Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The RBI Report: "Michael"

Well, it's finally happened.

Glee did MJ.

And it was just okay.

"Michael," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Alfonzo Gómez-Rejón

The first problem to overcome is the easiest to identify: how, how, do you do justice to Michael Jackson?  Glee had a few issues in this area.  It's not so much the singing I'm fussing over.  All those kids can hit a note, and Glee chose from a wide range in MJ's discography.  It's not so much the song choices as the song placements, and how the narrative chose to incorporate Michael.  The tribute, in terms of story, fell far below the Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, and even Britney service.

Turns out the Dalton Academy Warblers, not unlike gum on your shoe, keep coming around under the slimy leadership of Sebastian, and have stolen the New Directions' Michael Jackson theme for Regionals.  And, naturally, in a situation, you have to ask yourself: what would Michael Jackson do?  Apparently, he'd fight back.  I would've thought that to be a general human reaction, not necessarily specific to MJ, but hey.  If you say so, Finn.  (While we're on the topic, can I please say how much I've grown to loathe group scenes that generally amount to the whole gang in some sort of distress or excitement that is immediately pacified when Finn delivers a weird leadership speech?  The writers are trying too hard.  And it's only made worse when Will swoops in, perfectly timed, to affirm the message with a Expo-marker scrawl across the white board.)

So, New Directions decided to take the streets... or a parking garage, as it were, to have a Jackson-Off featuring "Bad."  It was honestly not all that intimidating from either side, even with our kids' leather jackets, and it'd be altogether forgettable if it weren't (ice-)capped by the episode's emotional impetus: poor Blaine took a Slushie in the face trying defend Kurt.  And not just any Slushie.  A Slushie with glass or rocks in it, or something.  I confess, I was wondering why Blaine was howling on the ground when most other kids seem to stick to stunned silence.  His eye received a bad cut, and he had to get surgery.

Okay, upon physical injury, this is where we're supposed to start taking Sebastian seriously as a villain.  But that requires me to take Blaine's martyrdom completely seriously.  It's not that I don't care about Blaine.  I like the guy.  It's just that I don't care one iota about the Warblers now that he's not with them, and I have no emotional investment in any torn loyalties Blaine may be having.  It's not good conflict.  And I like the conflict even less when Sebastian has a pointless crush on Blaine that manifests in him leaving a slime trail after every conversation he has with Kurt.  I guess sexual villainy is just not my thing.  

Maybe the sting of a Slushie just means nothing to me anymore.  Maybe I have a hard time believing that everyone would leap to Blaine's defense when he's only been in New Directions for a semester, no matter how charming he is.  Maybe I can't take Darren Criss seriously when he's wearing an eyepatch and thoughtfully accepting a serenade by three classmates in what had to be the dumbest ode to friendship this show's ever done.  Or maybe I just don't understand why Santana was previously written as claws-out aggressive when dealing with teammates, but appears to be completely unwilling to go up against Sebastian, someone who the audience would actually want to see her take out

Santana's role in the episode was oblique, as she once again was boomeranged (on the Bitchtown Express?) into a plotline she had little business being in.  If I recall correctly, she scoffed at Kurt and Blaine's efforts to support her in "I Kissed a Girl," and while I can understand wanting to take out Sebastian simply for the pleasure of smacking that smirk off his face (especially when he insulted her ethnicity and social standing), I don't get why you'd put Santana in this storyline without any preface or payoff.  Although witnessing her pride for sneaking a tape recorder in her underboob was pretty rewarding.  IT'S CLEVER!  But I'm getting off track.

In sum: there is no container large enough to hold my ever-growing apathy for Sebastian's existence on this show.  

Regardless, the theme that permeated from this A-plot seemed to be the nature of retaliation and whether or not provoked violence was a viable option in fighting aggressors.  Basically, a bullying storyline on largescale.  It's nice Ryan Murphy remembered Kurt has extensive experience in this, and swore repeatedly to take the high road in dealing with Sebastian.  At the same time, it was so much more cathartic and relatable to hear Artie's point of view.  How great was that monologue about how much it sucks to be called a loser?  While we have scant content informing Artie's character, it makes sense that he would struggle with feeling powerless, based not only on his social standing but also his confinement to a wheelchair.  And ultimately it was so nice simply to have a voice providing an alternate point of view that's entirely understandable, even if it's not necessarily the direction the episode's heading.

It would have been even stronger if Artie's dissent manifested into the plot into a real way, instead of simply as motivation for his rage-filled fever "Scream," simply because it would have provided a nuanced conflict between characters we already know and like.  We wouldn't have to rely on Sebastian's overblown and paper-thin antagonism, and could have an interesting discussion about payback.  Instead, we're stuck with Glee's specialties: romantic opposition and competition between clubs, completely with a Very Special Message laid on thick.  My eyes can't roll any further back in my head at this point.

