Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The RBI Report: "Born This Way"

Hello, all!  This week's Glee was bigger, longer, and more epic than ever - without relying on a single artist for their theme!  "Born This Way" was a good fit for the show, because it gave focus to the defining notion that each of these kids embraces what makes them different.  In general, the episode communicated this fact efficiently and movingly.  But of course, I have a few nitpicks in choice and execution.  To the report!

"Born This Way," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

"Born This Way" had a lot going on, but the basic construct of the episode was that the involved characters were expressing various levels of denial about their identity: Rachel with her nose, Quinn with her unpretty past, Emma with her OCD, and Santana and Karofsky with their sexuality.  Each of these characters were forced to confront these emotions through one of Glee's motivational staples: encouragement, or blackmail.  Of course, all of this was set against the backdrop of Karofsky's redemption, Kurt's return to McKinley, and the quest for Prom Queen.  So let's just go one-by-one, yes?

Rachel Berry and the Nose Job
Rachel Berry got clocked in the face within the first minute of the entire episode, and was left to simmer in the background wrestling with the decision to get a nose job.  This storyline worked well start to finish, although it was strongest when Rachel was in direct interaction with Quinn.  The show made it very clear that Rachel's nose issues stemmed strongly from the contrast to Quinn's traditional beauty, and the belief that everyone (Finn included) would choose Quinn over Rachel.  Since the emotions directly linked Rachel with Quinn, the actions that manifested those emotions played well in - you guessed it! - direct interaction with Quinn.

We got that mostly in the beginning of the episode, with some lovely shot direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who constructed parallel shots with Quinn and Rachel, and effectively used mirrors and photographs to illustrate the idea of self-reflection and external representation in both girls.  Compelling stuff, right?  Right!  But honestly, I wish this duet had come later in the episode, after Quinn and Rachel were given more time to actually interact and have a conversation that could highlight the similarities in their relationships with self-definition and the idea of external expectation.  It would have been allowed a stronger meaning, tethering the two girls together in similarity and difference.

But unfortunately, that didn't really happen.  Rachel's storyline spiraled away from Quinn's in the second half of "Born This Way," and while Kurt, Puck and the rest of the club were there to stage a darling Barbravention (sans Barbra, though, because they're in a mall in Ohio) to convince Rachel to keep her nose, Quinn's storyline didn't fare so well.  Which leads me to...

Quinn, and Lucy "Caboosey" Fabray
The idea that Quinn Fabray doesn't love herself is not terribly far-fetched.  The show has repeatedly presented the idea that Quinn Fabray is actually, to borrow a phrase from Shonda Rhimes and Meredith Grey, "dark and twisty."  But what I don't understand from the writers is why they refuse to confront this rather compelling notion and instead paint Quinn Fabray in two single dimensions: a pretty face with a white-knuckle grip on popularity.

What should have happened with Quinn in this episode is the reveal that even traditional beauties can feel like crap about themselves.  Even a Quinn Fabray can feel like a Rachel Berry without ever having looked like her.  And while I certainly concede that perhaps it is easier to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty in this society that defines attractiveness as such, I find that saying that Quinn chose to be that way as an easy fix for her self-worth problems is limiting.  

The reveal of Lucy "Caboosey" Fabray really throws me for a loop.  It's basically a half-assed justification for the writers' own refusal to treat Quinn like a real character since she's been off the Cheerios (pt deux).  The writing reduced Quinn to a pretty face with shallow intentions for the purpose of Finn's arc, Rachel's arc, and almost Lauren's arc - only to have it spun back around on her with the comedic excuse, "Oh, she used to be heavy and pimply and a brunette, too!"

It completely weakens the character.  It ignores the depth given to her in previous episodes, cements her two-dimensional representation, and almost permanently excludes her from the show's message.  You know who wasn't born that way?  Quinn Fabray.  Because it's apparently out-of-the-question that someone who looks like Dianna Agron could have insecurities about herself.  Cue an epic eyeroll from me, please.  (And also, please know that I don't look like Dianna Agron.  But everybody's got insecurities; I don't care how typically gorgeous you are.  And past that, no character, or human, should be defined by their looks - and wasn't that the true point of this episode?)

So, while "I Feel Pretty/Unpretty" was lovely and heartfelt, it really wasn't there for Quinn so much as for Rachel - even though it was supposed to be, based on thematic setup.  But in the end, Quinn was a "miserable little girl" who only loves herself now because she's traditionally pretty.  There was no ounce of regret given to her actions, just the notion that she has been duly punished for her transgressions.  The writers made an example of Quinn Fabray.  From Quinn herself, we can only really surmise that she accepts now that the truth is out, and the idea that other people don't have to change themselves if they don't want - based on her interactions with Lauren, and Finn.  But, there was no resolution with Rachel - and for as heavily as they set up their duality in the first third of the episode, there needed to be.  It was left completely dangling.  

Truthfully, the emotional resolution was given to a Finn/Quinn scene, when in fact it should have been a Quinn/Rachel.  Then, perhaps we would have gotten a stronger idea about Quinn's true feelings about her past self and current self - and her identity as an erstwhile Rachel Berry.  Perhaps the show can salvage this convoluting reveal about Lucy Fabray and let Quinn be a three-dimensional character again.  She's more than just a pretty face - remember the girl who made a mistake, got pregnant, was ostracized by her family, struggled with acceptance, and gave her baby up for adoption?  She's more than just a pretty face.

Emma and her OCD
I have long been head-scratchy about the way Glee treats Emma's OCD.  I don't really claim to know a lot about the sociology of mental illness, but I do know that Emma's OCD was introduced largely as a "character quirk" for her - played largely for comedy and mostly trivialized for the purpose of, as Will pointed out this episode, "being cute."  So when the show takes it seriously, and regards it as something that's part of Emma that needs to be "fixed," I get cagey - especially when it's Will trying to "support her" by saying so.

Much like Rachel, Emma resisted the idea of embracing her "problem" for much of the episode, finally breaking down in a therapy session.  Man, but Emma has displayed a serious lack of coping skills lately, hasn't she?  She was singularly in denial about her condition, and my heart broke for her when she pleaded her case, that she doesn't want to pop pills so she can be how others want her to be.  I wish this scene were earlier in the episode, not necessarily to crack Emma's denial prematurely, but rather to introduce a rather intriguing concept for a "born this way" episode - how do you know if you actually were born this way?  Does promoting self-acceptance work if you were born with something that's not genetic, physical, or sexual - like a bad attitude, or obsessive compulsive disorder?

It raises interesting questions, and like I said, I don't profess to be an expert about the societal implications of OCD and what that means for Emma's storyline.  I did appreciate very much the fact that Emma's therapist blatantly stated that there is a stigma that goes along with mental illness, which colors how we process information about those conditions.  That is true, and perhaps even has an effect on how the writers are manifesting the storyline itself.

The one thing that makes me wary about Emma's arc is the idea that her OCD is preventing her from being who she is.  That's a 100% valid, and beautiful, expression, but if "who she is" could be replaced with the phrase "with Will," then cue a million eyerolls from this cynic.  The message should not be that Emma needs to get past her OCD just so she can have a relationship with Will.  It needs to connect to Emma's identity and her capacity to live her life - which, may I remind the writers, seemed to improve naturally while she was dating Carl.  It's tricky waters to maneuver here, and it's going to take some sophistication to make the Will-Emma-OCD construct to work fluidly.

Santana, Karofsky, and Sexuality
Naturally, "Born This Way" gave us a Santana and a Karofsky speaking openly about their sexuality, but still refusing to confront it and wear it proudly.  For the most part, Santana and Karofsky's emotional arcs worked with the context of the episode.  I have reservations about the return of Karofsky in combination with the return of Kurt, but we'll get to that in a second.  In terms of sexuality, "Born This Way" gave Santana and Karofsky progress - but certainly not any resolution.  Sure, they've given up bullying in favor of bearding and beret-wearing, but at the end of the day, they're still sitting in the audience when everyone's onstage touting their differences.  Although - Santana's at least wearing the shirt, even if she's not dancing, which is a lovely character choice. 

