“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.
“Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”
April 15th, 2011
“I can see it in your eyes – it’s not you.”
Well, that was quite the experiment.
Part of what has made the third season of Fringe so compelling is the degree to which the other universe has been fully realized. It is a place we can journey to, a place with a heartbeat and which moves us beyond the imaginary. Olivia being trapped in that world wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, it was a situation that begged to be explored. It was an instance of science fiction storytelling that had room to breathe, that could be revealed gradually rather than being defined immediately.
By comparison, the Inception-esque journey that Walter, Peter and William Bell’s consciousness take into Olivia’s mind is pure imaginary. While I do not want to discount the value of the imaginary, and would applaud the show for testing the boundaries of its visual storytelling with its use of animation, the fact remains that “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” just absolutely failed to resonate for me. As the episode came to its emotional conclusion, I felt one level removed from the action, and I don’t think it was simply because of the fact that the characters in question were cel-shaded.
March 25th, 2011
The greatest test of a critic’s demeanor towards a particular program is how they respond to its renewal.
When Fringe was picked up on Thursday, there were two primary responses among critics. The first was excitement: many had written off Fringe after it was banished to Fridays by a network with a reputation for injustices related to science fiction programming, and so an early renewal (rather than a tense upfront decision) was a revelation.
If I’m being honest, though, my response was more on the side of cynical. My first thought was what would need to change to justify the renewal, and what kind of story/casting changes might be necessary in order to facilitate this renewal. I think part of this is just my inner pragmatist, wanting to be realistic about the obvious compromises that will need to be made as Fringe shifts from a show Fox wants at a 2.0 to a show Fox will renew at a 1.5. However, I can’t lie and suggest that my cynicism is not partially the result of some trepidation regarding the show’s more recent story developments.
“Bloodline” seems an ideal episode to air directly after the renewal, given that this is the kind of episode that the show might no longer be able to do. While I think it might be premature to suggest that a cash-strapped fourth season will result in the end of Over There’s role within the series’ overarching storyline, I think it is fairly safe to claim that spending a quarter of the season in an entirely different world populated by different characters may be lost.
And I hope they don’t think that plot can make up for the loss of atmosphere.
March 18th, 2011
The conclusion of “Os” was laughable, a fact that I truly hope the writers at Fringe were aware of.
It’s not that this represents some sort of continuity issue: this is a weird enough show that something like this can be easily explained by William Bell’s genius and a newly introduced detail from nearly two seasons ago. Rather, this is an issue of simple silliness: the idea of Anna Torv putting on a deep voice and channeling Leonard Nimoy is just not something that is meant to be taken seriously.
The show has always been willing to mix comedy and drama, with Walter in particular adding a certain degree of silliness to the dynamic, but that feels intrinsically part of the character. By comparison, “Stowaway” does a few concerning things which make this bit of comedy feel less than organic, and which clashes with a compelling and emotionally complex standalone tale.
It isn’t enough to entirely unhinge the episode, each story ultimately fairly effective, but at the end of the day it still feels like something happening outside of the story, something being played with rather than something being dealt with.
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.
March 8th, 2011
Earlier today, TV Squad posted a piece from friend of the blog Ryan McGee about the role that continuity plays within serial narratives, which was actually partially spun out of a conversation that Ryan and I had about Fringe following its most recent episode.
To discuss continuity in Glee would be to open up the largest can of worms imaginable, only to discover that the can of worms has magically transformed into a barrel of monkeys while you were opening it. Continuity, or rather concerns over continuity, are usually one of the main reasons people end up linking to my “3 Glees” page. It becomes a sort of explanation, a way of understanding why the show is quite as schizophrenic as it is – the presence of three different writers’ voices, all with different interests and different ways of telling stories, could perhaps explain why the show tends to dart back and forth as it does.
And yet, I don’t think the goal of the theory (or the page which collects the theory) is to prove that the show is inconsistent, as if the show is on trial for this particular failing. While I will admit that character continuity is a growing problem with the show, I would argue that in terms of plot continuity the show has successfully embraced its hodgepodge existence.
“Sexy” doesn’t make any sense whatsoever if you consider it in relation to that which came before. The show’s treatment of sex has been almost stunningly inconsistent, at times glorified and occasionally moralized to the point of an after school special, which should make an episode designed around the very idea of sex (and the nuance often involved) hypocritical to the point of ridiculousness.
However, while “Sexy” is both hypocritical and ridiculous, it’s also quite resonant. Brad Falchuk, who dealt with some of this territory back in “Preggers,” doesn’t pretend that the show has been consistent in its depiction of teenage sexuality, allowing the series’ lack of continuity to become itself continuous. The episode doesn’t necessarily match up with what has come before, and it returns some characters to particularly one-dimensional states in order to achieve its goals, but the end result is an analysis less of sex in general and more the role that sex plays within this crazy, discontinuous world of Glee.
Which is a pretty impressive achievement, as ridiculous as some parts of the episode are.
February 25th, 2011
Why do we watch Fringe?
This is an honest question, and one that I think Fringe has been forcing viewers to ask for a few episodes now. This is not a question of quality: I think we’ve long ago established that Fringe is a quality television program, and although I think there have been some weak spots as of late the show has been unquestionably solid all season.
Rather, this is a question of connection: when we watch the show, what is it which most draws us in? On some level, this is tested in episodes like “Immortality,” as our interest in the other side is tested by an episode which takes place almost exclusively in that environment. Personally, I quite enjoy the alternate universe, and while I have my concerns about how the show will stick the landing in regards to the pregnancy I thought the time spent with Fauxlivia and friends was well spent.
