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Glee – “Ballad”

“Ballad”

November 18th, 2009

If you were to go back to the pilot, you would believe that Rachel Berry was the heart and soul of Glee. At that point, she was the person who most believed in Glee club, who saw it as the only place where she wasn’t the subject of ridicule and where she could express herself in the way she most desired.

But since that point, Rachel has become almost heartless. She turned her back on Glee club to join Sandy Ryerson’s musical, and she’s generally judgmental and frustrating before she’s caring or supportive. And yet, because Rachel is the strongest soloist (only Mercedes) on Glee, she’s remained at the centre of storylines and the club itself even while she seems convinced it’s actually holding her back from something better. It’s created a scenario where Rachel isn’t actually likeable, which is somewhat problematic if she’s supposed to be our heroine.

“Ballad” is a continuation of this theme, as a Glee Club exercise has everyone singing emotional ballads that bring out their deepest insecurities (in pretty uniformly effective ways) while Rachel is stuck in a “Hot for Teacher” scenario that never successfully bridges the comic and the dramatic (tears aside). I’m all for the show integrating more comedy than last week’s more emotional episode, and parts of this week’s entry nicely balance the two even with a lot of musical numbers involved, but Rachel’s storyline is effectively emotion-free, something that’s going to grow more and more problematic as we move forward.

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Being Erica – “Mama Mia”

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“Mama Mia”

October 6th, 2009

I’m in New York at the moment (my Twitter account likely reflects this), but I had a chance to catch this week’s Being Erica before I left. It’s, again, a return to the first season’s structure, hesitating to “open up” the show’s universe as much as the season premiere seemed to indicate. However, at the same time, the episode also reminds us that Judith as a character still exists, a problem with a show that deals with sending a character back to her past when some of the people in her life weren’t actually involved.

So, in many ways, the reason that Judith and her newborn haven’t been around Erica are quite similar to why they haven’t been on the show thus far this season, and “Mama Mia” does well justifying her absence and adding a few more shades to their relationship. The episode had a few hiccups, but it followed one of my favourite patterns for the show so it’s ultimately another enjoyable hour for the show.

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Season Premiere: Dexter – “Living the Dream”

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“Living the Dream”

September 27th, 2009

“It’s already over.”

I have always made the argument that Dexter, slowly but surely, has turned into the pay cable equivalent of 24. However, until watching “Living the Dream,” I had always considered it a sort of referential shorthand for me to say that I’m not amongst those who consider the show in the same league as more complex cable series. After watching the show’s fourth season premiere, however, I’m now convinced that the show is intent on proving me right.

It is a show driven by a single lead character whose personal struggles form the basis of emotional investment. It is a show where each season features a different “threat” that the lead character needs to respond to. It is a show where the supporting characters are interesting when interacting with the lead, but mind-numbingly boring and pointless when left to their own devices. And, perhaps more importantly, it is a show where the similarities between seasons begin to feel repetitive, resulting in its negative qualities becoming that much more apparent in subsequent seasons.

I would be fine with formula if I felt that the formula was actually resulting in a show that made good on the first season’s premise of a vigilante serial killer coming to terms with his morality and engaging with “The Dark Defender.” However, the fourth season is shaping up to continue the trend of the third season, drawing most of its interest from an implausible scenario whereby a national serial killer happens to have originated in Miami, just as every terrorist attack seemed to happen within driving distance of Los Angeles on 24, than from what that means for Dexter.

And while Michael C. Hall will continue to be fantastic in a storyline played more for laughs and convenience than anything else, the show feels as if it is rebooting every time they start a new season. And for a character once defined by the haunting of the past, and by a complex set of characteristics I do not feel have been significantly examined to be undermined, to have only as much past as the show decides he should, is to find a show moving further away from a complex character study and closer and closer to a serialized action thriller with a strong central character and nothing else to show for it.

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Mad Men – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

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“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

September 20th, 2009

If I had to suggest a single challenge in writing about Mad Men each week, it’s often where precisely to begin. Mad Men is a show defined by density, of layers of new and pre-existing storylines entwined around a theme central enough to be apparent but vague enough to be open to enormous amounts of interpretation. So when I sit down to add my thoughts to the chorus, illustrious and diverse as it is, my biggest challenge is finding the right angle at which to approach the material at hand.

But this week, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” is so defined (perhaps justly, perhaps unjustly) by a single scene that not starting with it seems nigh impossible.

I’ve seen this episode be tweeted about on numerous occasion as being fantastic (which it was), but more interestingly as proof that things actually do happen on this slow-paced show. However, the episode on numerous occasions indicates that the world (if anything) is moving too quickly, and that the central drama facing its characters is that when the show’s pace is disrupted by something tragic or sudden the common response is like a turtle hiding in its shell rather than a bird spreading its wings.

Of course, how this is read entirely depends on where you sit on the Mad Men spectrum; and, as someone who firmly believes the show’s slow pace is ideal for the stories being told regarding that constant tension between these characters and the world revolving around them, I’d say that the handling of a shocking moment in the midst of this contemplative show demonstrates yet again just how good this two-time Emmy-winning show really is.

