May 6th, 2010
This episode is a triumph, so let me first make a note regarding its tremendous (or, if you prefer for me to actually complete the reference completely, huge) success – the various action movie parodies which run throughout “Modern Warfare” are expertly designed, tremendously directed by Justin Lin, and result in a really funny and successful episode.
However, I am sort of at a loss about what to really say about it, if only because I haven’t seen a lot of the action movies that the show parodied, and the brekaway narrative used by the episode (and most action movies) meant that the number of characters onscreen diminished as the episode went on. While the episode embodied the show’s propensity for pop culture references and for its meta-subversion of sitcom stereotypes, it also disrupted (as we saw in “Contempoary American Poultry”) the show’s traditional character dynamics. With only twenty minutes, the show rushed head first into the central dynamic between Jeff and Britta while largely “writing off” the other characters, which helped get to the various cliches the episode wanted to address but which kept me (who, as with the Goodfellas parody, was sort of left on the outside here) at arm’s length.
It still really freaking cool from my vantage point, but it wasn’t so much a high water mark for the show so much as it was an important test for the series’ future that it passed with flying colours.
Which were, you know, paint balls.
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.
October 14th, 2009
“An environment of constant irrational terror”
Andy Dehnart (who can be found on Twitter at RealityBlurred) posted a piece of commentary at MSNBC yesterday that, earlier today, exploded into a lively twitter discussion amongst critics. His argument is that the show relies on stereotypes when it could be developing character, and that it needs to eliminate some of its more one-dimensional characters (like Sandy) and provide more depth to its central Glee club members. What’s interesting is that I don’t think there’s anyone who is going to argue with this point, especially if we apply it to Terri and her fake pregnancy. The strangest thing about Glee, from critics’ perspectives, is that most people tend to agree that it has its share of problems, especially when it comes to the adult characters on the show. The difference comes in how people rationalize those criticisms and weigh them with the show’s undeniable charm, and its quick-witted one-liners that most people tend to enjoy.
“Throwdown” is yet another dividing point, an episode that highlights the show’s best character (Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester) and as a result features a lot of great one-liners and some solid musical numbers. However, as someone who tends to lean more critically on the show than others, it’s an episode that shows you that Dehnart’s complaints aren’t the show’s only problem. Yes, its adult characters are one-dimensional, but the show’s plotting is just as problematic: storylines seem to happen to characters as opposed to because of characters, and the result is that the Glee club itself is trapped in the middle of wars and plots (the environment of constant irrational terror, in other words) that may be entertaining in the short term but are doing nothing to foster long term development.
Linda Holmes from NPR made the note that it’s impossible for Glee to hit the mark every week, as the mark is tiny and specific. I’d argue that the show is hitting that mark enough to keep me watching, but I’d also argue that it is more consistently missing it where it counts (narrative, character development) than where it’s most popular (the musical numbers, the one-liners). And while that’s a pattern for cult success, it’s not a pattern for dramatic or comic fulfillment.
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.
May 19th, 2009
As always, as a less than official TV critic, I haven’t been amongst those lucky enough to have seen FOX’s new series, Glee, ahead of time. This is not usually an issue, as I’m able to avoid any spoilers or any really strong opinions on these shows, but ignoring Glee has been nearly impossible. Between the constant deluge of ads that FOX has been deploying, and between every TV critic under the sun having extremely polarizing reactions to the series, ignoring Glee has been fundamentally impossible. People either love the show or, well, they agree that there’s other people other than themselves who will probably love it.
Amazingly, however, I managed to keep myself from seeing a single clip, or more than a few images, from the series: sure, I’ve seen the criticism, but this unique musical television “event” (premiering after American Idol despite not truly debuting until the Fall) remains entirely unspoiled in terms of its tone and in terms of its execution (although I’ve obviously listened to the critics enough to know some things to look out for). As a result, I can honestly say that I went into Glee with, primarily, no real expectations one way or the other. The result?
I’m a little bit in love.