Dancing Through The Lane

Why does Basketball Twitter love an ABC Family show about chatterboxing dancers? For the same reason it loves basketball, mostly.
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I spent some time on Monday night hunting for affinities, while it happened again on my Twitter timeline. I follow a great many accounts, which leads to some amusingly hopeful "Check Out Accounts Similar to Olden Polynice, Senator Bernie Sanders and HellDude, The Account That Makes Demonic Threats To Tweets Containing The Words 'Hell Dude'" emails from Twitter. But a week ago, I first noticed that a small but noticeable number of the people that I follow—those that would ordinarily be making some point or other about basketball—were instead talking about "Bunheads," a low-rated show on ABC Family that was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of the similarly non-basketball-themed, female-centered, and idiosyncratic comic drama "Gilmore Girls." (If there's a Bravo show called "Gilmore Girls" that deals with the awful, materialistic daughters of Artis Gilmore, I don't want to know about it.)

There's nothing really surprising about this, maybe. It was the All-Star break, after all, and these are not troglodytes staring at a test pattern on one of the League Pass channels and waiting for a game to appear. And maybe more to the point, "Bunheads" is pretty freaking good. Not just good for a show on ABC Family, or a show about teenage girls and their ex-showgirl dance teacher struggling to find ways to more fully and happily be themselves, although it's good by those standards, too. But in its defiant dedication to its own stylistic idiosyncracy—dance is not just a part of the show's text, but also used to elevate and amplify the narrative, or as an outright departure from it—and spiraling, Escher-ian digressiveness, "Bunheads" is also just plain as strange a show as I can think of on television. 

Very little happens, really: episodes have acts, and story arcs broadly describe themselves, but incident and plot are wholly subsidiary to mood and a broad, circuitous discursiveness; the emotions of the characters are generally realistic, although the ways in which the show addresses and dramatizes them almost never are. For most of the time that the show has been on, I've sat next to my wife—who was a modern dancer for years and a ballet dancer before that, and a "Gilmore Girls" fan to boot—while she watched the show, mostly not paying attention to it but enjoying her enjoyment and closeness and idly doing some editing or writing. I was aware of the show, and generally enjoyed the pounding Bay of Fundy tidal surge of repartee that defines the Sherman-Palladino approach to dialogue, but I was not really a fan and only sort of an observer.

In recent weeks, though, I've done less of those other things and more paying attention to the show. I have been not quite entranced by the show, which is at some level maybe not quite for me, but consistently and increasingly awed by the precision and oddball rigor of its leisureliness and charmed by its wary, smart goodheartedness. Here is a show that deals with adult disappointment and adolescent over-emotion with real feeling, and here also is a show that will take a break from the narrative for a couple minutes in order to allow two minor male characters to bond over their love of Tommy Lee Jones' performance in Hope Springs, for several minutes, and then call back to it for another few later in the show. It doesn't necessarily make sense, in the way that we're used to television narrative making sense, but it is all very clearly on purpose.

Especially in contrast to the ubiquitous commercials for ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars," which is apparently a hit and appears to be about popular teenage girls threatening to murder each other, there's something gentle and abstracted about "Bunheads." It's a little bit like a Wes Anderson movie that has escaped from Anderson's Salinger-scented dollhouse and belatedly developed an interest in women as something other than objects for distinctively costumed men to feel literately saddish about.

So: it's a strange show, but a goodhearted one that deals with real emotions in a smart and sensitive way, and which extends an unusual tenderness to its characters even as it stylizes them into goofy abstraction. Naturally, no one is watching it. Well, no one except for the basketball writers I follow on Twitter, and the woman I love. This may not be enough for the show to see another season; Monday's episode marked the end of the second half of a bifurcated first season.

In some sense, it's weird that Basketball Twitter would be increasingly into "Bunheads," but mostly and moreover it's just weird, period. If also weird, maybe, in the same ways that basketball is when it's done right.

***

"It is the best shit on television right now," Chris Sampson, who tweets as @NegativeDunks, told me. He heard of the show in part through the tweets of The Classical's own Eric Freeman, who concurs with Sampson's assessment of the show's manifest goodness, although he disagreed with my Wes Anderson comparison and made a (reasonable) Whit Stillman one of his own. "I support most any auteurist TV," Eric says. "This is clearly that. And generally I'm really into fast dialogue and self-conscious artifice. It's willing to be messy. Ultimately that's the sensibility I'm drawn to."  

"I have no idea how you're going to tie it into basketball," he added. "Channing Frye likes it?"

I could find no evidence of this, sadly, although obviously Channing Frye should holler at us if he has any thoughts on it. Sampson, for his part, does see some commonality between what Basketball Twitter finds in "Bunheads" and in the similarly mess-intensive NBA experience. "People are going to view this show superficially in the same way that other people see basketball superficially," he told me. "But as soon as an audience member is willing to look critically at either one, I believe there’s a very interesting story. We can talk about gender, about arts, about race, and the socioeconomic struggles in this country today with both pieces of entertainment. I think that depth is there for both."

This all seems true enough, if also maybe not quite a full answer. ABC Family has its share of issue-driven shows—in her guise as a baby-dandling activist for retroactive abstinence, Bristol Palin appeared as herself on what we can only presume was a Very Special Episode of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"—and "Bunheads" is clearly not one of those. There are issues being addressed, and Sampson is right that "Bunheads," like any good piece of art, opens onto a myriad of conversations. But for me, the affinity between "Bunheads" and NBA heads that makes the most sense, at least beyond the broad truth that people who like to talk about things are just going to talk about things, comes down to a less concrete commonality. Robert Silverman, a "Bunheads" fan who has written about basketball and other things for The Classical and many other places (and who is also a playwright and actor), describes this as, "the Louie-like sense that anything could happen, that it's a serial drama that is only very thinly tied to the narrative conventions that serial dramas normally impose dogmatically, and that a linear storyline is absolutely the last of the writer's concerns." It's not lifelike, but the weird drift of the show is at least a little bit like life's. 

For NBA fans who aren't hardcore partisans for one team or another, the game is a largely aesthetic experience. I'm teamless these days (it's not that long a story), although I ordinarily find myself, through reflex as much as anything, hoping for one team to win in a given game, although I'm not always sure why that is and while those rooting interests don't necessarily carry from one game to the next. But for the most part, I watch the game because I love it.

I watch for the motion and the grace and the happy, safe uncertainty of it: for the way in which surprising and moving and funny and otherwise evocative things can and consistently do happen within the game's formalism. Rules are rules, and rules are necessary, and the object of the game is never really in doubt, in art as in life as in the combination of the two that is basketball, or television. But what makes the game work—and what makes "Bunheads" work, in its generous and subversive way—is how much room there is to create and just get weird within those rules, and in pursuit of that old dull object.

Stories begin, and progress, and end, and there are very few new ones; the people riding along are, invariably, the beautiful and interesting part. The characters move the stories as much as they are moved by them, and the peripatations and grace notes and little blips of warmth and weirdness of those characters are what give the stories life, on television and on the court. These two things aren't necessarily all that different, then; they are, necessarily, actually kind of the same.


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