“The First Time”
November 8th, 2011
There is something very effective about “The First Time,” a poignant piece which uses the backdrop of the performance of West Side Story to tell three parallel stories of romantic love moving to another level.
There is also something very contrived about “The First Time,” an episode that still feels the need to force the issue of sexual intercourse in a blunt fashion, lest we be unclear what the episode was about.
I’ll admit that the tension between these two elements never quite disappeared throughout the episode, one which I can admire for its simplicity even as I cringe at the way it creates that simplicity through exclusion and a narrowing of perspective. That I ultimately consider the hour a success says something about “The First Time” as an episode, but I’m not convinced that we can suggest this as a key turning point for the series so long as its structure is so exclusively tied to the episodic structure of the hour.
May 24th, 2011
“Make one…in your mind.”
As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.
Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.
Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.
And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.
At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.
May 10th, 2011
Ian Brennan has always been the Glee writer most interested in embracing the series’ meta qualities, but there are two moments in this week’s episode where he goes one step too far. First, Sue’s list of most-hated songs the Glee club has performed were very clearly a bit of self-deprecating commentary rather than something Sue would actually observe – the notion of apologizing to America was particularly strange, greatly exaggerating the reach of “Run Joey Run.”
Now, note that Brennan wrote the episodes in which both “Run Joey Run” and the “Crazy in Love/Hair” remix appeared, so he’s picking away at himself more than the show itself. This was also clear when Jesse discussed the whiplash nature of his relationship with Rachel disintegrating, which was most evident in the Brennan-scripted “Funk.” In both instances, I found the commentary obnoxious, and it pulled me out of the scenes themselves and into the artifice of the series.
Of course, the show does this quite often, but it felt like “Prom Queen” had a particularly steep climb in regards to fully integrating the viewer into its world. This goes both for the episode’s climax, which was the topic of a huge spoiler controversy over Twitter a few weeks back, and the performance of a particular viral video sensation of questionable quality. I am not among those who asks that the Glee universe presents itself as cohesive or realistic, in part because the show is clearly built around their world extending into our own with concerts, downloads, and everything in between, but also because I think this meta quality has a certain charm to it…when used properly, and when used sparingly.
While it is unfortunate that the climax of “Prom Queen” had to be caught up in the online kerfuffle and thus rendered somewhat less effective, I would argue that the episode as a whole transcended Brennan’s obsession with the show itself to deliver a couple of strong moments which felt honest to Prom at McKinley High School.
And yes, that more or less includes “Friday.”
“Born This Way”
April 26th, 2011
That is often the question with Glee, isn’t it?
First off, why was this episode 90 minutes long? While I’m sure FOX would like to claim that it is because the episode demanded it, in truth it’s because they wanted to bite into the first half-hour of NBC’s The Voice, which is trying to be NBC’s first successful launch this season.
However, I’d argue that “Born This Way” is in some ways an answer to the basic question of “Why?” To the credit of Brad Falchuk, who scripted the episode, we are given a pretty clear sense of why most characters do the things they do in the episode, and the central theme is one of those broadly existential questions that actually makes perfect sense for a bunch of high school kids. While the 90-minute episode is dragged down by its running time at points, points where the question of “Why?” becomes a liability for the show, there are moments here that show a desire to better understand who these characters are and what drives them. Even if that characterization does not stick, and even if most of it becomes reduced to what can fit on a witty t-shirt, the fact remains that the episode was not about Lady Gaga or about vague moralization. Instead, it used that moral to drive the show closer to its characters than we might be used to, and even if the results were expectedly uneven I would suggest they were compelling enough at the end of the day to make “Born This Way” a success.
Even if I’ve still got some “Why?” questions for Falchuk and the writing staff.
“A Very Glee Christmas”
December 7th, 2010
Generally speaking, the most difficult question for Glee to answer is “Why?” So many of its stories seem to have no connection with ongoing events that if you keep asking why precisely it’s happening, and so you sort of have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
But “A Very Glee Christmas” offers an answer to this question at every turn: every time I imagine someone questioning the various hurried and forced story developments in the episode, the show screams back “BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS.”
It’s a pretty good excuse, honestly: while sometimes the show risks losing its heart amidst the broadness of Sue’s cartoon villainy, and it sometimes struggles with how theme episodes deal with ongoing storylines, Christmas gives them something cheerful and magical to bring it all together. We expect Christmas to overwhelm all other emotions, as holidays are all about coming together regardless of our differences and celebrating peace on Earth.
