February 15th, 2011
There is nothing wrong with Justin Bieber.
Maybe it’s just my Canadian pride, but the kid is inoffensive to the point of being sort of charming. Especially recently, given his playful send-ups of his celebrity on The Daily Show and a bunch of other late night series, I’ve generally liked him, and while I wouldn’t say his music is exactly my taste I will say that it has a certain charm. He’s not a particularly wonderful singer, but that’s not really the point, and so the cultural vitriol surrounding him confounds me at points.
There are, however, plenty of things wrong with the Justin Bieber phenomenon. The problem isn’t Bieber himself, but what he has come to represent, and his cultural ubiquity relative to his actual talent (which is not “insignificant,” but is not exactly befitting his success). And it seems almost impossible to separate the latter from the former, to see the decent kid behind the phenomenon: while Never Say Never as a film might actually do a lot to humanize Bieber, the very idea of a teenager receiving a 3D Concert documentary only fuels the impression that his fame has gotten out of control.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Glee is a lot like Justin Bieber. At some level, there is a basic competence, a potential to be something entertaining: at a more macro-level, however, the Glee phenomenon has become an epic distraction, infringing on our enjoyment of the series on a regular basis.
On some level, “Comeback” should be seen as a return to basics: like episodes like “Duets” or even last week’s “Silly Love Songs,” the Glee club receives a simple theme and is asked to perform numbers relating to them. However, while those episodes felt united in their loose themes, there was no such unity to be found here. The result is a scattershot and problematically ephemeral hour which succeeded only in laying out some basic exposition for where the show will be headed in the weeks ahead.
And that’s not exactly looking like a “Comeback.”
“Silly Love Songs”
February 8th, 2011
“I need more than just a song to get my juices flowing.”
There are various reasons why “Silly Love Songs” has been pretty universally praised, and pretty universally considered to be a much better showcase for the show compared to the fairly middling, incredibly uneven Super Bowl episode. There are also various reasons why some of this praise comes in the form of a comparison to “Duets,” which I named one of my Top 10 episodes of television to air last year (and is certainly the best episode of the show’s second season thus far).
Those comparisons are earned, and in some ways “Silly Love Songs” is an even greater accomplishment if not necessarily a superior episode. Like with “Duets,” a simple construct is used to justify various musical numbers and unite the characters under a common theme; however, unlike that episode, the “consequences” of these songs are more broadly drawn, with an excess befitting the Valentine’s Day theme but also stretching the laws of science and delivering some real anvils in the process.
However, Ryan Murphy’s script never feels as though it allows those moments to get out of control, and the episode’s charm wins out even given its occasional lapses. The episode seems inconsistent if you think about it, and the rush to get characters into certain positions is problematically apparent, but I never felt that even if I thought it. “Silly Love Songs” successfully severed the connection between the heart and the head, never losing its steadiness and quite consistently entertaining in a way that the Super Bowl episode only managed at Halftime.
February 7th, 2011
In some ways, The Chicago Code seems like the only new series premiering this midseason.
Oh sure, there are a number of other shows making their debuts in the first two months of the year, but The Chicago Code has been one of the year’s most-buzzed about pilots since last Spring, when it was still in contention for the Fall lineup. Being bumped to midseason (for Lone Star, no less) may have been seen as a slight the first time around, but it turned into a real coup for Shawn Ryan and company. Their show went from one of the year’s most talked about pilots to the year’s last great hope, the one new network show that critics could actually endorse wholeheartedly which doesn’t get immediately canceled.
We all know what happened to Lone Star, however, and yet I feel fairly confident that the same fate is unlikely for this particular program. At its core, The Chicago Code is a police drama, but it stands out in the fact that it seems so committed to surface multidimensionality. There are no “cop shows” on television which are actually one-dimensional: they all have their quirks, and all engage in elements of character and basic seriality on a smaller scale. However, for the most part, they purposefully appear one-dimensional. One of the reasons that shows like CSI or NCIS have become a punchline is that they are sold as something blindly simple, capable of being reduced and often (although not always) reducing themselves as if to meet those lowered expectations.
At least evidenced by its pilot, The Chicago Code is not playing the same game. Not content to establish simply a premise or a setting in its opening episode, the show establishes a world: a story is told, a map is drawn, and ambiguities are left without feeling as though pointless mystery is being used to create gutless melodrama. It’s just a really smart hour of television, and one senses that the intelligence isn’t going to suddenly stop in the weeks ahead.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”
February 6th, 2011
Culturally, the Super Bowl is largely considered a spectacle: it is about the commercials, the pre-game festivities littered with celebrity cameos, and the idea of the entire nation tuning into the same event. Culturally, the game is insignificant: the majority of people who watched the Super Bowl tonight probably had no idea what individual journeys the two teams had taken to get to that point, making the FOX-produced context at the start of the game (featuring the dulcet tones of Sam Elliot) the extent of the narrative they received (especially considering that Troy Aikman and Joe Buck are too incompetent to provide much more information).
However, there was a narrative to be found, and it played out in the game itself. It is the game that drives viewership, more than the ads: an exciting football game keeps people watching, creating the actual story which engages those of us who may not consider ourselves diehard sports fans. It can be a story about underdogs, a story about vindication, or even a simple story of an accused rapist being denied another championship ring: a single football play could become part of any number of narratives, and the thrill of the game was in seeing those stories play out within the larger tale of two teams battling for football supremacy. Down to the final play, in what was a tightly contested game worthy of the hype surrounding the event, it never felt like it was just Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh – that might be what you see on the scoreboard, but the true story was multi-dimensional and the real reason the game was as exciting as it was.