In general, the writing for Santana was on-target in this episode, although they seem to be going a bit overboard on reminding us that Santana is both a bitch and also gay.  We get it, we promise!  Although, it is a curious distinction in the idea that Santana has no (or at least fewer) qualms about coming out to Karofsky than confronting the idea of labeling her love with Brittany.  Brittany hit the nail on the head, verbalizing the notion that Santana doesn't love herself as much as she loves Brittany, which is darling and tragic and true.  So here's hoping Santana sticks on her path towards real self-acceptance - because wearing "bitch" on her shirt instead of "Lebanese" (or "lesbian," rather) is much like Emma choosing "ginger" instead of "OCD."  It's a phantom problem.  (Santana clearly has no issues with the fact that she called her delivering nurse fat, straight out of the womb.)

Prom Queen, Karofsky's Redemption, and Kurt's Return to McKinley
Honestly, there were problems with all three plot frames the episode presented.

Returning Kurt to McKinley is a tricky issue because the writers wrote themselves into a corner.  Inherently, as an audience, we want Kurt to "come home" to McKinley because we want to see him sing solos like "As If We Never Said Goodbye" (seriously, how good was that?  I have no words, only tears) and be with his friends and not stuck in that red-trimmed uniform, no matter how happy Dalton made him.  McKinley is where he belongs.

But the show set up the promise that Kurt could only return when the halls of McKinley High were truly safe for him.  Because Dave Karofsky threatened his life a dozen episodes ago, and is wandering around unpunished.  The writers are clearly aware of this construct, but did little to redeem Karofsky in Kurt's absence - and shoved Kurt's return (conveniently after the curtain call of Dalton's competition run) in the same episode as Karofsky saying he's changed and donning a red beret with Santana.

Oh, writers.  Show, don't tell!  I will believe Karofsky has changed when he's proved it, through actions, and not because he wants a Big Gay Beard and a chance at Prom King to boot.  And the idea that Santana got tangled up in the storyline with random intentions to seize Prom Queen from Quinn felt left of center as well - especially considering a serious flaw in logic.  Santana reasoned that if she returned Kurt to McKinley, everybody would love it and vote for her.  But isn't this the high school that was so inhospitable that Kurt had to flee to a private school?  Why would Kurt's return mean anything to anyone other than those twelve kids in Glee Club?  It's flawed logic, and clunky handling in an effort to neutralize the tension between Kurt and Karofsky, involve Santana, and simultaneously allow Kurt his place in Glee Club again.  

The race for Prom Queen was also a bit lackluster, if only because it resulted in said flawed logic, and the stomach-turning reveal that Quinn is as falsely beautiful as they come.  The only reward from the storyline was the glimmer of solidarity between Lauren and Quinn, who frankly are both strong broads who deserve a strong-broad friendship in their lives.

Speaking to that notion, there were many rewarding character interactions and moments that carried through quietly and strongly.  Points to Tina, who, as usual, charged through an entire episodic character arc in the background, in two hardly-far-apart scenes.  Even with the development offscreen and unexplained, I cheered for her statement about being an Asian sex symbol, and championed her championing of Rachel keeping her nose.  

All of Glee Club's support of Rachel was dearly welcome, from Puck cornering her in the girl's bathroom (!!!) to Mike encouraging her onstage for "Born This Way."  This episode was strong in reminding us that these characters are actually friends and care for each others' well-being.  Kurt group hug!  I got teary-eyed at his return, I won't even lie to you.

Points also to Burt Hummel, who basically expressed every audience member's reservations about Kurt coming back to McKinley - which is how we know the writers are fully aware of the stipulations of the scenario.  They're just choosing to use Burt as an outlet for them, rather than manifesting them in a storyline.  

I do also want to give credit to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's direction.  This is his fourth episode directing Glee and what has largely stuck in my mind about that time is his work with "Grilled Cheesus."  Personally, I wasn't a fan.  But "Born This Way" seriously impressed me.  His use of reaction shots (Santana during the "born this way" t-shirt plan), interesting camera work (dutch angles during Lauren revealing Quinn's secret, the inside-the-locker shots with Finn and Quinn, the entirety of "I Feel Pretty/Unpretty"), and parallel editing (the choice to cut to black on Rachel's profile and cut up from black to Quinn's profile) - I must say, all of "Born This Way" was carefully directed with a quiet and artistic style I rather appreciated.  Even when the writing wasn't communicating emotional undercurrents, Gomez-Rejon's direction was.  Well done, sir!  Come back soon!

And finally, credit where credit is due on the songs this episode.  Every song was an A+ venture, from the softly heartbreaking harmonies of "I Feel Pretty/Unpretty" to the fierce exuberance in "Born This Way."  Every singing voice in the episode was strong, emotional, and impacting - and currently on repeat in an iTunes playlist.

In all, "Born This Way" presented a message true to Glee's essential identity, with lovely character moments for nearly everyone.  Unfortunately, the reveal of Lucy Fabray twisted Quinn's participation in the theme, and left a poor taste in my mouth.  Even with that, and some clunky handling and neglected payoffs, the bulk of the episode's content was compelling and emotionally rewarding.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+++
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: B

Characterization: B
Episode MVP:
Kurt Hummel, for being comfortable with himself from start to finish, showing mercy to Karofsky (even though he probably shouldn't), supporting Rachel, for a stunning performance with "As If We Never Said Goodbye," and for plain ol' COMING BACK TO US.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

10 Things: Tearjerking Fictional Moments

We've all cried at fiction at some point or another, right?  Whether it be a single tear gracefully cascading down our cheeks in the comfort of our own homes or the significantly more embarrassing movie theater sobbing that results in neck tears and concerned looks from strangers as you fruitlessly try to not squelch and sniffle and disturb fellow theatergoers, it's safe to say we've all been there.  

If you haven't cried at a movie or TV show, then... actually, I commend you.  You've saved yourself a lot of embarrassment, and clearly have great emotional resolve.  Alas, I am no such person.  So, I present you with my Top 10 Tearjerking Fictional Moments.  And, heads up - spoilers abound!  No one cries over insignificant plot points.

X. "The Book of Love" Montage, the Scrubs Finale

Okay, we're starting small here.  I didn't expect to get teary-eyed at this final episode, especially considering I had more or less tapered off in my Scrubs-watching consistency as the show wound down.  But I watched the finale, and was surprised to find myself sniffling at this montage, which gives perfect emotional resolution to the show's characters.  Take note - this is the only "happy tears" moment on this list!

IX.  Sad moment with dog, My Dog Skip

Okay, I haven't seen this movie since it first came out.  And I don't really remember what happened in the plot, or why I watched it.  All I know is that the damn dog had to go the hospital because it was sick or dying or something, and Frankie Muniz had treated him like crap earlier in the day so boy, did he feel like a dick when Skip turned up in dire condition at the vet's office.  And he tearfully pleaded with Skip to live or something and apologized for being such a bad owner.  Truthfully, as a viewer in my early teens, I felt rather emotionally manipulated by the filmmakers, and cursed the fact that I was weeping so easily at a dog movie with Frankie Muniz.  I still haven't lived this down.  (And I refuse to watch Old Yeller.  Or Charlotte's Web.  Animals dying?  No, thank you.)

VIII. First Christmas without Sybil, The Family Stone

If you thought this movie was a comedy, you would not be more wrong.  You'd be completely justified, because every single piece of promotional material released for it seemed to indicate that you'd be in for a jolly good holiday movie - but you'd still be wrong.  The truth is, The Family Stone is actually a sneaky tearjerker, wherein the matriarch of the family loses a battle to cancer.  The saddest part of all of it is that the movie constructs a parallel between mother (Diane Keaton) and daughter (Rachel McAdams) that hits us right in the gut when they show the family coming together again for their first Christmas without their mom, and decorating the tree.  Sybil may have died, but her traditions live on - right down to the bauble ring Amy wears on her index finger.  Oh, it gets me every time.

VII. Near-deaths in Crash
It's been years since I've seen Crash, but I distinctly remember having two very strong, tear-inducing gut reactions to the film.  The first of which is in the car crash scene where Matt Dillon's character saves the life of a woman he molested earlier in the film.  Like much of the movie, it's an intense scene, and I just remember being unable to keep from crying during it.  Of course, the second moment of tears is when Daniel's being held at gunpoint, only to have his daughter leap into his arms when the gun fires.  Instant.  Tears.  I still don't exactly understand the miracle of her not actually being shot, but I don't care.  The anguish on that father's face when he thinks his little girl was just killed in his arms... ugh.  Like I said, instant, unstoppable tears.

