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.
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.
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.