May 3rd, 2011
“Tell me why everything turned around?”
“Rumours” never pretends that it isn’t an episode built around the songs from the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name: heck, early on Will pulls out the LP with April Rhodes and displays it for everyone, and it becomes the Glee club’s lesson of the week.
What I found interesting, though, was how the somewhat artificial presence of the storyline was ultimately overcome by Ryan Murphy’s willingness to play with the album’s methodology in the script. Rumours, the album, was produced in a very focused environment based on historical record: as Will explains, they only spoke to one another about the music so as to avoid their personal differences from breaking them up before the album was complete. And yet Glee has often suffered for this very reason: because we see so little of these characters’ lives outside of the Glee club with the show so focused on the musical performances and New Directions’ trip to Nationals, the interpersonal relationships that would allow them to develop as characters are left by the wayside. And unlike the songs on Rumours, the songs on Glee are rarely infused with the emotions of unspoken (and unseen) personal conflicts, instead feeling like plot points or iTunes sales.
“Rumours” is quite effective because it allows the central theme of the episode to trickle down through its characters organically, never dwelling on the initial rumors and instead focusing on their psychological effects on ongoing character arcs. Despite the presence of a meddling Sue Sylvester spreading vicious rumors about members of New Directions, what follows feels driven by individual characters confronting their insecurities in a self-aware, nuanced fashion. Parts of it are manipulative, and certainly there are some of the show’s usual leaps of logic, but “Rumours” successfully uses a simple premise to reveal some complex emotions, nicely encapsulating the level of character momentum the show has heading into the final three episodes of the season.
“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 Night of Neglect”
April 19th, 2011
While I don’t normally link directly to my A.V. Club coverage here at the blog (although I could, I suppose, if you folks desired it), I figured this is a special circumstance given that I normally cover Glee here at Cultural Learnings. However, through a series of circumstances, Todd needed me to fill in for him for tonight’s episode, and so some last-second tinkering (which took longer than it had any right to thanks to a collection of technical issues) shifted my coverage to TV Club.
“A Night of Neglect” | Glee | TV Club
If you wish to comment on the episode but don’t want to wade into the A.V. Club comments, feel free to comment below, and I’ll do my best to follow both threads.
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.
“Blame it on the Alcohol”
February 22nd, 2011
“We take our craft serious.”
By the time students reach high school, afterschool specials are a laughing matter. Of course, simultaneously, the subject matter of those afterschool specials becomes infinitely more serious, as students are introduced to social problems which could very well affect many of them in their adult lives. For the most part, the only tenable strategy is to lean into the pitch, accepting that students will laugh and finding a way to spin that humor into something approaching understanding.
However, what happens if you’re a television show ostensibly aimed at teenagers (or, according to Ryan Murphy, seven-year-olds) which wants to do an episode about the dangers of alcohol? On the one hand, the show is interested in the comic potential of a drunk New Directions: it wants to see what Rachel Berry is like when she’s drunk, to indulge in the easy jokes created in such a scenario. Of course, it also wants to avoid glorifying alcohol, which means having characters serve as designated drivers, sober observers, and voices for the value of sobreity.
The success of “Blame it on the Alcohol” very much depends on what message we’re supposed to take away. As a piece of comedy, the episode is about as uneven as we’ve come to expect from the show, finding a few solid jokes but never quite landing. However, in terms of taking the introduction of alcohol and spinning it into something approaching self-reflection, the episode is actually fairly successful. It’s all a bit on-the-nose, and requires more than a little contrivance, but I was left with a greater understanding of these characters.
If not, necessarily, an outright appreciation for the episode in question.
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.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”
February 6th, 2011
Culturally, the Super Bowl is largely considered a spectacle: it is about the commercials, the pre-game festivities littered with celebrity cameos, and the idea of the entire nation tuning into the same event. Culturally, the game is insignificant: the majority of people who watched the Super Bowl tonight probably had no idea what individual journeys the two teams had taken to get to that point, making the FOX-produced context at the start of the game (featuring the dulcet tones of Sam Elliot) the extent of the narrative they received (especially considering that Troy Aikman and Joe Buck are too incompetent to provide much more information).
However, there was a narrative to be found, and it played out in the game itself. It is the game that drives viewership, more than the ads: an exciting football game keeps people watching, creating the actual story which engages those of us who may not consider ourselves diehard sports fans. It can be a story about underdogs, a story about vindication, or even a simple story of an accused rapist being denied another championship ring: a single football play could become part of any number of narratives, and the thrill of the game was in seeing those stories play out within the larger tale of two teams battling for football supremacy. Down to the final play, in what was a tightly contested game worthy of the hype surrounding the event, it never felt like it was just Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh – that might be what you see on the scoreboard, but the true story was multi-dimensional and the real reason the game was as exciting as it was.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” was not multi-dimensional, or at least it didn’t want us to believe it was. There were brief moments of honesty, but every one was followed with broad moralizing. There were smaller stories, but every one was overshadowed by an aggressive straw man the likes of which we have never seen. There was spectacle, but beneath that spectacle was a fundamental lack of logical plot progression, filled with specious reasoning that was only called into question by the characters we were meant to despise.
Perhaps most importantly, though, “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” never felt spontaneous or thrilling: at every turn, it veered towards the predictable, finding precious few moments to truly become something that would capture the spirit (rather than the basic form) of the game it followed. While far from the worst episode the show has produced, it had the unfortunate distinction of having the most problematic lead-in: not because football and Glee are incompatible, but because the Super Bowl was thrilling in a way that Glee only dreams it could be.
Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee
February 6th, 2011
For a show which has yet to air an episode in 2011, Glee has been awfully ubiquitous.
No, this isn’t surprising: people can’t get enough of Glee, so it is inevitable that a brief hiatus with a much-hyped post-Super Bowl episode on the other end would result in an infinite number of stories relating to the series. However, what struck me as particularly interesting is the degree to which the series’ absence created a vacuum for something approaching controversy. Ryan Murphy announced that he was breaking up one of the show’s couples because he was bored. Ryan Murphy started a flame war with Kings of Leon. Ryan Murphy claimed that Glee is at least partially aimed at seven-year-olds (in the same sentence, no less).
There were a few moments when people wondered why I, as someone who “deigns” to cover this series from a more critical perspective, wasn’t commenting on these numerous stories. In truth, I just didn’t have time to respond to every piece of new surrounding the show, but I also never felt any sort of impulse to do so. Yes, I could comment on what it means for a showrunner to admit to a show’s fans that he makes decisions based on things which bore him, and there’s certainly analysis to be done of the impact of public flame wars; there is also most certainly a lot to be said about Murphy’s perception of the demographic makeup of his audience, an audience which I would presume is more for the show’s music (a sort of pop culturally-driven Kidz Bop) than for the show itself.
However, maybe because of my scholarly approach, I didn’t feel particularly moved by any of these stories. I wasn’t angry that Murphy was bored because I’d rather showrunners be honest than not. I wasn’t aghast at Murphy’s battle with Kings of Leon because I don’t have the time to care about celebrities sniping at one another over a misunderstanding. And while I raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s comments regarding demographics, that seems like a more detailed, long-term study than it does an instant reaction.