VI. Titanic

Yeah, I'll admit it: I cry at Titanic.  I don't know how you can't!  The events of that movie are seriously horrifying, and it's a well-done, emotionally exhausting film.  If you weren't crying at the part where the elderly couple tuck themselves into bed as the water rushes in around them, or at the "I'll never let go" scene, I guarantee you'll be weepy in the film's final moments: where the Titanic and its passengers are all resurrected to watch Jack take Rose by the hand and kiss her, one last time.

V.  Dobby's death, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1

"Dobby is with friends."  Do I need to say more?  This was the death scene that just kept on going.  I shed one of those graceful tears at first and was immediately relieved that I wasn't going to break down completely.  Oh, but I was apparently just getting started.  By the end of the scene, I was in full-on blubber mode, with tears streaming down my cheeks and into my shirt.  Dobby is a free elf, indeed.

IV.  Satine's death, Moulin Rouge 

I defy anyone to watch this movie, fully engrossed in the emotional highs and lows, and not cry when it suddenly slams into its final moments.  Christian and Satine overcame insurmountable obstacles, only to be trumped by the inevitability of natural death.  So much of the film is spent in exuberance, with heightened situations and vibrant characters - and to have it all come crashing down my something so small and organic just makes it all extremely painful.  As such, I'm usually dissolving into tears somewhere around the point where Satine starts singing "Come What May" to Christian as a last-ditch attempt to get him to stay, and completely losing it when he cries out in pain at her death. 

III.  Sun and Jin's deaths, Lost 

There came a point, while watching Lost, that I realized I cared so much more deeply about Sun and Jin than almost any other characters.  I think it happened somewhere around the time Jin was held captive and being shot at, and I screamed.  From that point forward, I pretty much knew that when it came to those two characters' combined happiness, I was somewhat fragile in my emotions.

So, imagine my reaction when the writers decided to drown them together in the show's last season.  It was bad.  You'd think that my tears were what was filling up that sinking submarine, because I was bawling like there was no tomorrow.  The idea that she was trapped and that he refused to leave her because his arc was about penance for being a bad husband to her and so he was never going to leave her again... oh goodness.  I have never cried at a television show like that before, and I don't think I ever will again.

II.  Maggie's paralysis and death, Million Dollar Baby 

I saw Million Dollar Baby in theaters, which was unfortunate, because I think my best friend thought something was wrong with me when I started machine-gun sobbing at some point in the third act.  Literally everything from Maggie's fall until the end of the movie causes me great pain - "fly there, drive back," Maggie biting her tongue, Frankie reading to Maggie, Maggie losing a leg, Maggie telling Frankie she doesn't want to forget what it sounded like to have a crowd cheering for her - seriously, everything.  And then Frankie finally tells her that the nickname he gave her means "my darling," and I'm basically in hysterics.  Usually after I finish watching this movie, I have to sit in silence for awhile and try to mop up the flood of tears that have run down my face and soaked my shirt collar.  Needless to say, I was the last one in the theater after it finished.

I.  the entirety of Steel Magnolias

Here's the thing.  Steel Magnolias may be the saddest movie you'll ever watch.  I mean, the entire third act is devoted to the dwindling life of the brightest little main character, whom we love and have spent the whole movie rooting for.  A few months ago, I woke up at 2 AM and couldn't sleep, so I turned on the TV.  Steel Magnolias was on, and it was right at the funeral scene where Sally Field has her emotional breakdown.  And I thought, "Oh, I'm not going to cry, because it's 2 AM and I have insomnia and so I'm a little cranky, and plus I didn't go on the full emotional journey of the movie; I just turned it on right now.  I'll be fine!"

Ha.  No, as soon as Sally Field opened her mouth, I dissolved into a puddle of wracking sobs and I bawled all the way until the Easter party, where I just hiccuped pathetically, trying to recompose myself and my erratic breathing.

I have since learned that the point at which you begin crying in Steel Magnolias will consistently move forward in the film until you're basically crying at the opening credits.  On repeat viewings, I don't just cry at Shelby's death.  I cry when Shelby and M'Lynn fight.  I cry when Shelby gets her bad haircut.  I cry when Shelby won't drink her juice.  Hell, I cry when Annelle is rolling into town for her first day at Truvy's, before the title card even shows up. 

In short: this movie will make you bawl, and the times you won't be crying, you'll be laughing at Ouiser and Clairee.  It's actually pretty perfect.  Just have a box of tissues handy - even if it's 2 AM and you can't sleep.


There you have it!  The pattern seems to be that character death, and/or drowning = eternal crying.  Let me hear it: what movies get you bawling like a baby?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The RBI Report: "A Night of Neglect"

Glee's back!  It's back!  After five weeks of neglect, we finally got a new episode.  To the review!

"A Night of Neglect," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Carol Baker.

Unfortunately, this episode felt largely disconnected from the solid fare we received in "Original Song."  The show did little to remind us of the Glee Club's victory at Regionals, in characterization and tone.  In plot, of course, we got the renewal of Sue Sylvester's perennial villainy, as she assembled a ragtag team of "superheroes" - Dustin Goolsby, Sandy Ryerson, and Terri Schuester - to take down Will and his kids.  (She didn't bring bagels, though.  What gives?)

As for the Glee kids, they endeavored to put on a benefit, a "A Night of Neglect" to simultaneously honor under-appreciated artists, display their own under-used talents (Tina!  Mike!) and raise money not only for the Glee Club's trip to Regionals, but also for the Brainiacs, a newly-mentioned, lesser-known brain bowl club consisting of Mike, Tina, Artie, and... Brittany.  Phew.  That's a lot going on.

And frankly, that's really the core issue of the episode: simple conflicts piled on top of one another until they're tangled up - but still too easily resolved.  Try explaining this episode to anyone, and it will consist of ten minutes of trying to make sense of the plot and then a lot of, "And then everybody made up and got what they wanted."


This more than anything led to the fact that "A Night of Neglect" was underwhelming.  As much as I loved the reveal that Brittany was on a competitive quiz team, and that the Glee Club was championing the success of the Brainiacs, the episode just got bogged down in tired, unnecessary conflict.  The idea of Sue plotting against the Glee Club gets old quickly.  So they needlessly brought in Sunshine and her random Twitter followers/questionable intentions, and the Heckler's Club, and Dustin Goolsby's Random Seduction, and Sandy Ryerson's Pink Dagger villainy.  And it was all fixed by some saltwater taffy, a heart-to-heart with Holly, and the reminder that Sandy Ryerson does indeed love showtunes and donating his drug money.  Oh, and Sunshine didn't show and we wondered why the hell she was even there in the first place.

The Will/Emma angst separation is wearing thin as well.  The episode skirted along their Obviously Burdened Love for One Another, and all it took was one well-timed conversation about OCD and a convenient job opening in Cleveland to pave the way for a reunion.  I will say that Emma broke my heart in her scene, and although I don't quite understand why the show takes her OCD so seriously (when they breeze right past a lot of other issues that didn't even start as quirky character jokes) I appreciated the action they gave Will - to share her struggle, a bit, by helping her with her lunch.  I almost wish there weren't any dialogue over that action, because the action itself was strong, and the first moment in a long time where I've cared about their dynamic.

The other intriguing interaction in the episode was the Rachel/Mercedes duo.  We had to slog through some poorly-anchored diva behavior from Mercedes, but the payoff very nearly made up for it.  The conversation between Rachel and Mercedes was the only moment in the whole episode that actually involved characters interacting, having a push-and-pull about their similarities and differences.  And how great was Rachel?  Everything fit with her character, but didn't alienate her from her peers or the audience.  Although, I must say, when Mercedes asked why Rachel is a bigger star than her, I said aloud, "Because the writers wrote you that way, honey."

But hopefully, as Rachel urged Mercedes to stand up and fight for her solos, that the writers will begin to respect her character more as well.  The storyline played with meta and the fourth wall (as did the bit about harsh criticism on the internet... hi, writers!) and it's ironic that Mercedes wanted respect in the narrative, when in actuality the character hardly gets it from the writers themselves.  (Tots, anyone?  Need I say more.)

Finally, it seems that we should be expecting a renewal of the Kurt-Karofsky storyline, complete with Santana and Blaine as key players.  I'm ready for it.  Who didn't love Santana threatening Karofsky within an inch of his life?  Bring it on, sister.  We all want you to use the razor blades you hide in your hair.  And don't think Santana didn't notice the little slip where Kurt mentioned Karofsky's secret.