Three characters did get some sort of news about their future last night: Kurt, Rachel, and Quinn all received letters of acceptance from their colleges of choice.  Kurt's came the most simply - with a rewarding appearance from Burt, who simultaneously congratulated Kurt and reminded the audience that Kurt's been through a lot of high school hardship.  Even the hardest of hearts (read: mine) couldn't resist Chris Colfer's teary-eyed face and the father-son bone-crushing hug in celebration of the success.

As for Rachel, she spent "Michael" awaiting her NYADA letter and weighing her "Yes/No" choices.  At episode's beginning, she still hadn't given Finn an answer, and sought guidance from Quinn, who is apparently good at no-bullshit advice.  Turns out Quinn got her acceptance letter from Yale, and upon affirmation that even she, erstwhile Bitch and Teenage Mother, could have a bright future, advised Rachel to put stock in her own dreams.  It was a very dense scene, complete with a follow-up musical number, and it was frankly a lot of information to wade through.

Ultimately, it was ridiculously rewarding to see a Quinn who, while a bit wordy when elaborating her revelations, seems to have recovered from her high school woes, and will be pursuing her future independently and with self-confidence.  That's all I ever really wanted for this character, and while I missed the part where all this appeared to happen (damn you, offscreen emotional epiphanies!) I still welcome it gladly.  Not only that, but Quinn was written to manifest this emotional change in support of Rachel's dreams at a time when Rachel appears to be doubting them.  It's a lovely character interaction that pays off these two's developing relationship and past foil status with a fair measure of finesse.

But it also felt like Quinn Fabray's swan song - thanking every member of the glee club for sticking by her, verbalizing almost every aspect of her character journey, then singing "Never Can Say Goodbye?"  Oof.  I'll prep myself for the goodbye, Quinn.  I cared infinitely more about you than the writers did, so remember me when you head off to Yale.

Of course, Quinn's advice was given to Rachel, who is basically faced with a choice: Finn, or her future.  Let me get this out of the way: this construct is bullshit.  From every angle, it's bullshit.  While presenting a high school couple faced with parting ways in college is perfectly realistic and acceptable, the Finn-and-Rachel romance is twisting that portrayal into something less than stellar.  The writers have explicitly set it up that being with Finn means staying behind in Lima, or at the very least having a future in the doldrums.  Even if Quinn weren't telling Rachel Finn's an anchor (because, sure, it's her opinion) -- we have Rachel herself accepting Finn's proposal with the basic sentiment of "I may not have it all but at least I'll have you."  

Why is this so?!  Rachel has specifically been written as doubtful of her dreams while everyone else's are materializing, which is the exact opposite of the original construct of the character and her peers.  Day one: Rachel Berry had dreams, others did not.  Now?  Rachel Berry's not sure of her dreams, so she'll get married instead.  Why?!  Why does Rachel have to choose between Finn and her dreams?! 

This is a terrible way to write their relationship because it paints the writers in the corner.  Finn is portrayed as desperate about his seemingly dead-end future and proposed to Rachel to preserve this high school happiness.  And now that Rachel's dreams have been affirmed with a NYADA acceptance letter, she's going to take back her decision and become an antagonist to Finn's emotions.  This is not going to be good.  Basically, both characters deserve better than an "I guess I'll settle for you" relationship, and it's shocking that the writers attempt to portray them both as the loves of each others' lives, yet also each others' consolation prizes.

And, speaking of poorly-written relationships, we also got a slight push forward on the Samcedes front - Sam wanted to sing Human Nature with Mercedes, which she refused, but then did anyways.  They sang, then kissed.  We all know I am fully on board with these two in concept, but in execution, the Glee writers can't seem to do anything remotely interesting with the couple.  (Or any couple, really, at this point.)  Boy-girl relationships always seem to be reduced to the Girl having a Boyfriend, and the Boy pushing her, whether aggressively or passively, to date him instead.  Meanwhile, Girl acts doe-eyed because they're Meant to Be and they sing about it.

Truthfully, "Human Nature," while vocally a great cover, did not help out Amber Riley and Chord Overstreet in the slightest.  Their instruction was to sing around each other on stage, without any storyline or emotional context driving them.  How are they supposed to make that work?  They didn't even have a piano to dance around!  Or chairs!  

Truthfully, the staging of musical numbers felt a little lackluster in "Michael," which is unfortunate.  "Smooth Criminal," which should have been a number of aggression, instead was rife with unspent tension because Santana and Sebastian just circled each other.  I wanted them to knock over chairs!  "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Ben" suffered the same lack of contextual allure "Human Nature" did - the characters had little else to do but stand there!  "Scream" escaped pattern thanks to the replication of the music video.  Only "Wanna Be Starting Something" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" exuded any real excitement or interest.  "Bad," as previously mentioned, seemed scattered and lacked flash.  And "Black and White" succeeded mostly in scarring me with the character-to-character morphs.  I don't get it!  This show usually does musical numbers so expertly, and to drop the ball on a Michael episode is even more unexpected.

