Saturday, May 28, 2011

Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope: Post-Modernism and the Future of Feminism

Since “30 Rock” premiered on NBC in 2006, its lead character, Liz Lemon, has been widely regarded as a feminist icon - a working gal who just wants to have it all.  Over the subsequent five seasons, critics are turning a more judicious eye on ol’ Liz Lemon, and decreeing that perhaps she isn’t as much of a feminist character as we’d thought.  At the very least, Liz Lemonism is problematic: Liz has no functional relationships with other women on the show - the ensemble of females is marked with insanity - and Liz herself is often hapless, and falls into parody in terms of her relationships with men, food, exercise, work, management, babies, marriage, and sex.  On top of that, Liz often expresses judgment or disgust towards other women’s behavior.

In 2009, a new kid arrived on the comedy block: “Parks and Recreation,” whose very own Leslie Knope began to attract attention as a potential candidate for Feminist Icon Currently on TV.  Leslie is joyous and giving towards other female characters; she is a woman in charge who is good at her job, and she aspires to be the President of the United States.  Leslie Knope is constructed as an intelligent and capable thirty-something who has the rigor, determination, and good nature of a 12-year-old girl who chases fireflies instead of boys.  Leslie Knope is indeed amazing, and critics who assert that she’s a stronger feminist role model than Liz Lemon are probably correct in their assessment.

However, I find it limiting to place a value judgment on Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope, for a variety of reasons.  It’s no secret to anyone that I’m a fan of both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and both of their characters and TV shows.  I refuse to choose between them, because I frankly don’t feel I have to.  Beyond that, I maintain that Liz Lemonism is not invalid, even with its glitches - there are attenuating circumstances that affect its representation in comparison to Leslie Knope’s sunshine feminism.

Let’s talk philosophy.  In the 20th century, common culture began to embrace the post-modern school of thought.  Post-modernism is essentially constructed on the notion that every human is a product of their context.  We are all embedded in our own environments and timelines; the mood and events of our society shape who we are and how we view the world.  Post-modernism is about the body, not the mind, hearkening to ideas that are very physical and tangible.  It is perhaps a more cynical philosophy than say, that of the Enlightenment.

Post-modernism had been brewing in the late 1800s - Karl Marx penned a manifesto about power and the haves and have-nots, and suddenly everyone began to understand the idea that we are born into a societal context and cannot easily escape it.  Of course, the 20th century gave rise to social revolutions in terms of power - post-modernism coincided with the awareness that discrimination exists as a result of inherent and constructed disadvantages in society’s system.  White, rich, straight men had power and privilege, and those who did not meet all those requirements did not.  As a result, we saw the Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Liberation, and the push for equal treatment across race, gender, and sexuality lines.

This was the birth of “feminism” - forget Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 1960s and the burning of the bras was where “feminism” became a thing. 

Feminism originated as a reaction.  Post-modernism indicated to us that there was an inherent power structure at work, and the only way to get the ball rolling on equality was to fight against it.  Imagine a game of tug-of-war: if you’re already losing the game, you have to pull twice as hard as your opponent to bring the flag back to middle ground.  And so 20th century social politics were defined by reaction, by pulling twice as hard on the rope to see any sort of change.  Bras were burned, demonstrations were organized, and pride parades assembled, in an effort to simply be heard and taken seriously. 

All of these actions are Big Actions.  They are statements, expressions of voice, material products of their context.  Minorities were driven to stand up and say “I am proud of this thing that denies me power in this society, and I will fight for my right to embrace that.”  20th century social politics involved identifying strongly with your label in an effort to show that you weren’t ashamed of it.  Again: reactionary.  It had to be done simply to get people’s attention.

As the rest of the century wore on, we were given Black History Month, and International Women’s Day, and Gay Day at Disney World, in some measure of placation, because the scales still weren’t balanced.  But the crux is this: in a perfect world, shouldn’t every month be Black History Month, and every day be International Women’s Day, and Gay Day at Disney World?  This is the path that social revolution has taken as we move into the new century.  It is no longer about taking the negative definition of your context and subversing it - it’s about being free from your context entirely.  It’s about rejecting labels, and being individuals and humans, and not letting race, gender, or sexuality define you.  It’s about transcendence.  And it’s here where you’ll find the difference between Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. 

Liz Lemon is a product of post-modern feminism.  She is very much embedded in her context as a feminist who works twice as hard simply to balance the scales.  And she is still misguided about the true goal of feminism today.  She does have bad relationships with men, and she is judgmental about women who sell themselves short, or who define themselves by their male counterparts.  She has a very specific opinion about what women should be and how they should behave - which, by true definition of feminism (and according to its new goals) is actually anti-feminist. 

Leslie Knope, on the other hand, transcends post-modernism.  Leslie Knope represents the shift from reaction to proaction.  Leslie has healthy female friendships, is good at her job, and while she has some struggles in the romance department, they are usually played as a throwaway joke and rarely manifest in storyline.  She is unabashedly in charge, but still compassionate and a good friend.  No one questions her authority, or doubts her emotions, or thinks she’s crazy in a bad way.  On 30 Rock, there is an entire episode devoted to the idea that someone in the workplace calls Liz a cunt.  That simply would not happen on Parks and Recreation.  In the way Leslie Knope is constructed and wielded within the narrative, Leslie is what the future of feminism should be - in that being a woman means no different from being a man.  No one calls Leslie a cunt.  It’s a non-issue.

But you can’t disregard the reactionary beginnings of any social movement with a goal of equality, because without these individuals and their actions, the ball would not be rolling.  Similarly, you can’t disregard Liz Lemon as a feminist character - she’s simply a reactionary feminist character embedded in the issues that still affect feminism today.  The fact of the matter is that women wouldn’t relate so much to Liz Lemon if there weren’t a shared common mentality between the character and these ladies sitting on the couch at home, drinking red wine and working on their night cheese.  Women still do get called cunts in the workplace, unfortunately.  There are still stigmas associated with putting a woman in charge.  And Liz Lemon, in true post-modern fashion, is a product of this shared experience.  Therefore the idea that she is a feminist icon is really a reflection of the viewers watching the show, and not a construct of the show itself.  For example:

30 Rock had an episode this past season called “TGS Hates Women,” in which a new female cast member was hired for the sake of diversity.  Liz initially is on board with this goal, but immediately retracts the enthusiasm when Abby, the woman hired, is a young twenty-something who not only infantilizes herself but sexualizes herself in an effort to get attention.  Liz calls her out on her pigtail-twirling and her “sexy baby voice,” and pleads with her to have some self-respect.  Liz very explicitly wants to “fix” Abby.  But Abby calls Liz out on the idea that she wears glasses to seem smart, and accuses Liz of being judgmental, and a hypocrite.  In the end, it turns out that Abby is indeed intelligent, dowdy, and a brunette, and Liz exposes her true self in an effort to “help” her.  But the plan backfires because it’s revealed that Abby was concealing her identity to escape her insane ex-husband who’s trying to kill her.

The episode got a lot of attention under the lens of feminism, and the nail in the coffin on Liz Lemon being a problematic feminist was hammered in completely.  Her motives for exposing Abby were in an effort to validate her own existence, simply masquerading under the veil of wanting to help her.  However, the storytelling didn’t reward Liz for that folly, and in the end, it was Liz who had egg on her face when it turns out she ruined this girl’s life.  So while you can say that Liz Lemon is not the ideal feminist, I don’t think you can say that her show ever pretends she is.  This carries over into racism as well - Liz is portrayed as a character who tries so hard to prove she’s not racist, but at the end of the day, she’s still embedded in her context, and everyone agrees that yes, Liz is a little bit racist.

In a way, Liz Lemon is a 1970s feminist that is trying to be Leslie Knope - a 21st century feminist - and failing miserably.  And frankly, that’s part of 30 Rock’s comedy - it makes commentary on society’s treatment of race, gender, class, and sexuality through its absurdist storylines.  More often than not, 30 Rock aims to point out that it’s all problematic, and pokes holes in almost every point of view, especially when dealing with the stereotypes that often creep up - because they do.  It’s the reality of the world we live in.  It’s our context. 

