Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The RBI Report: "The First Time"

So I'm not sure, but I think last night's episode was about characters losing their virginities?  Actually, to be fair, "The First Time" was not nearly as theme-y as I thought it would be, but I do still question some of the choices made for what storylines rotated through to the front and how they were supported in the narrative.

"The First Time," written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Brad Buecker

The basic premise for "The First Time" rested on the idea that Blaine and Rachel felt insecure in their roles as Tony and Maria, because they are both virgins who haven't experienced a sexual awakening.  (Which, by the way, ew.  The phrase "sexual awakening" is almost as cringeworthy as the word "lover," especially when applied to teenagers.)  Artie questioned Blaine and Rachel's first times, and they both confessed that they hadn't had one.  Rachel, being Rachel, immediately sets out to rectify this so that she can give the performance of a lifetime, and Blaine subverts the suggestion into a discussion with Kurt about spontaneity and adventurousness.  Cue lots of talk about teen sex.

But here's where this whole thing falls apart: there's not an iron gate that drops down if you try to step onstage as a virgin.  Blaine and Rachel could easily play Tony and Maria without having sex, and the idea that Artie broaches the issue without any retort from Coach Beiste or Mrs. Pillsbury is ridiculous.  Yes, Emma got awkward and left the room, but wouldn't she be the first person to tell them being a virgin is okay?  And that "virgin" and "actor" aren't incongruous?  This just reeks of the time when Rachel thought she needed to get wasted to write a good song, and it's another instance of me shaking my head and wondering why the writers are saying that these are things that make sense because no one in the narrative argues with it.

So, the fact that all the sex talk rested on the shoulders of something ridiculously flimsy and untrue didn't help matters, but the specifics of the discussion worked, on a character level.  Rachel approached it like it was on a checklist to becoming Barbra Streisand and Finn felt insecure and offended.  Blaine got drunk and handsy, and Kurt wanted it to be romantic.  The actual virginity-losing was fairly tame and sweet, although I do have one quibble about the Finn-Rachel scene.  Finn, in a crisis of low self-esteem, told Rachel that he wasn't good enough, and she reassured him that he was special because he was getting something that no one else was going to get.  Which I assume meant her vagina, which is a weird way to tell someone they're special.  I think there could have been something charming in the idea that Rachel would be really honest with Finn, and say, yeah, you may not be the best football player or singer or whatever, but you're not defined by those labels, and she loves him as a person.  Cue sex.  Because as is, it played an eensy bit like Rachel was showing Finn how special he was by giving him the key to her high-security bajingo.  (Elliot Reid shoutout!)  

Or was that a metaphor and Rachel didn't literally mean her vagina?  Either way, that moment should have been about Finn's actual traits and not how awesome it is that Rachel is going to "give him" her virginity.  Because Finn's self-worth really shouldn't be tethered to whether or not he's let into Rachel's pants.  His character work means more than that, and it's also a little concerning that Rachel thinks they're related, somehow.

"The First Time" also saw the culmination of the West Side Story arc, by synthesizing it with the main discussions about teen sex.  It worked, and it didn't.  All that cross-cutting!  It's a surefire way to tell that an editor (Brad Buecker) directed.  Cross-cutting Sebastian and Blaine's conversation with Santana and Rachel singing "A Boy Like That" tickled my fancy at first, but then I found that I didn't really understand the connection there.  They used the tack again for Tina's story about her first time, and it worked a little better in that instance.  But that could perhaps be because Tina is (supposedly) a main character on this show and we're not wondering why the hell she's there.

But Sebastian?  Why was he so heavily involved in Kurt and Blaine's storyline?  I get obstacles, yes, and I get that he may continue to be a thorn in their relationship and it needed to be set up.  But I do not get why he was written to be so meddlesome in a storyline that the writers knew was going to result in Kurt-Blaine sex.  What was the point?  It feels like every time Glee goes to Dalton, we have to stretch the narrative to justify returning to Blazerland, no matter how many students want to warble their way into Blaine's pants.  (Seriously, Sebastian was coming on stronger than the aftershave on that sweaty sack of potatoes.)

There actually was some great interesting character work in "The First Time," but it was all fairly peripheral.  Honestly, I would have rather seen an episode where West Side Story was given the forefront, and then allowed for character development to happen based on the conflicts arising from that.  It would have been more strongly synthesized, especially considering that it was such a flimsy foundation for broaching the topic of sex.  Not only that, but the WSS arc has been brewing since the season opener, and launched some really interesting character moments with Mike, Mercedes, Artie, Kurt and Blaine, and Rachel - it would've been rewarding to see those re-emerge as the show actually goes on.  