In the end, "Michael" was rife with unnecessary conflict that bordered on ridiculous, pulling focus away from more interesting characters explorations, and underwhelmed with its relationship drama and musical numbers.  Wacko indeed. 

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B-
Dance Numbers: B-
Dialogue: C+
Plot: C
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Artie Abrams and Quinn Fabray

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Fears For Shiloh: Why the Scrutiny is Sexist, Homophobic, and Harmful

Sometimes I think I don't have enough opinions.  Then I browse the internet for oh, fifteen minutes, and the sheer amount of idiocy I see is enough to get me ranting about something.

Today, it's this article from Autostraddle, which chronicles and comments on the American media's obsession with Shiloh Pitt's tomboy style and the overblown and offensive fear that it's harmful to Shiloh in some way.  Yesterday, Life & Style Magazine published this article that's featured on the front page of the Feb. 6 issue - with the headline "Brad Pitt's Fears for Shiloh."  Let me be clear, right off the bat: it's not Autostraddle I'm ranty at.  It's Life & Style that's getting the major side-eye.

There's several layers of awful at work here, and none of them have to do with the way that Shiloh Pitt dresses or what kind of gender identity she seems to be adopting.  She's a five-year-old kid.  It doesn't matter if she wants to be a boy now, or at any point in her life.  Not my business.  Not the media's business.  And she's completely entitled to any gender identity, as an individual - be it now, or in the future, regardless of what that identity is.

Now, to the points:

Firstly, it's bad enough that gossip magazines are so obsessed with a little kid that they plaster her all over their pages - just because she's born to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  The fact that media fascination with celebrity spills over into an exploitation of their children is just ground floor on a tower of Intrusive and Nonsensical Bullshit.  You could stop the argument right there and it'd be enough to loathe the article, the cover story, and the fact that apparently this sells magazines.

But on top of that, we have still a serious pile of feminist issues to sift through.  Why is it that there's so much scrutiny over the way Shiloh dresses?  Putting commentary like this on the covers of magazines only contributes to what so much media says about women: it's important what you look like.  How you dress.  How you present yourself.  How much makeup you wear.  How much you weigh.  If you're smiling, or if you look upset, or angry.  Even when you're five, appearance means everything, and there's less value on what comes out of your mouth.  (Unless it's rude, or rocks the boat, or speaks out against something.  Then you're a bitch who's Way Out of Line.  But that's another rant for another day.)

There's also the rigid expectation of young girls in particular - the "Sugar and Spice, and Everything Nice" effect.  Girls are "supposed to" wear pink.  Girls are "supposed to" have long hair.  Girls are "supposed to" play with dolls.  Life & Style has this philosophy pegged - it even scrawls the chicken-scratched arrow pointing to the change in Shiloh's toys - "from dolls to dinousaurs!"  Because apparently dinosaurs are only to be appreciated by boys.  Somebody should have told me that before I committed every line of dialogue from Jurassic Park to memory.  (I can also tell you that according to that movie, dinosaur eats man, and woman inherits the earth.  Spoiler alert.)

There is no criticism of the way Shiloh's male siblings dress.  (Several comments at the Autostraddle article point out that Maddox and Pax have long, "feminine" hair, and no one's up-in-arms about that.  It's an excellent point.)  Technically, there's not criticism of Shiloh's female siblings either, because they're not "outside the norm."  It's here where we reach an issue of gay rights, visibility, and the messages we're sending about parenting and gender identity.  

Here's the question: what's the big deal if a little girl expresses herself differently than society has deemed "appropriate" for little girls?  To quote the article:

In fact, one onlooker even mistook the adorable little girl for one of the Jolie-Pitt boys. "It was very chaotic," Lynda Stenhouse, who was at the market, tells Life & Style. "She rushed by my section, but I did notice her skinny white legs and the commotion of the boys."

Now, in the new issue of
Life & Style, sources reveal that while the proud parents encourage their little girl to be independent, Brad is concerned about the scrutiny to which Shiloh is being subjected.

Firstly, I gather that any chaos that arises when the Jolie-Pitts are at the supermarket has more to do with the fact that the most media-hyped celebrity family is in a public place with the plebeians, and not the result of their daughter's androgyny.

Secondly, that quote actually contributes nothing to the article's argument, and can basically be ignored.