By the end of "A Night of Neglect," it wasn't really clear that any of the under-appreciated characters were any more appreciated, although it was lovely to see Mercedes tear the house down with her solo - and even lovelier to see Rachel let it be.  But for instance, where did the rest of Tina's solo go?  And what's the count on Tina's Cry-o-Meter?  And supposedly the whole purpose of this episode was to get money for the Brainiacs and yet we hardly got any focus on those four.  The theme went awry as soon as we realized that Charice and Gwyneth Paltrow got full solos and Tina got booed off the stage.  Sigh.

In all, this episode was mostly devoid of real character moments and interactions, and was defined more by tired conflict, needlessly complicated obstacles, and all-too-easy resolution.  The book closes on another episode, and the only thing that will likely carry over to the next is Terri Schuester (or should I say the Honey Badger?) in her neverending role as Crazy Villain, and the Kurt-Karofsky interaction.  So let's just forget "A Night of Neglect" like "A Night of Neglect" forgot "Original Song" and just happily anticipate Kurt's blessed return to McKinley!

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A (Bubble Toes!)
Dialogue: B
Plot: D

Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Tina Cohen-Chang.  If the writers won't do it, I will.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 7


Because Santana is teetering on the precipice of some serious character development, we then have to wonder what the future of her character will be.  Functionally speaking, it seems fair to say that Santana should no longer be wielded solely as a wise-cracking villain and well-placed plot device, but rather as a fleshed-out, three-dimensional character.  With the events of “Sexy,” the writers took their first huge step towards making this a reality, but, being of little faith, I can’t help but wonder if the progress will be set aside for the sake of having a functional villain in the Glee Club. 

Regardless, there’s talk of Santana coming out and identifying as a lesbian, which certainly aligns with her actions in “Sexy,” and is a remarkable storyline to give this character, considering her past function on the show.  Making Santana confront her sexuality irreversibly embeds her in Glee’s message of identity and equality, and allows her to experience challenges and obstacles like any main character.  It’s a huge statement for this one-time single-layered bitchy cheerleader to operate on the show in a powerful and impacting way, and gives the character of Santana Lopez the opportunity to mean something to people, to young women in particular who struggle with their sexuality in high school, or even to anyone who struggles with love.  The decision to maneuver Santana to the forefront of that message is nothing short of phenomenal.

However, there are a few potential hiccups in handling that could come into play.  Don’t get me wrong; the idea that Santana decides to identify as a lesbian is absolutely 100% valid.  But this is a character who has historically been portrayed as generally enjoying sex with men and women, and who has repeatedly rejected the idea of being labeled.  By bringing Santana forward and identifying her as a lesbian, it almost disregards these two ideas that the show themselves constructed.  Those heterosexual relationships the show presented us with previously would be pushed further underground - when we already had little to conclude about Santana’s feelings towards them to begin with - and disconnected completely from Santana’s character.  It’d almost be as though they never existed.  And past that, the scenario would label Santana, something she has been explicitly vocal about avoiding.

In all, it makes me worry that the writers will come up heavy-handed in the execution.  Santana was a character who was always comfortable with sex and the implications of sex - she was practically defined by it.  Rather, it was the vulnerability that Santana had issues with.  And that notion can easily support the idea that Santana will struggle with her sexuality - as long as it’s made clear that the struggle to deal with those emotions makes Santana feel vulnerable.  The buzz words here are not “gay” or “lesbian” or “coming out” - they are “feelings,” vulnerability,” and “love.”  There’s a fine line between them, but in order for a gay storyline for Santana to work fluently with the rest of her character, specific emphasis must be placed on those words first.

If there isn’t, it’s almost as if Santana’s characterization will be reborn, not as this character we know that happens to be gay, but rather as a Gay Character, where all her previous representations will be dusted under the rug in favor of a socially relevant storyline.  That’s not to say that a socially relevant storyline isn’t important, or that the execution can’t be handled with sophistication and care - perhaps Santana can reflect (as much as she would) on her past relationships, thereby allowing us to understand what they meant to her, and let us understand her hang-ups with emotions and vulnerability.  Therefore, any conclusion she reaches about her sexual identity can come about naturally and honestly, in a way that feels genuine to the character and what little we know about her. 

As it is, the path of Santana Lopez from beginning until now has been rife with question marks and clues that lead to a larger, more fascinating picture than just a Scheming Cheerleader: she has insecurities just like any other character on the show, experiencing issues with vulnerability and identity, someone who’s scared of her own feelings, in love with her best friend, and is just trying to handle it all the best way she knows how.


Thus concludes Santana Lopez Week!  Thanks for reading, all.  I received so many thoughtful comments throughout the course of the week, and I read and appreciate all of them.  Santana is definitely a tough nut to crack, and everybody’s got slightly different interpretations that are all interesting, thought-provoking and certainly valid.

And, fun fact: Santana Week has clocked in as the most verbose of the Character Weeks with nearly 10,000 words.  Gadzooks!  And if you want another fun fact: there’s only forty words difference between Quinn Week and Rachel Week.  Alright, enough fun facts.  Enjoy the new episode on Tuesday!



Sunday, April 17, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 6


For twenty-five episodes, it was rare to see Santana Lopez without Brittany Pierce.  Her functional other half, Brittany was initially paired with Santana so that they could operate as bitchy co-conspirators, Sue Sylvester’s eyes in the Glee Club.  But as time wore on, the show began to wield them in their strength: as the true comedic duo of the ensemble.  Their unity became something of a mainstay, and was treated with a wink by the writers.  If Glee were a classic stageplay, then Santana and Brittany were the Shakespearean fools, scheming and clowning - putting on tricks for the audience without their cast of characters noticing.  Even though their villainy was important in holding up the plot, Santana and Brittany were originally there more for the spectators than for the storylines.

Because of this, they were early favorites - specifically in conjunction with one another, and the writers chose to play on this strength by moving the girls into the storylines.  The Back 9 brought us more Brittany and Santana moments than ever before, and they were allowed to interact in basic ways with other characters.  Since then, Santana and Brittany have been incorporated into the show both as individuals and as a unit, allowed their own storylines separate and apart.

But the true triumph of the Santana-Brittany dynamic is not necessarily in the successful transition from sidecar jesters to main-stage players.  No, the stronger accomplishment in the Santana-Brittany dynamic is that it manages to defy the shallowness common to supporting roles, and it does so completely as a result of its own unity.  Santana and Brittany are both three-dimensional, real characters because of the existence of their counterpart - Santana in particular.

Consider again, the idea that Santana’s true character is revealed in the moments of exception.  And consider, for a moment, who exactly is Santana Lopez’s exception. 

Almost everything we know about Santana that runs deeper than “bitch” we learned through association with Brittany.  When Santana was only barbs and sharp edges, Brittany seemed to be the only person she liked.  She was Santana’s exception, and we wondered why that was.  These characters were virtually tethered together for the first twenty-five episodes of the show, and so it begged the question of Santana in particular, who seemed to hate everyone: why so inseparable - especially when being around Brittany seemed to require a lot of patience, as per the reactions of other characters? 

The fact of the matter is that Santana Lopez seemed to feel disdain for everyone except Brittany Pierce.  It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.  And in “Sectionals,” their status as best friends blew wide open with the statement that if sex meant dating, Brittany and Santana would be dating.  It may have played as a joke, but that single sentence changed the course of Brittany and Santana’s dynamic, and reverberated through every subsequent interaction they shared.  Because if Santana and Brittany have sex, and Brittany seems to be the only person on the show that hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Santana snark brigade, then what does that say about Santana’s feelings about Brittany? 

The show did nothing to dispel the conjoined nature of Santana and Brittany - in the wake of the reveal, they walked around with pinkies linked, went on dates as a single unit, and told Finn they’d make out in front of him - but he had to wait in the car first.  The show painted them as a freakishly functional duo, that seemed to have some kind of relationship beyond friendship, but that was also left largely unlabeled in favor of comedy.  Even so, that question, the question of sex-vs-dating and Santana’s true feelings, hung over every single Brittana moment.

Because they were always together, and they did link pinkies walking around the school, and they wore matching bracelets, and Santana peacefully snuggled her head on Brittany’s shoulder when Kurt sang “A House is Not a Home.”  And even though Santana had sex with Finn in “The Power of Madonna,” and fought over Puck in “Laryngitis,” it is with Brittany that she demonstrated any level of intimacy beyond what we expected her capable of.

