May 18th, 2010
I made a case a few weeks ago that Glee would work better if it wasn’t so concerned about plot or character development: if each individual episode were allowed to serve as a standalone story about high school students overcoming adversity through the powers of song and dance, I think the show would feel less rushed, less burdened by the need to maintain something approaching momentum. By focusing on ongoing character arcs, it means that the show’s whiplash storytelling feels like the show is being pulled in fifteen different directions, and characters who appear only occasionally in the “main” narrative feel objectified when they’re given the “spotlight” on rare occasions.
“Dream On,” I would argue, works in a bubble: if you choose to take an entirely anachronistic view to this series, then there are inspirational moments, some decent jokes, and some strong musical numbers, all of which is well directed by Joss Whedon and bolstered by Neil Patrick Harris’ presence. However, once you start thinking about these characters as something more than archetypes and think about where they’ve been in the past and how they came to be in these situations, you start to realize that something doesn’t add up. We’ve seen these stories before, and in some ways we’ve moved past these stories, and the expectation of character development feels betrayed by the apparent regression.
I want this show to be able to show me growth in its characters, and I want it to work harder at developing ongoing storylines that make sense and which enrich the show’s storytelling, but I feel like they don’t have the execution or the vision to pull that together, which makes me wary of the show’s long term prospects amidst the hype surrounding its more successful (and more popular) elements.
I don’t think that Glee can really claim “Dreams” as a theme for this week’s episode, as I would make the argument it has been the theme of the entire show. Glee Club is supposed to be about allowing these kids to follow their dreams, about providing them an outlet where the world doesn’t seem as small as Lima, Ohio and where they can engage with a part of themselves which may otherwise be left dormant. For Rachel Berry this is an outlet for her desire to entertain, while for someone like Finn Hudson it’s a way to tap into something that would never have emerged otherwise (he was discovered, let’s remember, in the locker room showers). The show plays out like one big dream sequence, bringing to life the musical aspirations (or the repressed musical potential) of high school kids who are desperately searching for a way to cope with the chaos around them. In that sense, every episode is about dreams, about characters trying to make their dreams come true and confronting the challenges that face them as they try to achieve those goals.
The problem with “Dream On” is that it simultaneously exaggerates and undermines the dreams of these students by pulling out certain desires from the crowd and making them into showcases for the series’ central theme. In the case of Rachel Berry, this ends up working only because it ties in with one of the ongoing storylines: it makes sense that Idina Menzel would be playing Rachel’s mother, and it makes sense that Rachel would be reaching the age where she would think more carefully about her mother and where she came from. Menzel and Michele tore up “I Dreamed a Dream,” and it was nice to see Rachel out of the relationship mode that she’s been stuck in for a while, so the story was a welcome change of pace that nicely captured Rachel’s position. Sure, it suddenly exaggerates the importance of something that we’ve never seen in her life before, but she doesn’t have any close friends she would have shared it with, plus the exaggeration plays into the reveal that this is why Jesse has been romancing the character (while, of course, falling for her as all villainous false paramours are wont to do). The storyline isn’t perfect, but it manages to fit both the character and the show’s larger storylines, and is something I’m excited to see more of going forward.
I’m generally conditioned to enjoy everything involved Neil Patrick Harris, and I certainly enjoyed Bryan Ryan in an abstract sense, but I don’t think Will’s story worked nearly as well. “Dream On” was a great number, and I was extremely pleased that the show let the two actors belt out “Piano Man” live at the bar (which is something I was hoping for more of in the back nine), but I’m tired of these external threats to the glee club. I will agree with Kath (from Give Me My Remote) when she notes that she’d be willing to fork over the cash in order to keep New Directions afloat just so the show would shut up about it. It kept me from really enjoying NPH’s performance, as the story mirrored both April Rhodes’ original arrival (struggling with having not achieved her dreams) and the sort of one-dimensional antagonism that threatened to undermine Jane Lynch’s fine work as Sue Sylvester. Show me the musical numbers on their own and the storyline was fantastic, but the show tried to do something more and failed.
I don’t think any of this failure can be laid at the feet of Joss Whedon, however, who managed to create some really memorable sequences within all three stories, in particular Artie’s return to our main narrative for the first time since “Wheels.” If we were to consider the storyline from a purely visual perspective, the scene with Tina and Artie with the sunset – or sunrise, unsure of the timeline there – was gorgeous, and the multiple ways in which the “Safety Dance” number was filmed made for a unique sequence that more wholly embraced the idea of a “dream” than any previous numbers. And you also can’t really blame any of the actors for the episode’s central problems, as Kevin McHale had a lot on his plate in this episode and did quite a fantastic job bringing it all to life.
No, the problem here lies in the fact that this story does not work within the context of the show’s narrative trajectory. If this were Friday Night Lights, and if we had actually witnessed the car crash where Artie was injured, then this story would seem logical: he would be just coming to terms with his injury, and so he would still be struggling with the idea of having to put aside his dreams of being a dancer and work on getting his life in order. However, this didn’t just happen: he’s been in the wheelchair for a long time, so for him to still hold onto that dream of being a dancer and for his dejection to take this particular form seems strange for this stage in this development. It doesn’t help that “Wheels” showed Artie as a character who accepted his disability and who was offended when Tina compared her fake stutter to his real condition that he can’t just turn on and off as he sees fit. “Wheels” celebrated his disability, while “Dream On” regresses to the point where Artie is left with only his imagination to allow him to be happy in his life.