“The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” was not multi-dimensional, or at least it didn’t want us to believe it was. There were brief moments of honesty, but every one was followed with broad moralizing. There were smaller stories, but every one was overshadowed by an aggressive straw man the likes of which we have never seen. There was spectacle, but beneath that spectacle was a fundamental lack of logical plot progression, filled with specious reasoning that was only called into question by the characters we were meant to despise.
Perhaps most importantly, though, “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” never felt spontaneous or thrilling: at every turn, it veered towards the predictable, finding precious few moments to truly become something that would capture the spirit (rather than the basic form) of the game it followed. While far from the worst episode the show has produced, it had the unfortunate distinction of having the most problematic lead-in: not because football and Glee are incompatible, but because the Super Bowl was thrilling in a way that Glee only dreams it could be.
Offseason Shenanigans: The Return of Glee
February 6th, 2011
For a show which has yet to air an episode in 2011, Glee has been awfully ubiquitous.
No, this isn’t surprising: people can’t get enough of Glee, so it is inevitable that a brief hiatus with a much-hyped post-Super Bowl episode on the other end would result in an infinite number of stories relating to the series. However, what struck me as particularly interesting is the degree to which the series’ absence created a vacuum for something approaching controversy. Ryan Murphy announced that he was breaking up one of the show’s couples because he was bored. Ryan Murphy started a flame war with Kings of Leon. Ryan Murphy claimed that Glee is at least partially aimed at seven-year-olds (in the same sentence, no less).
There were a few moments when people wondered why I, as someone who “deigns” to cover this series from a more critical perspective, wasn’t commenting on these numerous stories. In truth, I just didn’t have time to respond to every piece of new surrounding the show, but I also never felt any sort of impulse to do so. Yes, I could comment on what it means for a showrunner to admit to a show’s fans that he makes decisions based on things which bore him, and there’s certainly analysis to be done of the impact of public flame wars; there is also most certainly a lot to be said about Murphy’s perception of the demographic makeup of his audience, an audience which I would presume is more for the show’s music (a sort of pop culturally-driven Kidz Bop) than for the show itself.
However, maybe because of my scholarly approach, I didn’t feel particularly moved by any of these stories. I wasn’t angry that Murphy was bored because I’d rather showrunners be honest than not. I wasn’t aghast at Murphy’s battle with Kings of Leon because I don’t have the time to care about celebrities sniping at one another over a misunderstanding. And while I raised an eyebrow at Murphy’s comments regarding demographics, that seems like a more detailed, long-term study than it does an instant reaction.
Aired: April 15th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Fringe did not end up making my series list, a fact which I attribute to two things.
One is that the list was made while Fringe was still amidst its third season experimentation (deadlines and all that), and I think I was concerned (without cause, really) that it couldn’t stick the landing – I knew the show had been much improved this year versus last, but without knowing how they intended to strike that balance it made selecting the show as one of the top 15 (in what has been an overall strong year for television) more challenging than choosing already complete seasons.
The other, however, is that “White Tulip” has been stuck in my head since it aired in April, an episode emblematic of the series’ improvements to the point that I knew it would end up on this list (and thus recognize the show for its improvements). Amidst growing complexities relating to Peter’s true origins, and Walter’s growing sense of grief over the truth he’s held from his quasi-son for over twenty years. “White Tulip” by all appearances prepares to tell a normal story at a time when the “other side” is growing more prominent within the narrative. And yet the resulting “stand alone” episode is evocative, powerful, and resonant in ways that – going back to yesterday’s focus on The Good Wife’s “Heart” – most praise of the show glosses over in favor of its more serialized elements (which have been in fine form this year as well).
November 16th, 2010
“Are you on anything? Because this is trippy.”
“The Substitute” is terrible, except that it’s sort of great.
Every moment stands on the precipice of being terrible, predicated on tenuous connections to our reality. And yet, with a willingness to indulge in fantasy the episode achieves something approaching self-actualization, finding the honest moments in storylines that could very easily have been devoid of such honesty. Some moments are worse than the show’s baseline of ridiculousness, while other moments spin that ridiculousness into the kind of character moments that the show often struggles with.
Ian Brennan, returning to the material of “The Rhodes Not Taken,” tells a story about loneliness, albeit in an episode so jam-packed with storylines that the actual feeling of loneliness is largely theoretical. While not quite the series’ best episode, “The Substitute” makes so much with so little that we can’t help but find it admirable.
If, also, a little awful.
“The Rocky Horror Glee Show”
October 26th, 2010
The test of an episode so heavily based around a specific musical property is how it is integrated into the series as a whole. While Rocky Horror superfans are likely to judge the episode based on its relationship to the musical, I’m more interested in the musical’s relationship to the characters. I watched the movie for the first time over the weekend, and while the music is obviously the main reasons for this crossover it’s also easy to see how various characters could fit into particular roles. Finn and Rachel are a logical Brad and Janet, Sam might as well be Rocky 2.0, and the other roles all have enough meaning and interest that whoever fits into them could gain a new level of interest as a result (especially if the show is interested in the musical’s more subversive qualities).
At a few points, I think “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” succeeds in this area, albeit with some missteps. By admitting that the musical is inappropriate for this setting (small town Ohio), both through the actual storyline and how a variety of characters respond to the material, the show doesn’t pretend that it is entirely natural for these two properties to come together. In those moments, the episode is fairly grounded, problematizing the staging of the musical in ways which have potential to speak to the show’s characters.
The problem is that the central reason this connection is being made is the part of the show that simply doesn’t work, something that was entirely absent two weeks ago where the show was at its best in a long while. By grounding the musical in Will and Emma’s relationship, and in Sue’s efforts to destroy the Glee club, the small character moments are ultimately complicated and often undermined by the sense that tying this into one of the series’ weakest ongoing storylines takes leaps in logic that limits the potential impact of the musical’s presence in the episode.