Watching The Glee Project
July 18th, 2011
I reviewed the premiere of The Glee Project for The A.V. Club, and wasn’t entirely certain at the time if I was going to stick with it. While the concept of the show interested me, especially as someone who continues to watch and analyze Glee, I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.
I’ve continued watching, though, despite the fact that I still don’t really enjoy it in the traditional sense. I’m not really invested in any of the contestants, and I find myself fast-forwarding through the majority of the performances when I flip through the episodes every Sunday evening, but I find myself thinking about the show throughout the week, discussing it with people on Twitter and wishing that I knew more people who were watching.
The reason is similar to an experience I had last summer with Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, as the oddities of the format and structure of the series drive my engagement with each episode. Specifically, comments Ryan Murphy has made regarding both the intended arc for the eventual winner and a specific experience he had judging the show has given me an entirely different narrative than the text would suggest, one that has me far more engaged than the actual competition itself ever could.
It’s also drawn to the surface how strange this show can be, and how its aims seem more and more (fascinatingly) awkward with each passing week.
“Dash, Flash, Crash”
November 17th, 2010
Last week I posted about concerns regarding Modern Family’s relationship with questions of race and ethnicity (albeit focused on the former), and over at TV Overmind the commenters were…well, they were angry. My point was not to say that the show is racist, but rather that there are moments when questions relating to sensitive issues are located within the production of the series rather than character actions.
Let’s take, for example, Phil’s “If you ain’t white, you ain’t right” t-shirt which angers an African American taxi cab. It’s highly offensive, sure, but it plays into his cluelessness in ways we recognize. It is the intersection of his inability to realize what his words mean with questions of race in today’s society, and its continued presence (“And this year I predict total White domination!”) makes it seem less like that single flashback is necessary in order to construct the joke. It seems like something Phil would do, makes me laugh, and happens to transition into the best episode since “Fizbo.”
In other words, next time you hear me ragging on Modern Family? Manny’s birthday.
The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season
November 10th, 2010
ABC’s Modern Family has always been concerned with questions of race: that Gloria and Manny are Colombian, and that Lily is Vietnamese, were prominent factors in the series’ pilot, so questions of race (and racism) have been evident throughout the series.
And yet, something seems different in the second season. While nothing has been fundamentally changed in terms of questions of race, the show is going to racial humor more often and in a few instances from a different perspective. I would never go so far as to say that the series is racist, but in its desire to increase the amount of racial humor it seems to have forced the issue without allowing it to flow naturally from its characters or even its storylines.
While it is not enough to condemn the series, I would argue that the way race has been presented so far this season shifts ownership of these dynamics to the people behind the scenes as opposed to the characters within the series, creating problematic questions of authorship that threaten both the series’ realism and its complexity.
“The Old Wagon”
September 22nd, 2010
“Time marches on, huh?”
The central storyline in “The Old Wagon” is about nostalgia: the Dunphy family keeps their station wagon around not because it’s functional, but because it holds treasured memories of their past that they are unwilling to let go.
My growing issue with Modern Family is that it doesn’t feel like a beat up station wagon with character; instead, it feels like one of those models which takes people’s nostalgia for classic cars and then crams it into a shiny new package. There are elements here that I enjoy as a viewer, and elements that are unquestionably well-executed, and yet the ultimate package feels as if it has been manufactured to create that response instead of earning it.
In an episode which emphasized the importance of reflecting on how fast things change in our lives, Modern Family demonstrated that absolutely nothing has changed since the show sprang to life a year ago. “The Old Wagon” is not even close to being a bad episode of television, but it fits so comfortably into the show’s patterns that it honestly frustrates me more than a legitimately bad episode would.
At least then there might have been a single moment of growth.
September 7th, 2010
In a post about the third season premiere of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter wrote the following:
“It would be very easy for me to repeat what worked in season two — create some internal beef that provided intensity and tension within the club, bring in another big nemesis, throw those two conflicts at each other and watch the blood flow. Yes, I’m sure it would be okay and people would like it. But ultimately, I would be cheating my own creative process and your dedication as well. I’ve learned that devoted fans are very sophisticated viewers. They know when they are being fed leftovers. Yeah, they may eat them for awhile, but eventually, they’ll get bored and leave to feed on something more tasty.”
This explains a great deal about “So,” an episode which lulls you into a false sense of security only to up the ante that much more after last season’s dark and twisted finale. Sons of Anarchy became one of television’s top dramas last year because Sutter is fearless, willing to go to particularly dark places and also willing to allow the story to escalate without concern over running out of story ideas in the future. There was actually enough story in the wake of that finale to sustain the season through the first few episodes: it wouldn’t even be leftovers so much as the rest of dinner, magically still warm despite having been sitting on the plate since last December.
