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Glee – “Laryngitis”

“Laryngitis”

May 11th, 2010

When Ryan Murphy said that the back nine episodes of Glee were going to use “Wheels” as a template, I didn’t know that the show was literally going to take plot elements of “Wheels” and just sort of spin them off into different variations on the same story. “Laryngitis” is the latest in a series of episodes which feels repetitive of what we’ve seen before, as we get a focus on the relationship between Kurt and his father, focus on the tensions created by Rachel’s substantial ego, and even the introduction of disability as a way of putting other concerns into perspective (with Tina’s stutter being replaced by Rachel’s tonsillitis).

The episode embodies many of the thing that I’ve found problematic in recent episodes, so it may seem strange when I say that it was ultimately quite successful. Yes, the show doesn’t entirely work as an out-and-out after school special as Ryan Murphy seems to want it to be, and I still think the show’s all-or-nothing attitude is reckless in ways that only the show’s best characters can really handle, but the stories the show rushed into this week featured characters who I like to spend time with, and reached conclusions which felt honest to those characters in ways that previous episodes did not. The reason is that the show doesn’t try to haphazardly connect them to broad ongoing storylines: for once the show sort of settled into a groove, capturing a sustained moment within the lives of the Glee Club rather than periods of intense conflict.

Those elements were still present, but they didn’t feel like they were being used as a shortcut to something more substantial, which helps me accept this episode as a singular statement of musical enjoyment when it may not have worked as part of a larger arc.

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Glee – “Bad Reputation”

“Bad Reputation”

May 4th, 2010

It’s never good for a show about high school to raise comparisons to Freaks and Geeks, but by choosing “Bad Reputation” as the title for this episode Glee entered into that dangerous territory. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” was the theme song to that show, and it has to be said that there was an element of irony in its use. Deep down, all of the characters on that show cared about their reputations, but what set the show apart was that they cared about them for realistic and dynamic reasons that felt true to life. The show never felt like it needed to sensationalize high school to create conflict, and as a result is one of the best shows of the past decade.

I understand that the “point” of Glee is to sensationalize, but the show can’t have it both ways. The problem with “Bad Reputation” is that it wants to come to saccharine and emotional conclusions but it wants to get there through the sort of bombastic, over the top chaos the show enjoys so much. And while a few of the musical numbers nicely encapsulate the way the characters are feeling, the storylines the episode uses to crystallize and set up those qualities are so far off the mark that I never once believed what was happening on screen.

While the message of the episode seemed to be that people shouldn’t worry so much about their reputations in high school, I think we’re at the point where Glee should be worried about its own reputation as it heads into its second season.

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Glee – “The Power of Madonna”

“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.]

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Fall Finale: Glee – “Sectionals”

“Sectionals”

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.

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Glee – “Ballad”

“Ballad”

November 18th, 2009

If you were to go back to the pilot, you would believe that Rachel Berry was the heart and soul of Glee. At that point, she was the person who most believed in Glee club, who saw it as the only place where she wasn’t the subject of ridicule and where she could express herself in the way she most desired.

But since that point, Rachel has become almost heartless. She turned her back on Glee club to join Sandy Ryerson’s musical, and she’s generally judgmental and frustrating before she’s caring or supportive. And yet, because Rachel is the strongest soloist (only Mercedes) on Glee, she’s remained at the centre of storylines and the club itself even while she seems convinced it’s actually holding her back from something better. It’s created a scenario where Rachel isn’t actually likeable, which is somewhat problematic if she’s supposed to be our heroine.

“Ballad” is a continuation of this theme, as a Glee Club exercise has everyone singing emotional ballads that bring out their deepest insecurities (in pretty uniformly effective ways) while Rachel is stuck in a “Hot for Teacher” scenario that never successfully bridges the comic and the dramatic (tears aside). I’m all for the show integrating more comedy than last week’s more emotional episode, and parts of this week’s entry nicely balance the two even with a lot of musical numbers involved, but Rachel’s storyline is effectively emotion-free, something that’s going to grow more and more problematic as we move forward.

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Glee – “Wheels”

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“Wheels”

November 11th, 2009

There’s a moment in “Wheels” where we fear the worst of Sue Sylvester, testing our ability to see past what we expect her character to do (something offensive and mean-spirited) to what she could potentially do (something transformative). And, in some ways, “Wheels” is very much the same sort of proposition. Ever since I learned ahead of time that “Wheels” was written by Ryan Murphy (as the writers appear to be cycling the scripts between the three of them), I have been fearful of when his worst habits (like his penchant for Terri and the more outlandish storylines) would emerge.

So, I spent most of the episode waiting for the episode to take some sort of turn, to go from being charming and funny and resonant to become outlandish and overbearing. I kept thinking that any scene which felt the least bit emotional would suddenly become undercut by something mean or cruel, and that this was all some sort of Sue Sylvester-like trick.

However, it appears that Murphy has been inspired by his fellow writers, because “Wheels” works in ways that Murphy’s previous episodes simply have not. The episode isn’t perfect, trying to do a few too many things at once, but each and every one of those elements manage to connect at som level. It is an episode that more than any other thus far feels as if it works because of, rather than in spite of, the show’s recurring storylines.

This isn’t to say that everything’s rosy, but it is to say that “Wheels” was certainly a watermark for Murphy’s work on the series, and easily the most starkly dramatic hour yet.

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Glee – “Mash-Up”

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“Mash-Up”

October 21st, 2009

Commenting on last week’s episode, Chris Becker noted that Glee has its share of problems, and one of them is (on occasion) actually calling attention to its own problems. By signalling out the minorities within Glee club, the show drew attention to the fact that it has largely ignored issues of diversity, so Sue’s strategy turned out more disturbing than funny. When you have a show that can be hot or cold like Glee can, and that tends to go in as many directions as Glee does, this is almost inevitable, but I would argue there’s a way to avoid it.

Ian Brennan, one of the show’s three creators and who was credited with the Chenoweth-infused “The Rhodes Not Taken,” uses this episode to actually call to our attention some of the show’s problems and actually treats them as problems. Folding them all under the theme of the mash-up, used here not as a drug-infused sideshow but a meditation on the process of bringing two people together in a potentially artificial process, Brennan depicts consequences in a way that the show often avoids, and continues to probe questions of high school popularity while not shying away from the darker side of teenage existence.

It may not be as eventful as “Preggers,” and its musical elements risked over-using Matthew Morrison, but by bringing all of its elements under one key theme that spoke to issues that have been plaguing the series for a while “Mash-Up” is perhaps the most complete episode of the show yet, struggling to balance its various elements only when it had a point to make about the trouble of balancing those elements.

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Glee – “The Rhodes Not Taken”

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“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.

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