Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The RBI Report: "Extraordinary Merry Christmas"

And unto us, this thirteenth of December, was born an episode of Glee that brought tidings of great joy - without offensive portrayals of sensitive topics, flawed premises, or sloppy storytelling choices.  And Rachel even remembered to wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah, too!  (Sure, it was an afterthought line of dialogue two seconds before the fade-out, but I'll take what I can get.)  "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" was one of the more extraordinary Glee episodes of late, in that it made smart and meaningful choices for the characters involved, raised somewhat thought-provoking questions about how to celebrate the season, and remembered a solid amount of its own history without twisting it - all wrapped up in an homage to holiday specials of years past.

"Extraordinary Merry Christmas," written by Marti Noxon, directed by Matthew Morrison

Glee tends to do better with smaller concepts for their episodes (duets!  rumors!  prom!) - and this episode wasn't much different.  "It's Christmas; let's sing!" was the basic premise of the whole shebang, settled easily on the shoulders of a few simple constructs.  The larger of the two was the conflict between New Directions' opportunity to put on their own Christmas special for local television, and the charity performance they promised Sue Sylvester and the homeless shelter - inconveniently occupying the same time slot.  It's not anything revolutionary - the struggle to choose between your own gifts and giving back to others is not new to any holiday narrative.  But, at the same time, Glee made it work, with the individual choices made for the characters involved.

Sue Sylvester's best episodes are the ones where she shows a little bit of her vulnerability and her heart, but without becoming a charity case or a punished villain.  "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" found this delicate angle, and presented us with a Sue who had completely legitimate reasons for wanting to volunteer at the homeless shelter, and was downright endearing in that she wanted the glee kids to sing for them.  Sure, Sue's had her moments of derision towards "urban campers," but maybe she realized that it's not so easy to just trying to not be so homeless, for a change.  In any case, it was nice to see a Sue who cares, but isn't out of character in doing so.

Double points as well for extending this courtesy to Quinn, who opted to not participate in Artie's campy TV special in favor of serving food to the homeless with Sam and Sue.  They gave her dialogue that acknowledged her struggles, with Quinn finally coughing up the words we've been waiting to hear her say for almost two seasons now: she's finally stopped focusing on what she doesn't have, and is instead concentrating on what's good.  Hey, that fits in nicely with wanting to help out people who really don't have much for the holidays!  The character work for Quinn was subtle, but on point this episode.  Finally!

Sam got more of the front-and-center, as he reached out to Rory, who expressed his loneliness over being away from his family at the holidays.  This was excellent!  After two weeks of bewilderedly watching Finn helping Santana come out of the closet and wondering if Glee chooses its meaningful character assists via blind lottery, it was refreshing to see that the show really does pay attention to its characters and what they actually have in common.  In this case, Sam is also living away from his family, and realized Rory must be having a tough time.  So, he offered to be Rory's "Christmas sponsor," and help make the holiday special for him.  Sweet, right?

One of the more interesting conflicts came from this interaction, after Artie derided Rachel's mournful performance of "River," and declared that holiday specials needed to be upbeat and happy.  Sam protested, with a valid argument that melancholy isn't necessarily bad, when it can remind you of all the good things you have in life.  But apparently he's the only one who thinks so, because Rory opted instead to take the onscreen role of a lifetime (Itchy the Holiday Elf!) and participate in sugared-up Christmas joy.

Honestly, this conflict resolved itself a little too easily, and it would have been nice to have a little more discussion devoted to it - simply because both Artie and Sam had reasonable points.  Not only that, but Rory makes two large choices that have sizeable consequences, and we didn't really see what went into those decisions - especially the second one.  Rory's choice to honor Sam's intent and return to the "true meaning of Christmas" felt a little schmaltzy, and while it was (thankfully) not overplayed, it still felt a little bit like a stock answer to every question about what the holiday season's really about.  (It also echoed a lot of Linus' speech in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and frankly that wasn't helping sell the originality factor.)  Thirdly, the Sam and Rory friendship is one of the more successful dynamics that Glee has naturally developed in recent memory, and it would have been nice to honor that with some more interaction between them in the middle of the story.