Thirdly, I can't figure out if Life & Style realizes that this alleged "scrutiny" Shiloh is being subjected to comes straight from their own magazine covers.  The headlines associated with this "story" are so ridiculously sensationalized and offensive: 
  • "As Angelina cuts Shiloh's hair shorter than ever, Brad breaks down worrying that his little girl will be ridiculed."
  • "New evidence that Angelina is forcing Shiloh's obsession with being a boy.  Is she harming her daughter?"
  • "Why is Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy?  Is it harming the three-year-old?"
The fact of the matter is that these magazine covers are far more damaging not only to Shiloh but also to all individuals who consider their gender identity to be something other than heteronormative - especially younger people.  I think you'll find that it's not a fluid spectrum of gender expression that's harmful to children, but rather the negative reaction to it that does more damage.  Rejection of difference from adults and lack of positive reinforcement for nonconformity truly has the poisonous affect on young children, and impact from the media, such as Life & Style magazine covers, can perpetuate that attitude easily, quickly, and enduringly.    

It would be plenty regrettable, with the invasion of privacy, the basic feminist issue of expectation and "appropriate behavior," and the offensive suggestion that living beyond the heteronorms is damaging, but sitting atop all this mess is a sneaky sexist cherry: somehow, Angelina Jolie is the one at fault.  Every single one of those headlines specifically blames Jolie's parenting, which has several nasty suggestions.  Firstly and perhaps most innocuous is the assumption that Jolie, in the role of the mother, makes the decisions about what her daughter wears.  

But really, the true offense is that they also suggest that Brad Pitt is somehow being hurt by this.  Jolie is vilified in the scenario, and Pitt is painted as the victim who's just worried about his "little girl."  Jolie becomes the villain to both her partner and child, and the relationship between the father and daughter translates easily to condescending paternalism.  The "Daddy's Little Girl" effect slides effortlessly into the "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice" effect, even when many fathers enjoy playing sports, or having common interests with their daughters.

In sum, this is a shitshow of offensive insinuations.  And, at the very center, is a five-year-old girl.  Let me give you the takeaway, since Life & Style seems to be neglecting the real conclusions to be reaching here.  Let people express themselves however they choose how, and don't try and shame them for being themselves.  Especially when they're little kids, who are only discovering their identity.  Everyone needs to be told that they're okay, and the worst place to deny that right is on the cover of a nationally-distributed magazine.

If you choose to speak out to Life & Style about the problem, the fine people at Autostraddle have compiled the contact info so that I may copy and paste it here:
The PR people for Life & Style are Lindsay Ferraro (@lindsay_ferraro on Twitter, LFerraro@bauer-usa.com) and Sarah Drabick (sdrabick@bauer-usa.com) and the editor of Life & Style is Dan Wakeford (DWakeford@bauer-usa.com).


Friday, January 20, 2012

Emma Pillsbury, Feminism, and the "Yes/No" Proposal

We all know I have serious issues with the near-vacuum of feminism Glee presents on my television every Tuesday.  Recently, the brunt of the sexism has landed on Santana's shoulders, and it bounces casually around Rachel and Quinn and Brittany and Sue with enough frequency to be disconcerting.  But one character that rarely gets talked about, in terms of Lady Treatment, is Emma Pillsbury, McKinley High's guidance counselor, and Glee's resident Will Schuester Love Interest.

Why is this?  Well, firstly, she's an adult, and adults on this show are inherently less interesting.  Where do they fit into the candy-colored universe of earnestly good-intentioned but mistake-making teenagers?  They don't.  And as a sensical voice of reason and mostly competent authority figure, Miss Pillsbury doesn't even stand a chance.  As a side effect of this, Emma's original character arc about self-empowerment and realism has degenerated into an objectification of her actually diagnosed issues for her significant other to “fix,” and an overblown portrayal of a “fairy tale” romance.  She is in the narrative only a Love Interest to Will, and when she has a problem that he, being of Noble Good Intentions, will try to Fix.

It's here where the blow to feminism comes in - in a neatly masqueraded package that takes original intent and twists it into sexism.  “Yes/No,” in particular, presented the idea that Emma wanted to marry Will, which, given the torch she’s carried for him since Day 1, is not out of left field.  They’re supposedly in a happy and healthy relationship now, although we hardly ever see it, and we’re expected to be totally on board with Emma pining for those wedding bells and Will coming through with a White Knight Proposal.  How romantic!

But it’s completely misappropriated.  Emma’s character arc is not just about learning to cope with OCD.  It’s about standing up for what she wants, and becoming a self-possessed and self-assured woman.  Sounds like something to do with feminism, right?  Definitely!  This is a character who, knowing that her Dream Guy was married, willingly hitched herself to Ken Tanaka, a man to whom she had no physical or emotional attraction whatsoever.  She silenced her own wishes, and was completely okay with being miserable for the rest of her life, simply because she wasn’t sure she could do better. 

Fast-forward two seasons, and it’s expected of us to see a character progression from then to now.  Then, Emma was marrying a man she did not love.  Now, she is marrying a man she does love.  Look, progress!  Right?


The problem with that is that Emma made no progress.  Emma did not stand up and say, “William Schuester, I choose you!”  Has she ever?  Will went after her in “Sectionals.”  They both decide to take a break in “Hell-O” because it’s too soon after his divorce, and when she's with Carl, Will's the one to still pursue her.  Then, she doesn’t even break up with Carl!  He breaks up with her, in a gross narrative manifestation of sexism, because he found out she still has feelings for Will.

