October 14th, 2009
“An environment of constant irrational terror”
Andy Dehnart (who can be found on Twitter at RealityBlurred) posted a piece of commentary at MSNBC yesterday that, earlier today, exploded into a lively twitter discussion amongst critics. His argument is that the show relies on stereotypes when it could be developing character, and that it needs to eliminate some of its more one-dimensional characters (like Sandy) and provide more depth to its central Glee club members. What’s interesting is that I don’t think there’s anyone who is going to argue with this point, especially if we apply it to Terri and her fake pregnancy. The strangest thing about Glee, from critics’ perspectives, is that most people tend to agree that it has its share of problems, especially when it comes to the adult characters on the show. The difference comes in how people rationalize those criticisms and weigh them with the show’s undeniable charm, and its quick-witted one-liners that most people tend to enjoy.
“Throwdown” is yet another dividing point, an episode that highlights the show’s best character (Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester) and as a result features a lot of great one-liners and some solid musical numbers. However, as someone who tends to lean more critically on the show than others, it’s an episode that shows you that Dehnart’s complaints aren’t the show’s only problem. Yes, its adult characters are one-dimensional, but the show’s plotting is just as problematic: storylines seem to happen to characters as opposed to because of characters, and the result is that the Glee club itself is trapped in the middle of wars and plots (the environment of constant irrational terror, in other words) that may be entertaining in the short term but are doing nothing to foster long term development.
Linda Holmes from NPR made the note that it’s impossible for Glee to hit the mark every week, as the mark is tiny and specific. I’d argue that the show is hitting that mark enough to keep me watching, but I’d also argue that it is more consistently missing it where it counts (narrative, character development) than where it’s most popular (the musical numbers, the one-liners). And while that’s a pattern for cult success, it’s not a pattern for dramatic or comic fulfillment.
Does everyone remember the pilot? I raise this point because “Don’t Stop Believing” was an example of a song that had considerable meaning for the characters involved. As lame as it sounds, the song sent a message of belief to kids who didn’t think they would have a chance, and told Will that he was truly in the right place. However, since that point, the musical numbers have not had quite the same impact. Sure, sometimes the songs have had meaning to the characters involved (Rachel singing “Take a Bow”), or made sense in the context of the plot, but the show’s real strength is the idea that Glee Club is in some way making a difference in these kids’ lives, or at the very least that the musical numbers are adding something to the series from a narratological perspective.
My argument is not that songs which are just fun are worthless (the show is about a glee club, so they’re going to sing on occasion). However, the problem right now is that when people sing it never feels particularly fun. There’s a point tonight where Mercedes points out that Glee club is supposed to be fun as Will and Sue fight over what’s best for the club, and I’m sitting here saying “Amen, sister!” The episode was at its best when there was a (rare) musical number without extreme production, as the group got together (after having been split up by Sue) and jammed on Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me.” It was 12 kids having a lot of fun, something that the show hasn’t been providing us: it has them so caught up in drama that there has never been a single moment where they’ve just been allowed to enjoy themselves. And in the process, I have to say: I have a lot more fun downloading the singles and enjoying them musically than viewing them as islands in a sea of pregnancies, hatred and drama.
I thought this episode used songs well, overall. While some could argue that having Quinn break into a random production number (“Keep Me Hanging On”) was breaking the reality of the show’s universe, I think the show is already something of a fantasy, and most importantly the song actually seemed to serve a purpose for her character. Her frustration with Finn was legitimate, and the song sold that: it wasn’t the most intelligent bit of plotting in the world, but I thought it was an example of a song being used in a logical fashion (if not a realistic one). Music is a highly versatile plot device, something that is capable of telling a story in a way that is unique and flashy. The problem with Glee is that it feels too often that the show is using it as a distraction, or more problematically building episodes around music in a way which makes neither element (the music or the plot) really stand out.
My issue with “Takedown” is that it does a lot of what I suggest above, largely building its dramatic storyline around the glee club kids and ending in an emotional musical number that emphasizes they will all work together, all as one large minority as part of Glee club, as they “Keep Holding On,” but it still felt off for me. I think my issue is that the show might have gone too far down the absurdist and cynical road for it to ever feel triumphant, for it to ever feel as care-free and fun as it did early on: the song was about them resolving a hackneyed melodramatic subplot, not actually developing these characters any further. When the episode goes so far as to have Finn hold both Quinn and Rachel’s hands as they stand on that stage, and ends on Quinn tearing up, I feel as if the show hasn’t earned it. I want to say that this is a step in the right direction for the show, but at the same time we spent too much of the episode on a largely juvenile (if funny) conflict between Sue and Will, spent too much time with Terri tricking Will into believing she’s actually pregnant for me to just sit back and accept the show’s faults.
On the plus side, the episode appears to have simplified the show’s premise somewhat: everyone knows about Quinn’s pregnancy, Will is back in control of the Glee club, and based on the preview for next week we’re going to delve more into the high school dynamics of the glee members as opposed to an almost bureaucratic struggle for control of the organization. But there is something about this show that makes me as suspicious as Will when Sue says that she’s stepping down: for every moment where I think the show knows where its mark is, the next moment it has Terri and her awful shrill sister bribing an OBGYN in an effort to continue a farcical pregnancy. While that might be something that some critics can shrug off, and that fans largely ignore as they hit “Replay” on a youtube video for the fifth time, it’s something that’s always there for me, and that won’t just go away when people start singing and dancing.
“Throwdown” is far from the worst episode of the series, with minimal time spent with Terri and plenty of hilarious Sue one-liners to go with some solid musical numbers and at least some semblance of an emotional core. If I wasn’t a fan of the show, I could tear apart the Terri parts of the episode and pretend the rest didn’t exist, and if I was a superfan I could ignore the Terri parts and love the musical numbers. But, as a critic who loves the premise and merely likes the show, I want it to be more self-aware of where its strengths lie. Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik noted today that Glee is a fine argument for the idea that consistency is overrated in television, its highs being worth its occasional lows, but I can’t help but feel it could be just as risky and just as inconsistent without also fundamentally misunderstanding what makes it interesting.
- Odd observation about Glee: while a lot of shows tend to tailor their “Previously on” segments as an effort to jog your memory on elements of the story that will be particularly important in the episode about to air (Jason Mittell has a great paper on the subject at JustTV), Glee is actually just summarizing the important events from the previous episode: it told us that Ken and Emma got engaged, and yet neither appeared in the episode.
- The “voiceover fight” in the opening scene was kind of interesting, in that it brings attention to the use of different voiceovers in a way that I didn’t expect. The show has been a bit manic with how it has chosen who gets voiceovers or not, but the scene made good use of the different perspectives (getting a laugh from Will’s horror at how he was acting and Sue’s glee at being Ajax, the mighty greek warrior, with her elegant and regal slow-motion yelling), so it’s the kind of clever comedy I like to see from the show.
- I think that the episode could have gone without the minorities note in this one: while it was a fun joke for Sue once or twice, I thought that she simply could have picked people out for being neglected in general (based on their taste in music, or their differences of opinion). The minority note felt like a forced bit of comedy, and one which never quite connected for me.