episode, Ginny reveals to Michelle that she already had sex with her crush, the aloof and mysterious Frankie, a week ago and he hasn't called her back since.  Not only does this device allow Sherman-Palladino to sidestep the issue of tackling the idea of virginity directly, but the moment with Ginny packs even more of a punch because it happened offscreen.  All this time, we've been watching Ginny have to deal with her friends fretting over having sex (and if you watch the episode a second time, there's some killer foreshadowing in a scene or two), when she's already had her heart broken.

Throughout the first (and maybe last) season of Bunheads, I've been surprised by just how confident this show has become in its voice.  Sherman-Palladino's odd sense of humor can still grate on me from time to time, but for all the quirk that she throws in every episode, she really does know how to wallop the viewer emotionally.  Bunheads is a breath of fresh air, and I'd be sad to see a show that has basically no male main characters go, especially when it found a new way to approach an old topic, simply by checking all of the boxes at once.

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