Where, pray, is Emma Pillsbury’s agency?  Here we are, after an onscreen reunion, and promises from Will to fix Emma and help Emma and love Emma - and Emma has still barely uttered a word.  Even in her speech in “Yes/No,” she tells Will, “This is what you get.”  Emma has so little sense of self, still, that when Will expresses doubts, she tells him that she’s never going to be more than what she is right now, and that has to be enough for him.  In terms of her own development, she may as well still be marrying Ken Tanaka.

Sure, along the way, Emma tries to “take control,” usually of her sexuality, and flops miserably in the process.  She is still disconnected from the concept of choice, and the narrative gets around the sexism of that simply by chalking it up to the Very Real Problem of her OCD, a character trait which was played lightly and/or for comedy for most of Glee’s earliest episodes.  But pairing her inactive participation in her own storylines with her frequent absence from the narrative unless she's interacting with Will, and Glee has created a female character heavily restricted by the irresponsible choices made for her throughout her arc.

Now, in some respects, Emma has shown sporadic signs of being on a character arc of self-empowerment.  There was a time when she started standing up to Principal Figgins (she yelled at him in his office once... although it had to do with Will and the glee kids, but I'll take it!) and we saw some measure of self-possessed qualities in her when dealing with Sue, and occasionally Will - usually through dialogue.  But we don’t have that Emma Pillsbury now, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get her anytime soon.  This is largely because she is primarily defined in her relationship with Will, which has also been twisted since show’s inception to be less than stellar in the feminist department.

Will and Emma were originally constructed in the White Knight/Princess category.  Hell, in the first episode, Emma steps in gum, and Will cleans it off her shoe for her, on bended knee.  He even calls her Cinderella.  When she runs out on him in “The Power of Madonna,” she leaves behind her shoes, which he polishes and returns to her.  Their dance in “Mash-Up” is nothing short of fairy tale material, and the sentiment lingers over all their early interactions.

In small doses, this is cute.  Feminism is not about denying more traditional expressions of romantic love, but more about saying it's not the only way - and when it comes to storytelling, making sure that the woman has a choice and a sense of her own identity.  In terms of Will and Emma's storytelling, the hints at a knight/princess dynamic add charm to the couple, and give them a little scripted hook to make them interesting and unique.  However, it’s also scripted that Will and Emma need to move away from “fairy tale” in order to make their romance work.  And they know that.  When he came to see her at her botched wedding, it’s clear that they both wanted to be together, but she said, again a voice of reason, “You just broke up with your wife.”  They separate in “Hell-O” because it's still too soon after his divorce.  Every single hint at progress in Will and Emma’s relationship has been associated with deconstructing that White Knight/Princess idealism and putting stock in having a real relationship.

Tying this hand in hand with Emma’s OCD and confidence issues, we have a scenario where, in order for this relationship to work, Emma must realize that she can’t hope for a fairy tale, and that real relationships are messy, and take work.  She has to speak her mind, and be 50% of the partnership.  And she seemed to be on that track, honestly.  Season 1 had her on the basic path, and Season 2's offscreen relationship with Carl seemed to indicate she was happy, and making progress at least on her OCD, if not her confidence.  Only since the breakup with Carl have things seemed to change, possibly due to a) low visibility on handling the Will and Emma since reuniting them - as a result of avoiding the clunky storytelling legwork in making that transition authentic to the audience, and b) giving Will more weight of the relationship’s emotions onscreen anyways.

To speak about "Yes/No" specifically, the logical progression of an Emma Pillsbury on her confidence/realism arc, in a relationship with Will, would find their marriage proposal something that both parties have equal participation in.  Bonus points if Emma herself proposes.  (She’s not the one who has to say “yes” to marriage, after all.  Will, under his mountain of Terri Issues, is the one that has to find a way to say yes being married again.)  Basically, a proposal has to defy Fairy Tale and show that this couple has moved forward.  If you really wanted to hearken back to their whimsical beginnings for the sake of charm, then do something small and simple, connecting Cinderella’s shoes, or have them dress up.  A minor detail, and nothing that completely incapacitates Emma's power of choice.

In other words: don’t have Emma woefully singing the “Wedding Bell Blues” as a girlish fantasy sequence, and don’t have her regress when Will expresses concerns that her parents gave him.  Don't have Will talk to her parents about her without her there to speak her mind.  And don’t have Will Schuester apologize by proposing in an elaborate synchronized-swimming extravaganza where he wears a white silk coat and tails with a satin top hat while walking on water, completely hammering in the illusion that he is both Emma Pillsbury's White Knight and Righteous Savior.  And, for the love of all things, don’t have Emma just sit there while he walks towards her, ring in hand.

