“Time Will Tell”
July 6th, 2010
Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.
I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.
It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.
June 8th, 2010
“Life only really has one beginning and one end – the rest is just a whole lot of middle.”
In his attempts to inspire his Glee Club to achieve despite the nearly insurmountable odds placed before them at the upcoming Regional championships, Will Schuester makes the above remarks. And while I don’t think this was intentional, there’s a wonderful meta-commentary about the show itself in this statement: sure, the fragmented nature of the first season means that there were really two beginnings and two endings, but at the end of the day everything else was just a whole lot of middle that was more middling than I would have desired.
But if the back nine of Glee’s first season saw the series flipping and flailing wildly as it flew through the air, “Journey” demonstrates that this series knows how to stick a landing; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the show would be amongst television’s best if they did two-episode seasons made up entirely of premieres and finales. Sure, the episode more or less feels like “Sectionals 2: Electric Bugaloo,” following the same patterns as the fall finale, but there is an unabashed sincerity to its storytelling which remains grounded without having to be undercut at every turn. It makes the show feel like it has earned this blanket sentimentality, that it truly has taken these characters on a journey which has changed their lives.
Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a great essay earlier today about Glee’s radical sincerity, but when I think about it nothing about “Journey” felt radical: so embodying the resiliency of the series’ spirit, and unapologetically engaging in theatrics we might have rolled our eyes at just a year ago, Glee proves that even considering all of the hype and success there remains a confident, passionate, absolutely entertaining series about a glee club that, gosh darn it, refuses to stop believing in itself.
And while I’m still going to dock the series some points for its poor form in the air during its back nine, I’m willing to throw up a good 9.5 or so for its landing, as “Journey” is unquestionably a series high point.
“The Power of Madonna”
April 20th, 2010
Glee, as a series, requires the audience to believe in the power of positivity on a regular basis: regardless of the problems that face New Directions as they chart their new directions, there is a sense of hope and perseverance which lifts them from their somewhat sad existence in rural Ohio towards stardom in whatever form it may arrive. The series’ shameless positivity is one of its most distinctive qualities, an outlook which keeps the show from seeming too critical of its characters and their differences, and while I have some concerns with how that positivity is occasionally used to sort of gloss over its investigations of diversity I think it’s part of the show that should ultimately be celebrated.
However, if I have come to believe in the power of Glee’s positivity, I don’t necessarily think I feel the same about the power of Madonna, or “The Power of Madonna” as an episode of the show entirely predicated on the idea that the ubiquitous singer is somehow a stand-in for all of the values the show represents. Beneath the mountains of hype surrounding this particular episode, you realize that just about everything is taken for granted in an effort to bow down at the altar of Madge: characters rush into decisions for the sake of lyrical connection, allegiances change for the sake of demonstrating the power of Madonna’s message, and not once does a single character other than men behaving driven by sexism actually stop and question whether or not we’re willing to buy the outright idol worship on display in the episode.
Taken as individual scenes, the use of Madonna’s music indicates the quality of her contribution to popular music over the past quarter century; taken as an entire episode where none of those sequences were given the necessary development to create anything even close to real character development, “The Power of Madonna” both reveals Glee’s most fundamental problems and indicates that the show has every intention of pretending those problems don’t exist simply because they know that it will scream “You Must Love Me.”
And, well…I guess I’m “Frozen.” [Okay, seriously, that’s it for Madonna song title puns, the rest of the review will be pun-free. I’m “Sorry” about-DAMNIT.]
“Without a Net, Without a Chair?”
April 6th, 2010
When FOX announced that Glee would be doing a concert tour in support of the show’s second season, I wasn’t particularly surprised: while they had initially said that they had no such plans, the show is too much of a phenomenon to resist what seems like a really logical brand extension.
However, two performances in the past week (At the White House Easter Egg Roll yesterday and on tomorrow’s episode of Oprah, filmed on Friday) have proven a really intriguing glimpse into both the potential for and the challenge of these concerts. The White House concert was very much enjoyable, especially having Michelle Obama and the first daughters grooving to the music in the “pit” between the stage and the crowd, but it also revealed that navigating the twisted web of character and actor, and doing it all without the benefit of auto-tune, is going to make for an extremely interesting concert-going experience.