Perhaps more time could have been taken out of the Finn-and-Rachel storyline, which seemed like it might have worked better in a smaller package.  "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" presented a Finchel dynamic that worked better than many previous ones, but that still seemed to strike slightly left of center.  Rachel, in the never-ending portrayal as high-maintenance shrew, gave Finn a list of 15 things she wants for Christmas, despite the fact that he doesn't have a lot of money.  She steamrollered over his every protest, and pressured him to bedazzle her with spray tans and bling.  Why is it that Rachel always has to be manifested like this, in her relationships?  It constantly dances into the "bitches be crazy!" territory of TV relationship comedy, and I for one am tired of the narrative actively commenting on how exhausting it must be to date someone as manically self-absorbed as Rachel.

"Extraordinary Merry Christmas" did a few things correctly in the execution of the storyline, though.  Firstly, Finn gave Rachel the dumbest possible gift at first - a slaughter hog from South Africa.  It bears repeating: he bought his Jewish, vegan girlfriend... a pig that was raised to be meat.  Worst ever, right?  So at least they were matched in their inability to behave like rational human beings.  The second good decision for this storyline was that, in the end, they both relented and did something to appreciate the others' good intentions - Finn did his best to buy Rachel a meaningful gift, and Rachel did her best to show Finn that she didn't need an expensive gift for it to be meaningful.  And the star idea was great!  I was delighted to see that someone else indulged in Rachel Berry's self-ascribed star metaphor, until I learned that the star is actually named... Finn Hudson.  

Now, I know I'm not nearly as romantic as at least 75% of Glee's target audience, but that star should have been named Rachel Berry, dammit.  What better way for Finn to show that he's supporting her dreams than by not involving himself in them?  Sure, you can argue that a Finn Hudson star will always be watching over the earthbound Rachel Berry, who is a natural star, blah blah blah.  But there's something far more magical in the simplicity of Finn Hudson buying a star and naming it after Rachel Berry.  It's a stronger choice, and much easier to communicate, without some convoluted second metaphor that draws attention to the fact that we have no idea what these kids' relationship is going to be like in the future.  (Especially if they keep buying each other iPods and warthogs.  I predict a spring breakup if that pattern of gift-giving continues.)

The resolution of this storyline was Rachel saying she needed to give back more, and so she and Finn hocked their gifts and donated the money to charity.  On the one hand, I like that Rachel herself learned her own lesson, and for once nobody told her what she was doing wrong because she's, for example, so socially inept and self-centered, gawd.  Honestly, that deserves credit on Glee.  But at the same time, I'm so tired of storylines where the narrative indicates that Rachel is tyrannical about irrational desires, and sets about teaching her a heavily-plotted moral about selflessness.  We've seen Rachel be selfless countless times in scenarios far more sophisticated in execution (by virtue of show, not tell!) and it's exhausting to keep subjecting Rachel to "lessons" in half-assed plotlines masqueraded as "character development."  Moving on, please!

In its presentation, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" was all wrapped up in a pretty endearing gimmick: the New Directions were going to have their own television special, and, under Artie's direction, decided to pay homage to the Christmas specials like Judy Garland and George Lucas created!  It's pretty nutty to mix Star Wars and Christmas, and I for one, was on board.  On a larger scale, the show-within-the-show worked, simply because it was creative and had a lot of raw material for laughs.  I totally wanted to visit Kurt and his Hollywood roommate at their chalet in a galaxy far, far away!  

However, I think devoting the middle chunk of the episode solely to this diversion is a little bit of an easy out for screentime.  It seemed to run on too long, with whole numbers for Kurt and Blaine, Rachel and Mercedes, Finn and Puck, and Brittany and the Cheerios.  Not only that, but there's only so many times the laugh track and 50s' era humor works without becoming a one-trick pony.  Even though it was delightful to see a gay couple hosting a vintage-era TV special, it still felt slightly bloated - especially since the whole point of the episode was to spend at least as much time volunteering as you might putting on a Christmas special for western Ohio.  The volunteering was left simply as a magical afterthought, and the Christmas special became an oversized endeavor that bogged down the middle.

