Wednesday, February 29, 2012

TV Report Card: Parenthood 3x18 - "My Brother's Wedding"

Last night, Parenthood finished off their third season by tying up so many loose ends so swiftly and cleanly you have to wonder if the writers are nervous about their chances of renewal.  I certainly hope they get a fourth season - this is one of the best-scripted television shows on air today.  There are no bells and whistles, no false moments, no sensationalism; just good, authentic, well-constructed characters and drama.

Of course, what's ironic about this assessment is that the third season finisher "My Brother's Wedding" didn't quite demonstrate these usual hallmarks of the show, perhaps because the writers were trying to do too much to wrap up as many storylines as satisfyingly as possible.  While there were still plenty of great moments, it also felt far more rushed than usual, with the rare feeling of being able to feel the hand plotting the action.

Basically, this stemmed largely from the idea that Crosby and Jasmine decided to get married in the closing moments of last week's episode, and this week, the wedding's on.  Too fast, too fast!  I have no problems whatsoever with Crosby and Jasmine marrying one another - in fact, I've really appreciated the steps Parenthood has taken to show these two finding a way to function in each others' lives in an even-footed, diplomatic, and caring way.  Too much of the first two seasons saw Crosby playing the "fun dad" and Jasmine playing the "uptight mom" and the arguments that dynamic created didn't sit well with me - especially because it flattened the characterization of one of the show's few persons of color, and ostracized her from the core cast.

But this season saw Jasmine and Crosby finally finding their rhythm as separated parents, and in doing so, rediscovered their natural chemistry and attraction.  It was rewarding to see Jasmine move out "bitch" territory, and equally as rewarding to see Crosby shift out of "man child" territory as well.  Of course, they both picked up pesky significant others in the process - both of whom had to be done away with swiftly and cleanly in last night's episode.  And boy, was it quick.  Cello Girl and Dr. Joe both got the boot in a cross-cut montage over song, and we only heard enough to catch the apologies and the contrasting reactions.  The idea that Crosby and Jasmine want to marry is not that foreign a concept considering the road towards emotional maturity they've been on all season, but it still felt out of left field - especially when they're dating other people and then rush into a wedding within the week.  

Couldn't we have had more time to prepare?  Especially when one of the most charming scenes of the evening was watching Zeek bark out the delegations for Backyard Wedding on a Whim.  Funnier yet was the adult kids snapping to attention - Julia's "Sir!" cracked me up in particular, perhaps because no part of Julia's life has been laugh-worthy as of late.  But more on that later.  The more pressing issue belongs to Crosby and Adam, who got into a huge fight over the Luncheonette.  This is nothing new.  One of Parenthood's go-to sources of drama is in the clashing attitudes of the family's Responsible Brother and Immature Brother.  This entire season has been devoted to the rehashing of this conflict, and the finale was no different.

Necessary back story: last week, Adam and Crosby met with a businessman who wants to purchase their homegrown recording studio for the hefty sum of $1 million.  To Crosby, you can't put a price on a dream.  To Adam, this is a business decision, and he's a man with a new baby and a kid about to go off to college - $1 million looks pretty good.  So he met with the man again, got a higher offer, and wants Crosby to consider selling.  This does not sit well with Crosby, who revokes Adam's status as Best Man, and also throws beer on him.  Then Parenthood cheekily launches an all-out food fight far too immature for the salsa-slinging brothers - a welcome moment of levity in a tear-jerking episode.

The Adam vs. Crosby conflict is something that I personally find tiring after awhile.  The formula is the same: Adam and Crosby encounter a situation, react in completely opposite ways, insult each other, and then make up.  Although it's good drama, and would be unrealistic if it went away completely, it starts to feel repetitive after a few rotations.  And what I found to be a misstep in the finale was the decision the brothers reached.  For once, I had actually sided with Crosby in a debate, and everyone convinced him he should sell - until Adam's Best Man speech, wherein he tore up the napkin and proclaimed his love for working with Crosby every day.  Thus, the Luncheonette would live on in the Braverman family.

I actually wish that Parenthood had done the exact opposite.  While I want Crosby to have his dream, I think Adam needs the money more.  This entire season for Adam has been about being able to support his family financially, after being laid off with a baby on the way.  Kristina had to go back to work to help out with costs, and Haddie faces financial obstacles in getting her college education.  This has been explored and highlighted all season long for Adam.  The best resolution for his character would be to get that money and feel the pressure come off for a bit.