Furthermore, as the show has progressed, the representation of Liz has moved away from “sane person surrounded by crazies” to “crazy person surrounded by crazies.”  In later seasons, Liz is no less batty than Jenna or Tracy (or Jack or Pete or Twofer or Frank) on one of their good days.  It seems a very pointed decision by the writers to not glorify Liz’s point of view, and instead ground her in the idea that everyone on this show is insane, Elizabeth Lemon included.  Tina Fey talked about this notion in a recent “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross - the idea that 30 Rock is expected to be prescriptive in its treatment of women, and that in reality the show has never actually endeavored to do that.  It’s the millions of women just like Liz Lemon, 1970s feminists thinking they’re Leslie Knopes, that see Liz in their own context, identify with her, and foist her as a feminist icon - not the show itself.

Leslie Knope, however, is specifically constructed, by the writers, to exist above her context.  She is untethered from many of the issues facing women today simply because the show’s goal is to represent an ideal where gender is a non-issue.  Don’t get me wrong; this is 100% the goal.  In a way, Parks and Recreation is prescriptive in its portrayal of gender, and I admire the show for that stance.  We need to see Leslie Knopes on television.  But it doesn’t make Liz Lemon’s existence any less valid. 

And it's this misconception that irks me most concerning the Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope debate: that there can only be one.  Tina Fey has inadvertently become the Spokesperson for Feminism, simply through the exposure she’s received and the measurable amount of success she’s experienced as a result of her decidedly lady-oriented point of view.  The media has made Tina Fey the Face of Feminism, and Liz Lemon is therefore dragged into that as a character that has been birthed from Tina Fey’s brain.  Liz Lemon is expected to be an Outstanding Feminist because Tina Fey is the Face of Feminism, the Lady Voice of all Lady Voices. 

What’s frustrating about this is that it’s actually anti-feminist to make someone the Face of Feminism.  Recently, Amy Poehler spoke at Harvard’s commencement ceremony, and the young man introducing her said, “I would like to thank the class marshalls for allowing me to open for blonde Tina Fey.”

Excuse me, good sir?  You just very succinctly summarized and vocalized what is so wrong with how the media handles women: there can only be one.  Obviously, I don’t know this dude in real life, but introducing Amy Poehler at a Harvard Commencement Ceremony as the “blonde Tina Fey” makes me want to call him a douchebag.  Tina Fey is not the standard for all women in comedy, and the idea that every woman must be related back to her is absurd, sexist, and insulting - especially for Amy Poehler, whose career and success, while similar to Tina’s, is a direct result of her own talents and ambitions. 

Amy, bless her, good-naturedly extended her middle finger in response to this royally insulting comment, and I’m very glad she made it clear she was not going to stand for that shit.

In a related example, Kristen Wiig recently wrote and starred in the female comedy Bridesmaids, which opened to shocking-but-not-really-when-you-think-about-it success at the box office.  And what’s the media saying about Kristen Wiig?  “She’s the next Tina Fey!” 

Words cannot express my distaste for this cultural suggestion that only one woman can represent the “face” of all women in whatever their field.  And somehow, it always gets twisted into the idea of competition - aka, a catfight.  Leslie Knope versus Liz Lemon.  When Amy and Tina were both nominated for Best Actress Emmy in 2010, an interviewer at The Envelope wanted Amy to spill the juicy details about being in competition against her best friend, citing it as a “classic diva clawfest.”  (Again, Amy called this guy out on his bullshit, because she is Amy Fucking Poehler and Will Not Stand For This Sort of Nonsense.)

The idea that it should boil to Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope for Leading Feminist of Television is simply a manifestation of sexism - who saw that coming?  The fact of the matter is that Liz Lemon is a product of reactive feminism, and her show makes light of her engendered context, and pokes holes in her points of view.  Leslie Knope is an enlightened, proactive feminism, one that transcends her context and simply dazzles with the idea that feminism is about being yourself, embracing other women, and not judging the decisions other women make because they don’t fit in with your own “feminist” worldview.  There’s no wrong way to be a woman. 

In this light, it’s perhaps the best conclusion to look at Liz Lemon as where we’ve come from and Leslie Knope as where we should be heading.  As we trickle into the 21st century, the post-modern beliefs are being shed, and the social culture seems to be that we are meant to reject our labels, because they do not define us.  Progressive media is no longer about representing what’s in our backyard, but what is on our horizon.  We are not our races, our genders, or our sexualities: we are humans.  The sooner we can move away from the contextual approach to our identities, the better.  The reactionism was a necessary first step in balancing power, embracing minority with pride.  But the goal is equality, and we can’t achieve that without embracing the notion that in a fundamental way, we are all the same.

And perhaps we will always live in a world that is engendered and encumbered with the associations and prejudices against that which is not white, straight, and male.  Perhaps this progress is merely an asymptote, never quite reaching the goal of balance and equality.  But I have to believe as old ways of thought die out, and new generations become aware of the dangers of prejudice and the implications of privilege, that the contextual power inherently granted to some and not others will fade away.  And one day, those who are not blessed with power will not have to pull twice as hard to gain any ground.  Every day will be a pride parade.  Every day will honor Black History.  Every day will celebrate women around the world.

Until then, we need to think critically and honestly about the societal implications of inequality and privilege, and recognize that there is no easy answer, and not lambast those who are struggling to understand the true goal - you can love Liz Lemon, and love Leslie Knope.  It’s probably better if you do.  So don’t accept the bullshit that society is giving you - from either side of the argument.  Politely decline, or just give it the finger.  Balance will happen one day.

Good reads: 1 | 2 | 3

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The RBI Report: "New York"

Hello friends, new and old!  Last week at DR SHE BLOGGO was a Snark Tank, and I hope I don't disappoint you when I say that this week will not be.  The review for "Funeral" got a lot of attention, both good and bad, but we've got new episodes to conquer!  Namely, "New York!"  And then after that, none whatsoever until September.  (...oh.)

But you should stick around because I will likely be retroactively reviewing Season 1 in the oh-so-shiny "Retro RBI Report" specially designed for summer hiatuses!  And perhaps some other fun stuff.  But before we all sign each others' yearbooks and part ways with Glee for the summer (KIT, Glee!) let's dig into the last episode of Season 2.

"New York," written and directed by Brad Falchuk

This week, we were treated to a Double Falchuk!  Yes, Mr. Falchuk had the difficult task of taking as many unfinished threads from this season and trying to weave them together into something that was remotely cohesive.  And that wouldn't give the audience whiplash while doing so.  It's a tall order, and I can't say that the episode didn't deliver where it counted.  But man, was there a lot going on, and I also can't say that some of the events made me look back at the season as a whole and think, "Wow, that was kind of a mess."  Regardless, let's take a look at each thread that was addressed in "New York."

So, Quinn was supposed to stir some shit up this episode, right?  We had the promise from last week that there was a serious plan up her sleeve for potential destruction of everyone's happiness, because I imagine that when Quinn Fabray gets angry, the result is something like the face-melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I mean, it's just a hunch.

No, instead of emotional terrorization, Quinn instead succumbed to a mess of feelings, spilling over onto Brittany and Santana about the heartbreak of not being loved.  First things first: how much do I love that Quinn finally got some material with the two people who were the first friends she had on the show?  The Quinn-Brittany-Santana dynamic has been the biggest stone unturned, and I for one want to see what delightful bugs are lurking underneath.  (Please excuse how disgusting that metaphor is.  It's late.)  

But this episode delivered that!  Quinn broke down, and Santana and Brittany were there to offer support, and maybe also a threesome.  Or a haircut, whichever.  I will say, I'm of the opinion that the only person who needs to love Quinn Fabray right now is Quinn Fabray herself - which is something she shares in common with one Santana Lopez.  So here's hoping that these two very similar characters with very similar struggles will actually lean on each other in the process of figuring themselves out and accepting their own identities.  Perhaps a common arc for next season, mm?  Hopefully this is the last time the writers saddle Quinn with bitchy plotting and get her started on her character arc - and with Santana along for the ride?  Count me in, please.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me just say this: Kurt and Rachel are so divinely joyous, it's as if heaven itself opened up and gave us these two characters with their most glorious and beautiful dynamic.  I don't think I can fully express to you how much I love them, with Kurt bouncing on Rachel's bed, perfect hair and all, so they could get dolled up for breakfast at Tiffany's.  Oh dear.  I think sunshine may have burst out of my body.  (Not Sunshine, though.  We'll get to her in a second.)

