Friday, June 13, 2014

Bunheads vs. Gilmore Girls

The common pitch to get people to watch Bunheads is, "Did you like Gilmore Girls?  If so, then you'll probably like this."  After all, those who were fond of Amy Sherman-Palladino's brand of lightning-quick dialogue and breezy, female-centric stories on Gilmore Girls would find it easy to settle into Bunheads, which ported over the former's charms with few adjustments.  The parallels didn't stop there either -- both shows featured Kelly Bishop filling the brittle elderly woman role, the relationship between Fanny and Michelle mirrored Lorelai and Emily's, Truly had a bit of Sookie's sweet but neurotic qualities, and Paradise was essentially a west coast Stars Hollow.  In fact, the similarities proved to be too numerous for some, who accused Bunheads of being a cheap imitation of Gilmore Girls, and even those who like both mostly prefer the latter.  So I'm here to deliver a rare and controversial opinion:  I like Bunheads more than Gilmore Girls.

Though I prefer Bunheads, if you were to break both shows down to their individual qualities, Gilmore Girls would still have some advantages.  For example, Bunheads didn't have the great sense of history that Gilmore Girls had.  In a way, Bunheads was about a makeshift family, and the show's 18 episodes were about building the kind of history that Gilmore Girls already had implanted into its DNA from the beginning.  In true Amy Sherman-Palladino fashion, much of the crucial events in the Gilmore family happen offscreen, in this case years before the show even premiered, beginning with Lorelai getting pregnant and running away from home at 16.  The bundles of pain, regret, and disappointment in the relationship between Lorelai, Emily, and Richard were so precariously stacked that the writers were able to convey so much about them through so little.  Those years and years of bruised history were always something that they could fall back on for a meaty story ("Christopher Returns," "Dear Emily and Richard," etc).

But Bunheads had some tricks of its own too.  It took all of the common elements in Amy Sherman-Palladino's wheelhouse and added something crucial: dance.  In the short time that Bunheads on the air, its dance sequences were the best thing on television, bar none.  Performance elements in shows tend to be a way to express subtext without doing it through dialogue, and some of the dance sequences in Bunheads did that, as in episode two, where a dance sequence underlines how much the girls appreciate Fanny.  But sometimes they were capable of transcending the point of being a mere thematic device, and instead became a visualization of raw, primal emotions.  Each of the dances on the show -- no matter how small -- were always varied, visually dynamic, well-choreographed, and most of all, shot in fluid takes that went unbroken for impressive lengths.

Part of the reason why it could get away with such sequences is that it was, at its core, a much darker show than Gilmore Girls.  While Gilmore Girls might have been about a woman who ran away and had a kid at 16 years old, the darker aspects of the show were always balanced out by its WB-ness, small-town quirk, and that prevailing sense that everything would ultimately be okay.  Bunheads, on the other hand, had a sense that everything may not be okay, but you have to learn to adapt and make do.  On Gilmore Girls, Lorelai's life is pretty stable -- she has a wonderful daughter, her own business, and many friends in Stars Hollow.  Between Michelle's failed dance career, dead husband, and new role of responsibility that she's not prepared for; she's floundering much more.  Minus a few boat-stealing, home-wrecking stumbles along the way, Rory Gilmore's seven-season arc consisted of everything going her way.  The four bunheads don't have it as easy as special genius Rory, however.  Boo is stuck with a body type that will never be conducive to a successful dance career, Sasha is struggling with what to do in the wake of her parents' divorce, Melanie's anger issues sometimes cause her to violently lash out, and Ginny loses her virginity to a boy who couldn't be bothered to give her the time of day afterward.  While some people may like the lighter fare that Gilmore Girls provides, the dark core of Bunheads is something that lingers with me much more.

In an LA Times article, Amy Sherman-Palladino emphasized that Gilmore Girls and Bunheads were both products of the eras in which they aired by pointing out the differences between their construction.  Among them, the most notable was the insight that each Gilmore Girls episode consisted of three acts, while a Bunheads episode consisted of six.  As a result, Bunheads felt like a faster-paced show, since it had to structure the episodes around more act breaks.  Both shows are still notable for their relative lack of plot, but Bunheads was better at giving off the impression of forward progression.  This makes Gilmore Girls easier to skip around on, and Bunheads better to watch in linear chunks.

Rory Gilmore is one of my all-time favorite characters -- yes, I know that I'm boring -- but Bunheads having four teenage girls in its main cast allowed for the show to have a wider perspective.  Sasha, Boo, Ginny, and Melanie all had distinct personalities from the start of the show, allowing for more opportunities to have the audience identify with them.  Gilmore Girls may have given Rory people like Lane and Paris to bounce off of, but Bunheads explored female friendships in a far more complex way.  These were four girls who had their disagreements, but they were ultimately people who cared deeply about one another.  Plus, as much as I defend Alexis Bledel, the four actresses on Bunheads were much better than her.  (Have I mentioned that they danced?!)

Bunheads may have had female friendships down, but nothing can touch the mother-daughter relationship that's central to Gilmore Girls.  Rory and Lorelai's relationship is without a doubt the greatest mother-daughter relationship I've ever seen on television, and as much as Bunheads tried to hint at a slowly developing kinship between Michelle and the four girls, they couldn't come close to the two Gilmores.  Their sister-like closeness may not be something that we all aspire to, but it's admirable and enjoyable to watch nonetheless.  It's what makes their slow drifting in the show's later years all the more powerful.  The show's other mother-daughter relationship, Lorelai and Emily, gives Gilmore Girls another advantage.  They're almost like the flipside to Rory and Lorelai, their years defined by distance instead of an airtight bond, and even when they do have moments of mutual understanding, it's always informed by the tenuous strings that tie them together.  Once again, Bunheads attempted to create something like it with Michelle and Fanny, but it also couldn't compare to the execution on Gilmore Girls.

Ultimately, the Bunheads vs. Gilmore Girls debate runs into the same problem that Joss Whedon fans do when they compare Buffy and Firefly.  Gilmore Girls lasted seven 22-episode seasons and its length provides a breadth of quality that Bunheads just couldn't match.  The cumulative magnitude of "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They?," "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," and many of their other best episodes outshines the sum total of Bunheads' run.  We also never really got the chance to know Paradise like we got to know Stars Hollow.  The side characters on Bunheads felt like great characters, but those on Gilmore Girls felt like whole people.  On the other hand, Bunheads wasn't afforded the time to last long enough for us to get tired of any of those side characters (can you imagine still finding Truly amusing in season seven of that show?)  Its star burned short, but we got to remember its overwhelming brightness as opposed to the slow fade of Gilmore Girls.  Should Gilmore Girls get more credit for spreading its high quality out over a few seasons or should Bunheads get the edge because it never lasted long enough to stagnate?

Perhaps it's actually simpler than that.  I missed Gilmore Girls the first time around, so Bunheads was my first exposure to Amy Sherman-Palladino's work.  Meanwhile, most people watched Bunheads after they'd already seen Gilmore Girls.  So maybe it's just a matter of which of the two shows one watches first determining their favorite.  I guess we'll never truly know.  But really, guys, Bunheads is better.

Gilmore Girls Week ends here.  Don't miss Monday's overview of the entire show, Tuesday's essay on season four's "The Incredible Sinking Lorelais," Wednesday's look into Rory Gilmore's dating history, and Thursday's list of the show's 10 best episodes.

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