On shows like Bunheads and Girls, the narrative twists and turns thrill precisely because the characters don’t play to type.
Last year saw its share of prominent female showrunners—Tina Fey one-upped herself on the final season of 30 Rock, Mindy Kaling branched out from The Office with her own show, The Mindy Project, and Lena Dunham’s Girls made a splashy debut on HBO. So it was a good time for Amy Sherman-Palladino to make a comeback. Sherman-Palladino is best known as the creator of Gilmore Girls, a show featuring a protagonist who, by having a baby at 16 and cutting herself off from her wealthy family, did everything wrong but made things right for herself and her brainy daughter, Rory.
In the hands of another showrunner, Lorelai Gilmore might have been a bad girl working towards redemption. Instead, Sherman-Palladino gave TV a mom it had never seen before: a hilarious, spirited, fast-talking woman who is her daughter’s best friend first and mother second. After failed contract negotiations, Sherman-Palladino was replaced as executive producer for the show’s seventh and final season; with her departure, Gilmore Girls shifted from a compelling network anomaly to a conventional, soapy mess. Gone was the headstrong woman who kept her spare change under a dancing rabbi that played “Hava Nagila”: The Lorelai of season seven turned to mush.
Michelle (Sutton Foster), the protagonist of Sherman-Palladino’s latest show, Bunheads, which began its second season on Jan. 7, doesn’t have a Gilmore-style bond with a daughter-slash-BFF—she’s a Vegas showgirl who impulsively agrees to marry Hubbell Flowers, a nice guy who she doesn’t love. Michelle finds herself stuck in a small California town with her new husband and his mother, a situation that becomes more complicated when Hubbell is killed in a car accident. The show exemplifies Sherman-Palladino’s knack for sneaking subversive female characters into shows packaged as “women’s programming” and backed by wholesome networks like Bunheads’ ABC Spark.
Sherman-Palladino’s family-friendly oeuvre would appear to have little in common with 26-year-old Lena Dunham’s explicit take on her generation. Girls, which begins its second season on Jan. 13 on HBO, is a sex-fuelled scamper through the lives of four twentysomethings in Brooklyn, starring Dunham as the flighty Hannah. But like Bunheads, Girls neatly skirts stock character archetypes in unexpected ways.
Women on television invariably fit a limited set of types: the bitch, the hottie, the airhead. By breaking out of neat templates, Sherman-Palladino and Dunham’s characters and the shows they inhabit also break the rules of plot. It seemed inevitable that Michelle would end up working as a dance teacher in her mother-in-law’s ballet studio, but Bunheads’ first season left this prospect dangling in mid-air. Girls resists the routine pacing of most half-hour comedies: A plotline that seemed important may never be mentioned again, or a throwaway character could unexpectedly reappear in a later episode.
Sometimes, the most illustrative moments are wordless gestures. In the third episode of Girls’ upcoming season, Hannah’s friend Marnie inexplicably bursts out laughing after having sex with a hotshot artist. One of Bunheads’ best scenes is a dance routine tacked on to an episode that was running a few minutes short. It did nothing to advance the plot; it simply expressed how a character was feeling. That moment was a small assurance that a medium as formulaic as TV can truly surprise its audience.
These shows are compelling because they break the rules, rendering them unclassifiable in the realm of women’s programming. You can’t figure out a character’s arc based on her type—the narrative twists and turns thrill precisely because these characters don’t play to type. Hannah might land the hot guy she’s been pining for, but that doesn’t mean the relationship will work. Unlike, say, Sex and the City, where we were meant to assume Carrie would live happily ever after as long as she ended up with the elusive Mr. Big, these shows are more nihilistic: Both Hannah and Michelle end their respective first seasons utterly alone. For the most part, these women are in it by (and often for) themselves, and that’s a feeling that transcends gender boundaries.
Girls airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Bunheads airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on ABC Spark.