And for a show that is always most comfortable, in my eyes, when it merges its sense of celebration with a sense of sadness, “A Very Glee Christmas” at times hits the sweet spot: it uses the broad comedy to fuel the sadness, but follows through on the consequences with an investigation of the limitations of Christmas rather than simply a celebration of the holiday. The result is an episode which seemed charmingly celebratory and yet still felt like it could indulge in “Sue the Grinch” when it so desired.
And it’s pretty emotionally honest until it ends up with nowhere to go but sap, positing Christmas as collective rather than connective and losing its momentum and its charm in the process.
November 30th, 2010
The performance episodes of Glee have been pretty universally strong: both “Sectionals” and “Journey” avoided relying purely on spectacle, delivering episodes which consolidate season-long developments. The first episode confirmed that New Directions could survive without Will and come together as a team, while “Journey” brought both Sue’s relationship with New Directions and Rachel’s relationship to Finn to a triumphant close.
“Special Education” is notable in that it is the first performance episode that doesn’t serve as any sort of ending. With “Sectionals” positioned as the closing hour of the show’s original 13-episode order (and filmed before the show became an established hit), and with “Journey” as the first season finale, there was always a sense of closure. By comparison, “Special Education” isn’t even closing out the first part of the season (the Christmas episode airs next week), which means that the event is going to be considerably less climactic than what we’ve seen before.
While not perfect, I quite like what Brad Falchuk and Paris Barclay did with this hour. A self-reflexive deconstruction of the balance between the individual and the group within the series, the episode lacks subtlety but resists the urge to smooth over its various conflicts. While the show doesn’t quite commit to the character drama to the point where it avoids the cheery group number at episode’s end, I thought it had some legitimately interesting insight into what that balance means to the series. The spirit of the show may not be broken, but there are enough cracks in the armor that “Special Education” successfully delivers spectacle and transition without resolving anything.
Allowing for the Christmas denouement next week.
October 5th, 2010
If you ever needed proof of a higher power, take the fact that “Grilled Cheesus” more or less works.
While problematic in a number of areas, there is an emotional core to this spirituality-themed episode which manages to ground what seems like a really terrible idea in theory. While the show has handled some bigger issues quite effectively, like Kurt’s sexuality, it has also botched numerous issues, like (at times) Kurt’s sexuality. For every moment of emotional honesty, there are situations (like Burt’s big speech admonishing Finn) which seem to undermine those moments; while inconsistency is problematic in almost any series, here those inconsistencies often write over previous developments of character, theme, and universe.
“Grilled Cheesus” does nothing to solve the series’ problems of consistency as a whole, wildly different from everything else this season, but by grounding a difficult subject with the series’ most proven recurring storyline Brad Falchuk has created a stand-alone take on religion that only rarely offends my sensibilities.
And that, my friends, is some sort of miracle.
More “Not Boring” Than Usual:
Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys
As a whole, the Emmy Awards live and die on surprise: sure, there’s always favourites, but the idea that “anything can happen” is what keeps us watching a show which so often punishes us for becoming emotionally involved. For every pleasant surprise there has been soul-crushing complacency, and so we watch hoping that something will cut through the pain in order to give us some sense of hope for the legitimacy of these awards.
And while we eventually leave each evening lamenting numerous mistakes, comfortable in our superior knowledge of what is truly great in television in a given year, I don’t want that to obfuscate the moments of transcendence. Sometimes, moments come together that defy our cynical expectations, moments that find the spontaneity in the scripted or make the spontaneous feel as if it was planned all along. And while I remain the jaded critic that I was before the show began, any chance of carrying that attitude through the entirety of the show was diminished at the sight of Jon Hamm booty-dancing towards Betty White, and all but gone by the time Top Chef finally ended The Amazing Race’s reign of terror over Reality Competition program.
It was a night filled with surprises, whether in terms of who was winning the awards (with a huge number of first-time winners) or in terms of emotional moments which resulted from those winners – sure, there were hiccups along the way, and there were still a number of winners which indicated that the Emmys are still stuck in their ways, but there was enough excitement for me to designate these Emmys as “not boring.”
In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were more “not boring” than usual.