Glee at the White House: Part One
Trapped between recreating and celebrating the show that fans love so much, the concerts are going to need to remain a careful negotiation of the cast’s musical ability…or maybe they just need to lipsynch to “Don’t Stop Believing” and fans will be happy.
Excellence on Selective Terms
March 31st, 2010
The criteria for earning a Peabody Award, a prestigious honour in the area of electronic media, is listed as follows on the awards’ website:
The Award is determined by one criterion – “Excellence.” Because submissions are accepted from a wide variety of sources and styles, deliberations seek “Excellence On Its Own Terms.” Each entry is evaluated on the achievement of standards it establishes within its own contexts. Entries are self-selected by those making submissions and as a result the quality of competing works is extraordinarily high. The Peabody Awards are then presented only to “the best of the best.”
There’s a whole other post to be made about whether such a blatantly subjective criterion earns the awards the sense of objectivity that they hold, but for the sake of this post I think we can presume that the Peabody Awards have a pretty good track record. They have feted dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and The Sopranos, while acknowledging comedies like 30 Rock, The Office and South Park; they are not limited to only mainstream fare, with cult hits like Battlestar Galactica getting recognition, nor are they beholden to narrative-driven series television, as reality shows like Project Runway and satire like The Colbert Report have been singled out.
This year, the Peabody Awards added four television series to their ranks, and on the surface there’s some nice diversity: Glee and Modern Family are mainstream hits that made a substantial impact on the television industry this year, while In Treatment and No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are shows with smaller followings but with some substantial value in terms of performances (in the case of In Treatment) and (in the case of No. 1 Ladies’) a unique relationship with an emerging film industry in Botswana.
However, rather than simply listing the shows awarded and letting us figure out our own reasonings, the Peabody folks have written short and succinct reasons why the shows in question are being awarded. And it is in these brief distillations of their worthiness that the flaws of this process become apparent, as the qualities they point to for Glee and Modern Family demonstrate a selective gaze into multi-faceted, and still developing, series which fails to capture their true appeal in order to focus on their most hyped, and in some cases divisive, qualities. In the process, we start to understand the challenge of rewarding entire series alongside standalone news reports, and we start to wonder why they would so willingly call attention to those challenges with these short and imprecise justifications.
December 9th, 2009
“Winning could make everything good for a while.”
I do not understand the rules of the Sectional Show Choir competition, nor do I know exactly what comes after it in New Directions’ journey. Glee is a show that despite being about what seems like a shockingly bureaucratic existence (with sponsorship disqualifications and everything) wants absolutely nothing to do with that complexity, and as such “Sectionals” boils down to the above: if they win, things will be better.
But what Glee has been doing all season is hiding inherently sombre stories beneath the shiny gloss of over-produced musical numbers. Rachel Berry soars every time she takes the stage, but beneath that surface she has no friends and feels like that’s never going to change. Quinn gets up to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and yet her pregnancy is a source of constant anxiety as she knows how much Finn will be hurt when he, eventually, figures out the truth. And Will Schuester used Glee as a distraction from a marriage in tatters, dancing and mashing up songs when he should have been communicating and patching up his relationship with Terri (and, you know, touching her stomach and discovering her lie earlier).
I’ve accepted, at this point, that Glee’s delayed reaction to some of its early problems (including its somewhat mean-spirited comedy and the aforementioned fake baby storyline) is inherently part of its characters’ journeys – the show is awkward because teenagers are awkward, and it’s inconsistent because high school is inherently impulsive and volatile. And while I am far from suggesting that the show has been perfect this season, I at least feel like the journey it has taken with these characters is consistent with its investigation of what happens when the world of show choir intertwines with a collection of diverse personalities for the sake of both comedy and drama.
As such, “Sectionals” works as a finale precisely because it has no romantic notions about what “Sectionals” is: this is not a simple celebration of musical talent, nor a simple culmination of any one character’s journey. It’s a neon band-aid that makes a wound look a whole lot prettier, capable of healing those wounds but also capable of being ripped off and leaving scars that no neon band-aid will ever be able to fix. It’s an hour of television that highlights life’s futility while celebrating its transcendence, never once suggesting that one will ever cancel out the other.
And it’s a rather fantastic end to what has been a fascinating (if not quite consistently amazing) first thirteen episodes for the show they call Glee.