It should have been better.  It should have honored their origins, but stayed in keeping with their development together.  And it should have involved Emma’s character arc just as much as Will’s.  Instead, it was an overblown, self-indulgent orgy dedicated to making these two people the White Knight and the Princess, without any indication that they’d earned a realistic relationship of equal parts, over time.  And by choosing to flatten those dimensions at the expense of Emma's character, it pancaked the entire scenario into a charmless display of sexism.

If only Emma chose to propose to Will.  She could have enlisted the help of the glee kids, in a move that would be a far more charming (and less creepy) homage to Will’s devotion to his students.  The episode could have ended with Emma singing “Wedding Bell Blues” as her proposal, with the glee kids providing backup.  I mean, the lyrics in that song are “Marry me, Will.”  How would that not be an actual proposal? 

On a better show, Emma Pillsbury would be a far more realized, three-dimensional character on the screen.  She would not be relegated to Princess territory simply because she has an anxiety disorder and a White Knight to rescue her.  And she could be a strong female character with her own place in her relationship, and her own place in the narrative, and allowed her own character arc propelled by her own choices.

But alas.  She lived happily ever after, and that’s all there is to it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The RBI Report: "Yes/No"

The Powers that Glee made it far too easy with this episode title: did I like it?  Eh, yes/no.

"Yes/No," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Eric Stoltz.

"Yes/No" piled on the romance drama, and as with Glee, it can be incredibly poignant and heartwrenching, or it can trigger your gag reflex by trying to force the syrup and the spoon down your throat.  Let's take a tour of the couples, shall we?

Sam and Mercedes
The whole shebang kicked off with a shot-for-shot recreation of Grease's "Summer Nights," Danny-ed by Sam and Sandy-ed by Mercedes.  Apparently these two had a rather steamy summer together, but chalked it up to fling status when Sam moved away.  Now that Chord Overstreet got his schedule sorted out, Sam's back, and has his sights set on making Mercedes his.  The problem?  She's got a boyfriend in Shane, a poor dude who Glee has bothered to do nothing with except make him the whole impetus for Mercedes' actions in "Asian F," and who will now simply be the romantic opposition no one is rooting for.  (Sorry, Shane.  Looks like you won't be around for much longer.)

The Sam/Mercedes development in this episode was good, simply in that it began, really and truly!  The show took a sticky situation with Sam's departure-then-return and sculpted the halted Samcedes romance into a fling that now has the chance to become something more.  How great was "Summer Nights?"  It's made even better by the fact that Glee is transposing the context of Grease to a more modern and compelling circumstance - it's not often that the girl most frequently saddled with Sassy Black Girl stereotypes is allowed a romance with the Dorky White Football Hunk.  For Mercedes, who has never been shown to be in any real relationship - especially physical - to have the genuine affections of a jock type is a Really Big Deal.  It's even nicer yet that Mercedes isn't moon-eyed and shocked that "a guy like him" could really be into her, which was a very real possibility based on Mercedes' previous portrayals with regards to the opposite sex.

However, I'm not sure Glee made entirely good on the promise that Sam and Mercedes held with their more-than-charming musical number opening.  For one, "Summer Nights," by design, features the two lovebirds individually.  Secondly, the writing veered dangerously into the tropes that this show always uses when trying to put two characters together:
  • Sam tries to peacock to win affections, and wants a letterman jacket to impress Mercedes (and joins the synchronized swimming team, which, turns out, is Not Cool)
  • Sam gets slushied for being on aforementioned swimming team and therefore Not Cool, and Mercedes compassionately cleans the frozen ice from his face
  • Mercedes sings a romantic song and we see that she's really thinking about Sam
  • Mercedes has a boyfriend and this therefore becomes a Love Triangle
These things have all been done before with multiple couples, and I wish that Glee could break out of the box and find what's interesting about these kids as individuals and let them bond based on that.  Wouldn't it have been nice to have a scene where Sam and Mercedes demonstrate some of the happy interactions they seemed to have had all summer long?  We heard about that night at the carnival, but for present-day we're just given the Love Triangle and expected to go along with it.  If there's one pet peeve I have about writing for pairs, it's when two characters are meant to be liked simply because they say, "Hey, remember that great time we had that one time?" and we're supposed to be right there with them purely because they say so.  Show, don't tell!  Give me chemistry!  Give me meaningful interactions!  Give me musical numbers where both parties are in the same space, please!

Artie and Becky
Oh, this storyline causes me conflict.  Becky immediately came on the scene, complete with random Helen Mirren voiceover (hey, in your mind you can sound like whoever you want) and declared that she's hot for Artie.  It's clear from the start that the show is completely aware of the fact that they are potentially pairing off their Boy in Wheelchair and Girl with Down's Syndrome, and I braced myself for what was either going to be a trainwreck, or at the very least, completely heartbreaking.  Glee has already paired off the two Asian characters and marginalized them, and I was worried that they would do the same thing with Becky and Artie - especially since part of Artie's appeal to Becky was that he was "handicapable," like her.  Not only that, but Artie was rejected by Sugar, in a scene that seemed pretty unnecessary, because it only drew attention to the fact that Sugar was scared of what people might think about her arms if she was with Artie.  (Um, okay?)