Now, I don't think this necessarily means that Crosby has to have unfulfilled development if he lets the Luncheonette go.  On the contrary, by capping with Crosby's wedding, we realize that Crosby's season arc has been about his relationship with Jasmine and his emotional maturation, as he dealt with the fallout of his own mistakes.  Crosby really grew up this season, and the development was natural and rewarding - in no way did I feel like Crosby was losing his identity by handling situations more maturely in his relationships with Jasmine and Jabbar.  So getting married and selling the Luncheonette is actually a fitting conclusion to Crosby's S3 journey.

But instead, we got a Big Moment for Adam, as he stepped up to give the Best Man's speech in place of Drunk Billy (Riggins) and announced that he'd rejected the offer.  It was a little too Benevolent Big Brother for me, and gave agency to Adam and not Crosby, which happens all too often in the Responsible Brother/Immature Brother dynamic - and kind of kicked the legs out from underneath Crosby's character arc this season.  Not only that, but I have to wonder what fresh storylines the writers can mine out of keeping the Luncheonette for another season.  Will we be retreading the same Adam/Crosby conflicts for another year?  I hope not.

The other season-long storyline that wrapped up last night was the Zoe-Julia-baby thread, which unraveled so quickly I had to do a double take.  As such, I actually found the resolution to this arc supremely disappointing - by far the most issue I've ever taken with this consistently-amazing show.  I know many have viewed this plotline as just that: plot.  Watching Julia hound a young woman for her baby is not terribly riveting in and of itself.  However, the relationship that the writers created between these two women was the most rewarding to watch, all season long.  And it was disappointing to me to see the resolution come in plot only, without really giving the characters' relationship its due.

There are a few things that irk me.  Firstly, by having Zoe waltz off with the baby and no ties to Julia, it feels a little like everything - 18 episodes' worth - that went into building that dynamic just evaporated in a split second.  And while it was extremely powerful to witness Joel and Julia back at Square One, I dislike strongly the idea that they were wronged or betrayed by Zoe.  This is another case of Parenthood penning a situation where a female POC supporting character could too easily be called a bitch by an audience member not paying close attention to their side of the story.  

Look, I know this is a show about the Bravermans, but the fact is that the first two-thirds of the season were developing Zoe into Julia's family and mining conflict and establishing a relationship in a "strange bedfellows" kind of situation.  And I know that Julia wanted Zoe's baby and because Julia is a Braverman on the Braverman Show, we want her to get what she wants.  But the character development that occurred in this storyline came not because of the baby, but because of Julia and Zoe interacting.  These are two women who have been thrown together, and who change a little bit since knowing one another.  But unfortunately, Parenthood ultimately downplayed Julia's change and zeroed in on Zoe's, only as a result of Julia's benevolence, and simultaneously played up Julia's commitment to getting a baby.  Plot, plot, plot.

Like I said before, it's not compelling to watch Julia obsess about an unborn child.  It is compelling to watch Zoe bring a different side out of Julia, wherein she defies High-Strung Working Lady Wants a Baby stereotype and becomes more nurturing, calm, and vulnerable.  And what's frustrating is that we had so many moments reinforcing this idea all season long!  The first two acts of Season 3 were about Julia and Zoe awkwardly finding a common ground to exist on, and learning to open up and trust one another.  Julia set a place for Zoe at the dinner table without knowing if she'd show up, and took care of her at the hospital when no one else was there.  And Zoe feared Julia's disapproval so much that she dumped her dead-end boyfriend to ensure that she and the baby could stay in Julia's life.

Of course, once Zoe moved in with Joel and Julia, the storyline started fracturing a bit, with Zoe distancing herself from the Grahams and behaving erratically enough to cause Julia to freak out.  This is the least interesting aspect of their dynamic because it actively works against everything they'd built together so far, and only serves to introduce an over-sensationalized plot suggestion: could Zoe back out on her promise?  And the idea that the answer to that question was yes made the season finale so upsetting to me.  Every fascinating layer of this complicated relationship was completely thrown out in favor of Zoe's "betrayal" and Julia's heartbreak, and the writers ended everything even more tragically with the idea that Julia changed Zoe's life, and the return of Zoe's grandfather's watch to its rightful owner.

I just don't understand how the most compelling relationship of Season 3 could spiral apart so quickly and come to a close without any tether between them.  I'm insulted even further that the last word on the matter was "You changed my life."  Sorry, Julia, you don't get a baby, but you do get to be the White Savior to an at-risk Hispanic youth!  Grumble.  It's not like Julia didn't change Zoe's life, but there's so much more to this dynamic that having it reduced to that simple summary is a disservice to the characters, the audience, and to the actors that supplied an masterful balance of familiarity and tension to every scene they participated in together.

