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.
“Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”
April 15th, 2011
“I can see it in your eyes – it’s not you.”
Well, that was quite the experiment.
Part of what has made the third season of Fringe so compelling is the degree to which the other universe has been fully realized. It is a place we can journey to, a place with a heartbeat and which moves us beyond the imaginary. Olivia being trapped in that world wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, it was a situation that begged to be explored. It was an instance of science fiction storytelling that had room to breathe, that could be revealed gradually rather than being defined immediately.
By comparison, the Inception-esque journey that Walter, Peter and William Bell’s consciousness take into Olivia’s mind is pure imaginary. While I do not want to discount the value of the imaginary, and would applaud the show for testing the boundaries of its visual storytelling with its use of animation, the fact remains that “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” just absolutely failed to resonate for me. As the episode came to its emotional conclusion, I felt one level removed from the action, and I don’t think it was simply because of the fact that the characters in question were cel-shaded.
“Critical Film Studies”
March 24th, 2011
As Jeff Winger finds himself reenacting My Dinner with Andre with his friend Abed, who it seems has transformed himself overnight in a bid to relate better with society, he has a fairly violent reaction during the moment of realization. Jeff is responding to the idea that he feels as though he has been subjected to an experiment, that what he thought was an honest conversation was in fact an elaborate roleplaying exercise.
I have to presume that I’m not the only Community viewer who sometimes feels like Jeff Winger. This is not to say that Community has ever outright pissed me off with its obsession with pop culture, but there are moments when I feel that I’m witnessing an elaborate experiment more than I’m watching a television show.
“Critical Film Studies,” however, is much more philosophical in its experimentation: rather than mucking around with reality or narrative form, or testing how far they can take a pop cultural framework, the episode forces us to question the very nature of Abed as a character. While the episode is unquestionably positioned as an homage in the beginning, it puts at least those who haven’t seen My Dinner with Andre in Jeff’s shoes and forces us to question whether or not the person sitting across the table is really who we think it is.
And while the episode has its moments of overindulgence, and the B-Story never quite reached a point of cohesion, the end result of the experiment was resonant enough to make feeling like a guinea pig worthwhile.
March 21st, 2011
There is something hypocritical about the status of Barney Stinson as a character within How I Met Your Mother. On the one hand, he is the character who will change the least: because of his popularity, and because of the broad comedy the character is known for, Barney Stinson will never dramatically alter his behavior. And yet, at the same time, the character is uniquely positioned to engage with more emotional and transformative elements due to Neil Patrick Harris’ dramatic acting ability and the value of having a narcissistic character show signs of selflessness and vulnerability.
Ted Mosby is always on the verge of a dramatic life event, but is never allowed to reach that moment because it would fundamentally change the course of the series. However, because there are assurances that Barney’s essence will not be changed, he’s allowed to do what Ted is not: he’s allowed to meet his father, allowed to confront a potentially life-changing moment on a show which in its sixth season is largely resistant to fundamental change.
The result is a tremendous showcase for Neil Patrick Harris and John Lithgow, achieving an emotional complexity that has been absent from Ted’s story for what seems like a very long time without sacrificing the essence of the character. While there are some who remain frustrated with the lack of momentum on the eponymous story, the show’s sixth season has been quite effective in crafting stories about the other side of the parental coin that have really landed.
Even if they aren’t quite as transformative as Ted’s love life.
September 5th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
If Adam was a philosophical character with no functional use within Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fourth season, Glory is a functional character without any real philosophical purpose in the series’ fifth.
“Tough Love” really drives this point home for me: the character is more fun than she is interesting, existing sort of as a by-product of Dawn’s arrival despite the fact that Dawn is technically the by-product of the situation. This isn’t so much a criticism as an observation: I like Glory, and like what role she plays within this story, but it isn’t a particularly complex role. Instead, all of the complexity is on the protagonists’ side of the story, which is expressly clear when this episode becomes far more about Willow and Tara’s relationship and far less about Glory herself.
Which is only fitting as Glory’s arc appears to be reaching its end.
May 18th, 2010
I made a case a few weeks ago that Glee would work better if it wasn’t so concerned about plot or character development: if each individual episode were allowed to serve as a standalone story about high school students overcoming adversity through the powers of song and dance, I think the show would feel less rushed, less burdened by the need to maintain something approaching momentum. By focusing on ongoing character arcs, it means that the show’s whiplash storytelling feels like the show is being pulled in fifteen different directions, and characters who appear only occasionally in the “main” narrative feel objectified when they’re given the “spotlight” on rare occasions.