The refreshing part of this storyline came when Artie not only agreed to go on a date with Becky, but seemed to enjoy it!  How great was it when his classmates staged a "Beckyvention," and Artie scolded them for automatically thinking that he wouldn't like Becky.  "Oh!" I thought.  "This is how they're going to get around messy issues!  Artie will like her for who she is!"  If Artie actually liked her and their romance became a real storyline, then it takes some of the side-eye away from pairing off the two handicapped characters and becomes a story about two characters who have a relationship and can be seen for their qualities as opposed to their "labels."  

But then it took a turn for the disheartening, with Artie admitting to Coach Sylvester that he only wanted to be Becky's friend.  She advised him to treat her like a normal human being (good advice) and tell her up front, which he did.  Upon doing so, Becky asked him if it's because he finds her intimidating, and he agreed that that was the reason.  And then the most heart-shattering thing happened: we got the return of Becky's voiceover.  The voice of Helen Mirren, which was once used as a silly kook for this self-confident and sunshiney character, became completely and utterly serious, as she explained to us that she didn't ask if it was because she had Down's because she knew the answer was yes.  I thought the earth was going to open up and swallow me whole, that's how awful I felt in that moment.  That is damn effective, I must say.  

But still, I go around and around on this storyline.  On the one hand, it allowed Becky to be her own character, with a full range of emotions, and a complete awareness of her situation, beneath the bravado.  On the other hand, it'd be so much nicer to see Becky find a guy who likes her for her and actually wants to be with her, and it'd be even nicer if that guy was not necessarily "handicapable" in any way.  Is that realistic?  I'd like to think so.  But honestly, I don't even know if it's acceptable to say that both Artie and Becky are comparably handicapped, considering their differing situations.  It seems like a messy situation to introduce.  Truthfully, friends, I don't have any answers here, and I'm not sure Glee navigated this territory with as much grace as possible.  But I can tell you that I felt like my heart was going to drop out of my chest when Helen Mirren came 'round for the final voiceover, and I was immensely relieved that Becky had Sue to console her with a carton of ice cream.

Will and Emma
Will Schuester provided the whole impetus for the episode, as he decided to make his personal life a class assignment and solicit ideas for a proposal from his students.  This was mostly harmless, and frankly provided something of a weak framework for the whole episode.  The songs that were sung (excepting "Summer Nights" and "Wedding Bell Blues") were done so for the purpose of a possible reproduction by Will, and therefore didn't pack as much of a punch as I would have liked.  I miss the days when Glee's musical numbers came in the wake of some sort of emotional moment for a character, and not simply because the episode's conceit requires them to do so.  For instance, it would have been nice to hear a musical number from Finn after learning the truth about his dad, or from Rachel after being proposed to, or from Emma after her speech to Will about their future.  Alas.

Although, I will give kudos to "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which handled a second layer of meaning with the relationships of the four girls singing.  While clearly the first time Tina saw Mike's face was not when they were rolling around on the grass for an outdoor picnic, it was still darling.  And, more poignant yet was the flashback given to Santana, who got equal part in the song, as directed to another woman with no differentiation between the romances.  Points must be given on principle, for that.  (Sure, we're all still waiting on a kiss, but this still works on its own.)

Anyways, Emma also had plans to propose to Will, after advice from Sue to take the reins and be a modern lady.  Will stuck with his plan to propose, up until the moment he asked her Ginger-supremacist parents for permission and they cautioned him about her OCD and the difficulties of raising children and having a future together.  

For me, this storyline was just okay.  Firstly, I have so little emotional investment in Will and Emma, because we rarely see them have any actual interactions that don't involve him trying to "fix" her OCD.  This is upsetting to me, especially because now that Naya Rivera has captured popular attention with her acting chops, I say that Jayma Mays is the new Underrated Actor on Glee.  She disappears for episodes at a time, and when she returns, is shuffled into Will's Girlfriend territory and given only her struggles with anxiety as a character point.  And yet, she takes every paltry moment that could be completely trite, or suffocated by the scripted romance with Will, and makes Emma Pillsbury a strong and imperfect character in her own right, who's completely relatable and winsome in her efforts to be the person she wants to be, regardless of her relationship.  Her speech addressing Will's concerns about the future was a thing of beauty, and her delivery on the painfully simple line "this is what you get," was the single best performance this episode.

