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Glee – “The Substitute”

“The Substitute”

November 16th, 2010

“Are you on anything? Because this is trippy.”

“The Substitute” is terrible, except that it’s sort of great.

Every moment stands on the precipice of being terrible, predicated on tenuous connections to our reality. And yet, with a willingness to indulge in fantasy the episode achieves something approaching self-actualization, finding the honest moments in storylines that could very easily have been devoid of such honesty. Some moments are worse than the show’s baseline of ridiculousness, while other moments spin that ridiculousness into the kind of character moments that the show often struggles with.

Ian Brennan, returning to the material of “The Rhodes Not Taken,” tells a story about loneliness, albeit in an episode so jam-packed with storylines that the actual feeling of loneliness is largely theoretical. While not quite the series’ best episode, “The Substitute” makes so much with so little that we can’t help but find it admirable.

If, also, a little awful.

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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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Glee – “Grilled Cheesus”

“Grilled Cheesus”

October 5th, 2010

If you ever needed proof of a higher power, take the fact that “Grilled Cheesus” more or less works.

While problematic in a number of areas, there is an emotional core to this spirituality-themed episode which manages to ground what seems like a really terrible idea in theory. While the show has handled some bigger issues quite effectively, like Kurt’s sexuality, it has also botched numerous issues, like (at times) Kurt’s sexuality. For every moment of emotional honesty, there are situations (like Burt’s big speech admonishing Finn) which seem to undermine those moments; while inconsistency is problematic in almost any series, here those inconsistencies often write over previous developments of character, theme, and universe.

“Grilled Cheesus” does nothing to solve the series’ problems of consistency as a whole, wildly different from everything else this season, but by grounding a difficult subject with the series’ most proven recurring storyline Brad Falchuk has created a stand-alone take on religion that only rarely offends my sensibilities.

And that, my friends, is some sort of miracle.

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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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Season Finale: Glee – “Journey”

“Journey”

June 8th, 2010

“Life only really has one beginning and one end – the rest is just a whole lot of middle.”

In his attempts to inspire his Glee Club to achieve despite the nearly insurmountable odds placed before them at the upcoming Regional championships, Will Schuester makes the above remarks. And while I don’t think this was intentional, there’s a wonderful meta-commentary about the show itself in this statement: sure, the fragmented nature of the first season means that there were really two beginnings and two endings, but at the end of the day everything else was just a whole lot of middle that was more middling than I would have desired.

But if the back nine of Glee’s first season saw the series flipping and flailing wildly as it flew through the air, “Journey” demonstrates that this series knows how to stick a landing; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the show would be amongst television’s best if they did two-episode seasons made up entirely of premieres and finales. Sure, the episode more or less feels like “Sectionals 2: Electric Bugaloo,” following the same patterns as the fall finale, but there is an unabashed sincerity to its storytelling which remains grounded without having to be undercut at every turn. It makes the show feel like it has earned this blanket sentimentality, that it truly has taken these characters on a journey which has changed their lives.

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a great essay earlier today about Glee’s radical sincerity, but when I think about it nothing about “Journey” felt radical: so embodying the resiliency of the series’ spirit, and unapologetically engaging in theatrics we might have rolled our eyes at just a year ago, Glee proves that even considering all of the hype and success there remains a confident, passionate, absolutely entertaining series about a glee club that, gosh darn it, refuses to stop believing in itself.

And while I’m still going to dock the series some points for its poor form in the air during its back nine, I’m willing to throw up a good 9.5 or so for its landing, as “Journey” is unquestionably a series high point.

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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 – “Home”

“Home”

April 27th, 2010

“I don’t try to change you, you don’t try to change me”

There is nothing I hate more than a show doing everything I ask it to and nonetheless leaves me cold. If you had asked me to focus on some of the prevailing problems to this point in Glee’s Spring season, I would have pointed to the narrow storylines which tend to focus on the central love triangles rather than the supporting characters, so to have an episode that so clearly focuses on characters like Kurt and Mercedes seems like it should be right up my alley.

The problem with “Home” is that it feels like the show is being changed rather than changing, characters emerging from their prison of one-dimensionality and returning to the last time they had anything close to character development. At times this results in beautiful musical numbers and emotionally resonant scenes which speak to the larger series, but as an actual episode “Home” feels equal parts honest and dishonest thanks to the sense that none of it has been earned from a narrative perspective.

You could make the same argument about “Wheels,” I realize this, but I think that this episode contained more of both sides of the show’s schizophrenia as it relates to certain characters, and comes directly after an episode which presented such wildly different versions of these characters that the jarring lack of continuity cannot be overcome by an emotional performance of a Burt Bacharach song, no matter how hard the show tries to make it so.

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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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Spring Premiere: Glee – “Hell-O”

“Hell-O”

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.

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Glee Season 1.5: Three Questions Producers Need to Answer

Season 1.5: Three Questions Producers Need to Answer

December 10th, 2009

When we watch a television show as viewers or as critics, we want to believe that our opinions matter. This is not to suggest that we desire to control a particular story, by pushing it in one direction or another, but rather that how people respond to a show is capable of giving the producers some idea of how their show could reach either its widest audience or (for us critics, at least) its fullest comic and dramatic potential.

And yet, for Glee, the voices of fans and critics have seemed to fall upon deaf ears, as some of the common concerns (about the over-produced musical numbers, about the inconsistency between episodes) have remained staples of the show throughout the season. Now, again, this isn’t inherently a problem (it’s their show, they can do with it what they want), but it is important to acknowledge that this was not about ignorance: rather, the show finished filming over a month before the show started in earnest in September. It was produced in a bubble, the writers learning as they went along with only the reviews and reaction towards the pilot to guide them (and, even then, they had produced quite a few episodes before it aired in May).

As a result, when Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan head back to work in early January to start production on the back nine for the show’s first season (which I’m choosing to dub Season 1.5 as opposed to “Volume 2” or something silly like that), they will have with them the internet’s collective response to the show’s first thirteen episodes. And, for me, the big question now is quite simple: what the heck are they going to do with it?

After the break, I’ll offer my thoughts on where I feel their focus should lie, and why it doesn’t all line up with my own selfish desires for the series going forward.

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