Every shared look, conversation, and interaction was put under the lens of this detail, and all signs pointed to the idea that beneath her rough exterior, Santana Lopez felt something for Brittany Pierce - something that looked suspiciously like love.  It is therefore because of this notion that Santana is the lynchpin in the Brittana dynamic.  Based on what we know from “Sexy,” it’s safe to say that Santana is the one who makes the sex-dating rules, but she is also the one that seemingly breaks them.  Brittany appears to love everyone, including Santana.  But Santana appears to love no one, except Brittany.  And because of that, we saw Santana be something more than a bitchy cheerleader who sleeps around. 

Of course, our suspicions were confirmed in “Sexy,” with Santana admitting, out loud, that not only does she indeed love Brittany, but that she also wants to be with her.  I don’t think I can express how huge a deal that action is for this character - and unfortunately, I’m not sure the show did either.

The Brittana-in-love relationship could have easily developed in the background, naturally and gracefully, without many obstacles standing in their way.  Truthfully, Brittana didn’t need to be an Angsty Love Story.  But in “Duets,” the writers chose their path, and now we have a throughline that was set up, and needed to unravel and be paid off carefully, with attention given both to the dynamic and its individual characters.  Because in “Duets,” the writers chose to separate Santana and Brittany, for the very first time.  And that too, should be a huge deal.  These characters were rarely seen out of each others’ company, let alone given divergent storylines. 

But instead of focusing on the fallout of Santana pushing Brittany away and trying to define their relationship by sex only, the writers flung Brittany into a left-field pairing with Artie, and Santana was left to boomerang into the Finn/Rachel plot, and the Finn/Quinn plot, and got her very own romance with Sam - not to mention the strange hero-worship towards Puck that she expressed in “Never Been Kissed” (I still don’t understand that, and don’t feel particularly compelled to try).

“Duets” and “Sexy” are banner episodes for Santana’s arc, and yet we find that in the ten episodes in between, there is little evidence to see how Santana moved, emotionally, from Point A to Point B.  And that is something of a disappointment considering how important her actions are for her character.  In “Duets,” she refused to define a relationship by anything other than sex.  In “Sexy,” she proposed an entire relationship defined by everything more than sex: with love.  How did Santana make that journey?  I refuse to believe that a chat with Holly Holliday and a Stevie Nicks tune was all it took to get Santana to put her entire existence on the line for a relationship with Brittany.

There are those who claim that Santana’s actions in “Sexy” came from out of nowhere.  But there’s an important divide to distinguish.  It’s not out-of-nowhere for Santana to be in love with Brittany.  Based on their actions from “Showmance” through to “Duets,” it’s not a stretch by any means to assume that Santana has some very real feelings for Brittany - she’s her exception, after all. 

But the idea that Santana confesses them and lets her entire heart spill onto the floor right in front of Brittany’s locker?  There’s barely anything there to pave the way for that moment - which is unfortunate, because that moment is paramount.  That moment not only defines the Brittana relationship, but also changes the course of it.  And more than anything, that moment embodies a change in Santana, and changes everything for her future at that high school.

But we never got to see Santana choose to make that change.  To accept that change, and embrace it.  She tells Brittany, “I have to accept that... I love you.  I love you, and I don’t want to be with Sam or Finn or any of those other guys.  I just want you.  Please say you love me back.  Please.” 

If I could surround that speech with neon flashing arrows and confetti cannons and fireworks, I would.  That speech needs to be a permanently dog-eared page in the Book of Santana, because that was Santana changing everything.  She was accepting a change in herself, not only going against everything she chose for hers and Brittany’s relationship, but also throwing it all away for the opportunity to experience love.  She wanted to love and be loved badly enough that she rejected the way she defined every previous relationship she’s been in, and begged to be embraced by the one thing she’s scared of.  She didn’t just shed her lizard skin, she may as well have ripped it off and incinerated it, because that moment was Santana Lopez throwing her beliefs in reverse, baring her entire soul, and in doing so, moving her arc forward.

So why, oh why, did we not see Santana making that choice?  The events leading up to that confession were limited basically to “Sexy” only, and while “Landslide” and the other scenes were valid, it felt more like they were there to remind us that Santana and Brittany had some unfinished business from “Duets” - further evidence that there’s hardly anything spanning the in-between.  Not only that, but the particulars of their relationship don’t quite match up: at the end of “Duets,” Brittany seems to indicate to Santana that she’s cutting off their trysts - however ill-defined they were.  But at the beginning of “Sexy,” the same thing appears to be happening again - Santana wants to get her cuddle on, but Brittany expresses reservations, which seems to indicate that at some point in the middle, Brittany lifted the embargo and resumed the sweet lady kisses.

Regardless, the fact of the matter is that Santana’s choice to confess her feelings for Brittany is by far the defining moment for this character.  She is essentially choosing Brittany over everything else that she once put first - over her sex-dating rules, over her fear of love, over the need to protect herself from being hurt.  And we never saw how it came to be that Santana decided to work out her priorities and go for it.  Luckily, the scene still works without it because it is jarringly heartbreaking, and the speech is well-written and the performances are genuinely delivered.

And past that, it reinforces the notion that Santana Lopez is a complete character with depth and emotions because of Brittany.  Without Brittany, we would only know Santana as a scheming, bitchy cheerleader.  Santana may be the lynchpin in the Brittana development, but Brittany is the lynchpin in Santana’s character.  It is through Santana’s association with Brittany that we can discern that Santana is capable of love, and wants it, but is scared of it.  It is with Brittany that we can see Santana at her most vulnerable.    And it is with Brittany that Santana is allowed a fully-developed emotional arc on this show.  This rather lends itself to the statement that without Brittany, there would be no Santana - certainly not a complete character with real emotions and insecurities.

The show presents us with the notion that at least, they are best friends, and at most, they are soulmates.  But in how the show has constructed them, it’s safe to say that they are inextricably connected through their characterization, because with each other they are allowed to be more.  It stands to reason that for the benefit of their arcs, and the reparation of their episodes apart, Santana and Brittany must be restored to their unity, as equal parts of the same whole with mutual benefit to their characters’ journeys, together and apart.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 5


In the previous installment of Santana Week, I discussed the idea that much of Santana’s true character can be found in the negative spaces, in what she isn’t saying.  Santana is a character who almost always speaks her mind but rarely speaks her heart.  This construct lends itself to that method of interpretation, running through the undercurrent of all episodes, and finally being touched upon in “Sexy.”  Brittany insinuates that Santana believes that “it” (being sex, or relationships, or life, one could interpret) is better without feelings.

In general, that holds true to most of Santana’s existence on the show.  Santana is constructed as an embodiment of sex.  She is a temptress, the girl who takes boys’ virginities without batting an eye, who makes dirty jokes in the presence of attractive older dentists, and perceives herself as the hottest “piece of action” in the school.  She’s had mono so many times it’s turned to stereo.  She sexts.  She’s like a lizard; she needs a warm body underneath her so she can digest her food.  Every “relationship” she’s been in has been manifested entirely in physical attraction.  Her first singing lead?  During sex.  First full solo?  A pair of floating lips onscreen.  Original song?  An ode to her boyfriend’s mouth.

In that Santana is more or less defined by sex and The Physical, both within the narrative and as a construct of it, it is inarguable that she, as a character, has little issue with it.  But as an extension of that notion, using the theory of Santana and nots, it’s equally inarguable that, conversely, Santana has paramount issues with what lies beneath: emotions and vulnerability - issues with love.

When has Santana ever shown true feelings that aren’t stacked on top of a healthy layer of disdain?  You could argue that this is why we don’t know much about Santana’s relationships with Puck, or Finn, or Sam, or Sue, or Quinn - anyone, really, because she refuses to confront any feelings.  (You lucked out with that one, writers.  Don’t think I’m going to let you off that easy, though.)

Santana doesn’t want anyone to know her true feelings.  Feelings mean love.  Love means vulnerability.  And Santana doesn’t want to be vulnerable.  So she buries her feelings, and pushes people away so they won’t find them.  She hides underneath a mountain of contempt, masterfully mixing indifference and scorn with precision. 

High school could be really hard for Santana.  It’s hard for everyone at McKinley High.  But Santana probably knew that, or learned really fast.  So she chose her armor (her Cheerios uniform), her shield (emotional distance), and her weapon (insults) and readied herself for battle.  She fought hard for status and popularity, because it granted her power - the power to keep people beneath her, so they would never really know her insecurities.  And it made her feel good about herself and what she chose to accomplish.  It gave her a shiny exterior that no one could touch.