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Mad Men – “The Fog”

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“The Fog”

September 13th, 2009

“He’s never where you expect him to be.”

When it comes to Mad Men, titles are often a sign of a major theme in an episode, often the only real quality an episode has (with most remaining light on plot in favour of atmosphere or thematic importance). But I don’t think there’s been a title in a while that has seemed so expansive, so all-encompassing. “The Fog” could mean any multitude of things both in terms of what we already know about character relationships and in terms of new develops in the span of the episode, which leaves us critics fumbling to decide just what direction we’re going to take it in.

For me, I think the moment where the title really connected with me was when Don was chatting with his prison guard friend in the Solarium and tells him an anecdote that a nurse told him when Sally was being born. “Your wife’s on the boat, and you’re on the shore.” And while it was never explicitly stated, there’s a fog between those two locations, and Mad Men is essentially a show without a lighthouse. Betty, stranded out on that boat and struggling through a difficult birthing process, comments in her crazed state that Don isn’t where you expect him to be, that once the fog lifts he’s disappeared or gone off somewhere else. While she views this in some ways as an abandonment, for Don it’s about being restless.

Much of “The Fog” is about Don Draper’s own self-awareness or lack thereof, finally admitting to himself that for all of his problems in the past he is the one on solid ground while Betty, and Peggy, and Sally are out on boats struggling to maintain course in the midst of a growing storm. He’s the one who has everything and who can help guide them safely into the years ahead, but the problem is that he is distracted: by women, by his job, and by his own insecurities buried deep beneath the surface. If he is the one in charge of climbing up the lighthouse steps to break through the fog and win the day, the boats are going to crash on the rocks.

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Weeds – “Suck ‘n’ Spit”

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“Suck ‘n’ Spit”

August 3rd, 2009

What I’ve always found interesting about Weeds is that it has been very careful about limiting the consequences from Nancy Botwin’s actions. Yes, bad things have happened, but they have always seemed to happen to people who are only indirectly related to the Botwin family: sure, her once husband was amongst those who fell victim to being in Nancy’s presence, but for the most part (outside of perhaps Silas’ broken arm and a few minor run-ins) the amount of crossfire that her family and friends have seen as a result of her actions has been limited.

In “Suck ‘n’ Spit,” we have a serious bit of consequence, perhaps the most serious we’ve seen yet. To get to that point, the episode didn’t particularly go anywhere all that interesting, investigating to varying degrees the total loss of normalcy (or, in some instances, the characters’ ability to engage with a new definition of the term) in their lives.

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Weeds – “A Distinctive Horn”

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“A Distinctive Horn”

July 27th, 2009

As you’ve no doubt noticed as of late, things have been a touch slow around Cultural Learnings when it comes to summer programming reviews. This is due largely to a combination of extra-special T.V. events (Last week’s Torchwood: Children of Earth blogging, for example) and some personal academic commitments that have been particularly demanding on my time (or, more accurately, my sanity). But in many ways, I think it’s because each summer show (Royal Pains, Burn Notice, Nurse Jackie, etc.) have fallen into a pattern that hasn’t really changed. When an episode is good it’s good, but as fun summer fare as opposed to meaty content worth sinking my teeth into. I’ve shared a few thoughts on Twitter here and there, but it’s been a slow summer when it comes to television to really analyze in a critical framework.

However, what I find really interesting about Showtime’s Weeds is that the reasons I haven’t been blogging about it this year are fundamentally different than last year. Whereas usually Weeds struggles to have something to write about in each individual episode, as its plots tends to be fairly easy to choreograph but almost painfully drawn out, this season the show has the exact opposite problems: due to a newfound unstable temporality that saw the show leap into the future a few weeks back, the show has gone further than I expected them to go all season. I’ve been tentative to write about it simply because I’ve been waiting to see when the pace will slow down, and when things would go back to normal. At this rate, part of me thinks that the kid is going to a toddler by the time we get to the finale.

Ultimately, the end of “A Distinctive Horn” is probably the point where the pace begins to slow, but I figured a “State of the Weeds” address was probably in order.

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Weeds – “Super Lucky Happy”

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“Super Lucky Happy”

June 29th, 2009

Known for its rather glacial pacing (I was reading in Todd’s review from The A.V. Club last week that the show arguably has only taken place over the course of a year or so, which is probably accurate if often ignored by the show itself), Weeds has been operating at a pretty decent clip this year. However, that was bound to change, and we have our first bit of a thematic pause in “Super Lucky Happy.”

Now, let’s be clear: this isn’t a bad thing. Personally speaking, I’m a fan of Weeds episodes that try to capture a mood or a particular point of view, rather than those which feel like they’re being particularly sensationalist. What struck me about this episode, though, was that it arguably wants to have its cake and eat it to. The actual events in the episode are pretty major, but the show’s current milieu means that there really isn’t anything abnormal about Nancy taking people hostage, and so her reaction after the fact seems less like a major event than a necessary moment of reflection.

It has the show in a holding pattern, either way, but it’s ultimately a position that the show can manage thanks to the skill of Mary-Louise Parker and the need to place Nancy’s predicament into a slightly different light.

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