Moreover, I think there was a rare opportunity in Artie's TV Special that the Glee writers often try to create but rarely execute well: not since the likes of "Sectionals" and its wood-paneled judges room has the show successfully used a situation to make commentary on the dichotomy between glee club's frivolity and the surrounding disinterest from Middle America.  Sure, Ohio's been portrayed as inhospitable and narrow-minded, but rarely do the glee kids get to interact with that in a way that doesn't somehow result in a flat-out negative reaction.  It's hard to strike that balance of showing the glee kids stepping out and being themselves, receiving a harmless deadpan reaction, and not feeling the wind gust right out of their sails.  

"Extraordinary Merry Christmas" had the opportunity to incorporate that idea, under the duress that the New Directions' gay-fronted TV special was going to air locally and be seen by Lima's residents (the same ones who denounced Sue's affiliation with Santana as a lesbian but praised Burt Hummel's affiliation with the arts).  It's unrealistic, based on what the show has given us, to say that the Gleeks could get on TV and be accepted - especially with a clumsily sophisticated throwback concept.  It would have been classic Glee to allow the kids to do their thing, only to find out they had terrible ratings, or witnessed some sort of reaction from Lima that aligned with snarky but not damaging.  What happened to the lady who felt uncomfortable by Haverbrook Choir's "honking?"  Where is the Lima local who auditioned for "Les Misérables" with "Hey Big Spender?"  I miss the charming commentary that poked fun of showmanship in a decidedly dour environment - especially when the result was so triumphant, in its own sharp-edged kind of way.  

The episode did manage its own brand of snark, though, in its reference to last year's twinkly dreck of a Christmas special, where Brittany couldn't tell the difference between three separate Santas (all of different race and gender... not to mention, one was green), Artie got a miracle walking contraption we never saw again, and Sue made her sidekick dress up like a reindeer.  When it aired, it was a sugary shock of Christmas fun, but the episode has not held up well over time, and I giggled madly that Glee referenced its own ridiculata, citing it as a "bad Christmas," and clearing up the confusion of Artie's contraption, with Tina saying that his "magic legs broke the next day."  I love that Glee took its own miracle and completely poked a hole in it.  (Because seriously, whose idea was it to give Artie the ability to walk and then never show it again?  Irresponsible.)

In all, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" had solid character work that made the most of meaningful moments, and an interesting premise that felt entertaining and unique.  Sure, there were a few opportunities missed on capitalizing the strongest components of the construct, and left the pacing a bit saggy in the middle - but in all, it was a far cry better than most of this season so far, insofar as the choices made for its characters and presentation of plot.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Let's give it to the Sue Sylvester-Sam Evans-Quinn Fabray volunteer triforce, shall we?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The RBI Report: "Hold On To Sixteen"

Dear Glee fan, reluctant or otherwise,

You may be wondering if I'll ever write a good recap for this show ever again.  In fact, I myself was questioning the same thing after the back-to-back rude bombs Glee detonated in our unwitting faces.  Well, if any episode could bring this show back from the brink of offensive and return it to pleasantly tolerable (as long as you ignore the details) - it's the annual trip to Sectionals.  Season 1's competition remains the most magical the show has ever been, and Season 2's effort did a pretty solid job of recapturing that same allure.  So, how about Season 3's fare?

"Hold On To Sixteen," written by Ross Maxwell, directed by Bradley Buecker

The key to enjoying "Hold On To Sixteen" is to try and forget "Mash Off" and "I Kissed a Girl," and maybe most of the first season as well.  On its own, the episode works more or less solidly.  Obstacles were overcome, friendships were forged, relationships reinforced, transgressions forgotten, and it was happy hug times for all.  It's hard to argue with that, right?  But, "Hold On To Sixteen" still sits amongst Glee's storytelling ups-and-downs, and if you look too closely at it, some cracks start to emerge in the episode.