But the thing is, I'm tired of storylines that have Will and Finn trumpeting about "what it means to be a man."  We did this in 1x03, and I grow increasingly grumpy to see it again in 3x10.  I wish "Yes/No" was about Emma proposing to Will, and that he was okay with that.  (He seemed to laugh when she told him she was planning on proposing to him, which made me frown at my television.)  Instead, he ignored her efforts to communicate about marriage until he had doubts, and went the White Knight/Prince Charming route of asking her parents and staging an elaborate... synchronized swimming proposal, complete with a white tux and top hat.  Not only that, but Emma stocked her pamphlets with material like "Happily Never After" and "So You're a Spinster."  

If only Emma had actually sung "Wedding Bell Blues" as the culmination of the proposal plotline, and not as a girl's fantasy about getting married as the dude prepared to pop the question.  I mean, on Glee's chart of sexism, this is more like "Acafellas" than "I Kissed a Girl," but it's still somewhat aggravating to see such a grayscale depiction of gender dynamics in a relationship.  This is not an outdated Disney princess film, although at this point, I can't expect much else from Glee, especially with regards to Will and Emma - even if she's supposed to be on a self-empowerment storyline arc.

Finn and Rachel
Oh, where do I even begin with these two?  Finn, after having been on an uncertain path for the future, declares to Mr. Schue that he wants to join the army, just like his dad.  He's translated his original Glee speak of wanting to be a part of something special to being a part of the army, and honoring his deceased father's legacy.  And frankly, I'm on board with a storyline where Finn can attempt to connect with his father and let go of some of his angst over manhood.

It turns out though, as Carole revealed to Finn, that Finn's father did not die an American hero in Iraq.  Rather, he was discharged honorably, and suffered a drug problem when he returned home.  After disappearing one night, he turned up dead in Cincinnati from an overdose.  Pretty shocking, right?  It rightfully turned Finn's world upside down and he was forced to deal.  

There were a few things, though, that felt left of center in terms of the choices made in elaborating this storyline.  On a nitpicky level, I didn't like that Finn learned the truth at school, with Will, Emma, and Burt present.  I wish Carole had told him at home, and that it was simply a scene between mother and son. 

Mostly, though, I didn't like that so much of Finn's angst was framed solely in the discussion of what it means to be a man.  Really, Glee?  Are we still on this?  Usually, it's done interestingly with the inclusion of Kurt, or another gay male character to introduce the question naturally and with thought-provoking results.  (Because frankly, the answers to that question are pretty limiting, insulting to both genders, and, if you'll excuse me, complete bullshit.)  But this time, neither Kurt nor Blaine were on the scene, and we instead got Will telling Finn he taught him how to be a man, and Finn questioning what kind of man he was after learning the truth about his dad.  It also bears stating that Finn has previously told Will that he taught him how to be a man in the absence of his father, and that he also told Kurt that he taught him how to be a man.  At this point, it's becoming a worn-thin plot device that isn't even progressing these characters in any real way.

Ultimately, Finn's crisis manifested in a lot of talk about not knowing what kind of man he was, and then channeling that somehow into feeling like he'd be okay if he just proposed to Rachel so he could love her forever.  That doesn't really connect.  It would have been stronger to see Finn have an actual emotional response independent of gender-centric bullshit, and allow him to work through his issues with his mother, who, may I remind everyone, also gave 50% of her genes to her kid.  It would have been a better choice to see Finn be reassured that just because his father had struggles didn't mean that he was doomed to the same fate, and that he can look up to his strong, hardworking single mother just as much as his absent dad.  It would be far less sexist, and give Carole Hudson a little more credit as a single woman trying to raise her son in Middle America.  Not only that, but it would have been nice to get more sympathy for Finn's dad - it immediately crossed my mind that his drug issues could easily be connected to the emotional toll of fighting a war and returning home from it, which is far more three-dimensional and nuanced for Finn to deal with, rather than "my dad was a loser and I'm destined to be one too."

So really, Finn proposing to Rachel was mostly a disjointed action, and I don't think Lea Michele's flawless rendition of "Without You" could support it, no matter how many times Eric Stoltz cut back and forth between hers and Finn's faces.  I will say, however, that Brad Falchuk can write a mean heartfelt speech, and I actually found Finn's proposal, as well as Will's, to be well-written and mostly bullshit-free, which at this point is commendable.  Of course, couching them in the way their relationships have previously been handled makes them incredibly dissonant, but as standalone pieces, the sentiment is well-communicated and on point.

And, as a complete aside, I must say that I immensely enjoyed NeNe Leakes' turn as Roz Washington, swim coach and Olympic Medal Winner in Individual Synchronized Swimming.  I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about the Real Housewives of Any American City, but NeNe's dialogue and delivery made me giggle.  I wouldn't mind seeing her stick around, although I'm not sure how much more derision the writers can throw at Chord Overstreet's body.

With that, "Yes/No" provided many heartfelt moments and delivered a few good speeches, but it missed several opportunities to avoid White Knight sexism and make the most of the couples they presented as romantically involved.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: C
Characterization: B
Episode MVP: Becky Jackson
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...