What's beautiful about Kurt and Rachel's interactions in "New York" is that they were a celebration of how far these characters have come.  Their first duet on the show was a competition, singing "Defying Gravity" as they vied for the solo they both so desperately wanted.  And now, they're standing on the "Wicked" stage, having broken in like adorable gangbusters, singing about how they've changed each others' lives.  How beautiful is that?  (Seriously, I'm beginning to think that this happened not because of a kiss but because of the hopeful, teary-eyed, loving expressions on the faces of Lea Michele and Chris Colfer's faces as they sang "For Good."  I mean, I sure felt like that.  I believe in the magic of Hummelberry!)

Of course, Kurt and Rachel's scenes mostly dealt with the idea that there is Ohio, and there is New York.  There is Finn, and there are dreams.  This set up the construct of the episode, which has been one that's lurked all season long: Rachel Berry must choose between Finn, and her future.  Which leads me to...

Firstly, I don't entirely understand why the construct exists that it has to be Finn vs. Future.  The show has set this up, albeit a bit haphazardly, since "Original Song" or so, and I don't quite get why this is the drama that is defining this couple.  Truly, I don't know what to think of it.  The feminist in me doesn't like the idea that Rachel has to choose, and the realist in me knows that young teenage couples don't make it past high school, and it's a real issue.  The storyteller in me thinks, "This is an awful lot of resolution for something that doesn't need resolution right now," and my confused self is happy to not think about it too much.  

So I'll just say this: I want Rachel to achieve her dreams more than anything, and I'm not sure why it has to come at the expense of a relationship, especially considering that Rachel is a junior in high school.  Finn and Rachel have had their ups and downs, good moments and bad, but barring all that, I think what makes me uncomfortable is the idea that it's either/or for Rachel's current goals.  And I don't think the issue with Finchel is that Rachel is unwilling to "take a chance" on Finn.  To me, that colorizes the situation, because we want Rachel Berry to take chances.  She sang "Taking Chances," for Pete's sake.  It's not that Rachel choosing Finn is her taking a chance.  Honestly, it's her taking a risk.  There's an itty bitty difference there, all to do with perspective.  To Finn, and the audience who's behind his POV, it's a chance.  To Rachel, and the audience who's behind her POV, it's a risk. 

I do appreciate though, that at episode's end, the attitude was a laidback "Got any plans 'til [graduation]?" because the less drama surrounding these two, the better.  Be happy now, you crazy kids, and hope the writers don't saddle you with backwards-moving character arcs!  See you in Season 3!

Oh, and can we take a moment to appreciate Rachel Berry in her natural habitat?  That 360 shot of Rachel standing in Times Square as though she were on stage and waiting for the curtain to open and the spotlight to click on was simply glorious.  And hey, Patti LuPone!  I could not handle Rachel Berry's face when she realized that Patti LuPone was asking her her name.  The idea that Rachel Berry can sometimes have doubts about her future is at once heartbreaking and charming, in that it's so unexpected for a character with such self-confidence.  Rachel Berry, one day everyone will know your name!  Let Kurt remind you, sweetheart.

Oh yeah, remember them?  Well, Sunshine's participation in this season was fumbled and dropped, but the writers had the decency to redeem Rachel for what she did to Sunshine (I still can't get over the crackhouse device... sigh) and allow Sunshine an eensy arc within the episode.  Even if it did involve the idea that Sunshine felt the need to flee the country in order to escape Vocal Adrenaline.  We'll breeze past that.

It's fitting that Rachel's repent came in the bathroom, the location where she and Sunshine first dueled in duet, and I appreciate the idea that Rachel apologized, admitted she was threatened, and cheered Sunshine on.  Was Sunshine a necessary plot device this season?  Not so much.  But there's not anything we can do about it now, and I salute the writers for at least wrapping it up with as much panache as they could muster.

As for Dustin... well, it's a damn shame that Cheyenne Jackson came on the show and didn't sing.  The resolution for Mr. Goulsby was not nearly as put-together as Sunshine's, but does anybody really care?  Let's move on from this.

Honestly, the biggest disappointment of this storyline wrapping up was that there was no Cheno.  What gives?  It could be my ulterior motives sneaking in (because, hello, CHENO) but logic seemed to stand that if we were going to see Will confront CrossRhodes, we would actually see Ms. Rhodes in the process.  But, alas.  Will's dedication to the kids shone through, as one janitor thinking he was awesome was enough for his stage dreams, and he can go back to Ohio a fulfilled man.  Works for me.

So, Santana and Brittany have been on their own journey together in the back third of this season, and "New York" saw them solidify their bond as best friends who love each other.  Honestly, I wish that something stronger happened in their final scene.  I loved so much that Brittany seems to have embraced the Glee Club the most, with her strange brand of optimism and calling-it-like-she-sees-it, and that she is a lot smarter than people realize.  I also appreciated the reaffirmation that Brittany and Santana love each other more than anything.

However, these two were in the company of someone who was having a meltdown over the fact that she doesn't have love, and it would've been such strong storytelling if that scene with Quinn were a call to action for Santana.  The episode set up the idea that Quinn does not have love, and wants it, and Santana has love, but is too scared to embrace it.  It seemed only natural to pay that off with Santana finally taking the plunge.  But alas, we're only slowly building back to it.  Which frankly, is a valid decision, in the grand scheme of things.  I'm looking forward to what Quinn and Santana's storylines will be in Season 3 as a result of this parallel construct that's emerged in the latter parts of Season 2, and hopefully it will be well paid off.

Oh yeah, Jesse was there to help triangle it up a little more.  Jesse's return is frankly unnecessary, since they're piling on the drama with Finn and Rachel rather thickly.  (And, may I point out for a moment that the Finchel reunion drama has nothing to do with what plagued their relationship in the first place... it's all just new, constructed drama weighing down and covering up the original issues.  Jesse is really unnecessary in this capacity.  Plus, no one likes a character who exists only to be a romantic rival.  Sigh.)  I'm curious to see what happens with Jesse in Season 3, or if he'll just disappear.  Maybe April can cast him in her show and they can be delusionally daffy together, with heaps of success on Broadway.

Kurt and Blaine shared their first "I love you" in a moment that I actually found rather darling.  Instead of an overwrought emotional sequence, we just saw the fact that Blaine was motivated to share his feelings based on the fact that Kurt was so nonchalant about losing, and peaceably focused on the bigger goals.  And Kurt replied with a simple, "I love you too." No fuss, no muss.  I appreciate those choices.  Small moments speak volumes.

Now.  Hold everything right this very minute, because you guys, this episode gave us the introduction of Sam and Mercedes.  SAM AND MERCEDES.  Not gonna lie, I am on board.  I am ready.  I may or may not have squealed, and I may or may not have thrown my arms in the air in exultation.  That's how ready I am for this.

In a way, this new development with Sam and Mercedes is a hallmark of what Glee does best, and what it's done all season long.  Glee is not afraid to shake things up, and the standalone merit of that is excellent.  However, when Glee doesn't shake things up, it holds onto them like a dog with a bone, and that becomes frustratingly repetitive.  And of course, sometimes Glee likes to shake things up so much that what was shaken up in the first place gets shaken up again before anything real or meaningful can happen with it. 

And that is perhaps the best way to describe what happened in Season 2.  We were given many new things, some of which were good, some of which were not-so-good.  Some of these things wiped away quickly and easily, and some stuck around.  And some things were held onto with a dogged tenacity that grew tired after awhile.  I suppose these are really the only options when it comes to storytelling, so I hope that the writers can assess what events need to go in which categories for maximum effect.  Season 2, as a whole, was something of a storytelling mess because of this confusion, and the writers are fortunate to have a strong core message (family and acceptance... hey, look how smart Brittany is!) and a talented cast to fall back on when characterization and plot arcs get away from them.

