Tag Archives: Will

Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

“We Just Decided To”

June 24th, 2012

I saw all of the tweets about The Newsroom leading up to its debut. I saw them build with excitement around its beginnings, and then I saw them increase in volume while splintering off into numerous factions in the months leading up to its premiere. With some shows, screeners go out and very little is said about them within the critical community, with any chatter confined to backchannels. With The Newsroom, though, the conversation couldn’t help but spill out into public, and it became almost a rite of passage for critics to announce their opinion of the show so as to line up into certain camps.

This isn’t abnormal, precisely: whenever critics write a review, they are stating their opinion and implicitly entering into a particular group of critics who felt a particular way about a particular series. However, everything about the critical discourse around The Newsroom has been explicit, at least following it on Twitter: this is partly because of the show itself (which is divisive), and partly because of creator Aaron Sorkin (who has a divisive history), and partly because of the show’s would-be relationship to the sociopolitical. Without suggesting that Aaron Sorkin has actually made a television show that will change the news media and those who bear witness to it (which he has not, just so we’re entirely clear), the fact that he wants to renders critical evaluations into sociopolitical evaluations for some, with the rejection or acceptance of Sorkin’s worldview becoming a reflection of the critic’s own.

I don’t believe this to be true, of course, and have not read into—or read, actually—any of those critics’ reviews. When I realized that I would be going into The Newsroom tonight with the rest of the viewing public, I chose not to read the various intelligent, well-reasoned, divisive reviews of the series in advance; I knew I was going to watch it, and Twitter had already told me that the show is a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” and part of me wanted to escape the discourse of Sorkin, and the media, and worldviews in favor of a more simple question.

Is The Newsroom an effective television pilot? A recent Facebook thread featuringprofessors/grad students discussing potential pilots to screen for students in a Television class got me thinking about this. On one level, you want to show students something great, something that grabs their attention and potentially sends them off to watch the rest of the series: we had a number of students do this with Friday Night Lights this past semester, for example. However, you could also show them a failed pilot (like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which I know the folks at the Good TVeets Con recently watched) and ask them where they think it went wrong.

While both strategies have merit, and are probably easier ways to communicate how pilots are intended to work, part of me wants to show them The Newsroom, which manages to succeed and fail in the same moments. Everything that works about The Newsroom is also everything that doesn’t, as Sorkin’s powerful use of momentum means we never have time to stop and connect to something more than a feeling that may not last as long as the show might like. I am aware that too much ink has probably been spent on the show already, and I’m likely repeating things many others have said, but I can’t deny that answering even this simply question left me plenty to say about The Newsroom.

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Season Finale: Glee – “New York”

“New York”

May 24th, 2011

“Make one…in your mind.”

As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.

Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.

Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.

And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.

At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.

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Glee – “Funeral”

“Funeral”

May 17th, 2011

“I’m Lima good. Not New York City good.”

Last season, we didn’t get a “real” penultimate episode: “Funk” was moved into the penultimate spot arbitrarily when FOX wanted to move the Lady Gaga-enhanced “Theatricality,” which created a whole issue in regards to plot continuity.

This time around, “Funeral” was meant as the penultimate episode all along, and I’ve got to be honest: this just doesn’t work. I actually understand the logic here, as Ryan Murphy takes us back to the pilot by staging a new set of auditions and returning us to the hopes and dreams of Will Schuester. I actually really like parts of this, and the idea of Nationals unearthing some of the initial divisions of talent within the Glee club is actually sort of logical – the line above really gets to the heart of the hopelessness that drives the show’s small town aesthetic, and I really like when the show revisits that idea.

But the way Murphy goes about it only highlights how heading in this old direction undercuts all of the other directions that have been built into this season. As a standalone piece, “Funeral” is a fine showcase for Jane Lynch’s ability to depict the emotional turmoil that makes the character the way she is, and a fine musical showcase for a variety of members of the show’s cast. But as an actual penultimate episode as part of the show’s second season, it takes too long to find the story threads it needed to find to feel connected to that which came before, even if it connects nicely into what comes after (which remains an inherent possibility).

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Glee – “Comeback”

“Comeback”

February 15th, 2011

There is nothing wrong with Justin Bieber.

Maybe it’s just my Canadian pride, but the kid is inoffensive to the point of being sort of charming. Especially recently, given his playful send-ups of his celebrity on The Daily Show and a bunch of other late night series, I’ve generally liked him, and while I wouldn’t say his music is exactly my taste I will say that it has a certain charm. He’s not a particularly wonderful singer, but that’s not really the point, and so the cultural vitriol surrounding him confounds me at points.

There are, however, plenty of things wrong with the Justin Bieber phenomenon. The problem isn’t Bieber himself, but what he has come to represent, and his cultural ubiquity relative to his actual talent (which is not “insignificant,” but is not exactly befitting his success). And it seems almost impossible to separate the latter from the former, to see the decent kid behind the phenomenon: while Never Say Never as a film might actually do a lot to humanize Bieber, the very idea of a teenager receiving a 3D Concert documentary only fuels the impression that his fame has gotten out of control.

In case you haven’t figured it out, Glee is a lot like Justin Bieber. At some level, there is a basic competence, a potential to be something entertaining: at a more macro-level, however, the Glee phenomenon has become an epic distraction, infringing on our enjoyment of the series on a regular basis.

On some level, “Comeback” should be seen as a return to basics: like episodes like “Duets” or even last week’s “Silly Love Songs,” the Glee club receives a simple theme and is asked to perform numbers relating to them. However, while those episodes felt united in their loose themes, there was no such unity to be found here. The result is a scattershot and problematically ephemeral hour which succeeded only in laying out some basic exposition for where the show will be headed in the weeks ahead.

And that’s not exactly looking like a “Comeback.”

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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 – “A Very Glee Christmas”

“A Very Glee Christmas”

December 7th, 2010

Generally speaking, the most difficult question for Glee to answer is “Why?” So many of its stories seem to have no connection with ongoing events that if you keep asking why precisely it’s happening, and so you sort of have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But “A Very Glee Christmas” offers an answer to this question at every turn: every time I imagine someone questioning the various hurried and forced story developments in the episode, the show screams back “BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS.”

It’s a pretty good excuse, honestly: while sometimes the show risks losing its heart amidst the broadness of Sue’s cartoon villainy, and it sometimes struggles with how theme episodes deal with ongoing storylines, Christmas gives them something cheerful and magical to bring it all together. We expect Christmas to overwhelm all other emotions, as holidays are all about coming together regardless of our differences and celebrating peace on Earth.

And for a show that is always most comfortable, in my eyes, when it merges its sense of celebration with a sense of sadness, “A Very Glee Christmas” at times hits the sweet spot: it uses the broad comedy to fuel the sadness, but follows through on the consequences with an investigation of the limitations of Christmas rather than simply a celebration of the holiday. The result is an episode which seemed charmingly celebratory and yet still felt like it could indulge in “Sue the Grinch” when it so desired.

And it’s pretty emotionally honest until it ends up with nowhere to go but sap, positing Christmas as collective rather than connective and losing its momentum and its charm in the process.

Bah humbug.

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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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