“Dream On,” I would argue, works in a bubble: if you choose to take an entirely anachronistic view to this series, then there are inspirational moments, some decent jokes, and some strong musical numbers, all of which is well directed by Joss Whedon and bolstered by Neil Patrick Harris’ presence. However, once you start thinking about these characters as something more than archetypes and think about where they’ve been in the past and how they came to be in these situations, you start to realize that something doesn’t add up. We’ve seen these stories before, and in some ways we’ve moved past these stories, and the expectation of character development feels betrayed by the apparent regression.
I want this show to be able to show me growth in its characters, and I want it to work harder at developing ongoing storylines that make sense and which enrich the show’s storytelling, but I feel like they don’t have the execution or the vision to pull that together, which makes me wary of the show’s long term prospects amidst the hype surrounding its more successful (and more popular) elements.
April 29th, 2010
I didn’t get around to last week’s episodes of 30 Rock – there were two of them, and I wasn’t able to watch “Khonani” live, and I ultimately didn’t have much to say. The play on the Late Night situation was too straightforward, relying entirely on the “It’s Conan and Leno, but they’re Middle Eastern Janitors!” premise to handle the heavy comedic lifting, and I honestly can’t tell you right now what happened in those episodes. There just wasn’t anything to really latch onto, which is sometimes part of 30 Rock’s charm.
There was plenty, however, to latch onto in “Argus,” and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. This is a far more memorable episode than the two last week, but it’s memorable because it’s kind of horribly disturbing. The show never quite manages to unpack Will Forte as a drag queen who impersonates (and DATES) Jenna, so I’m sort of reluctant to say this, but I actually enjoyed the episode overall. The show did three stories which involved Liz Lemon but weren’t about Liz Lemon, allowing Tina Fey to be funny in pretty much every one of them and to sort of depict her life being overrun by the chaos around her rather than one of her own neuroses. It’s not a bad spot for the character, and combined with copious amounts of Grizz and Dot Com and Jack Donaghy talking to a peacock he believes to be carrying the spirit of Don Geiss, and you have an episode that’s too ridiculous to take seriously but too fun to forget.
Which is about what the show seems to be aiming for at its peak these days.
April 28th, 2010
The Good Wife is a lot like Fringe.
This likely seems like an odd statement, but both are shows which despite fairly substantial serialized elements largely present themselves as procedurals. Both shows are also at their best, when telling procedural stories, when those stories feel in some way distinct: like Fringe, the characters are usually interesting enough that a more mundane trial can largely be carried by the show, but The Good Wife (and Fringe) are both capable of twisty, complex narratives that embody the shows’ particular universes as different as they might be.
“Boom” eventually succeeds due to some interesting serialized elements and some nice work around the edges, but the central case feels like something pulled out of an episode of Law & Order. This isn’t a slight on Law & Order so much as a sign of The Good Wife’s limitations: this show isn’t as capable of “solving” a case in the way that show is, and the case eventually becomes a burden which interrupts, rather than complicates, the show’s other drama.
“The Wheaton Recurrence”
April 12th, 2010
There are two things that the Big Bang Theory isn’t particularly good at, and they include handling serious dramatic situations within its comic tone and the integration of guest stars beyond their initial appearance. The show has always shied away from any sort of realistic emotional tensions in favour of a cheap joke, and characters like Christine Baranski’s Dr. Hofstadter were novel upon their first appearance and felt like a big ol’ sitcom cliche in their next.
“The Wheaton Recurrence” does little to change either of these facts, even if one could argue that there was positive momentum on the emotions front. There’s a difference, ultimately, between actually dealing with emotions and featuring emotions in a major storyline: while this episode forces Penny and Leonard to consider the state of their relationship, it’s something the show should have done a long time ago, and something that we should have seen some evidence of in earlier episodes. Nothing about their revelations feels particularly natural, and the lack of either a rising action or a proper denouement makes any sort of “event” in the episode seems like a wasted opportunity.
Which, I guess, is preferable to a waste of time.
“Zoo or False”
April 12th, 2010
Predictability is one of those intriguing parts of sitcoms in general: by nature, sitcoms fall into particular patterns, either in terms of classic situational comedy or in terms of a show establishing a certain rhythm or style that tends to be repeated.
“Zoo or False” is ultimately one of the most predictable episodes that HIMYM has done in quite some time, but that doesn’t mean it was a particularly bad episode. You could call the episode’s conclusion from a mile away, and as Jaime Weinman pointed out the act breaks weren’t particularly subtle, but the story’s predictability came through the original episode setup going wildly out of control. And because those circumstances, as forced as they may seem out of context, stemmed from a character’s attempt to derail an in-show narrative, the derailment of the show’s actual narrative felt entirely natural.
And of HIMYM’s predictable qualities, that’s one of my favourites.