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


  1. It seems to me that the role Santana played in this episode is the one that used to be played (more believably, since he stopped tormenting the Glee Club when he joined), Puck. Particularly in "Funk" and the Superbowl episode. Yet the supposed badass was left out of this completely while Santana usurped him. Why? Probably because Puck won't be on the show next year while Santana will. This seems rather unfair. They could have worked together.

  2. So, Sebastian commits a crime that directly results in eye surgery for Blaine. But they decide not to go to the police? Because beating the Warblers and rubbing it in Sebastian's face means more than justice being done? If someone else gets hurt, New Directions will be at fault for not reporting the incident.
    If not the cops, why not give the taped confession to the Principal/headmaster of Dalton Academy? In season 2 we were told that Dalton is enlightened and has a no tolerance policy towards Sebastian's behavior.
    I'm not sure what "message" Ryan Murphy was trying to send by having Santanna record a confession and not have them use it later.
    I hope Sebastian gets sent to juvie so we don't have to see him on this series anymore.

    And I agree with SNeaker, Puck would've been useful in the conflict with Sebastian.

  3. May I say that this show is starting to depressing me?
    Quinn getting into Yale? Seriuosly? Regaining her mental sanity in one episode and within a month being accepted in one of the most prestigious university? This is an insult to everyone who bust their ass for years to achieve the same. I would appreciate it better if they had started her evolution into a deserving student a bit earlier.
    Finn's proposal and Rachel's acceptance were just sad, I feel bad for these two. Please someone slap the guy and make him apply for a college or something, why did they have to turn Finn into a desperate looser? Like, really desperate...Does he not have a mom? a stepfather? even his creepy BFF Will Schuester does have nothing to say to him?

    And the bullying storyline over and over and over, please give us a break. Artie's speech could have been meaningful if it hadn't been so totally out of place. Sebastian isn't necessary a bully, he's just a rival in a show choir competition playing dirty, ok, criminal. But this is the least you can expect if you call a "take it to the street" face off. Come on.

    I agree with both of you: where were Puck? I miss him!
    I miss the fun, I want to laugh.
    I like it when the show displays truthful emotions like Rachel's breakdown, when she feels for the first time uncertain about her future, or Quinn's "you can't change the past but let it go and start your future" new conscience. This are genuine moments when you really sympathize with the characters, you feel for them, it's moving. It's heartfelt. But the horrible construct they are building up for Rachel - the guy or a bright future - I agree, that is bullshit. That is just untrue and unnecessary dramatic.

    I would like to enjoy this show because it makes me feel lighter, I don't want to feel sad for these imaginary people I am affectionate to.

  4. I have to disagree that Santana had no business in the A-story. The actors in conflict in the A-story were New Directions and The Warblers -- not Kurt/Blaine and Sebastian. Thus, it was important to have characters other than Kurt play significant roles in the action. Santana acted as one of the principals of the ND "plural protagonist."

    Santana's character arc this season has been about integrating more fully into the Glee club, particularly in a social or interpersonal sense. In the Lima Bean scene, we saw yet another instance of her being part of the group. That scene also established the personal enmity between Santana and Sebastian.

    I would say, further, that the lack of payoff was intentional. "If Kurt had taped this to his junk..." showed us that Santana is still working to gain full acceptance. It also fit with portrait of a conflicted plural protagonist. ND all wanted the same thing, but they disagreed internally on what was needed to accomplish the goal.

    If there is a character's function in the A-story that should be criticised, it's Kurt's.


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