The theme, naturally, was about wanting to make the most of youth, as these Seniors begin their farewell tour with the first competition of glee season.  It's a great theme, on paper, and the writers used it to full extent - applying it to Quinn, Sam, Finn, Blaine, Shelby and Puck, Mike and Tina, and the ladies of the Troubletones.  Phew!  This theme worked double time, and I will say that it wasn't hammered in as blatantly as some of Glee's previous themes.  ("Funk," I can't say we hardly knew ye.)  This is a plus!  It's a strong theme, given our natural attachment to these characters and the built-in ability for us to relate to wanting to delay a goodbye and make happy memories in the meantime.

Where it faltered was in the execution of the storylines, many of which seemed to wrap up quickly and simply through applying the magic of a sentiment that felt a little too similar to, "Well, we're all going to die some day!"  This was one step short of sending a meteor crashing towards Earth to up the stakes on everyone's objectives.  (It would be kind of cool to do that on Glee, though, yeah?  Imagine the solo Rachel Berry would attempt to perform as a destructive ball of fire hurtled towards mankind.)  The problems set up in this episode were rather top-heavy and messy, and yet they resolved simplistically, and in a few cases, offscreen.

Conflict #1: Without Rachel, New Directions lacks star power.

Naturally, the first thought is to go to Kentucky to rescue Sam Evans from the throes of exotic male dancing.  This problem resolved itself early, with Rachel and Finn begging Sam to return to Ohio to live out his dream of performing with more clothing and less glitter.  Sam feels he grew up too fast, because of the stripping, and therefore wants to be a teenager again.  Theme alert!  His dad relents, and Sam returns to Ohio to sing a song about being drunk with his long-lost friends.

(Full disclosure: did I grumble at the fact that Sam's scene with his parents was completely onscreen, whereas Santana's with hers last week was left to our imaginations?  Yes, I did.  Did I grumble about "Red Solo Cup" being such a long performance about... nothing relevant?  Yes, I did.  But, as the glee kids are trying to hold on to sixteen, I am trying to let go of 3.06 and 3.07.  It's a work in progress.) 

Honestly, this was the only storyline that dealt with Rachel's absence from the competition in a real way, and Rachel was mostly left to work through that angst in the background.  To me, it seems that if you're going to bench Rachel Berry from the alleged "Rachel Berry Show," then there might need to be more fallout from that.  But, c'est la Glee!  (New goal: to use that phrase once a recap.  And then maybe copyright it.)

Conflict #2: Quinn is going to help New Directions win by exposing the truth about Shelby and Puck to get Shelby fired.

This plan makes total sense when you consider Quinn's current point of view.  Want to win a show choir competition, with the added bonus of getting custody of your biological child?  Just reveal the affair your competitor-and-baby's-adoptive-mother is having with your baby's daddy and call it a day!  Y'know, it's almost too easy.

Truthfully, Quinn's resolution came in the form of the theme - hold on to sixteen, via Shelby.  Shelby revealed to have wanted to be with Puck because it might make her feel young again (it wasn't because of the daddy issues and the fact that Puck is apparently smarter than doctors?) and she realized you can't get those days back.  The message is relayed to Quinn, who realizes, in turn, that she really does want to be sixteen again and will therefore make the most of her remaining days at McKinley High.  Then, Shelby says she's ending her relationship with Puck, quitting her teaching job, and appears to be on her way out.  Look at all that resolution!

Honestly, it felt too easy, and it also seemed to ignore what Quinn's original issue was.  (Although she's had so many in the interim that it's hard to keep track of how to narratively get that girl back on her arc.)  Why should Quinn Fabray want to be sixteen again when her sixteen involved getting accidentally pregnant and kicked out of her family?  It seems like an oversimplification of Quinn's issues, and combined with the fact that Sam told her she had "rich white girl problems," "Hold On To Sixteen" seemed to take a paper-thin version of Quinn Fabray and give her a shiny new lease on life without any consideration to what her character actually is, beneath the pretty teenaged face.  Do we expect anything else for Quinn Fabray at this point, though?

