“Dynamic Duets” and Season Four So Far
November 22nd, 2012
I was at a Thanksgiving gathering today, and an open question was asked regarding the quality of Glee this season. An initial opinion suggested the show was terrible this year, and without any hesitation I disagreed: Glee, to my mind, has been measurably better than last season, and probably the season before.
I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion, but it was met with skepticism by the room, and perhaps rightfully so. Given the sheer number of words I spent laying out my frustrations with the show before quitting weekly reviews, I am all too familiar with Glee’s flaws. And to be clear, the show has continued to have these problems, and I’ve continued to sit on my couch and complain to Twitter about them like a crazy person. But around those problems has grown a season moving with purpose the vague “graduation” theme never offered, pulling fewer punches and forcing its characters to ask questions that occasionally threaten to mean something.
Put more simply, Glee is a better television show this season. Its flaws, while still numerous, feel like the byproduct of trying to do something instead of the byproduct of doing nothing, a constructive shift that helps the show overcome its occasional missteps to reach musical resolutions that feel earned.
“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.
“I Am Unicorn”
September 27th, 2011
When “I Am Unicorn” ended on what I guess we could nominally consider a cliffhanger, I was sort of stunned.
See, in order to have a cliffhanger you need to have a narrative, and that’s something that Glee has largely avoided since the conclusion of its first season. Now, to be fair, the show has had recurring storylines that have occasionally been made more prominent: Kurt’s bullying arc, for example, was a major force that changed the dynamics of the entire series by moving Kurt to the Warblers.
However, the narrative that emerges in “I Am Unicorn” (and which was foreshadowed last week) is holistic, encompassing a larger percentage of the show’s characters than ever before. It’s a collection of narratives that, while remaining tied to the show’s central themes and the musical conceit that the show has relied on, are not about the Glee club winning Sections/Regionals/Nationals and that on some level aren’t about “the Glee Club” as an entity.
Instead, they’re narratives about characters: they may be uneven, and they may not necessarily pay off in the end, but by the end of “I Am Unicorn” I was convinced that Glee is capable of being a subtle show when it wants to be.
And that was a very, very weird feeling.
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.
March 15th, 2011
The most problematic scene in “Original Song” had nothing to do with original songs. It was the deliberation between the judges at Regionals, as three ridiculous stereotypes joined together to tell a series of lifeless jokes with no function beyond the initial irony that Kathy Griffin would be playing a Tea Party amalgam of Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin. Any scene which functions exactly as you could imagine based on a casting announcement is what one would call a wasted opportunity, and a waste of the pretty great Loretta Devine.
However, the scene is also problematic because it’s happening outside the context of the episode. While the show often raises the specter of “How is this logistically possible” with its various performances, it often does so with a purpose: a big theatrical number is used to reflect big theatrical emotions, using the show’s loose grasp on reality as a stylistic advantage. There was no use to that deliberation scene, an indulgence and little more, but the musical numbers are more often than not “useful” in telling that week’s story. Some of the show’s best episodes, like “Duets,” are all about using musical numbers (sometimes even elaborate ones, like Kurt’s “Le Jazz Hot”) to represent the characters’ state of mind.
What fascinates me about “Original Song,” which was overall a pretty solid episode, was how transparent it was. It positioned songwriting as a way for characters to express their emotion, but their fairly impressive songwriting skills mixed with the on-the-nose characterization made the behind-the-scenes machinations painfully clear. It exposes the central irony of the big Regionals performance: as the Glee club kids take to the stage to perform original songs that communicate their feelings about love and tyrannical educators, they perform pop songs written by famous songwriters for the purpose of selling iTunes downloads.
And while that doesn’t entirely undercut the episode’s function, it does blunt the impact of an episode which was otherwise positioned as a pretty important character beat.