As for Season 3, I hope the writers approach it with a cohesive plan for each of their characters, and allow for what's set up to be paid off, as each kid moves forward on their arc, and hopefully isn't stuck in the revolving door of conflict.  And, while I'm wishing for things, can I ask for more friendships and more balance among the characters' storylines?  Those tiny choices would go a long way.

So with that, readers, I sign off for the recapping of Season 2.  I do hope you'll stick around over the summer-long hiatus, as I promise I have things planned!  (Some things also might happen at my Tumblr, should you be interested in seeking me out there.)  And, of course, I must thank you so very much for reading along with my thoughts as we've moved through this season together.  You've not only endured my long-winded thoughts, but you've encouraged them, and I can't thank you enough for loyally reading along.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Brittany Pierce, for not only bestowing us with "My Cup" but also with a healthy dose of self-awareness rarely seen in any other character on the show

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Clarifications on "Funeral," Finn Hudson, and Asshole Storytelling

So, I've been getting a lot of feedback on my review of "Funeral."  It was indeed very sarcastic and exasperated, and most of the response has been positive, from the fans of the show who have similarly grown weary with Glee's carousel of heavy-handed storytelling flubs.  But there's been a claim, for better or worse, that my recap was "anti-Finn," and I want to clarify that statement.

I do not deny that I am frustrated with the character of Finn Hudson, and have been for most of Season 2.  However, I want to be very clear that the expression of my distaste has more to do with how Finn Hudson, as a character, is written and treated, as a construct of the narrative - and very little to do with the character himself, and although I haven't been accused of this, it still merits saying, absolutely nothing to do with Cory Monteith.

I have said, time and time before, that creativity is choice.  Storytelling is choice.  Narrative is choice.  Every single episode of scripted television - Glee, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Parenthood, everything - is a series of choices intended to take the audience on the journey.

And it's Glee's choices, concerning Finn especially, that trouble me.  I don't give a flying crap if Rachel dates Jesse, or Puck, or Finn, or Quinn or whomever.  I have no preference.  I don't care if Finn dates Rachel, or Quinn, or starts randomly making out with Jesse in an outburst of frustration and an attempt to express dominance somehow.  

I do care about irresponsible storytelling.  I do care when characters become puppets, as plotlines are recycled yet backstories ignored.  I do care when all the justification in the world is thrown behind a select few characters, as all others are left to be either reprimanded, saved, or forgiven by the Chosen.  This is not good storytelling.  This is incredibly subjective storytelling.

Here's the thing: everyone on Glee has been an asshole at some point or another.  Being an asshole is not a crime, in fiction.  In fact, when people behave poorly, there's usually a reason, and it's always fascinating to understand why.  Because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, and have flaws, just like real human beings.  But when you put an asshole in the narrative, you have to be careful with how you treat him/her.  And really, the only two options are these: either punish your asshole, or let him/her be understood.  In a perfect world, it'd be a combination of both, mixing salty and sweet and toying with our allegiences.  You'd have a rich character who would interact with the narrative in interesting ways.

(And please, when I say "punish," I mean in a sort of cosmic storytelling way - on Glee, punishment usually comes in the form of public embarrassment, or a slushie in the face.  Or a pregnancy.  Just something bad happening to the character, whether trespassed by another character or simply fate.)

Glee more or less grasps this concept.  In a basic way, Sue has been punished, and understood.  Quinn has been punished, and understood.  Puck, Santana, Rachel, and Karofsky have all been punished, and understood.  (The jury is out on striking the correct balance between punishment and understanding, but that's another issue altogether.)  The fact of the matter is that all characters on this show have demonstrated asshole behavior, and not all of them have consistently been punished.  And not only are they not punished, they are justified.  We skip right over punish, breeze past understand, and land squarely in justify.  The asshole behavior can't just be ignored, or else the audience smells bullshit.  Asshole behavior is a valid expression of storytelling choice, but dusting it under the rug, or even rewarding it, is not.  And the absolute worst storytelling decision is when an unpunished asshole tries to punish another asshole for their behavior.  Oh, honey, no.  That is hypocritical, and never a good color on any character.  

To ground this abstract discussion in Glee, the frequently unpunished characters are Will and Finn, and the idea that they are unpunished is even more maddening when they perpetrate punishment on others - making Rachel feel badly about being an asshole, or Quinn feel badly about being an asshole, or lashing out at Sue or Jesse or Puck about being an asshole.  This is an expression of the writers justifying the Assholes, and when they are still well-liked by the other characters, this is the writers rewarding the Assholes.  And may I remind you again, that perpetrating punishment against others is indeed a choice the writers make, to use Finn or Will as a vessel to carry The Voice of Reason, or Upstanding Ethics, just because they're supposedly our Heroes and our Leaders.  It's all very, very sloppy, and really, punishment is best left up to the blameless actions of fate or karma, which is also easily written, and far more sophisticated in effect.

What makes everything worse is that more often than not, the Unpunished Asshole Construct results in a very sticky situation in how the show handles gender.  Last night, in "Funeral," Will and Finn were The Good Guys, pure of heart, champion underdogs, and they got to save the day.  Sue was nobly rescued by Will, Finn, and Kurt, because they put aside the fact that she's not a good person (she said so herself).  Rachel was swept off her feet by Jesse but is doggedly stuck on Finn and he stands to be heartbroken if she chooses "wrong."  Quinn was dumped and then reprimanded for a) trying to make it work, and b) not feeling anything about the breakup.  Ugh, I'm so tired of the boys being Heroes, and the girls being Naive, Frigid, Emotional, Vulnerable, Bitchy, or Manipulative.  Almost every gender interaction in the core characters files into these categories, and is regarded almost exclusively in reference to the male's subject.  The girls, narratively speaking, can't seem to win for losing.

So it's not Finn's character, or Will's character, but rather the way their actions are treated within the narrative - not only left unpunished, but glossed over with the sheen of sexist stereotypes and shallow good-vs-evil tropes.  Have any opinion you want about the actual content of the show, that's fine; but please, I implore you to look at the presentation of the material and question what exactly the writers are trying to communicate, and how genuine it is.  Honesty is the best policy when it comes to storytelling, and unfortunately, it is sometimes absent from Glee - for all the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The RBI Report: "Funeral"

Dearest readers,

Today is the day you discover that I have no soul.  Because while I cried at all the important parts of "Funeral," ("Pure Imagination!"  Sue's speech!  Howard Bamboo's return!) I'm fairly certain that the emotions I was supposed to feel for most of the hour were actually drowned out by the ringing alarm of my Bullshit Storytelling Detector.  I'm slightly ashamed to admit that DR SHE BLOGGO, Professional Eye Roller, was in full force.  So let's get through it, shall we?

"Funeral," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Bradley Buecker

The main issue I take with "Funeral" is that it reeked of emotional manipulation, and I spent most of the episode choking on the overwhelming perfume that attempted to cover up some unpleasantly-odored storytelling.  This Eau de Pretense mainly came in the form of Jean's death, as Sue Sylvester tragically struggled to deal with the pain and was supported by the Glee Club in her time of trouble.  I think that if Jean's death were not in the penultimate episode of the season, it wouldn't feel like a pointed attempt to empty the Kleenex containers in my house.  Because was the story about how Sue Sylvester came to deal with her grief?  No.  The story was about how Will Schuester, Finn Hudson, and Kurt Hummel saved the day, and nobly reached out to help Sue cope.

I'm all for Sue Sylvester having more than one dimension, and Jean Sylvester's existence was a lovely way for that depth to actualize onscreen in a meaningful way.  Jean made Sue more than a villain, and in doing so, allied her with the Glee Club in that she championed at least one underdog in the narrative, and that goes a long way.  I loved that about Jean's existence, and was truly upset that this character had passed away.  But Jean's death didn't do anything but completely cripple Sue in the narrative - and she had her Big Moment taken away from her.  