In the end, though, Joel and Julia got a surprise adoption in Victor, a six-year-old kid whose mother was incarcerated and is now in need of a home.  Presumably this was intended to hastily wrap up Julia's S3 objective, while providing potential for S4 storylines, but I was still reeling from the sting of Zoe's swift and upsetting departure, and frankly I found it difficult to care.  It felt like the writers had just shot themselves in the foot, and were now trying to put a band-aid on the bullethole.  I call Party Foul on this whole scenario, which is such a shame considering how strong its origins were.

As for the Sarah-Amber-Drew arm of the Braverman clan, we got heaps of relationship drama with these three.  Let's start with the most basic: Drew had sex.  That's it.  That's all you need to know.  I'm not sure why Parenthood felt the need to make good on Drew's back-back-back-burner relationship with Amy, but the season finisher included the teenage lovebirds deciding they were ready for sex, and successfully going through with it.  Frankly, this screentime could have been used for something that we're currently more invested in - perhaps in believably breaking up Crosby and Jasmine's relationships, or Zoe and Julia's relationship, both of which could have used the extra airtime. 

Amber, however, only had one real thing to do: choose.  She could either go back to work for Bob Little, or decide to date him instead.  I actually think this storyline was well-crafted, starting with the idea that Amber first decides that she doesn't think she can do both.  I liked that it wasn't immediately assumed that Amber had to choose between a job and a boyfriend.  Secondly, I liked that Kristina chastised Bob for his relationship with Amber, because it's completely in-character, and it's nice to see Kristina's protective side.  Plus, it's not often we get to see the parents interact with the nieces and nephews, and it's refreshing to see less-common character interactions.  Thirdly, I liked even more that Bob defended himself simply by saying he was attracted to a smart, capable young woman.  Even though the two characters were technically at odds, they both came with the same priorities: Amber's feelings.

In the end, Amber met with Bob and explained that even though she wants to be with him, she feels like she only ever makes decisions based on emotions - and that it usually isn't good for her.  I loved this choice, because it feels like it's putting Amber on a character arc.  Not unlike her mother, Amber is something of a wanderer, on a search for herself, and I like the idea that she chooses to explore a professional option as opposed to a personal one.  It makes sense to me, and feels natural, even though it's sad.  And I loved as well that Bob accepted her decision, and reassured her that she'll always have a job at his campaign.  Altogether, it was well-handled, and served up a compelling and authentic mix of emotions.

Sarah's storyline, however, mostly rang with heartbreak.  She herself faced a relationship decision: should she stay with Mark, knowing that they may not want the same things?  Sarah and Mark's relationship has flirted with this construct for the latter half of the season, with the idea that their age difference creates a lot of conflict about their compatibility.  Mark wants a baby, Sarah's not sure she does.  Mark wants to travel, Sarah has kids she wants to keep close.  It's certainly valid and compelling drama, although it's been somewhat redundant for the past few episodes.  But, it was absolutely heartwrenching to witness Sarah breaking the conflict pattern by breaking up with Mark so that he has a chance to have the future he wants.  But, Mark "made a tactical error" (bless this character) and realizes that perhaps they were putting the cart before the horse.  He wants to be with Sarah regardless of what life throws at them - so he proposes.  I love these two characters individually and together, and while I'm not sure exactly what marriage will bring them, I want to see them happy together.  I'm along for the ride on this one, Parenthood.

Phew.  Is that everything?  I think it is.  Ultimately, I am along for the ride on this show, because the writing has been so consistently solid since Day 1, even if I occasionally disagree with the choices they make for the characters.  I love Parenthood dearly, and want to see it renewed for Season 4.  Although the finale was somewhat rushed and had a few fumbled resolutions, I'm still invested in the characters and their stories.  Plus, if we get a Season 4, maybe Zoe can come back and the writers can undo the mess they left her storyline in.  Here's hoping!  I'll be happy either way. 

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Character: B
Episode MVP: Amber
Best Tearjerker: Sarah's breakup with Mark

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x04 - "The Cost of Art"

It's arguable that with four episodes under Smash's belt, we need to be seeing some sign that this show is beginning to find its groove.  Alas, I don't think we're there yet.  Where is the groove?  Give me the groove!  This show is set in the land of musical theatre, and I refuse to believe that Smash could be anything less than a glitzy, high-stakes, feel-everything-to-the-rafters drama.  But unfortunately, we're still stuck in neutral.

