“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.]
April 13th, 2010
I considering myself an appreciator of Glee, one of the few “deconstruction-focused” critics who has been writing about the show in a dedicated fashion (some weeks, it’s just Todd and I), but I don’t like that being a “fan” has become an all-or-nothing proposal. I can like the show while admitting that it has some pretty considerable flaws, but it seems like FOX’s promotional blitz has very clearly divided those who are chugging the kool-aid and those who are sipping it politely and discussing the sugar to water ratio, and as someone who falls in the latter category I can already sense that this is becoming one of those shows where any sort of indepth, negative review is going to be attacked for “missing the point of the show” and the like from some – but not, of course, all – viewers of the show.
This is unfortunate because I think how Glee tries to accomplish its goals is actually far more interesting than the goals themselves, as the balance between music and dialogue, or comedy and drama, or fantasy and reality all create some very intriguing problems that Ryan Murphy and Co. have to deal with on a weekly basis. That the show isn’t always successful shouldn’t be a surprise considering the volatile elements it chooses to take on each week, and the idea that its can-do spirit or its exuberance can account for its occasional missteps is the sort of romantic notion that only works in the show’s universe, not in ours.
“Hell-O” is a strong season premiere not because of the hype, or because of the musical numbers that the show chooses, but because those musical numbers are very well focused, the introduction of new characters is well-handled, and the thematic parallels are useful enough that the contrivances necessary to create them are forgivable. After a closure-heavy conclusion that wrapped things up too neatly, the show manages to complicate things quite effectively as it prepares for what appears to be a lengthy run – forgive me if I don’t let the show run around the hurdles every week.
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.
December 2nd, 2009
Over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend about Glee, and inevitably the conversation came to Terri Schuester. I find it’s usually a topic that every Glee viewer has in common: whatever they think about any individual episode, no one seems to actually like this character. And while I feel bad for Jessalyn Gilsig, who got stuck playing someone who nearly everyone hates, I think that from its very conception the character was a failure. In an interview with the L.A. Times (where she charmingly notes how a review of an episode which made an elated mention of her absence in said episode on the same site made her want to crawl back into bed), she notes that the character was conceived as a justification for Will’s flirtations with Emma; Will needed a reason to be straying from his marriage, so Terri needed to be someone who audiences didn’t like.
However, what I think Ryan Murphy and the rest of the show’s writers didn’t quite understand was how the show was going to be sold and what kinds of stories would dominate the early going. The show was never going to feel natural being about Will Schuester, to the point that those episodes that did focus heavily on his character (see: “Acafellas”) flopped primarily because the show’s core audience (and most of its mainstream buzz) were there for the less dramatic elements of the series (the music, the one-liners, etc.) or for the younger characters who were connected to the music/jokes but still capable of being expanded dramatically. The show had so many identities that a storyline which might have worked if this was an intense character drama like Mad Men had no chance of ever connecting with audiences, to the point where the character and the storyline were dragging down the rest of the show around it.
What makes “Mattress” work as an hour of television is that the show surrounding that storyline has matured to the point where Ryan Murphy has a handle of who these characters are and how they are able to wake up every morning with a smile on their face. For someone like Rachel, it’s knowing that she’s doing everything in her power to be a star, and for someone like Terri it’s knowing that she is doing everything she can to keep her husband from leaving her. By separating the means from the end, the show is able to take Terri and turn her into a character that is still inherently unlikeable without being so inherently unlikeable that she serves as a blight on its sense of momentum.
It’s not the best hour the show has ever done, but like “Wheels” before it the episode represents a clear sense that Ryan Murphy is back in control of this series just in time for it to head on hiatus.
“The Rhodes Not Taken”
September 30th, 2009
I want you to imagine an episode of television programming which features the following: a guest appearance from Kristin Chenoweth, a battle between Kristin Chenoweth and Lea Michele on a song from Cabaret, a duet arrangement of Heart’s “Alone” featuring Kristin Chenoweth, Kristin Chenoweth in full on rodeo mode during a Glee Club performance, and a full cast rendition of a really great Queen song.
And then I want you to imagine me, someone who enjoys every single one of these things, not enjoying the episode at hand. Crazy, no?
