March 15th, 2011
The most problematic scene in “Original Song” had nothing to do with original songs. It was the deliberation between the judges at Regionals, as three ridiculous stereotypes joined together to tell a series of lifeless jokes with no function beyond the initial irony that Kathy Griffin would be playing a Tea Party amalgam of Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin. Any scene which functions exactly as you could imagine based on a casting announcement is what one would call a wasted opportunity, and a waste of the pretty great Loretta Devine.
However, the scene is also problematic because it’s happening outside the context of the episode. While the show often raises the specter of “How is this logistically possible” with its various performances, it often does so with a purpose: a big theatrical number is used to reflect big theatrical emotions, using the show’s loose grasp on reality as a stylistic advantage. There was no use to that deliberation scene, an indulgence and little more, but the musical numbers are more often than not “useful” in telling that week’s story. Some of the show’s best episodes, like “Duets,” are all about using musical numbers (sometimes even elaborate ones, like Kurt’s “Le Jazz Hot”) to represent the characters’ state of mind.
What fascinates me about “Original Song,” which was overall a pretty solid episode, was how transparent it was. It positioned songwriting as a way for characters to express their emotion, but their fairly impressive songwriting skills mixed with the on-the-nose characterization made the behind-the-scenes machinations painfully clear. It exposes the central irony of the big Regionals performance: as the Glee club kids take to the stage to perform original songs that communicate their feelings about love and tyrannical educators, they perform pop songs written by famous songwriters for the purpose of selling iTunes downloads.
And while that doesn’t entirely undercut the episode’s function, it does blunt the impact of an episode which was otherwise positioned as a pretty important character beat.
“Blame it on the Alcohol”
February 22nd, 2011
“We take our craft serious.”
By the time students reach high school, afterschool specials are a laughing matter. Of course, simultaneously, the subject matter of those afterschool specials becomes infinitely more serious, as students are introduced to social problems which could very well affect many of them in their adult lives. For the most part, the only tenable strategy is to lean into the pitch, accepting that students will laugh and finding a way to spin that humor into something approaching understanding.
However, what happens if you’re a television show ostensibly aimed at teenagers (or, according to Ryan Murphy, seven-year-olds) which wants to do an episode about the dangers of alcohol? On the one hand, the show is interested in the comic potential of a drunk New Directions: it wants to see what Rachel Berry is like when she’s drunk, to indulge in the easy jokes created in such a scenario. Of course, it also wants to avoid glorifying alcohol, which means having characters serve as designated drivers, sober observers, and voices for the value of sobreity.
The success of “Blame it on the Alcohol” very much depends on what message we’re supposed to take away. As a piece of comedy, the episode is about as uneven as we’ve come to expect from the show, finding a few solid jokes but never quite landing. However, in terms of taking the introduction of alcohol and spinning it into something approaching self-reflection, the episode is actually fairly successful. It’s all a bit on-the-nose, and requires more than a little contrivance, but I was left with a greater understanding of these characters.
If not, necessarily, an outright appreciation for the episode in question.
May 18th, 2010
I made a case a few weeks ago that Glee would work better if it wasn’t so concerned about plot or character development: if each individual episode were allowed to serve as a standalone story about high school students overcoming adversity through the powers of song and dance, I think the show would feel less rushed, less burdened by the need to maintain something approaching momentum. By focusing on ongoing character arcs, it means that the show’s whiplash storytelling feels like the show is being pulled in fifteen different directions, and characters who appear only occasionally in the “main” narrative feel objectified when they’re given the “spotlight” on rare occasions.
“Dream On,” I would argue, works in a bubble: if you choose to take an entirely anachronistic view to this series, then there are inspirational moments, some decent jokes, and some strong musical numbers, all of which is well directed by Joss Whedon and bolstered by Neil Patrick Harris’ presence. However, once you start thinking about these characters as something more than archetypes and think about where they’ve been in the past and how they came to be in these situations, you start to realize that something doesn’t add up. We’ve seen these stories before, and in some ways we’ve moved past these stories, and the expectation of character development feels betrayed by the apparent regression.
I want this show to be able to show me growth in its characters, and I want it to work harder at developing ongoing storylines that make sense and which enrich the show’s storytelling, but I feel like they don’t have the execution or the vision to pull that together, which makes me wary of the show’s long term prospects amidst the hype surrounding its more successful (and more popular) elements.
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.
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.
April 13th, 2010
I considering myself an appreciator of Glee, one of the few “deconstruction-focused” critics who has been writing about the show in a dedicated fashion (some weeks, it’s just Todd and I), but I don’t like that being a “fan” has become an all-or-nothing proposal. I can like the show while admitting that it has some pretty considerable flaws, but it seems like FOX’s promotional blitz has very clearly divided those who are chugging the kool-aid and those who are sipping it politely and discussing the sugar to water ratio, and as someone who falls in the latter category I can already sense that this is becoming one of those shows where any sort of indepth, negative review is going to be attacked for “missing the point of the show” and the like from some – but not, of course, all – viewers of the show.
This is unfortunate because I think how Glee tries to accomplish its goals is actually far more interesting than the goals themselves, as the balance between music and dialogue, or comedy and drama, or fantasy and reality all create some very intriguing problems that Ryan Murphy and Co. have to deal with on a weekly basis. That the show isn’t always successful shouldn’t be a surprise considering the volatile elements it chooses to take on each week, and the idea that its can-do spirit or its exuberance can account for its occasional missteps is the sort of romantic notion that only works in the show’s universe, not in ours.
“Hell-O” is a strong season premiere not because of the hype, or because of the musical numbers that the show chooses, but because those musical numbers are very well focused, the introduction of new characters is well-handled, and the thematic parallels are useful enough that the contrivances necessary to create them are forgivable. After a closure-heavy conclusion that wrapped things up too neatly, the show manages to complicate things quite effectively as it prepares for what appears to be a lengthy run – forgive me if I don’t let the show run around the hurdles every week.
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.
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.