But when we strip away those defenses, we are left with someone who has purposefully chosen to isolate herself - hence the Santana-sans-Brittany Loneliness Construct that the writers flirted with (albeit clumsily) in the span between “Duets” and “Sexy.”  Combine that self-imposed isolation with her portrayal as a sexual being, and with her reasons for getting a boob job (wanting to be noticed) and Santana thus becomes someone who perhaps doesn’t believe in love, but, tragically, still wants to be loved.  Because maybe if somebody loved her, she’d believe in it. 

As such, Santana Lopez’s self-worth proves to be astoundingly low in certain cases.  Which makes sense, considering how much bravado she covers up with.  As much as I do believe that Santana is genuinely a badass, there’s a specific amount that is compensating.  Santana has the ability to construct her image and the way she’s seen: she’s only as badass as she wants to be.  Beneath that, there is someone who gets a boob job at 17 because she doesn’t like the way she looks - even though she’s technically a popular pretty girl. 

Despite the fact that Santana wants to be loved, it’s made very clear that she distinguishes sex from dating, and sex from feelings.  To Santana, “sex,” “dating,” and “feelings,” are three separate entities that should not be mixed. But there’s a very blatant discrepancy in that notion: she claims to be dating Puck in “Furt,” which Quinn is quick to correct: she’s just getting naked with Puckerman.  The implications of this duality are interesting: has Santana started to blur the lines between sex and dating, or is it writer error? 

Or, bear with me as we consider the two following scenarios.

Scenario 1: with Puck, she claims they’re dating when they’re just having sex.  But when she’s having sex with Brittany and Brittany tries to impose more on that ("Duets"), Santana back pedals and clarifies that love, specifically, is off the table - and brings Puck, specifically, back into the conversation.  She essentially tells Brittany that she is not love, but only a substitute for Puck, who is sex.  She pushes Brittany away at the prospect of love, and tries to limit their interactions to sex only.  

Scenario 2: aside from the general instinct of pushing people away, Santana’s sex-dating logic works in exact reverse between these two instances from “Duets” and “Furt.”  So it seems to suggest as well that Santana just make up rules to justify her ill-defined relationship with Brittany.  It’s with Brittany that the “Sex isn’t dating rule” gets brought up, and she also tells Brittany in "Sexy" that fooling around with her isn’t cheating on Artie because “the plumbing’s different.”  So she can say that sex isn’t dating with Brittany because if it were, it would mean something, but with Puck, she can throw the word “dating” around because it doesn’t.  She may feel something for him, but it's probably not love.  She really is just getting naked with Puckerman.

Based on Santana’s previous rejection of the concept of love and the recent knowledge that she loves Brittany, it seems fair to assess these discrepancies under the logic of both scenarios.  If she loves Brittany but doesn’t want to show it, then she would try and define their relationship simply by sex, even if it meant pushing Brittany away.  And if she bullshits exception-based rules to justify her relationship with Brittany, she gets what she wants but doesn’t have to admit that she wants it.  It’s a win-win situation for Santana, who is (arguably) capable of love, and wants to be loved, but doesn’t want to be vulnerable.

This could only last for so long, though, especially considering Brittany’s apparent declaration of a Santana sex embargo at the end of "Duets."  It’s perhaps no coincidence that so much of Santana's relationship with love and feelings comes at the bookend episodes of "Duets," which implies a unity of two, and "Sexy," which, of course, dealt with sex in particular.  Santana distinguishes the two concepts: sex, and feelings - but the two episodes together synthesize much of what we can understand about her character and love. 

Ironically, it was in “Sexy” that Santana finally came forth with feelings about Brittany, and we discovered that perhaps the reason Santana keeps her emotions bottled up is not only because they make her vulnerable, but also because she has so many.  When Santana’s guard is down (like when she’s drunk) her emotions get the better of her, and it suddenly makes even more sense that she would brick them up and refuse them any outlet to her environment.  If Santana let her emotions rule her existence, not only would she feel everything but she would also feel it magnified.  Her emotions would affect her, and Santana absolutely does not want that.  Her emotions - emotions for another girl - could threaten her status, her entire existence in the school.  But she wanted Brittany enough to put that on the line.

So Santana does indeed seem to be blurring the self-imposed boundaries between love, sex, and dating - or beginning to acknowledge that perhaps there are none - and it terrifies her.  This is someone who freaked out at the possibility of singing a love duet with Brittany, and who has never sung a love-oriented duet on the show in general.  Her solos are distinctly devoid of that kind of genuine emotion - “Like a Virgin,” “Bad Romance,” “Me Against the Music,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “Valerie" - none of them explicitly speak to love in a romantic way, and a few directly act against it.  There is, of course, "Landslide," whose lyrics rather tragically ask the question: what is love?  And, of all things, that question is directed to a mirror.  Santana must ask herself: what is love?  (Technically that mirror is in the sky, but we're not really here to discuss lyrical interpretation in terms of Santana and religion or the concept of freedom.  Perhaps another day.)

Santana’s relationship with love is tragic and fascinating in that she desperately wants it, but has too low a self-worth to be convinced that she can receive it - and too opposed to vulnerability to always embrace it.  Now that she’s let that wall come crashing down with Brittany, it will be interesting to see how she recovers - especially because she was essentially rejected.  It therefore makes sense that Santana would ratchet up her efforts to protect herself - but in the wake of her hallway confession, the lack of a Cheerios uniform, and with a slushie on the horizon, it’s safe to say that Santana’s absolutely invulnerable days are over, for better or for worse.  Santana Lopez has a rough road ahead of her.



Friday, April 15, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 4


Santana Lopez is a bitch. 

It’s not an insult; it’s simply a truth.  She herself states to Artie in “Duets,” “I don’t mean to bitch... well, actually I do.”  Santana Lopez is a bitch, knows she is a bitch, and rarely operates outside the realm of bitchdom.  Santana works in bitch like an artist paints in oils - she’s a master.  She cuts people down, calls them out on their bullshit, and always knows when to make a dirty joke.  And we love it: name almost any of your favorite one-liners from this show and chances are it came from the smirking mouth of Santana.

Santana Lopez is a bitch.

But the writers rarely choose to present her in any other light.  She smirks, she snarks, she flips insults out with uninhibited ease.  Historically speaking, we aren’t meant to take Santana seriously - she slithers through the narrative with a Cheshire Cat smile, creating conflict and providing comedy.  It was the perfect way to utilize a background character, and a “bitchy” one at that.  Because “bitchy” is not always an insult on television.  Santana’s hilarious, and keeps it real.

But what happens with a character who is absolutely a bitch?  There is a divide in the results: based on how the show presents her, and how the audience interprets that presentation.

The show ran into problems in presentation after maneuvering Santana out of the background and into a more substantial onscreen role.  The problem is twofold: in doing this, they chose to have the other characters call Santana out on her bitchery.  Santana’s bitchiness was no longer floating above the narrative as something to laugh at - gravity kicked in fast and yanked it into the storylines, where Santana was going to get some very real comeuppance.  The idea that no one likes Santana because she is a bitch was about to get very real.  Finn and Quinn called her out, and Rachel and Lauren both insulted her rather venomously in “Silly Love Songs,” and she even got beat up by Lauren in a very public hallway.

Now, turnabout is fair play.  I’m not saying that Santana should be excused from all verbal barbs.  But, the writers still didn’t take the situation seriously - Santana’s bitchiness, and the repercussions thereof, were once again played for comedy, when we should have been allowed instead to see them in a more serious light.  It's not a joke that Santana wouldn't have any friends as a result of her behavior.  But her post-insult tears were simply there for a laugh, and her smackdown with Lauren was played entirely in slapstick, complete with a delusional Santana yelling, “That’s how we do it in Lima Heights!” as if she hadn’t just been tossed into a row of lockers like a ragdoll.

This is where the second problem arises: by “Silly Love Songs” in particular, Santana was not just a background character anymore.  As far as I’m concerned, the minute they mentioned the reasons for Santana’s summer surgery, she became a real character and not just a joke.  So the idea that she is not supposed to be a punchline, but is still being treated like Jugs the Clown, is a huge irresponsibility in storytelling.  It’s the one time that Santana’s bitchiness becomes an issue: when the characters in the narrative take it seriously but the execution of the narrative does not.  Once again, it’s denying Santana’s point of view from being communicated fairly - the writers are holding Santana accountable for a character trait that they give her almost exclusively, without allowing her to operate empathetically aside from it.