Why, oh why, was the decision made for Will Schuester to read Sue's eulogy for Jean Sylvester?  Sue's character was repressing so much pain, and it ripped my heart into little pieces to see Jane Lynch start to read her honest words.  That was the emotional reward for her character.  But Sue Sylvester is a Villain.  Jean was nice, Sue is mean.  Jean had a pure heart, Sue does not.  So who has a pure heart?  Oh, Will Schuester!  Yeah, that guy!  The man who was yelling at Sue ten seconds before he found out her sister died!  The man who treated his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend like crap!  The man who yells at his students, and doesn't recognize when he's pitting his students against each other for a solo!

But Will is a Good Guy.  He has a pure heart.  So he got to save the day, and in doing so, hijacked Sue Sylvester's Character Moment.  Because Sue Sylvester is a Villain.  Eyeroll count: 1.

The other Good Guys this episode were Kurt and Finn, who came to Sue in an effort to support her through her hard time.  The decision for these two to be the ones to reach out to Sue is valid; both of them have suffered the tragedy of losing a parent at an early age.  Continuity success!  And, bless her, Sue actually opens up to them a bit, even though she's allergic to pansies.  This aspect of "Funeral" was solid.  Kurt and Finn got some screentime together, with a real reason, and were allowed to be lovely and understanding and helpful.  Kurt himself avoided the Good Guy Mask completely, delivering a solid solo effort, and applauding the crap out of Rachel like the darling little showman he is.

Finn, however, was not so lucky.  Finn's first actions in "Funeral" were completely pissy, as he lashed out at Jesse calling attention to his insecurities.  But he was justified, because he stood up for the club!  He acted like a leader!  He defended the whole club's identity, because the writers chose for no one else to.  Finn's right, guys!  This isn't what the Glee Club is all about!  Eyeroll count: 2.  

(On a sidenote: I would like to get off the Finn Hudson No-Confidence Carousel, please.  I'm going to throw up.)

Finn was allowed to be the Hero in Sue's storyline, Glee's storyline, and Rachel's storyline, as he snagged the lead role in the Rachel Berry Solo Daydream Sequence!  Oh yes, "My Man," in all its Lea-Michele-performance-expression glory, was mostly just about Finn.  I'm sorry; didn't Rachel sing something about being a firework?  Didn't she sing something about going her own way?  Didn't she sing some metaphor about not wanting to be in love with someone who collects hearts in a jar?  Or did I black out and supplant my actual memories with fabricated fever dreams?  Because baby, I remember fireworks, and a Rachel Berry who was not hopelessly devoted to a doofus.  (I'm sorry, but Finn is a doofus.  He shouldn't be, but he is.  I would like to not be argued on this.)  Eyeroll count: 3.

And it keeps going!  Finn was rewarded for breaking up with Quinn - never mind that he encouraged her to cheat on her boyfriend with him and tried to knock out Rachel's prom date last week.  He tried to fix everything, but he just couldn't!  And god, why doesn't Quinn feel anything?  She still just wants to date him for next year's prom

I'm sorry, what?  Prom was last week, writers!  You cannot still use it as a character motivation a year in advance, and especially not when Quinn finally became more than a pretty face in that exact episode!  But Finn is a Good Guy.  And Quinn is a Villain.  Sorry, Quinn.  Better luck next haircut.  (And don't worry.  Finn's totally glad you're handling this well, and he totally still loves you.  Lucky you!  He's such a Good Guy.)  Eyeroll count: 4.

Let's charge ahead on the Finn Hudson Champion Express, right through the justification of his animosity towards Jesse.  Jesse is just trying to get Rachel back!  Jesse was such a jerk to Mercedes, Santana, and Kurt because he's a Bad Guy.  But Finn's a Good Guy!  He wants Rachel back!  (For whatever reason.  I guess they're just still in love?  Never mind any actual plot-related reasons or character motivations.  Nah.  They're just in love.  It's easier that way.)  Look, Finn had a flower!  But... but... Rachel was kissing Jesse, the Villain!  Our Hero's heartbroken!  Oh, that's so terrible, because he's such a Good Guy.  Let's punch that Jesse kid.  Eyeroll count: 5.

So, let me just double-check.  Finn's our Hero, right?  That explains why Rachel must love him so much.  Who doesn't love a Hero, when he plans funerals and buys flowers and can correctly identify what the main purpose of the Glee Club is?  Rachel's the Girl!  Finn's the Hero!  It all makes sense.  Please, writers, reunite them!

In similarly-constructed romances, Will is packing for his trip to NYC and his star turn in April Rhodes' Broadway spectacle (so... he's doing that, then?) and Emma's really great at folding vests.  I assume this means we'll get some progress with these two, since Will can correctly identify the hot mess of wool he was wearing when he met Emma (eyeroll count: 6) and also because Emma kept it and then wore it (eyeroll count: 7).  I guess Will's our Hero too, and he deserves the Girl, even though he's mostly overstepped his bounds with her all season long.  But he's the Hero!  And she's the Girl.  So clearly, she's head-over-heels in love with him and therefore he deserves to win her back.  Please, writers, reunite them!

So, by my count we have The Good Guys: Will, Finn, Kurt, and the Blanket Expression of the Glee Club in general; The Villains: Sue, Jesse, Quinn, and Terri (hi gurl... bye gurl!); Those Caught in the Middle: Rachel and Emma; and Everyone Else: Artie, Sam, Brittany, Santana, Puck, Lauren, Tina, Mercedes, and the Dancing Asian that Sue hates this week.  It should be noted that 90% of these characters, from all categories, are being two-dimensionally represented.

I'm sorry; I can't hear you over the sound of my Bullshit Storytelling Detector.

What did work for "Funeral" was the utter heartbreaking devastation in Sue Sylvester, and that divine performance of "Pure Imagination" amongst a service outfitted with the childlike whimsy of a chocolate factory.  There was no eyerolling there, my friends.  And may I please ask, for a moment, why Jenna Ushkowitz is not being bestowed with more solos to bestow upon us?  Because her part in "Pure Imagination" was beautiful.  As was all the singing in this episode - from Santana's growling "Back to Black" to Kurt's exultant "Some People" to Mercedes' floor-wiping "Try a Little Tenderness" to Rachel's overwhelmingly powerful "My Man."

Points also go to Kurt's majestic hair (how is it so perfect?) and Rachel's entire look for "My Man."  Cute dress, baby!  Remember something about a Firework?  No?  Huh.  I must have dreamt it.  

Oh, and I can't forget Terri!  She returns!  She's a Villain, right?  Well, no.  Because Terri's moving to Miami and she doesn't want the Glee kids rerouted to Libya, so she gets the proper plane tickets for those singing nerds that ruined her life and is packing up for a Sheets N Things promotion.  Bye, Terri!  It's nice they redeemed you long before your exit so we could really appreciate you in all your three-dimensional glory!  Oh wait.

So, next week is Nationals and Quinn Fabray has a trick up her sleeve!  It must be something dastardly, because Quinn is a Villain.  Maybe there's a citywide prom going on in Manhattan, and Quinn will scale the Empire State Building like Queen Kong, with a tiny Rachel kicking and screaming in one fist and a gleaming tiara in the other, as airplanes try and shoot her down, her fists shaking to the heavens and her satin sash getting caught on the 86th-floor observatory.  (Don't worry, though.  Finn will save her.)

So, dearest readers, you can see now that I have no soul, and a heavy arsenal of sarcasm at my beck and call.  There were parts of "Funeral" that were indeed touching, and I definitely shed several well-earned tears for the death of Jean and the devastating impact it had on Sue.  I cheered when the soloists sang, and I cheered when they supported one another.  But the bulk of the episode's events were bogged down in emotional manipulation  and tired relationship drama that is clearly gearing us up for recycled Big Moments in the finale next week.  It didn't sit well with me, and I apologize for the snarkiness of this recap.  Can I just blame it on a womb rage?

With as much love as my charcoal heart can muster,

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: Finn Hudson!
Dance Numbers: Finn Hudson!
Dialogue: Finn Hudson!
Plot: Finn Hudson!

Characterization: Finn Hudson!
Episode MVP: Finn Hudson!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

10 Things I Love About "10 Things I Hate About You"

So, today's my birthday.  And in the spirit of doing absolutely nothing but the things you enjoy on such self-celebrating anniversaries, I have decided to watch my absolute favorite late-90s teen comedy: 10 Things I Hate About You.  Watching it now in my 20s, I must admit that I still unabashedly love this movie.  So without further ado, I present: 10 Things I Love About 10 Things I Hate About You.