More generally, though, the central relationship between Peter and Olivia has been front and center, driving the storylines in both universes and, in “Subject 13,” in multiple time periods. And while I think that Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson have done some tremendous work, and I would say that the relationship has been a dramatically compelling addition to the series, I will admit that I am not all that emotionally connected to it. And so when episodes like “6B” draw some pretty heavy-handed parallels between their relationship and the story of the week, it’s a test: is the somewhat tired plot structure overcome if we’re attached to the fate of Peter and Olivia’s relationship?
Ultimately, I thought “6B” was fine, but “Subject 13″ raises a whole host of other questions. There is some tremendous acting in this episode, but I have to ask: what was the point, exactly? What we learn about the past is hardly news, mostly filling in blanks which we had already filled in ourselves, and so it raises the question of why this (extremely compelling) flashback was interjected into the narrative at this point in time.
And it offers an answer that, frankly, tests my patience with whatever portmanteau the internet has given Peter and Olivia.
February 15th, 2011
There is nothing wrong with Justin Bieber.
Maybe it’s just my Canadian pride, but the kid is inoffensive to the point of being sort of charming. Especially recently, given his playful send-ups of his celebrity on The Daily Show and a bunch of other late night series, I’ve generally liked him, and while I wouldn’t say his music is exactly my taste I will say that it has a certain charm. He’s not a particularly wonderful singer, but that’s not really the point, and so the cultural vitriol surrounding him confounds me at points.
There are, however, plenty of things wrong with the Justin Bieber phenomenon. The problem isn’t Bieber himself, but what he has come to represent, and his cultural ubiquity relative to his actual talent (which is not “insignificant,” but is not exactly befitting his success). And it seems almost impossible to separate the latter from the former, to see the decent kid behind the phenomenon: while Never Say Never as a film might actually do a lot to humanize Bieber, the very idea of a teenager receiving a 3D Concert documentary only fuels the impression that his fame has gotten out of control.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Glee is a lot like Justin Bieber. At some level, there is a basic competence, a potential to be something entertaining: at a more macro-level, however, the Glee phenomenon has become an epic distraction, infringing on our enjoyment of the series on a regular basis.
On some level, “Comeback” should be seen as a return to basics: like episodes like “Duets” or even last week’s “Silly Love Songs,” the Glee club receives a simple theme and is asked to perform numbers relating to them. However, while those episodes felt united in their loose themes, there was no such unity to be found here. The result is a scattershot and problematically ephemeral hour which succeeded only in laying out some basic exposition for where the show will be headed in the weeks ahead.
And that’s not exactly looking like a “Comeback.”
“Silly Love Songs”
February 8th, 2011
“I need more than just a song to get my juices flowing.”
There are various reasons why “Silly Love Songs” has been pretty universally praised, and pretty universally considered to be a much better showcase for the show compared to the fairly middling, incredibly uneven Super Bowl episode. There are also various reasons why some of this praise comes in the form of a comparison to “Duets,” which I named one of my Top 10 episodes of television to air last year (and is certainly the best episode of the show’s second season thus far).
Those comparisons are earned, and in some ways “Silly Love Songs” is an even greater accomplishment if not necessarily a superior episode. Like with “Duets,” a simple construct is used to justify various musical numbers and unite the characters under a common theme; however, unlike that episode, the “consequences” of these songs are more broadly drawn, with an excess befitting the Valentine’s Day theme but also stretching the laws of science and delivering some real anvils in the process.
However, Ryan Murphy’s script never feels as though it allows those moments to get out of control, and the episode’s charm wins out even given its occasional lapses. The episode seems inconsistent if you think about it, and the rush to get characters into certain positions is problematically apparent, but I never felt that even if I thought it. “Silly Love Songs” successfully severed the connection between the heart and the head, never losing its steadiness and quite consistently entertaining in a way that the Super Bowl episode only managed at Halftime.
February 7th, 2011
In some ways, The Chicago Code seems like the only new series premiering this midseason.
Oh sure, there are a number of other shows making their debuts in the first two months of the year, but The Chicago Code has been one of the year’s most-buzzed about pilots since last Spring, when it was still in contention for the Fall lineup. Being bumped to midseason (for Lone Star, no less) may have been seen as a slight the first time around, but it turned into a real coup for Shawn Ryan and company. Their show went from one of the year’s most talked about pilots to the year’s last great hope, the one new network show that critics could actually endorse wholeheartedly which doesn’t get immediately canceled.
We all know what happened to Lone Star, however, and yet I feel fairly confident that the same fate is unlikely for this particular program. At its core, The Chicago Code is a police drama, but it stands out in the fact that it seems so committed to surface multidimensionality. There are no “cop shows” on television which are actually one-dimensional: they all have their quirks, and all engage in elements of character and basic seriality on a smaller scale. However, for the most part, they purposefully appear one-dimensional. One of the reasons that shows like CSI or NCIS have become a punchline is that they are sold as something blindly simple, capable of being reduced and often (although not always) reducing themselves as if to meet those lowered expectations.
At least evidenced by its pilot, The Chicago Code is not playing the same game. Not content to establish simply a premise or a setting in its opening episode, the show establishes a world: a story is told, a map is drawn, and ambiguities are left without feeling as though pointless mystery is being used to create gutless melodrama. It’s just a really smart hour of television, and one senses that the intelligence isn’t going to suddenly stop in the weeks ahead.