Of course, Santana’s bitchiness is part of why we love her, and for the most part it’s wielded to great effect within the storylines.  But in that Santana is almost unrelenting in her put-downs and disdain, it presents another possibility for interpretation by the audience - especially on the assumption that Santana is meant to be a three-dimensional character.

We begin to look through the cracks of Santana’s bitchiness, examining closely for something more.  And to that end, something intriguing happens: she becomes a character that we endeavor to understand not through her absolutes, but through her exceptions.  When is Santana not snarking?  When is she not covering up genuine emotion with disdain?  When is she not mouthing off to authority with a sizeable chip on her shoulder?

Santana Lopez is therefore a rare and fascinating character, in that she is a character who requires us to piece apart not what she is saying, but what she isn’t saying.  We learn more about Santana in the moments in between, when she defies her stereotype, sheds her well-protected lizard skin, and allows us to see what’s beating underneath.

It happens rarely.  But every moment of development that Santana has had on this show - the moment where she admits enjoying Glee Club, when she confesses to Sue the real reasons for her summer surgery, when she discovers Brittany thinks heart attacks are just from loving too much - are when Santana, as a character, lets her shield down just a little, and allows us to catch a glimpse what lies beneath.  It's not always written - more often than not it's in reaction shots, in the background, or through actions she's not taking. 

This has long been the approach with Santana’s character, and has been the cause for much debate amongst fans.  Some choose to view Santana only for her rough exterior, and the way that she seems to enjoy wreaking emotional destruction on other characters’ storylines.  But others, myself included, choose to view Santana for those brief moments in the in-between, where we can see Santana genuinely, and ask ourselves: why is she so bitchy?  Why does she seem to enjoy wreaking emotional destruction on others?  Why did she get a boob job?  Why does she stick with Brittany despite showing little patience for every other human being’s shortcomings?

Santana seems to wield her bitchiness in an effort to push people away, based on the fact that the only person who's close is Brittany.  She tries to keep people beneath her, to keep people from getting under her lizard skin.  So it's safe to say that Santana Lopez is protecting herself.  Keeping her true self hidden, underneath a prickly exterior, so people don't want to get close.  Santana keeps a thick and poisonous skin because she doesn't want them to see what's underneath.  She wants people to notice her (her reasons for the boob job) but she doesn't want them to see her, for what she truly is.  She wants people to look at her and see the front she puts up - the in-charge, super-cool, self-confident hot cheerleader.  Because deep down, Santana is not always the in-charge, super-cool, self-confident hot cheerleader. 

In “Sexy,” we got a whole truckload of truths about Santana’s real self.  Santana shed her hard exterior, opened up, and we learned the complete, verbalized answer to the question of why she’s a bitch all the time: because she has feelings for Brittany that she’s scared of.  100% valid.  And it makes sense - Brittany's the one person who knows Santana for her true self.  It makes sense that Santana would have feelings in accordance with that.  But I hesitate to say those feelings for Brittany are the only reason Santana is a bitch and be done with it.  Frankly, those feelings speak to a whole larger issue that has bubbled up in Santana’s character all season long, and can explain a lot of her Season 1 behavior as well.  I’ll deal with this more in a future part.

The fact of the matter, and a true triumph of the show, is that Glee’s cast of characters are built on a stereotype, but allowed to be more than their label within the narrative.  Sure, the writers have difficulty putting this into effect with consistency, but the purpose remains: no one should be defined by their High School Label without the writers giving them an opportunity to demonstrate how they defy that.  And Santana, as a main character on Glee, deserves to function, and be interpreted as more than just a bitchy cheerleader.

Santana may be a bitch, but “bitch” is not the end-all, be-all of the character.  The writers need to write those in-between moments, and let them mean something in the storylines.  They need to let us understand Santana in a meaningful way.  Hopefully, as Santana is moved more towards the forefront of the show, we'll see more of this change reflected onscreen.



Parks and Recreation Recap: "Fancy Party"

Can we just talk for a minute about Parks and Recreation?  Because when I watch Parks and Recreation it feels like sunshine might just start bursting out of my body, and that is a terrifying and wonderful sensation that I feel merits a few words.

The premise of last night’s episode, “Fancy Party,” was that April and Andy decided to get married.  Now, this could happen on any (mediocre) comedy: couple that’s been dating a month foolishly decide to get married, and all the sane people on the show try to talk them out of it, and at the end, they decide they’re not ready and don’t go through with it.

Except this is Parks and Recreation.  This is no mediocre comedy.  They make bold decisions.  They throw the rule book out the window.  So, there was no talking April and Andy out of anything.  The writers basically told “will-they-or-won’t-they” sitcom dating rules to go to hell and married, rather happily, the month-old young couple.  I can’t even handle how much I respect that decision.  It’s a fresh, bold choice, and allows for all future moments between Andy and April to be that  much more hilarious and sweet, because they’re married now.  And oh, do I want to see how these two handle their marriage - not because I want to see them be bad at it, but because April and Andy are pretty unique people, who defy many of the traditional “values” of marriage.  But at the end of the day, it’s pretty apparent that the Parks writers are going to return to the most basic foundation of marriage, that April and Andy have covered: they love each other.  I rather think that April and Andy will be pretty good at being married.

Of course, the Hasty Marriage was used effectively in application to Leslie and Ben’s storyline - Ben got offered a job to stay in Pawnee, and wanted to know if Leslie thought he should take it.  Again, Comedy Scenario 101 here.  But where lesser shows would lean on hijinx and miscommunications, Parks took the opportunity to show us (through Leslie’s good-natured but worried attempts to thwart the April-Andy union) that Leslie is not someone who takes chances, romantically.  She’s not comfortable being someone that tells another person to stick around just for her benefit.

The show did a lovely job with Leslie in this storyline - it was made clear that she wanted April and Andy to be happy, and that she merely was trying to think rationally.  She wasn't exactly projecting, but she was definitely demonstrating some beliefs that lined up with her own predicament.  But the more she realized that April and Andy were happy, and after a well-timed, adorable talk with Ron three-divorces-equals-three-flaming-effigies Swanson, she decided to take the plunge and tell Ben to consider staying.

Of course, the Even More Adorable part of this is that Ben already chose.  It was a lovely writing decision as well - both Ben and Leslie made the same choice, independently, without getting bogged down in any potential-relationship insecurities.  And, April specifically went to Leslie, and essentially told her everything was going to be okay, and that she loved her.  My heart! 

Lastly, the C plot belonged to poor Ann at a singles party, having a hard time flirting with guys.  The strength of this plotline really came from the opportunity it gave for Donna to finally get some well-earned airtime, and pairing her no-nonsense self-confidence with Ann’s oft-uneasy hesitance is one of the best uses for her.  Ann’s a difficult character to wield within the Parks universe - she’s not as kooky and caricatured as everyone else, and so the writers can’t always apply the same tactic with Ann as they use with other characters.  But despite that, the writers allow Ann her own place on the show, and give her as much attention as any other character.  Ann isn’t sidelined just because she’s not a punchline, and I appreciate that.  And further appreciation for pairing her with Donna, who's just simply underused.  It solves two hiccups simultaneously.

All in all, Parks and Recreation continues to make the best writing decisions of any comedy show on television.  They avoid tropes, sidestep bitchy conflicts, create loveable characters who care about one another, and all the while stay damn funny.  (Extra points for the dead pigeon joke and the awkward-but-sweet moment where April and Ron slow-danced!)  It’s really the best comedy on television, in that it transcends mere comedy and presents us with a half-hour of fresh characters who are charming in their flaws and endearing in their interactions, leaving us with no choice but to feel like we might explode with sunshine and joy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Santana Lopez and What Lies Beneath: Part 3


Earlier in this piece, I discussed the notion that Santana has historically been treated in the role of jester, as a supporting character who exists only to crack jokes and cause problems.  It’s because of this trend that it becomes difficult to examine Santana’s onscreen relationships and draw informed conclusions about them. 

As a fringe character, Santana was wielded in accessory to others’ storylines, often making her a romantic obstacle or plot device.  What do we know of her relationships from this time, then?  Hardly any of them were presented from Santana’s point of view, so with the recent exception of Brittany, we know little to nothing about the state of Santana’s feelings about her interactions with several other characters.  Rather, we have to assemble the writers’ somewhat inconsistent evidence, look at Santana’s actions, read between the lines, and try and reach our own wobbly conclusions.

