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Glee – “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”

“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.

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Glee – “Special Education”

“Special Education”

November 30th, 2010

The performance episodes of Glee have been pretty universally strong: both “Sectionals” and “Journey” avoided relying purely on spectacle, delivering episodes which consolidate season-long developments. The first episode confirmed that New Directions could survive without Will and come together as a team, while “Journey” brought both Sue’s relationship with New Directions and Rachel’s relationship to Finn to a triumphant close.

“Special Education” is notable in that it is the first performance episode that doesn’t serve as any sort of ending. With “Sectionals” positioned as the closing hour of the show’s original 13-episode order (and filmed before the show became an established hit), and with “Journey” as the first season finale, there was always a sense of closure. By comparison, “Special Education” isn’t even closing out the first part of the season (the Christmas episode airs next week), which means that the event is going to be considerably less climactic than what we’ve seen before.

While not perfect, I quite like what Brad Falchuk and Paris Barclay did with this hour. A self-reflexive deconstruction of the balance between the individual and the group within the series, the episode lacks subtlety but resists the urge to smooth over its various conflicts. While the show doesn’t quite commit to the character drama to the point where it avoids the cheery group number at episode’s end, I thought it had some legitimately interesting insight into what that balance means to the series. The spirit of the show may not be broken, but there are enough cracks in the armor that “Special Education” successfully delivers spectacle and transition without resolving anything.

Allowing for the Christmas denouement next week.

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Glee – “Furt”

“Furt”

November 23rd, 2010

In what was generally considered to be the “end” of the series’ bullying arc, Glee becomes self-aware. Its characters realize that they are in an after school special about bullying, and that they need to do something about it. More than the two episodes which preceded it, “Furt” is about the reality of bullying, about the ways in which something serious and important can be undone by bureaucracy or the social structure that creates bullying in the first place.

At the same time, of course, the episode is a celebration of the wonders of wedded bliss, and the relationship between children and their parents. The congruity of these ideas is more than a bit suspect, but in defense of “Furt” I think this is part of the point. The problem with bullying is that it is chalked up to the realities of life, to the chaos that Glee often embodies to a fault, and the episode’s serious tone offers some introspective character moments that resist the simple morals we might have expected.

It becomes an episode about chain reactions, about the ways that one decision can inspire others to do something more about this; it is also an episode about how even every single character on a series banding together around someone being bullied isn’t enough to change the culture of high school bullying.

Which keeps even a character marrying themselves from upending the role of reality in this universe.

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Glee – “Duets”

“Duets”

October 12th, 2010

I’ve talked a lot about the “Three Glees” theory in the past (TM Todd VanDerWerff), where each of the three co-creators have a different perspective on the series. However, in most instances we focus on the whiplash between the various different episodes, a sort of multiple personality disorder, but what I don’t think we’ve theorized on as much is the way in which these Glees comment on one another. I think this was because, before “Duets,” I don’t think there had ever been an episode of the show which so clearly commented on the work of one of the other writers.

Since the show is basically serialized, there is always an element of connection between the episodes, but “Duets” offers direct commentary on both long-term characterizations and specific events from “Theatricality,” an episode which I had some serious problems with earlier in the year. Ian Brennan, scripting his first episode since the premiere, has created an episode which adds unseen depth to previous storylines, makes pretty substantial strides with characters both old and new, and in the process convinces me that in a scenario where one writer is to take over the series, Brennan is without question the show’s white knight.

“Duets” is not the most daring episode of the series, but it is unquestionably the most consistent, and that alone makes this one of the series’ finest hours.

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Season Premiere: Glee – “Audition”

“Audition”

September 21st, 2010

I want you to imagine that “Audition” was, in fact, an audition for Glee as a television series: if this were the show’s pilot, what show would you imagine it to be?

The series’ actual pilot, if you remember, tries to capture an emotion: it is about the positivity of Glee club, and the potential for music to unite these social outcasts (and a football player) to achieve something beyond simple anonymity. It was predicated on the idea that one song could pull everything together: Journey was powerful enough to bolster Will’s spirit and calm Finn’s anxieties, and suddenly New Directions was full of hope.

And yet, the Glee club never truly moved up the social ladder, and this sort of romantic ideal of glee club was deconstructed just as quickly as it was constructed. Glee’s first season was spent trying to find new ways to challenge the Glee club, and to be honest they kept returning to the same premise: by placing the club’s finances in peril, the group would need to band together against external threats and thus recreate the final scene of that pilot. Everyone would get together and sing to help Quinn through her pregnancy, or help Will understand what he means to them, or some other holistic function that music could in some fashion solve. Glee was a show about people getting knocked down and immediately getting back up to sing things back to where they were before, a cycle that became dramatically problematic by the time the first part of the season came to an end.

By comparison, “Audition” is not that type of show: the emotion it captures is the discord within the Glee Club family, and it starts with the hopefulness of the ideal before quickly and quite viciously deconstructing any notion that happy days are here again. It is an episode about the impossibility of unity, about how our selfishness keeps the ideal from ever coming to fruition, and is thus an episode that taps into the sadness inherent in Glee’s concept rather than its triumphant musical enlightenment.

In other words, it’s my kind of Glee, which makes it a pretty substantial risk for a second season “Audition.”

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Glee – “Funk”

“Funk”

June 1st, 2010

I focused a lot last week on the show’s unwillingness to embrace its continuities, and while I hate to be repetitive “Funk” runs headfirst into the same problem: airing out of order (originally intended to air before last week’s “Theatricality”), the episode has a number of chances to connect its at times random storylines to previous developments, and yet resists at every turn.

It’s especially strange in that the episode returns a couple of recurring characters into the mix, which seems like a great way to justify looking back a bit. The result is an episode which feels like the show spinning its wheels, shifting sharply from some intense dramatic storylines to a pretty stock “guess what? Regionals is coming up next week!” episode.

And even with the joys of song and dance, those episodes just end up being a bit of a snoozefest, and in this case an occasionally problematic one as the show makes a couple of key decisions which take some strange routes to get to some fairly interesting conclusions.

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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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