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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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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 – “Hairography”

“Hairography”

November 25th, 2009

Last week, I had an extensive Twitter conversation with Jace Lacob about Glee, and the argument boiled down to the question of whether or not the show’s characters were one-dimensional. And what was interesting is that Jace and I don’t disagree: the show’s characters are, on occasion, blindly one-dimensional. However, I argued that the show is still in its infancy, and that considering its identity crisis it’s actually doing a decent job of slowly sketching out its characters.

However, I do think that one of the show’s problems is its decision to have characters waver between substantial character development and broad archetypes week by week. While a show like Friday Night Lights, with a similar ensemble cast of characters that often move in and out of the show’s narrative, is dealing with fairly grounded and realistic characters, Glee is slowly humanizing caricatures. And as a result, you have a character like Artie fluctuating from a handicapped student struggling to relate to his classmates to a random background character in a wheelchair, which feels false. Rather than the character development compounding over time, changing the way the show’s dynamics operate, the exact opposite is happening: while individual episodes give Kurt or Quinn or Puck storylines that expand on their identity, outside of the main serialized storyline (Finn and Quinn’s baby) they revert back to their original modes.

It creates a sense that, for a show which is at its best when characters are being developed and explored in a concentrated fashion, the plots of the show itself don’t actually seem to be changing in kind, and the show reverts back to a farcical comedy more often than not. At the heart of “Hairography” is the fairly simple premise that beneath the distractions we create for ourselves is a sense of our true identity, as various characters test out potential distractions only to find that their heart takes them in a different direction.

However, Glee is a show that is all about distractions, and while this individual episode may have peeled everything back to show the supposed true colours of the various characters the show is never going to stop delivering show-stopping musical numbers or interjecting random musical sequences into largely unrelated scenes. The result is an episode that, rather than representing a legitimate step forward for the series, only draws attention to some of its long-term, cumulative limitations: it can tug at the heartstrings and build character when it wants to, but this is never going to start being a show about twelve kids singing on stools.

Especially not with a fake pregnancy storyline hanging over it.

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Dexter – “Dirty Harry”

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“Dirty Harry”

October 25th, 2009

When “Dirty Harry” begins, the problems start before the episode even does. After the exciting finale to “Dex Takes a Holiday,” which was a strong episode which really connected with the qualities that make the show work and which ended on that cliffhanger of Deb and Lundy bleeding on the pavement, things seemed exciting in a way that the show was struggling with early on.

However, the lengthy “Previously on Dexter” sequence reminded us that the things that made that episode great were an exclusion (of Rita and the kids) and a shock (that won’t be recreated in the next episode), which means that “Dirty Harry” is immediately handicapped. And while there are some stories that seem legitimately compelling, those seem to be at a standstill while the “drama” comes from conflicts that are either entirely uninteresting or which feel like the sort of simple “Dexter meets Suburbia” type stories the show has been dealing with this season.

It proves once and for all that Dexter is a series best watched in extended bursts on DVD, because the hype is going to create expectations that this season isn’t able to live up to.

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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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Season Premiere: Dexter – “Living the Dream”

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“Living the Dream”

September 27th, 2009

“It’s already over.”

I have always made the argument that Dexter, slowly but surely, has turned into the pay cable equivalent of 24. However, until watching “Living the Dream,” I had always considered it a sort of referential shorthand for me to say that I’m not amongst those who consider the show in the same league as more complex cable series. After watching the show’s fourth season premiere, however, I’m now convinced that the show is intent on proving me right.

It is a show driven by a single lead character whose personal struggles form the basis of emotional investment. It is a show where each season features a different “threat” that the lead character needs to respond to. It is a show where the supporting characters are interesting when interacting with the lead, but mind-numbingly boring and pointless when left to their own devices. And, perhaps more importantly, it is a show where the similarities between seasons begin to feel repetitive, resulting in its negative qualities becoming that much more apparent in subsequent seasons.

I would be fine with formula if I felt that the formula was actually resulting in a show that made good on the first season’s premise of a vigilante serial killer coming to terms with his morality and engaging with “The Dark Defender.” However, the fourth season is shaping up to continue the trend of the third season, drawing most of its interest from an implausible scenario whereby a national serial killer happens to have originated in Miami, just as every terrorist attack seemed to happen within driving distance of Los Angeles on 24, than from what that means for Dexter.

And while Michael C. Hall will continue to be fantastic in a storyline played more for laughs and convenience than anything else, the show feels as if it is rebooting every time they start a new season. And for a character once defined by the haunting of the past, and by a complex set of characteristics I do not feel have been significantly examined to be undermined, to have only as much past as the show decides he should, is to find a show moving further away from a complex character study and closer and closer to a serialized action thriller with a strong central character and nothing else to show for it.

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Glee – “Showmance”

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“Showmance”

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.

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