The first person Santana was truly introduced in conjunction with was Puck.  Assumedly, they were dating at the time of “Acafellas,” when Mercedes longingly witnessed them kissing in the hallways.  Santana broke up with Puck over his credit score, but then sexted him while he was babysitting with Quinn.  She got jealous over his dating Mercedes, and insisted they were dating again in Season 2 - even fangirling Puck’s alleged badassness in “Never Been Kissed.”

Santana and Puck as a unit existed originally in periphery only, to serve as contrast to our main characters in their storylines.  But even after the dissolution of their relationship, they were lumped together as ne’er-do-well occasional sex buddies, with Santana firmly demonstrating opposition to Quinn, Mercedes, and now Lauren as Puck’s other romantic interests.  In the case of Mercedes and Lauren, were Santana’s physical tantrums manifestations of actual jealousy over Puck as a person, or is Santana just possessive and operates on the assumption that people belong to her?  (I tend to lean towards the latter interpretation not only because it amuses me when played for comedy, but also because in dramatic purposes it forces the question, “Why, then?” and the potential answers to that are nothing short of fascinating.)

Regardless, there are so many questions to ask about the nature of Santana and Puck’s relationship, questions that are too interesting to chalk up only to the fact that they are non-committing cool kids who occasionally hook up.  Especially now that Puck and Santana are developing into their own actual relationship storylines, it forces us to look back and question what was different with their early romantic interactions as opposed to now.  Will we ever understand what Santana feels, or felt, towards Puck?

It’s unlikely that this will happen, as the show is now moving them away from one another and into less singularly sex-driven relationships.  This only makes Santana and Puck’s early interactions all the more interesting, and mysterious.  Santana and Puck's relationship is essentially an echo, the intangible reverberation of something we never heard in the first place, and the evidence of which is growing fainter - but still repeating.

Perhaps even more nebulous than her relationship with Puck is Santana’s relationship with Quinn, largely because the show originally designed them as friends, but in practice they operate primarily in opposition - and yet we hardly see them interact.  There’s endless debate over the question of Santana’s level of loyalty to Quinn, especially under the duress that Quinn has not shown any loyalty to Santana whatsoever.  Frankly, there is a neverending parade of question marks marching along Quinntana Boulevard in particular, and the show makes no effort to clear up any of the confusion. 

Assumedly, Quinn slept with Puck when he was technically dating Santana.  The writers glossed right over that.  Then, Quinn discovered she was pregnant.  Did Santana keep it a secret, or did she tell Jacob Ben Israel?  Evidence is inconclusive.  (Sure, Santana had something to gain from Quinn’s demotion, but no connection is made that it was she who let the secret slip.  JBI just turned up one day with the scoop - and to those of you who take Santana's loose lips over Brittany's stork-induced pregnancy as evidence, well... I'm unconvinced.  It's really just plot device vs. plot device in that showdown, and I'm more inclined to give weight to the first one.)

After Quinn's pregnancy was out in the open, Santana still sexted Puck and bitched out her erstwhile friend for being naive.  Fast-forward through a wasteland of no interaction, and we land squarely at Quinn’s betrayal in “Audition,” which led nowhere.  We can only assume that Santana purposefully outed Quinn and Finn’s affair in “Silly Love Song” in retaliation to that offense - but with ten episodes spanning the interim and the word “revenge” spilling untethered from Santana’s lips, the connection is anything but clear.

The show has both intentionally and inadvertently constructed Santana as a character who lives in Quinn’s shadow.  She is second in command to Quinn, and can, so far as we’ve seen, only be Head Cheerleader when Quinn isn’t on the squad (and we were witness to none of Santana’s regime).  Each of her male romantic interests has either left her for Quinn, or had Quinn first.  The writers even go so far as to include Quinn in one of Santana’s alcohol-induced hysterics, having Santana weep at Sam about how he  must like Quinn more than her because “she’s blonde and she’s awesome and so smart.”  There’s clearly an interesting dynamic between Quinn and Santana, that speaks heavily to loyalty, power, and envy. 

Consider for a moment, Santana’s assumed silence in the wake of Puck and Quinn’s one night stand.  It stands to reason that she should have had something to say about that, based on her later efforts to protect her “territory” from Mercedes and Lauren.  But the fact that she didn’t begs the question: does this mean that the writers constructed that trait for Santana in later episodes when they had a clearer idea about the character and her purpose, and is therefore writer error?  Or, is there something about Quinn sleeping with Puck that’s different from Mercedes and Lauren dating Puck? 

Conclusions there, based on the constants and the variables, could be interesting: is it that Quinn slept with him and didn’t try and date him?  And what does that say about Santana and any potential issues with commitment and the meaning of dating versus the meaning of sex?  Or, is it because it was Quinn versus Lauren or Mercedes, and what does that say about how Santana views Quinn?  It dances along the line of respect for Quinn, or fear of Quinn, or feeling inferior to Quinn, all of which is frankly rather intriguing, especially in combination.  In general, it’s easy to conclude that Santana buries something of an inferiority complex when it comes to Queen Fabray, and pairing that in conjunction with Santana’s permanent Second-Best status, it fosters a fascinating, and largely unexplored dynamic.

Basically, within the construct of the narrative, Santana is often portrayed to be cut from similar fabric as Quinn - generally manipulative and scheming to meet her needs.  But rarely is the dynamic between the two girls expressed in actual interaction, and when it is they are mostly at odds.  We are therefore left to fill in the blanks and poke at the fairly compelling characteristics of what is unfortunately uncharted territory.

Puck?  Check.  Quinn?  Check.  Okay, now how about Finn?

Santana’s relationship with Finn makes little to no sense based on the fact that the writers wielded her in that plotline mostly to create drama in the Finn-Rachel coupling.  It’s so fitting that Santana’s first solo graced our ears not because of an actual Santana plotline, but rather as a result of her prowling on the main character’s love interest for reasons we didn’t really grasp.  (I can’t take the Madonna-inspired younger-guy-theory seriously because a - it was only weakly used to tie the actions into the theme of the episode, and b - they explicitly stated that Finn is three days younger than Santana, which solidifies it more as a joke than anything else.)

Despite the fact that Santana takes every opportunity to insult Finn (it is exhausting to look at him, after all, even if you can jiggle his man-boobs), the show stubbornly kept Santana floating in Finn’s romantic periphery from “Hell-O” all the way until “Special Education,” when the truth of their tryst finally came out.  (And hey, if you want to talk about Santana, loyalty, and secrets, why did she keep quiet about sleeping with Finn for so long?  Did she just not care?  Was she respecting his wishes?  Was she - gasp - protecting Rachel’s feelings?  Or was she just waiting for the opportune moment to cause destruction with a well-timed truth bomb?  You decide.  The writers didn’t.)

What do the writers want us to understand about Santana’s feelings towards Finn - if anything?  Yes, she brutally insults him, but there’s also the evidence in “Furt” that suggests she feels something towards Finn.  Is it loneliness?  Embarrassed affection?  Self-loathing for being a “temptress?”  Those potential “second choice” feelings bubbling up to the surface?  And then there’s her pointed flirtation with Finn in “Special Education” - was that real, or just to mess with Rachel?  Neither seem to fit entirely, and more than anything the moment reeked of plot device, so that we could feel bad for Rachel and root for Finn to choose her instead.  Conclusions shoot in all directions, and none of them are solidified onscreen because the writers wield Santana as a third party in all storylines, and we hardly know anything from her point of view.

And then there’s Sam.  It’s no coincidence that we perhaps know the most about Santana’s relationship with Sam, since she has been dating him post-Cheerios, in the midst of Glee actually giving some serious screentime to our girl.  But it’s also difficult to deny that the Sam-Santana coupling was borne of Santana meddling in Sam and Quinn’s storyline, under the pretense of making Quinn (and/or Brittany?) jealous. 

Santana strikes up her relationship with Sam in the wake of being single on Valentine’s Day, which perhaps speaks to romantic isolation, but when it comes down to it, the connection is once again left undrawn.  She has stayed with Sam ever since, in exuberant praise (or is it derision?) of his froggy lips, trouty mouth, guppy face, etc.  (Poor Chord Overstreet.)  It’s fairly easy to conclude that Santana doesn’t take Sam very seriously, but it’s also easy to extrapolate that her reasons for dating him could be, and perhaps are, but once again are left unexplored.

There comes a point where Santana has to be at the center of her own universe, and not a guest star or featured player in everyone else’s.  And while we may finally be working towards that goal, there’s still 36 episodes where Santana is an insult machine, an emotional wrecking ball, and a complete and utter mystery when it comes to relationships.


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