X. Shakespeare!
It's based on The Taming of the Shrew!  They sneak in little Shakespearean lines, like when Cameron quotes, "I burn!  I pine!  I perish!"  Basically, this movie takes a rather erudite reference for a teen movie and crafts it into something that entertains and yet doesn't bastardize the original inspiration.  Petruchio becomes Patrick, Katherine becomes Katarina - Kat's last name (Stratford) comes from Shakespeare's birthplace, Patrick's (Verona) derives from the setting of Romeo and Juliet as well as the titular city in, well, The Gentlemen of Verona.  The high school is called Padua, the fictional town where Shrew takes place, and Kat's best friend is "involved" (a bit kooky, but sure!) with Mr. Shakespeare himself.  For a nerd like me, all of this adds up to one thing: delightful!  (We'll just ignore the fact that the tagline of "How do I loathe thee?" is actually a riff on Emily Barrett Browning and not Shakespeare, okay?  Okay!)

 IX. Allison Janney as Ms. Perky 
I cannot speak of this movie without mentioning Allison Janney's miniscule-but-memorable performance as the guidance counselor who scripts romance novels (or maybe just porn) at work.  Cameron, Patrick, and Kat all have brief sessions with Ms. Perky, but in each she's actively snarking and trying to come up with as many ways to describe a man's penis.  Never change, Ms. Perky.  Never change.

VIII. Kat and Bianca's dad 
Mr. Stratford is, in a word, divine.  His mama didn't raise no foo'.  Without him, we have no premise: he enforces strict dating rules on his daughters because he's up to his arms in placenta all day and knows all about those damn Dawson's River kids sleeping in each other's beds.  His dialogue is superb, his antics hilariously exaggerated ("I want you to wear the belly!") and yet, his relationship with his daughters is actually rather touching.  The writers gave him a sneaky back story in the idea that his wife left the family, and perhaps that's why he's controlling of Kat and Bianca's lives.  But at the end of the day, he only wants what's best for them, and is willing to shelve his overbearing nature to let Kat head to Sarah Lawrence for college.  Not only that, but that piece of information is cushioned in the most lovely scene where he reveals that he's proud of Kat's behavior, and just wishes he could be more a part of her life.  Aww. 

VII. the backstories
Speaking of back stories - both Patrick and Kat get lovely little back stories that help inform characters that run deeper than their (bad) reputations.  Patrick, it turns out, took care of his grandmother while she was sick in Australia, and simply doesn't fit in in American high school.  Kat, bless her, actually used to be fairly popular, even sleeping with Bad Boy Joey right after her mom left - only to regret it and start subscribing to the rule of meeting individual expectations instead of external ones.  Pretty good, right?  These histories help flesh out the characters and let them be real, instead of stock Teen Movie Tropes - the Frigid Girl who's "tamed" by the Seemingly-Bad-But-Actually-Good-Boy - and let's face it, no one likes a Teen Movie Trope.  Except for the people who make Not Another Teen Movie.

VI. Kat and Bianca's relationship
These sisters bitch and fight for a solid 80% of this movie.  They are technically very different.  But it's clear they love each other, especially by the third act.  Kat struggled with wanting to protect her baby sister but also let her make her own mistakes, and Bianca kneed an asshole in the crotch because he acted like a dick to Kat three years previous.  Kat caved when Bianca sincerely pleaded with her to go to Bogey Lowenstein's party because she knew how important it was to Bianca.  And oh, how much do I love that Bianca follows Kat out of prom and shares a look with Patrick, and checks up on Kat before going sailing with Cameron?  The movie does not forget that while these two are often at odds, they are still, first and foremost, sisters.

V. the couples
Rarely do I rhapsodize about a fictional couple - let alone two in the same movie!  But Patrick and Kat, and Cameron and Bianca make me squeal with emotion.  Patrick and Kat are clearly the older, more mature couple, and Cameron and Bianca are cutesy and innocent, but both are with their merits.  How much do I love that Pat and Kat (can I call them that?) squabble without being unlikeable, yet still have conversations that make them relatable and vulnerable?  They understand one another.  Swoon!  And oh!  When they slow dance to Letters to Cleo at prom!  They slow dance to a fast song, and I don't think you understand how much that makes me love them, because indeed, I am a crazy person. 

As for Cameron and Bianca, they're just damn cute.  Their French study sessions!  The fact that she genuinely does kind of fall for him!  His earnestness!  His chivalry!  He asks about her sister!  He calls her out on her princess bullshit!  She doesn't want him to see her room, or her underwear drawer!  And the way she kisses him... in the car!  It's all very, very darling.

IV. the dialogue
I could quote this entire movie.  That's how good the dialogue is.  And it's smart dialogue.  Characters are proven to be dumb/unlikeable or smart/likeable through the way that they speak.  Michael and Cameron are poetic and verbose, Kat is armed with a vicious vocabulary, and even Bianca spouts off triple-score words in an adorably intricate diction.  Only Patrick benefits from being taciturn and honestly-phrased, for the other characters who can't keep up are left to be villains or idiots.  Seriously, Joey Donner doesn't know the difference between "pensive" and "thoughtful" (or rather, that there is none, or at least, very little - wordsy people who want to dissect nuance!) and he is therefore unfit to be a Good Guy in this movie.  And the snob in me delights in that construct.

III. Kat Stratford, herself
Ladies and gentlemen, Katarina Stratford is my Queen.  She's such a lovely feminist character, in that she spouts bitter invectives about consumerism and the patriarchal society, and yet when it counts, she still has a heart.  She still goes to Bogey Lowenstein's party because her sister begs her in earnest, she still lets a guy serenade on the football field (if he must), she still flashes a teacher to get a friend out of detention, and she still gets up in front of the whole class and cries while she reads a poem.  Madam, you are lovely.  You eyeroll with the best of them, and while you snark with the vinegar of the briniest of bitches, you are still human, with strengths and flaws, and a beating heart.  Kat Stratford is a damn beautiful fictional creation.

II. Bianca Stratford
But let's not forget her little sister Bianca.  What I love about Bianca is that she changes.  The Bianca we see at the beginning of the movie, so in love with her Prada backpack and the sweet ride of a cute boy, is different from the Bianca at the end.  She doesn't make the same mistake that Kat did, she doesn't sleep with Joey Donner, and instead realizes that yes, indeed, he is massive tool.  And she does have feelings for Cameron!  Praise be!  The writing for Bianca is so stellar because, while in comparison to Kat, yes, she is a bit vapid and shallow and obsessed with popularity - but she is not stupid.  She still uses big words, grows exasperated by Joey's insistence on modeling in her presence, and even gets frustrated by Cameron's lack of asking her to prom.  And it's she, not Patrick or Cameron, who finally punches out Joey Donner, and in doing so, she seals her arc as a character who is no longer fooled by pretty faces and sweet words.  In all, she is just as much of a feminist character as Kat.  How lovely is that?  Bianca Stratford, you're the best.

I.  Kat's final speech

Is there a real need to explain this one?  There's not, but I will.  The thing that makes 10 Things I Hate About You so great is that it manages to be genuine, despite the scheming and the joking and the high school character tropes.  And no moment is more exemplary of this than Kat's poem (does it meet the requirements of a sonnet?  I'm too lazy to go and count up fourteen lines with the A-B what-nots...).  What's lovely is that the poem is a complete manifestation of the fact that while Kat pretends to hate a lot of things (in this case, Patrick) she actually does not.  And so it becomes a manifestation of not only her feelings for Patrick, but also a general character piece as well - perhaps why I can get on board with this coupling; Kat never loses her sense of self for this guy.  And it's cleverly communicated (words!) through a simple structure of intelligent irony mixed with late 90s teen mentality.  Julia Stiles' performance is spectacular, in the way that her voice cracks, and she kind of stumbles and reads the wrong line at first.  It's Katarina Stratford at her most vulnerable, more vulnerable than when she was drunk in the car, or dancing at prom, or talking about how she slept with the wrong boy at 14.