Especially when the hints of WSS-related character work in "The First Time" were so compelling.  Even aside from the idea that Santana and Rachel had to work together (how on earth did those rehearsals go?) there was development given to characters that directedly tied into the musical.  Mike went through with performing his role of Riff, and his father found out and disowned him in the hallways of McKinley.  Not gonna lie, it's really hard to care about teenagers yapping about virginity when Mike's family life basically rips apart in one fell swoop.  But it was only given the one scene, with the idea that this is going to continue.  And we're at a point, thankfully, where I don't doubt that it will continue, but it's still awfully disconcerting to throw such a huge Mike moment, in one tiny scene, into an episode about teen sex without any tether to the narrative.

Not only that, but Artie had a pretty great mini-arc that was A and Z and nothing in between.  At episode's beginning, he expressed the idea that he had found his niche in directing, and at episode's end, thanked everyone for making him feel responsible and adult - with the heartbreakingly realistic notion that Artie usually feels coddled because of his wheelchair.  (We'll ignore the fact that they connected this to masculinity.  I'm tired of Glee talking about manhood.)  How great was that speech?  It would have therefore been nice to see Artie actually having a storyline in the middle, showing, not telling, that allowed for him to deal with the pressure of leadership, and for us to see the other characters trusting him and bonding with him.  Instead we just got a simple beginning and a sweet conclusion, with no real connection between the two.  (And Puck denying him a fist bump in the beginning; what the hell?)

And how about Finn?  Finn had some big moments this episode, but because he's not even a part of WSS, they ran rather small.  While I don't like seeing Finn have to give up on football, I think it's interesting that they're confronting, head-on, the idea that he doesn't have Mr. Quarterback as an identity to tout for his future.  And combined with the fact that they're back-burnering him in glee as well, it makes me wonder what's on the horizon for Mr. Hudson.  He's almost in a similar position as Quinn once was - a blank slate, who has the chance to redefine himself with something real (although Finn's always been at least a little bit more genuine that Quinn) and that's exciting to me.  Especially because Finn is so frequently a passive character, I want to see him be more active about it!  This storyline has simmered all season long, and I want for it to be incorporated more strongly into the narrative - maybe give Finn some tether into the story and his dreams other than just Rachel.

There were two other characters who had development in "The First Time" that were peripheral even to the New Directions, but that were actually handled pretty well: Dave Karofsky, and Shannon Beiste.  We finally reunited with Karofsky at Lima's gay bar, and Kurt got a chance to see how he's been dealing lately.  It felt like an appropriate step in Karofsky's arc, and the right tone to communicate: that he's just a kid trying to get through high school, and made some mistakes.  Kurt said it best: as long as you're not beating people up, it's okay to be who you are at your own speed.  (This is also an apt descriptor of what the episode should have been putting forth about "first times."  Jury is out as to whether or not they achieved that, for me.)

As for Coach Beiste, she was given a rather darling flirtation with Cooter Menkins, the unfortunately-named recruiter (Cooter the Recruiter?) from Ohio State.  What's great about this is that while yes, Shannon has a crush, Menkins is equally as into her.  This is the first in a series of Good Decisions.  Because Shannon Beiste can become something of a pity case in her relationship inexperience, and historically, Glee has walked that line very carefully.  But this episode not only confronted what problems can arise from that portrayal, it also assuaged them!  Shannon was completely and adorably clueless to Cooter's signals, and when he was straightforward with her, she immediately assumed he was disingenuous, claiming that guys like him only date pretty girls, and she doesn't look the way that pretty girls look.  How heartbreaking is that?  It's hard to invalidate that character choice when the result is so well-acted and sympathetic.  But at the same time, it infantilizes Coach Beiste, and puts her self-worth in the hands of the dude she's interacting with.  

When it was with Will in "Never Been Kissed," he was a Good Guy, and kissed her, and it all read a little bit like Good Guy Benevolence.  But with Cooter?  He replied that he doesn't date girls, he dates beautiful women, just like Shannon.  Swoon!  Let's have a little confetti party for this, please.  Because not only did it de-infantilize Shannon, but it also put her in a position to reclaim her self-worth.  He didn't pity her; he reassured her.  A+ writing decision!  And hopefully this will put Shannon on a path where she can value herself as a person worthy of a relationship and a Cute Guy and we can get Glee out of the "girls with low self-esteem must be validated by a boy" trope.

Which leads me to the final topic of discussion: the whole purpose of having an episode devoted to "the first time."  Stepping back and looking at the choice to make this episode raises some important questions.  I imagine that the showrunners wanted to put forth something that spoke to the realities of being a teenager, and have a candid, open discussion about what it means to lose your virginity.  Honestly, the only scene that really fulfilled this idea was Rachel's meeting with "her girls" (hilariously complete with gavel) because of Quinn and Tina's opposing experiences in contrast, both opinions completely valid.  (Let's ignore Brittany's surprise alien sex, shall we?)

