Teenage Bounty Hunters is an endearingly oddball show that manages to balance the utmost sincerity with pure chaos. It pulls off that highwire act so deftly that the amount of skill required is probably lost on most people.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this balance is the character of Sterling Wesley (Maddie Phillips). She’s one half of the Wesley twin bounty-hunting duo. At the beginning of the show, Sterling is portrayed as more level-headed than the rebellious Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini). Sterling is chosen to be the Fellowship Leader at their Christian high school, she has Luke (Spencer House), her long-term boyfriend, and is involved in extracurricular academic activities. When she accidentally becomes a part-time bounty hunter, she begins to reevaluate her life. All of a sudden, the things Sterling was sure of (her relationship, her sexuality) are thrown into a tailspin.
In many ways, it feels as though Paris Geller (Liza Weil) from Gilmore Girls walked so April Stevens (Devon Hales) could run. The two are very similar to each other. They attend private school, have a crush on their academic rival, lack familial support, and are desperate to achieve academically so they can prove their worth to the people around them. They’re controlling perfectionists who rely on compartmentalization to make it through the day, but there’s also a softness to them. A vulnerability they’re terrified to expose because that would show weakness, and they’ve been conditioned their entire lives to hide all shortcomings. “Team Stevens wins” is a mantra that April’s father has repeated to her time and again. It’s not encouragement, it’s an expectation. He is setting a high standard that she must meet. There’s no room in April and Paris’ lives for failure as determined by their parents.
Where April and Paris deviate is that April is canonically a lesbian. There’s none of the subtext of Gilmore Girls. April gets to kiss Sterling, and they find a glimpse of happiness before the realities of their family situations ruin things. In many ways, April and Sterling feel like what Rory (Alexis Bledel) and Paris could have been if Gilmore Girls had been brave enough to go down that path. Sterling is bubbly and sunnier than Rory, but they both have complicated relationships with their mothers, are academically minded, and are widely beloved in their communities.
In other ways, April and Sterling are far beyond Rory and Paris. Gilmore Girls tended to keep its storylines on a surface level, but there’s a deceptive depth to Teenage Bounty Hunters. The show is packaged in bubblegum visuals, pop songs, and quick banter, but Teenage Bounty Hunters sneaks in an earnest and honest look at teens who are trying to figure out their sexuality. It’s fascinating to watch the differences between April’s and Sterling’s self-discovery. April has everything figured out, she knows she’s gay, but she doesn’t want to act on it at all. She probably would’ve gone through high school without admitting it to anyone if Sterling hadn’t kissed her.
Teenage Bounty Hunters was robbed of a second season, and it’s a real blow to what could have been for April. It seems unlikely that she would continue to hide herself for the sake of her family if she knew the truth about her father’s extramarital affairs and violence. April was primed to have a different sort of self-discovery had the show been granted a second season. She could have overcome the harmful effects of her father’s parenting and learned that there’s a world much larger than the insular religious community she lives in. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that April learns the truth about her father and rebels against the way of life he instilled in her. Instead of compartmentalization, she could lead with openness and pursue a career that would keep people safe from men like him. Of course this is all speculation, but it would have been lovely to see April come into her own.
Sterling is April’s opposite in many ways. Despite the way her family life is turned upside down in the finale with the realization that her aunt is actually her mother, Sterling comes from a warm and loving home. She has very strong opinions that tend to skew more liberal than her classmates and, unlike April, Sterling moves about with an enviable freedom. If she wants something, she goes after it. There’s nothing in Sterling’s brain that makes her think about consequences, which is both a positive and a negative for her. This mentality gets her into trouble when bounty hunting.
When it comes to Sterling’s personal journey of discovering her sexuality, her personality is an asset. She doesn’t hesitate and gives herself the freedom to go after the people she’s interested in. That unabashed desire in women is rarely seen in a positive light and is often written off as promiscuous. It’s a double standard that’s been ingrained in people for centuries. When men act on their desires, they’re considered virile and manly, but women don’t have that same freedom of exploration. Teenage Bounty Hunters, despite taking place in a religious town, doesn’t subscribe to those outdated norms. It’s a refreshing change of expectations and gives Sterling freedom to want.
April and Sterling only have about an episode’s worth of youthful teenage bliss before the world crashes down around them, but it’s the lead-up to their first kiss and it feels special. Sterling breaks up with Luke because she wants to get to know herself as a person, not in a relationship. They’ve been together since fifth grade, almost longer together than they’ve been apart. With Blair’s encouragement, Sterling uses the debate tournament to kiss different guys and find out what she likes. However, it’s the way April grabs Sterling’s arm that really makes things clear.
From then on, Sterling is in full crush mode and experiencing a type of eagerness that’s so full of emotion she’s unable to cope. Sterling is desperate to figure out if April likes her back, and even takes the advice of one of the skips she’s chasing down with Blair and Bowser (Kadeem Hardison). Sterling forces them to be partners for a Bible Study assignment and relishes seeing April outside of school. She makes a terrible attempt at deducing whether April is gay by asking her thoughts about Naomi and Ruth from the Bible. It’s endearing to watch these two people stumble over their words, talk in vague generalizations, and toe the line they’re both interested in crossing.
It’s a shame Teenage Bounty Hunters will not have a second season to truly allow Sterling and April and their relationship to develop further. The show’s cancellation is another in a long line of nuanced portrayals of teenage girls only being granted one season. Teenage Bounty Hunters‘ cancellation stings especially hard because it’s one of the few shows that understood its potential. There were no first season growing pains, no unnecessary plot lines, and no excess to be trimmed. It’s clear there was a path that story writer/creator Kathleen Jordan wanted to pursue, especially when it came to Sterling and April.