Adam Wright, a TV blogger from my neck of the woods, is also physically disabled, and he wrote a great piece at The Wrap which outlines his own concerns with this storyline. I won’t try to be able to really add to his own experience with this sort of situation, but I will say that what struck me about it all is how it didn’t actually achieve anything. As Wright points out, Artie eventually returns to the acceptance that we saw in “Wheels,” just as New Directions always bounces back from any of the short-term barriers placed in their direction. However, when you have characters like Finn and Artie who have been defined (for better or for worse) based on difference, that sort of whiplash storytelling becomes more problematic. Do we buy that Neil Patrick Harris is enigmatic enough that his “Dream” assignment would so uproot Artie’s sense of identity to stir this sort of impossible dream? Or does it feel like the show sends Artie into this chaos as a way to exaggerate Bryan Ryan’s impact on the club, and in order to give Kevin McHale a chance to get out of his chair and bust a move?
That scene was, as noted, a production highlight in many ways, but is it problematic that we’ve seen Artie in that context? McHale was out of the chair for part of the Glee cast’s concert at the White House, and I wrote about how this provides some interesting dialogue on the question of an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character. This number very clearly highlights that fact, which raises the question of whether or not it shatters the illusion of the performance (which, to McHale’s credit, has been pretty strong). The scene where Artie tries to stand on his own and then falls to the ground is largely there to make the dream sequence stand out more (which is why, I’d argue, he doesn’t try to get up), but should so much focus be placed on a dream sequence that uses our enjoyment of the musical numbers against us by cutting to the sad shot of Artie sitting alone in the mall as he waits for a pretzel (does the mall have no elevators?). It feels manipulative to the point where Artie doesn’t feel like a character, where he feels like “the guy in a wheelchair” and where any of his personality seems subsumed by his quest for a miracle cure that is subsequently crushed by Emma of all people.
I think you could find a way to tell this story, but it would require a catalyst which seems personal to Artie as opposed to a forced sense of conflict, and it would require a more nuanced response from Artie which plays on what we’ve seen in the past. And that’s what was missing here: yes, Tina brings up the “Proud Mary” number, but there is nothing else which feels transferred between the two stories. The same thing is happening with Kurt, as he and his Dad keep having the exact same conversation about his sexuality with no real forward momentum attained, but the emotional resonance of those scenes are so superior to the rest of the show that we accept it. However, Kurt is just coming to terms with his sexuality, so we expect him to struggle with certain aspects of that storyline (like his insistence on crushing straight Finn); it doesn’t make sense for Artie to enter into a crisis over something that he’s had so many years to grapple with, and which we saw him handle quite effectively in an earlier episode. I love when the show gets sad, and always appreciate when we get to see how futile some dreams can be, but it seemed like Artie was an easy way to tell this story rather than the actual source of that sadness.
If the show always felt like it reverted back to a status quo, it’s possible that we’d accept these problems (or at least expect these problems) like we accept the ways in which sitcoms don’t pay much attention to continuity as a rule. However, Glee always gestures towards character development and wants to claim that its characters are growing and achieving their dreams, so when it fails to pay attention to those qualities it gets frustrating. No guest stars, and no guest directors, can possibly fix that gap between what the show claims to be and what it actually is, and as much as I enjoy parts of this week’s episode I still feel like they’re no closer to solving the larger problems with the show’s formula.
- John Michael Higgins and Molly Shannon seemed pretty wasted on that “Show Tune Support Group” scene, which was pretty funny but makes me sad that Higgins (who, as A Mighty Wind showed, is a great singer) wasn’t allowed to do more.
- Odd that the “Previously On” sequence would focus so much on the events of the previous episode which ultimately had no relevance in this episode: as noted above, the continuity was pretty sketchy as it was, so it seemed strange that we’d see a focus on Kurt and Rachel’s visit to Finn’s disabled friend. It’s weird to see the “Previously On” segment being used to actually show what happened last week as opposed to showing previous scenes from the show which will be relevant in this particular episode, which is what a lot of shows tend to do. The idea of “That’s what you missed on…” as opposed to simply “Previously on” is really interesting, and I’m curious if it’s contributing to my concerns over continuity.
- Whedon’s direction was strong overall, but I think it was strongest in the scene with Idina Menzel in the car describing the experience of giving Rachel up for adoption: it was the sort of scene that suffered in theory since it was so clearly connecting the dots to what was pretty predictable, but Menzel gives a really great performance in that scene, and I’m going to give Whedon the credit for really making it work.
- If you haven’t seen it before, your homework is to go watch the original video for Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” which is one of the most amazing things ever.
- While I’m totally onboard with Idina Menzel as Lea Michele’s mother in terms of their broadway pedigree, I think Menzel actually more closely resembles a black-haired Dianna Agron if we’re being honest.