As for Rachel's involvement in Quinn's storyline, "Hold On To Sixteen" got them to friends territory with relative ease, mainly reliant on the charming dialogue and effortless chemistry in the final scene.  Frankly, though, Rachel had little to do with Quinn's storyline within the walls of the episode.  As it was, Quinn spent most of the forty-five minutes as an aggressively hostile tyrant, and then within one scene, flipped instantly towards gushy devotion to her relationships.  While I love that Quinn seems to value her friendships now, it's hard to believe that two seasons' worth of Quinn Fabray psychological mess could be resolved with a Shelby-given "you're only 18 once!" message - especially when she still schemed her way through three-quarters of the episode.

But in the bigger picture, it felt more fluid using the idea that Quinn got back on track with Rachel's help.  Quinn expressed a hint of self-awareness and remorse, while Rachel offered up encouragement, and ultimately, empathy.  The best part of Rachel and Quinn's storyline was that Rachel wasn't chastising Quinn for being a hot mess, but telling her that she knew what it was like to do the wrong thing.  That connected to their characters' arcs on both a larger and smaller scale, and it was the strongest footing for their dynamic to stand on given the storylines they're currently in.  Not only that, but it was nice to see Quinn getting a dose of truth without getting yelled at or demeaned.  So really, despite all this quibbling, I look forward to seeing a Quinn that appears to be genuine, with real friendships and a hint of self-acceptance in her heart.  

Conflict #3: Blaine feels unempowered in New Directions.

Finally, we got some insight onto this Finn-vs.-Blaine conflict that the writers have dropped randomly into previous episodes!  Turns out it's essentially what we thought it was: a pissing contest.  Finn felt threatened by Blaine's talent because it made him feel bad about himself.  That's totally valid, and is in keeping with Finn's shadow arc right now, but wouldn't it have been nice to see that incorporated into a storyline for Finn, that Blaine could be a part of?  In "Hold On To Sixteen," Blaine just blew a fuse at his mistreatment, and Finn immediately owned up to the transgression and apologized for it.  So, it's more telling and less showing.  How... uninteresting.

I will say that I enjoyed seeing something that got under Blaine's skin enough to upset him.  He is a real boy!  If Mr. Anderson is indeed going to be a part of this ensemble, he needs flaws too, that are manifested in a storyline and (hopefully) worked through.  It felt rewarding to see Blaine behave like an actual emotional being, and in the end everything was resolved with a fist bump anyways, so no harm, no foul.

It continued, though, with a tiff between Sam and Blaine about choreography.  Sam, bringing his newfound sexiness to the mix, scoffed at Blaine's "boy band" choreography and wanted something with a little more gyration to it.  (So Sam's Bieber days are behind him, then?  Because this side of six months ago, homeboy thought the epitome of cool was being in a boy band full of Justin Biebers.  But hey, stripping changes a man.)

Regardless, this altercation was also cleaned up easily, as apparently the New Directions had no difficulty pulling their routines together.  The boys fought, and then resolved their issues offscreen, just in time for the audience to get a whopping three full numbers, back-to-back-to-back, that would ultimately win Sectionals with absolutely no resistance whatsoever.  Oh.    

Conflict #4: How can the Troubletones and New Directions reunite?

Easy, of course!  Have Quinn, with her randomly newfound (but not unwelcome?) Kumbaya attitude, beseech the Troubletones to return to New Directions so they can all be together for that last school year!  Forgive me for playing devil's advocate, but couldn't that logic work if Troubletones won and offered to absolve New Directions?  Which, surprisingly, they did, in a gesture that honestly seemed rather nice of them.  But apparently it was just as offensive as Santana's fat jokes, judging on how poorly Finn reacted to that idea. 

Wouldn't it have been ballsy storytelling if New Directions didn't win?  But was there any question whatsoever that they wouldn't, even though it was technically a real possibility based on the competition from the Troubletones?  Blaine himself said that New Directions was a mess, and the Troubletones had one fierce performance with "I Will Survive/Survivor" - both vocally and with choreography.  So why not let that follow through?