November 25th, 2009
Last week, I had an extensive Twitter conversation with Jace Lacob about Glee, and the argument boiled down to the question of whether or not the show’s characters were one-dimensional. And what was interesting is that Jace and I don’t disagree: the show’s characters are, on occasion, blindly one-dimensional. However, I argued that the show is still in its infancy, and that considering its identity crisis it’s actually doing a decent job of slowly sketching out its characters.
However, I do think that one of the show’s problems is its decision to have characters waver between substantial character development and broad archetypes week by week. While a show like Friday Night Lights, with a similar ensemble cast of characters that often move in and out of the show’s narrative, is dealing with fairly grounded and realistic characters, Glee is slowly humanizing caricatures. And as a result, you have a character like Artie fluctuating from a handicapped student struggling to relate to his classmates to a random background character in a wheelchair, which feels false. Rather than the character development compounding over time, changing the way the show’s dynamics operate, the exact opposite is happening: while individual episodes give Kurt or Quinn or Puck storylines that expand on their identity, outside of the main serialized storyline (Finn and Quinn’s baby) they revert back to their original modes.
It creates a sense that, for a show which is at its best when characters are being developed and explored in a concentrated fashion, the plots of the show itself don’t actually seem to be changing in kind, and the show reverts back to a farcical comedy more often than not. At the heart of “Hairography” is the fairly simple premise that beneath the distractions we create for ourselves is a sense of our true identity, as various characters test out potential distractions only to find that their heart takes them in a different direction.
However, Glee is a show that is all about distractions, and while this individual episode may have peeled everything back to show the supposed true colours of the various characters the show is never going to stop delivering show-stopping musical numbers or interjecting random musical sequences into largely unrelated scenes. The result is an episode that, rather than representing a legitimate step forward for the series, only draws attention to some of its long-term, cumulative limitations: it can tug at the heartstrings and build character when it wants to, but this is never going to start being a show about twelve kids singing on stools.
Especially not with a fake pregnancy storyline hanging over it.
Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative
November 21st, 2009
Following along with this weekend’s Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference at MIT (through the Twitter Hashtag #foe4) has been a really unique experience in many ways, engaging with an academic community I’ve only seen from afar in the past, but there are times when the topics being discussed feel almost too familiar.
By nature of the number of reviews I write about particular shows, I usually end up attacking them from nearly every conceivable angle, but there’s something about Glee that seems to inspire more angles than seem physically possible. The show has created a lot of controversy with its struggle to find a clear sense of its identity from the narratological point of view, which is the angle we television critics have been considering most carefully, but as discussed both yesterday (in the context of its use of music/iTunes to create transmedia engagement) and today (in its engagement with culture) during the conference its brand strategy has never had the same identity crisis.
I want to pick up on something that Ivan Askwith said during the discussion of the series’ engagement with culture, as he argued the following:
I am going to investigate this further, as it implicitly argues that the series’ narrative struggles are the result of an attempt to engage with a manufactured narrative structure (that will in the Spring be the show’s lead-in), a fact which is both understandable (network synergy and business logic) and complicated by the needs of serialized drama over reality programming from a narrative point of view.
September 22nd, 2009
There is something potentially idiosyncratic about “MacPherson,” the finale to one of the summer’s most enjoyable new series Warehouse 13. The show has oft times been notable not for its epic, mythology laden finales but rather its clever short form action pieces, delivering procedural episodes which connect with the audience and highlight the show’s enjoyable cast of characters. “Macpherson,” by comparison, is all about twists and turns and for the most part puts aside its indulgences in favour of appealing to other senses.
It’s a bold decision for a show that has been built around a fairly simple formula and now is going to have a heck of a time getting back to that status quo, and it’s one that I like in theory. While I had expected this episode to put to rest the MacPherson story for good, a first season arc that provided necessary back story for Artie and the warehouse itself, instead it felt like a whole new launching off point which compromised the integrity of our cast of characters beyond recognition.
It leaves a lot of open questions in regards to just what this show is going to look like in the years ahead, something that I didn’t expect from a show which felt so gosh darn comfortable in its own skin just a few episodes ago. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the right decision, and in some ways I think the finale needed to do something more to make it all work, but consider me most certainly intrigued.