In short: it's pretty perfect.  As is this movie.  I think I could ramble on and on about a million more things I love (namely all the tall tales about Patrick's past - "Should you be drinking that when you don't have a liver?") but I shall refrain.  I still have an hour left of my birthday, and I'm a little whelmed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The RBI Report: "Prom Queen"

Prom prom prom!  Fun fun fun!  (Would this be a bad time to confess that I never watched the original version of "Friday" by Rebecca Black?  Somehow I sat out that pop culture phenomenon.)  "Prom Queen," like any Glee episode, had its goods and bads, but we were in for a treat this week because I found myself grinning like an idiot, nodding in agreement, and awwing far more than rolling my eyes or waggling a finger at the television.  Glorious!

"Prom Queen," written by Ian Brennan, directed by Eric Stoltz

It was the peak of prom season at McKinley, and everybody's prom agendas were kicked into high gear.  Puck wanted to win King but still maintain his reputation as a loveable miscreant, Artie wanted to take Brittany as his date, Kurt wanted to go with Blaine to heal old wounds, and Quinn continued to live in a fragile shell of tunnel vision set to the tinkling piano soundtrack of a horror movie.

Oh, and Jesse St. James came back with his collection of dramatic scarves and a newfound understanding of what it means to actually go to school.  So much going on!

First things first: Rachel decided she wanted to go to prom with Mercedes (adorable!) and the two put their heads (and wallets) together to encourage Sam to take both of them (double adorable!).  How wonderful was this?  Firstly, points for remembering Sam's situation - last week introduced a much-needed point of interest for his character, and I was delighted to see that it wasn't forgotten.  And on top of that, I will always champion new character interactions.  Plus, it made each of them so damn likeable, I defy anyone not to love their little Prom Date Triforce.

Of course, Jesse St. James burst on the scene not long after, apparently with the intentions of apologizing, winning Rachel back and/or taking her to prom.  I don't really have any issues with Jesse coming back, although I'm far more delighted by him when he's spouting off his divinely absurd dialogue than when he's getting in shove fights with Finn - which admittedly he did not incite.  But more on that later.  No, Jesse is graced with some of the best lines on the show, and I adore his construction as a slightly detached narcissist who says the dumbest things with complete and endearing confidence.  

And of course, Jesse and Rachel would reintroduce themselves with a duet.  How much do I love that Rachel didn't bother asking Jesse why he was back until after they finished singing?  Bless these two show choir goons.  Romantic or otherwise, their characters are delightfully crazy together, and their interactions are a charming reminder that indeed, there's nothing (or perhaps everything) ironic about show choir.

To be expected, though certainly not justified, Finn didn't take too well to Jesse's return and inclusion in the Sam-Mercedes-Rachel Prom Excursion.  And here's the thing.  It used to be kind of sweet and angsty when Finn and Rachel still acted on their feelings when they weren't together, but it's wearing thin.  Last week, Rachel had no right to go tearing through Quinn and Finn's relationship, no matter how invalid she thinks it is, and this week, Finn had no right to get his knickers in a twist over Rachel and Jesse.  Rachel and Finn are not together, and although it's apparent that they are meant to be together, it's frustrating when the characters act as though they belong to one another... when they're dating other people.  Why didn't they act that way when they were actually dating?  It's maddening to me.

As Finn's involvement in this episode was mostly manifested in being slightly doofy towards Quinn and mostly rude towards Rachel and Jesse, I found myself enjoying it immensely when he wasn't onscreen.  Shove fests ruin everyone's fun, especially when they're unjustified!  But how darling was he with Blaine, Burt, and Kurt?  Let's have more of that, please, and less overwrought triangle drama.  Especially considering that - gasp! - Rachel and Quinn made some headway this episode with an actual friendship.  

We all knew, based on last week's promos, that Rachel was getting the slap side of Quinn Fabray's palm this week.  We just didn't know how or why.  Turns out, Quinn crumbled with the loss of Prom Queen, momentarily blamed Rachel in a moment of violence, and immediately regretted it and opened up with the confession that she's terrified of an unknown future.  Because Quinn Fabray is not a terrible person, people.  She's just a control freak, and a coward who doesn't show her emotions.  She's not just a pretty face - which is what Rachel told her in assurance that Quinn could have a life after high school, a lovely payoff that synthesized their interactions in "Original Song" and "Born This Way."  

I have long been squawking that Quinn needed to be treated as more than just her looks, and praise all that is Murphy, Brennan, and Falchuk, it finally happened.  May we keep this up, please?  Maybe if Quinn and Rachel retain some mutual respect and/or friendship, this Love Triangle will freshen up a bit.  Three-dimensional characters all around!  And can I give a final kudos for Quinn taking her prom picture by herself?  Doth mine eyes deceive me, or is that... independence?  Quinn Fabray's character arc is a go!  Or at least, I sure hope it is.

Let's dig into the other Awkward Triangle that actually isn't as Awkward as it could be - thankfully.  The Artie-Brittany-Santana conflict resumed this week, but in a lovely turn of events Brittany basically rejected being the lynchpin in that dynamic, with a polite refusal of Artie's prom proposal and friendly support only in Santana's struggle to accept her identity.  Can we get a heyo for Brittany S. Pierce?  She wants to work on herself, and dance with everybody's dates at prom, and damn if she didn't do both those things with confidence and panache.  And she encouraged Santana to support Kurt, and told her she voted for her because she knows exactly how awesome Santana is - because she knows exactly who Santana is.  Brittany Pierce may not know exactly how chickens and eggs work, but she's damn savvy when it comes to relationships.  Well done.

Of course, Artie got the short end of the stick, even though he politely accepted Brittany's rejection (good man!) and so he teamed up with Puck to spike the punch in what I'm assuming was the punchbowl that Nana Sylvester died in.  Sue got a hold of him, and in what was perhaps the only out-of-place plotline of the evening, threatened to remove his teeth for the offense.  Oh.  Okay?  I'm always in the camp that prefers Sue Sylvester talking about torture in a sort of hyperbolic kind of way, so that I can naively assume that she's not actually serious.  It's times like these when I have to negotiate Sue Sylvester as both a villain and a normal human being, and it's always a bit tonally jarring.

Santana and Karofsky, however, were darling in their transformations from sometimes-villains to protectors of Teen Gay Safety.  Their unrelenting dedication to the Bully Whips (walkie talkies!  checkpoints!  escorting Kurt from class to class!) was damn near perfect, and the icing on the cake came in a long-overdue apology from Karofsky to Kurt.  A meaningful, heartfelt apology, the traces of which vanished as soon as someone was in earshot - but the impact of which didn't slip away.  And Kurt forgave him, which, considering all that's happened, is huge, and a lovely character detail for Mr. Hummel.  What should have been a sticky plot point was instead channeled into an honorable character highlight - kudos.

Bless him, but Kurt Hummel was fantastic this episode.  Proudly attending prom in a kilt, and gracefully accepting the title of Prom Queen without accepting any of the malice intended with it.  I love when Kurt gets the chance to live up to his oft-trumpeted standard of transformative and inspirational character.  I love when nothing keeps that boy down, and although the results of the vote were treated with the appropriate amount of horror (I'll ignore the fact that Figgins had to be a pretty sucky educator to allow this moment), I appreciate so much that Kurt rejected the negative and embraced only the positive.  Just, bless him.  While certainly important to the LGBT-specific scenario, the message also transcends into a beautiful universal significance as well.

In that light, "Prom Queen" craftily connected Kurt's struggle, Santana's struggle, and Quinn's struggle in the climax of the drama, deftly weaving their scenes together as each character confronted the notion of living honestly.  Kurt was nothing but honest and got shot down, and Quinn and Santana were everything but honest and still didn't get what they wanted - but were their goals honest to begin with?  Together, all three of them were encouraged to live genuinely and without apology, by Blaine, Rachel, and Brittany, the three of whom acted selflessly and in solidarity.  Blaine stepped in to save Kurt from dancing alone, Rachel wiped away Quinn's tears, and Brittany flat-out told Santana she believed in her.  It was beautiful, and significant for all six involved.  Everybody hug!