I had a writing teacher once that said, "Write yourself into a corner, just to see how you get yourself out of it - you never know what interesting things you might come up with."  The Glee writers often back themselves into a corner, but rarely do they ever get themselves out of the corner in an interesting way.  They just push down the walls so they can have a new room with a new corner to paint themselves into.  And that's how this show has no rules, because we don't know what walls are going to stand and which are going to be pushed down.  In the case of the glee club split, the interesting way to get out of that corner would be for the Troubletones to win and see where the narrative could take them.  But instead, the writers knocked down their seemingly-unforgiving obstacles (Rachel being suspended!  New Directions being a mess!  Santana and Mercedes having powerhouse voices!  Shelby being a nationally-renowned glee club coach!) with hardly any resistance, and we're all left scratching our heads, wondering how the rules work.

Conflict #5: Mike's dad refuses to let Mike pursue his dream.

I confess, even though this storyline resolved almost as quickly and easily as the others, it was still rewarding to watch because of the execution.  It was lovely to see Tina stand up and fight for Mike's happiness, and even lovelier to see her refuse to back down when he opposed.  How great was the "I'm disappointed in you/Well that makes two of us" exchange?  Tina Cohen-Chang, bless your beating heart, you're the beacon of hope for strong ladies on this show!  She even went straight to Mike's dad - who, let's face it, is a formidable man - and spoke her mind!  Remind me again why this character doesn't get any screentime?

But even that changed tonight, with Tina getting a fair part of Mike's storyline, as well as a good chunk of a solo in "ABC."  Mike got to share the lead as well, with his father in the audience to witness his talent so that he could believe in his son.  The conflict in this storyline was interesting, in that it doubled over between Mike and Tina as well as Mike and his dad, and while it may have been an easy fix to have Mike's dad change his mind simply by seeing his son happy, it's a touching construct that's difficult to knock.  That resolution was by far the least worrisome of the easy wrap-ups.

Let's talk about some of the extraneous tidbits, shall we?  With the return of Sam, we also got the return of Samcedes!  While the "I'm not going to respect your boundaries with your new boyfriend because we're totally meant to be together" trope is nauseatingly worn thin on Glee, I confess that I look forward to developing Sam and Mercedes' relationship simply because we never got to see it.  And it held such promise!  For a show that deals so disgustingly in stereotyping, I was excited to see that Glee might push forward an interracial relationship between a hunky white football player and the larger-than-size-2 black girl.  In that vein, I love the prospect of them having some kind of happy relationship together, and if we have to trudge through Sam trying to "win her back" just so we can see them interact, then so be it. 

Of course, we also got the return of the conniving and lascivious Sebastian, who really did not mince any words when giving Kurt the rundown of his plan to invade Blaine's pants.  Is there anyone in the audience that doesn't think Sebastian is slimy?  Even through the TV, I could tell that he really does smell like Craigslist.  But the conflict is left to simmer on the backburner as we await what this snake in the grass could do to muss up Kurt and Blaine's perfectly-coiffed relationship.

So, as third year Sectionals comes to a close, did it really measure up to the years before?  The short answer?  No, not really.  The fact that the obstacles were overblown and unrealistically resolved made everything feel slightly unearned, and combining that with the obvious triumph of New Directions led to a slight tired feeling amidst it all.  The episode's best moments were in the last number, "We Are Young," in which the glee kids came together again and had fun singing together on stage - no competition, no stress; they could just be themselves.  Those five minutes had more magic packed into them than the entire forty minutes that preceded them, and it had more to do with the actors loving on each other than any story-based payoff.  It was still great, though - from Mercedes joining first with her voice, to Rachel extending a hand to a reluctant Santana, the reunion was touching and genuine, if a bit out-of-left-field.  It's charming, and perplexing at the same time, which seems to be an accurate descriptor of Glee on its good days.

To be fair, I do not envy the job that Ross Maxwell had in this episode, because he attempted to singlehandedly resolve five different plotlines with one main theme.  I give him credit for even attempting that, given the narrative mess that he's inherited as a new writer.  In the end, "Hold On To Sixteen" managed some but not all of the show's magic, and used a strong theme - but was burdened with overwrought problems that sorted out a bit too easily.  At any rate, I'm now at least looking forward to next week again, and ultimately, that is a good thing.

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