Well, unfortunately, that’s how I feel about “The Rhodes Not Taken,” an episode that suffers from a rapid-fire plot development and misplaced emotional emphasis. While I loved Chenoweth’s performance in the episode, and all of the musical elements, it suffered from the fact that every bit of realistic character development was saved for a character who isn’t actually in the show at all. By placing so much of the episode’s impact on the temporary replacement for Rachel as opposed to Rachel herself, her bizarre indecision is never framed as anything close to character development, left to feel like sheer plot contrivance.
It’s an episode that wants to be like “Preggers,” but in perhaps a cruel twist of fate the genius of Kristin Chenoweth only sets them back in the grand scheme of things.
September 16th, 2009
“Acafellas,” by and large, is like an answer to my prayers (or, if not prayers, then at least requests). Last week, I noted that I enjoyed the show as a whole but felt that they were moving too quickly with the main storylines and not giving us any time with the supporting characters. And, by and large, this episode managed to move at a pretty quick pace (the show certainly didn’t become slow) while spending plenty of time with pretty much everyone. The show is a large ensemble, and this episode felt like an effort to both address ongoing storylines (including the main ones covered last week) in small scenes while spending time with entirely new settings and character pairings.
This is not to say that I think the episode was flawless by any means, but I think it’s an example of the show’s particular brand of humour and musical performance proving capable of expanding into other areas outside of the “core” storylines. While I still have some issues with the way the show tends to pace itself with individual storylines, this episode managed to handle a lot of material in a single hour, covering various bases with a fairly high degree of success.
But, be warned that I’ve still got some issues with the way the show likes to rush to the good parts, so to speak.
September 9th, 2009
As a critic, there are two ways one begins to have doubts about a show.
One is the immediate knee jerk response to a particular development: something happens onscreen which calls itself to your attention as if it were someone wearing a T-Shirt which said “Problem” written on it and waving a giant banner that said “Criticize me.”
The other is a more subtle feeling, a sense that something is wrong that’s below the surface of what you’re enjoying and undermining the show as a whole if not any particular moment.
What worries me about Glee is that for all my love of the show and its basic premise, it managed to illicit both of these responses in the span of its second episode, an hour which went from 0-60 and yet never seemed to go anywhere at the same time. What’s fascinating about it is that the things that make the show so charming one moment grinds it to a halt in the next: its fast pace works great in its dialogue, but when its stories start to move at the same pace it all seems like a blur; and while its quippy dialogue feels right in high school, when coming from someone who’s supposed to be a mature adult it sounds entirely wrong and takes a bad storyline and only makes it worse.
This is the kind of show that I don’t want to have to work to like – I enjoy musicals, I know a lot of popular music, and those elements of the show are obviously its hook. However, as long as the show around it feels more like labour than a labour of love, I’m not entirely convinced that I’m ready to commit to becoming a gleek just yet.
“It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again”
August 6th, 2009
Alan Sepinwall has often talked about how, with TBS’ My Boys, the season finale cliffhangers are almost always of a nature where he as a critic doesn’t actually care about them. TBS asks critics not to talk about the result of the latest love triangle, or such trifling things, whereas Alan (and myself) watch the show for the sense of camaraderie, the sharp dialogue, etc.
I feel very much the same way about Royal Pains, a show that in its first half season has made quite a ratings splash but has failed to really connect with me on an individual level. It isn’t that the show is by any means bad, but rather that there is nothing standing out for me. I was going to start this review by complaining that they, like My Boys, chose one of the least interesting parts of the show on which to hang their hat when it came time to focus on a “Cliffhanger” (loose definition, I assure you), but then I realized something: I don’t know if there’s actually an interesting part.
I don’t think that’s a condemnation of the show, but it is the kind of thing which keeps an episode like “It’s Like Jamais Vu All Over Again” from feeling all that, well, interesting. It’s not that the case itself is that poorly drawn, or that the various interpersonal elements weren’t up to par. Instead, it is simply an example of a show where the focus seems to be on the element of the show, the love triangles and the like, that really does absolutely nothing for me, leaving me to wonder if the rest of the show will ever remain as in focus as I’d like it to.
Only time, and the new few weeks, will tell.