Really, the rest of it was rather extraneous and distracted from what the core message should have been - which is that a "first time" really just needs to be hallmarked by open communication, respect, and consent.  It doesn't matter what's on Kurt's bucket list, or the existence of Sebastian Smythe as a sexual villain.  It has nothing to do with being sheltered as artists.  It doesn't have any bearing on acting ability.  It has nothing to do with a boy becoming a man or a girl "giving it up."  It has nothing to do with what makes Finn special.  It just doesn't matter when you have sex - if you're Santana, or Emma - as long as you're ready.  The rest is just bogged-down mythology about virginity that the media likes to package up and present to teenagers under the duress that it's a good message.

Everything gets skewed as well with the reminder that these kids are high school students.  And yet, they go out drinking at gay bars like it's no big deal and the teachers don't care when a student director talks about using sexual experience as something to draw on for stage acting.  There's a strange dichotomy in how these characters are sometimes wielded as young people and sometimes wielded as mini-adults, and that only becomes more glaring in an episode about virginity.  As it is, it now stands that all of Glee's main characters have done the deed, except for Mercedes, Emma, and Coach Beiste - the first two of whom didn't have any part in this episode, and the latter two are proof that not everyone has sex in high school anyways.  And it's communicated that they think there's something "wrong" with them because of it.  Sigh!  It's a messy, messy topic that Glee hasn't even begun to handle well, on a larger level.

In all, "The First Time" was monopolized by a lot of unnecessary drama surrounding the weird media-propelled mythology of virginity loss, and as a result, the strong character moments felt dwarfed by something needlessly complicated and overblown.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: B
Plot: C
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Tina Cohen-Chang


  1. I couldn't agree with you more, I thought I was the only one that wasn't overjoyed with Glee last night. I was fairly disappointed with Glee actually. It didn't live up to the hype they made about it. I don't get what people did like about it, people rather focus on the Klaine and Finchel sex than the actual message Glee gave us last night.

  2. You raise a lot of interesting points in your review, and I agree with most of it, though I must admit I did enjoy this chapter (finally! the season is being rather terrible by now, imho, because of on tiny thing we take for granted in other shows but usuallt apinfully absent in Glee: character consistency! Save a few things here and there (Puck's refusal to high five Artie, Blaine ignoring Kurt and dancing with mr Plot Device As Enemy, but then again Blaine himself is empty, artificial shell who grins, sings and is perfect for Kurt in every possible way) I finally felt the character talked and acted like they have a personality and a memory beyond the chapter's beginning. Tina having significant dialogue about something personal, Finn having a credible, realistic crisis, Karofky's sweet, realistic development... The first episdoe this season so far where I finally feel there's someone new writing. It's not perfect, but it's an big improvement.


  3. I would say that the purpose of Sebastian was to personify the sort of promiscuous, laissez-faire attitude towards sex that is so antithetical to Kurt and Blaine's relationship. He represents the fun and excitement and exploration that Blaine felt had been missing from his experiences...but, as Kurt and Blaine's experience in the parking lot showed, that attitude can also be very shallow. The point was to say that what worked for Sebastian doesn't work for Kurt or Blaine.

  4. So I just discovered your blog a few days ago and have been reading through all of your posts. I'm officially in love with your blog, I feel like everything I've ever thought about Glee but couldn't put into words you have managed to express beautifully here.

    I like that this episode gave a generally positive, healthy message to teens about sex. While Rachel's giving herself as a gift of sorts to Finn was questionable, I am happy the writers have developed an idea of female sexuality outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy. The absolute best part of the episode for me was the scene with all the girls talking about their personal experiences. I love, love, loved Tina talking about deciding it was something she wanted to do with someone she cared about and not regretting it. So simple and realistic, yet something you rarely see on television.

    Sebastian annoyed me, he was so over the top it just became ridiculous. Plus I really wish they would stop introducing new characters until they learn to balance the ones they have.

    P.S. I died when I saw the bajingo reference! Elliot is one of my favorite awesome television laides.

  5. In your review Rachel is the villain for being a slut and giving her virginity to poor Finn?

  6. I feel like they needed to address Brittany's comment about Alien sex, they made a joke that very much so came across as she lost her virginity as rape, I feel like that either should have not been a joke or needs to be addressed in the future. It would also almost save her character, explaining how childish she can be, it would explain that maybe in some ways its infantilized her i.e believing in Santa, Stork thing, crossing the street because she wants to be a child again before the rape happened. It would clarify that and maybe Santana could help her deal with that the way Brittany supported Santana coming out. It could also address that Santana understands/gets that to an extent and hence is able to love Brittany, consider her to be an underrated genius/wise fool which would decrease the creepiness of dating someone who still believes in Santa. I just think they opened themselves up for a lot of character development and it would strengthen Brittana which has a huge, and I mean huge fan base.

  7. Hi, I just found your Glee reports and have been reading through them. I don't like to comment because you posted these a while ago but I just have to say something about:

    "Cross-cutting Sebastian and Blaine's conversation with Santana and Rachel singing A Boy Like That tickled my fancy at first, but then I found that I didn't really understand the connection there."

    I think the connection was that Sebastian represents the boy in the song. "A boy like that wants one thing only and when he's done, he'll leave you lonely."


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