Wednesday, February 27, 2013

TV Classics: Bunheads - "There's Nothing Worse Than A Pantsuit"


I've used the name TV Classics to revisit some of my favorite episodes of television on this blog. These are not necessarily the greatest television episodes of all time, these may not even be considered classic episodes (or series) by many fans or historians. These are episodes of television that spoke to me in a very particular and powerful way. We've been raised to think of television as the "dumb box", the entertainment we can easily digest while we're relaxing. I know this because I remember being a child and clearly thinking all adults around me seemed to have a certain disdain for television. They looked down to it. And in a rather ironic way that's what made me connect to television. There's always been great work being done on television, and so, when I found a show that made me feel something special or that spoke to me in an earnest way no human being ever interacted with me. That was quite something. 

A couple of weeks ago, while watching the episode of Bunheads titled "There's Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit", I felt it. The same feeling I had when as a kid I watched Doug Funnie get a haircut or Kevin Arnold visit his father at work. There was something there that spoke right at me. I decided to start this entry by explaining what the header TV Classics meant because my reaction to this episode of television was so visceral and immediate that I am not quite sure it could have worked for anyone else in the exact same way. I felt like this episode of tv was made for me.

But let's get into the episode itself. "There's Nothing Worse Than a Pantsuit"'s main plots are dancer turned ballet teacher Michelle having to put on the titular pantsuit in order to convince the town preservation society to let her built an amphitheater and sarcastic teenager Sasha going public about her relationship with eyeliner-wearing Roman. Still, anyone who has seen the episode will probably already know that all of the thoughts and feelings I'm writing about come mainly from one single scene among this hour of television.

The scene is wonderful on its own, but wouldn't have as much resonance as it does if there wasn't some kind of build-up to it. Ginny, one of the bunhead students, plans on auditioning for the high school musical. When she announces this to her friends, they don't takeit seriously because she says the same thing every year but never has the nerve to actually go in and audition. This time though, she is determined and asks Michelle to help her practice. Meanwhile Michelle nervously manages to convince the board that she should build the amphitheater (actually, it's Milly, the main investor of the project that does the convincing). After a small pantsuit-wearing personal victory, Michelle gets a bit of news from her friend Talia. An old guy Talia once slept with calls and offers her a role on a touring production of Rock of Ages. The next morning, after a night of heavy drinking celebrating with Talia, this is what happens when Michelle goes to help Ginny. 



And that's it. That's the scene. And if there's anything in Bunheads that could be called genius is that one scene. Look how much this scene tells about the show, its theme and its main character without ever feeling on-the-nose while doing this. Then consider how Mad Men, arguably the best show on television tends to have a hard time not having its characters express the theme of any given episode out loud. Consider how brilliantly the choice of Bells Are Ringin's "It's a Perfect Relationship" reflects what is going on inside Michelle's mind without, again, being too obvious about it. Not to mention the amazing perfromances by Sutton Foster and Bailey Buntain, who has been recently and rightfully praised by Salon.com's Willa Paskin in this article.

On a more personal note, the scene worked on me from both Michelle and Ginny's side. We've all been in Ginny's situation, pondering taking chance or trying out for something we're not quite sure we're going to be successful at. Michelle is quite merciless in her help, and the moment she interrupts Ginny gave a very uncomfortable feeling the first time I watched it. Michelle has a whole other thing going on in her head. She has been in Ginny's situation, she has worked hard to succeed and in many ways she feels like she has failed. Then some random guy calls and delivers success on a platter to her best friend. I'd be lying if I said weird plays of destiny haven't messed up with my head in the way this particular announcement messed with Michelle's. However it's precisely Michelle's passive-aggressiveness that helps Ginny the most. And not only that, but it's also helping Ginny that helps Michelle the most.

It's important to know that the rehearsal doesn't end when the scene ends. Ginny is initially upstaged by Michelle, but she eventually arrives to a point in which her teacher must have accepted her performance as decent enough. Michelle's approval, as slight as it might have been, must have been a huge confidence boost to Ginny. Similarly, Ginny's appreciation of Michelle's performance did the same trick for her. What's been so effective about Bunheads as a whole for me is its approach to Michelle's situation. She is a person with big dreams who hasn't achieved them and maybe never will. There's many movies and shows about people realizing their biggest dreams that are meant to work as inspirational stories, but I haven't found something as inspirational and motivating as this particular scene and Bunheads' main theme as a series. Ginny's reaction to Michelle's performance makes her gain as much confidence in herself as her approval makes Ginny gain confidence in herself. In this way, both realize life's not necessarily about succeeding in the way that it's expected of you, but that it is truly about the journey. They realize they have talent and that they are worth it. They regain their life instinct and will live to see another day. They won't stop and that's the important part.

Bunheads has just finished airing its first season and there is no word on whether there will be a second (although people are mostly hopeful about a renewal). It is a fantastic show and you owe it to yourself to watch it.   

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