What “So” establishes most clearly is that Sons’ action-packed narrative does not indicate a lack of nuance in its storytelling: as crafty as he is outspoken, Sutter creates the illusion of “moving on” while delivering a knockout blow which moves in an entirely different, yet perfectly complimentary, direction.
And, not surprisingly, I feel neither cheated nor bored: instead, I’m downright exhilarated.
May 19th, 2010
Throughout Modern Family’s first season, episodes have been airing out of production order, which isn’t overly surprising: a lot of new comedies air this way based on the strength of certain episodes and to ensure new viewers stick around for a while. However, it means that we’re not really able to read too much into the show’s long term character development, as episodes become interchangeable; I’m not suggesting every sitcom needs to have such character development, but this feels like the kind of show where characters are going to get older over time (especially the kids), and where I’d hope that they would evolve into new stories as this successful show continues into future seasons.
However, I would have been perfectly fine had “Family Portrait” been aired earlier in the season, as I don’t entirely understand why it was chosen as the season finale. Rife with cliches and some fairly broad storylines which show the characters at their most archetypal, and fairly low on great material for the show’s breakout characters, it seems strange that this would be the note the show wanted to leave on when compared with last week’s vacation episode that ended on an earned emotional conclusion. For a show so willing to control the order of things to provide the best possible impact regardless of production order, to place this “okay” episode in this position as opposed to last week’s really strong outing either indicates they don’t really care what not they leave on or that they have a very different conception of what works about this from my own.
Considering that I’ve been sort of at arm’s length with the show all season, it’s probably the latter.
May 12th, 2010
I don’t think this was, in particular, one of the show’s funniest episodes. There were certainly some clever lines in “Hawaii,” as the show tried out some familiar but not yet tapped out character combinations within the central family, but the show wasn’t going for what you’d call broad humour here.
However, there was a nice sense of realism in the way these stories unfolded; everything reaches a heartwarming conclusion, but rather than undercutting some sort of broad comic satire it seems like a logical extension of a trip which got “real” in a hurry. Everyone was caught dealing with certain realities they hadn’t faced in their daily lives which people are technically supposed to leave behind on vacations, and that led to a focus on these characters as real people in a way the show sometimes elides in its search for comedy.
May 5th, 2010
There’s a point in this episode where I became very afraid. I really like episodes where the characters are all part of the same situation, but there’s a point where it seemed like the show was intending to play out every airport/flying cliche imaginable. Mitchell left his wallet at home, Claire was afraid of flying, and Manny was pulled aside for being on a “No Fly” list – combine with a lot of unpleasantness surrounding those events and Jay’s outward disappointment about the entire family joining them on their Hawaii vacation, and it just wasn’t coming together all that well.
However, “Airport 2010” ended up coming together rather remarkably well: there were some nice use of some non-linear narratives to keep things interesting, the cuts between different stories provided a real sense of dynamism, and when the show eventually gets to its heartwarming conclusion it feels more earned that most similar stories. This is largely because at a certain point the show lets characters talk to one another about their feelings rather than just getting into wacky comic situations that reveal them, very clearly laying out a reason for them to come together to fly to Maui at episode’s end and very clearly identifying what makes this show better than its sitcom situations.
“Travels with Scout”
April 28th, 2010
If we accept that Modern Family is going to be an inherently predictable show, then the difference between a good episode and a bad episode is what predictable behaviour it leans towards. In the case of “Travels with Scout,” we find a familiar three-part structure that offers each family with their own story, all of which reach somewhat heartwarming, somewhat embarrassing, ultimately positive conclusions.
And ultimately, this is the type of episode which works: the show isn’t really going to abandon this formula, and so long as those stories provide a solid balance of believable human behaviour and clever one-liners the show is pretty much in its comfort zone. The show runs into problems when it becomes predictably sappy or overwrought, and the few moments where “Travels with Scout” could move in that direction are nicely undercut with the subtle deployment of some broad comedy.
It’s not going to be a series best, but it feels like an episode which earns its running time, which is what the show should be doing at this stage in the season.
March 31st, 2010
I’ve written a few times in the past about how Twitter can create certain expectations about a show before I get a chance to watch it, and this was very much the case with “Game Changer.” I didn’t know anything about the episode going into the day, but the people I follow on Twitter were all very interested in discussing the appearance of Apple’s shiny-new iPad on the series.
As I tweeted after watching the episode late last night, I don’t necessarily get the outraged response from some people: product integration is something that we need to start accepting as part of this television era, and the iPad is precisely the kind of product that Phil (who has to money to support his every technological impulse) would be desperate to purchase. My general view on product placement is that if it fits the show and the character then there’s nothing to be outraged about; as long as there’s congruity, outrage is simply not an emotion I’m likely to feel.
However, what we should be focusing on with “Game Changer” is that it didn’t really make me feel anything at all: rather than focusing on the product replacement as an easy target, let’s focus on how the Claire/Phil story was dangerously close to stories the show has done before, or how the rest of the episode felt just a bit “lazy.”