All in all, "Prom Queen" was a great episode.  Lovely character dynamics all around - I didn't even mention how much I loved the Search for Prom Dress, or the sudden-but-darling Sam/Mercedes interaction (he's a well-intentioned and honorable goober!  she's a sassy-but-vulnerable, no-nonsense non-goober!  fall in love, please!).  

And the tiny details -  Brittany dancing with some random girl whose story I am now FASCINATED by, Jesse showing sympathy to Sam's situation, Puck trying to distract Sue with his dancing, Santana waving sweetly to Kurt, Kurt calling Santana "Satan" by accident, Santana giving Karofsky crap for not using proper walkie talkie protocol, Santana wearing the same dress as another prom attendee, Burt's description of his prom suit, Jesse not really knowing what a recession is, Kurt calling Blaine "Blaine Warbler" a la Drunk Rachel, and Sam dancing with the home ec teacher!  I squealed at each.  Not even Rachel's super-depressing song choice ("Jar of Hearts" at prom, Rachel?  Really?) or Finn's irrational behavior could bring me down.

Well done, "Prom Queen!"  Solid characterization and honest moments, lovely friendships and interactions, and the lovely message of self-acceptance.  It all led to happy kids dancing - myself included.  Let's keep this up!

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

Characterization: A
Episode MVP:
Kurt Hummel.  But massive points as well to the other five kids in the cross-cutting montage.  And maybe also Sam Evans.  There can be seven MVPs, right?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The RBI Report: "Rumours"

I don't know if it was the mellow honesty in the Fleetwood Mac songbook seeping through to the events of this week, but I rather enjoyed this episode.  I love when that happens!

"Rumours," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Tim Hunter

Firstly, I think props need to be given to the fact that this was technically a Theme Episode with a Big Name Guest Star, and Ryan Murphy successfully handled the storylines with sophistication.  It almost felt like an episode from the show's golden First 13 - granted, it's not difficult to evoke that feeling when the Finn-Quinn-Rachel triangle has been renewed in full force, but still.  Tonally, all the drama was genuine and heartfelt, and was anchored in the storylines without feeling random or contrived.  There were character moments.  There were meaningful song choices.  There was heartache, and friendship.  What more do we want?

Naturally, "Rumours" was not only sampling from the eponymous Fleetwood Mac album, but also was centered around, well, rumors.  Specifically, rumors that were circling McKinley thanks to some muckraking by none other than Sue Sylvester.  (Or was it David Bowie?)  Sue reintroduced the school's newspaper, and assembled a ragtag team of gossip-mongers (yet she somehow missed Kurt, Mercedes, and Tina) to dig up dirt and fabricate stories.  Among them were rumors about Brittany and Santana, Sam and Quinn, Sam and Kurt, Rachel and Finn, and Mr. Schue and Broadway.  Of course, most of them turned out to be untrue, but they still stirred up trouble at school, and revealed some definitely-true emotions.

Rumors about Santana's sexuality are starting to swirl, no thanks to Brittany's literal interpretation of the phrase "playing for both teams" on her hilarious-if-random internet chat show "Fondue for Two," with frequent guest appearances by Lord Tubbington, Brittany's on-and-off-smoking cat.  Artie caught on to the girls' connection, and accused Santana of trying to break them up - which, as I recall, is not quite what's happening, although it makes sense that Artie would be sensitive about his relationship with Brittany.  She is indeed the hottest girl in school, and he is indeed a boy who wears saddle shoes on legs that don't work.  I wish we were able to explore this aspect of Artie and Brittany before they broke up, but alas.  Artie called Brittany stupid in a moment of frustration, and the two were done.

In swooped Santana, and in an effort to make Brittany feel better, serenaded her lady love with a heartfelt rendition of "Songbird."  Santana's development continues to be heartbreakingly lovely.  She clearly has no problems loving Brittany and being with Brittany, but she is not ready to be public about it.  She's not ready to be open with her feelings to just anybody.  As much as it hurt to see that she backed out of her appointment on "Fondue for Two," it makes sense for the character.  But she's making progress, and I appreciate Glee taking their time on a plotline for once.  Not everything has to happen within the rise and fall of one episode.  Which also means that we're going to see April Rhodes again, right?  Right?!

Ah, April Rhodes.  I just want to take a moment to appreciate this character and her involvement in the episode.  She was there just enough, singing a divine duet with Will (seriously though, how can Matt Morrison's and Kristin Chenoweth's voices sound so great together?) getting innocently mixed up in villainy (not unlike dear Brittany) and encouraging Will to go for his dreams.  And, extra points for no April-Will-Emma love triangle.  April and Emma both have Will's best interest at heart, and it doesn't smell like a catfight is brewing.  How refreshing!  Cheno, you're darling - come back soon!

Speaking of catfight, how about that Rachel-Finn-Quinn triangle, eh?  Rumors stirred up trouble with Quinn and Finn, as everyone assumed Quinn and Sam were hooking up at a cheap motel.  Of course, this made Finn anxious about Quinn's history with cheating, and it was revealed that Quinn and Finn don't trust each other very much.  But Finn is always going to forgive his first love - as is Rachel.  It's just awkward that Finn's first love was Quinn, and Rachel's was Finn.  

I mean, this drama is somewhat recycled from the F13 - Quinn protecting her territory in rather unreasonable ways, Rachel trying to work her way back into Finn's life by singing with him, and Finn dopily stuck in the middle but showing emotional inclination to Rachel - we've seen it before.  But it works, regardless of whether or not it's doubled-back drama.  It worked the first time, and I will give credit to the writers for incorporating trust issues this time.  It's not just that "Quinn and Finn are wrong for one another," it's that they have understandable trust issues that stem from events we've seen transpire since Day One.  It makes sense.  (The one unfortunate aspect is that this triangle is also manifesting in Quinn and Rachel bitchily lashing out at one another when in fact these two characters should be past that - and last week, they seemed to be.  And hi, it's never cool when two lady characters fight vapidly over a boy.  Just saying.  Likeability suffers.)

I do, however, want to applaud the execution in that the premise of the episode basically indicated that all the rumors were just that - rumors.  No one actually believed Sam was fooling around with both Kurt and Quinn, did they?  The whole point of the episode was that rumors get blown out of proportion and cause trouble.  What's more interesting is to see what happens as a result of rumors - Sue Sylvester was almost reading out of deleted scenes from Inception, talking about the infectiousness of an idea.  All it takes is to put a thought in someone's head, and if it touches a nerve, you can step back and let the truths come out - the trust issues between Finn and Quinn, Will admitting he wants to take a shot at Broadway, and of course, the truth about Sam.

It was lovely to finally get Sam involved in Glee's message, wasn't it?  He was finally incorporated into the club this week, as individual members and the club as a whole rallied around him and supported him with a very real problem that transcends the silliness of high school love triangles.  Turns out Sam's dad lost his job and the family has been having to live in a motel - Kurt and Quinn simply found out first and decided to help.  This was a far better reveal than others the show has done - firstly because it was very clear, all episode long, that something was going with Sam.  The reveal was not a sensationalized moment; it was simply a discovery of a truth we were waiting for.

And how touching was it that the club pitched in to buy Sam's guitar back and that he cried, for the first time in his life?  Oh, dear.  That was lovely.  (Did I roll my eyes at the slightly over-the-top moment with his sister?  A little bit.  But I have no soul, and you are allowed to judge me for my iron-clad heart.)

Even with the slight schmaltz, the reveal with Sam allows for the Glee Club do to what they do best: rally around and defend their own.  Each kid in that club deserves a storyline where their friends fight for them, and it was lovely to see Sam embedded in this message.  I will no longer complain that he hasn't been effectively included in the gang - mission accomplished!  

All in all, I rather appreciated "Rumours."  It had a quick pace, which impressed me, because the episode was actually composed of a lot of characters talking about their feelings.  And usually Glee episodes feel like they're spiralling out of control!  But perhaps Ryan Murphy and Tim Hunter took cue from Fleetwood Mac's music: "Rumours" had a steady rhythm, was driven by emotion, and while it may have hurt at times, at least it was honest.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: N/A
Dialogue: A
Plot: A

Characterization: B
Episode MVP:
Sam Evans
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