As such, "The Cost of Art" wasn't bad, per sé... it was just blah.  The characters seem to just trudge through their conflicts, and even if they overcome them, there's little sense of triumph devoted to the win.  It's almost like Smash is scared of injecting the same vigor into their emotional storylines as they do into their musical numbers, and I say boo to that.  Emotional depth and vibrancy are the key to getting us to invest in these characters, and if we're not feeling every little thing they're feeling to maximum effect, we're just going to tune out.

Speaking of investment, "The Cost of Art" continued to delineate how Eileen's divorce is interfering with her ability to conduct business, as Jerry froze most of her money and therefore jeopardized the financial backing of Marilyn.  Eileen had to get resourceful, and attempted to sell her original Dégas sketch, only to discover that it's technically in Jerry's name and she can't make the sale without his written consent.  Curse you, Jerry!  Jerry's turning out to be more of a diabolical villain than Ellis!  I hope they're sitting in a dark cave somewhere together, working on their evil laughs and giving each other tips on nefarious mustache-twirling.

In the end, Eileen has to grovel to Nick Jonas' millionaire TV star to invest in the show, and after some hardball negotiating, he agrees.  This storyline is a good example of how Smash misses a lot of emotional beats.  I like the idea that Eileen wants to get rid of the Dégas because it represents her past happiness, but that idea wasn't really communicated in a  powerful way.  She also should have been encouraged by Julia or Tom or Derek to ask Lyle for money earlier in the hour, so that she could refuse, in order for her to ultimate choice to be less like groveling and more like shelving her pride - it's a stronger decision for her character.

Humor me for a moment while I ponder what could be even stronger yet: what if Eileen didn't want to sell the Dégas because that was the only happy thing she had to remember her marriage by?  Her choice would therefore be: she could sell the Dégas and let go of any happiness to remember her marriage by, or ask a twenty-year-old for a large sum of money - all of this because her husband froze her funds and made her feel helpless.  It'd be a conflict of nostalgia vs. pride, both strong emotions to contend for a hard decision.  In the end, she could stubbornly choose to hold onto that damn painting, and opt instead to shelve her pride and work at nourishing a new happiness.  Yes, Eileen "letting go" of her marriage goes hand-in-hand with "letting go" of the painting, but we never really saw how much that painting meant to Eileen, and the emotion is not only basic, but also dulled.  And even if Eileen held onto the painting, she could still move on with her "new happiness" in Marilyn, and we would all understand her emotions clearly and strongly.  Plus, how great are mixed emotions?  Isn't that a more interesting representation of a breakup?  Just because Eileen hates Jerry now doesn't mean she always did, and mixing those feelings makes for compelling drama.

What doesn't make for compelling drama, for me, is the Ivy vs. Karen rehash.  Ivy got pissy that no one told her that Karen was invited to be in the ensemble, and felt like Karen was coming on too strong to be a backup performer.  What I did like about this storyline was the idea that Karen was doing too much, and just needed to be trained a bit.  It was less about Karen breathing down Ivy's neck, and more about getting the number right.  But even so, we still got Ivy bitchily having Karen removed from the chorus, and Karen bitchily complaining that she could've slept with the director too, y'know.  I did like that Karen reached a breaking point and had a blow-up - give me strong emotions, Smash!  But then, that was simply channeled into a weak plotline where she got back-up lessons from the Peanut Gallery, with Dev along as a game companion.  Far too many scenes were devoted to this same note: cheeky friends teach Karen how it's done!  And then they capped the hour with a choreographed version of "Rumour Has It" that didn't impact quite as much as Smash was probably hoping for.

The thing is, Ivy vs. Karen is pretty contrived.  There's no reason for Ivy to be threatened by Karen at all, now that she's in the ensemble.  And Karen's rags-to-riches arc is a little too blatant for my taste.  I'm beginning to think that if Smash really wanted to hash out an Ivy vs. Karen scenario, they should've given the part to Karen, only to have Ivy scheme against her in a display of magnificent bitchiness and force Karen's claws to come out.  Ivy deserves that role more than Karen based on years of experience, and the audience would understand that and root for Ivy to get her due, but feel conflicted that Karen would find herself in such a mess of a scenario on her first big lead.  I mean, I don't want a "catfight" out of this scenario at all, but if you're going to pit two women against each other in the first place, at least have it make sense and keep it interesting.  And then once they establish that Ivy and Karen are "enemies," find a way to make them tacitly allied on some level, to dimensionalize the dynamic and work them towards being friends.

I wish that Karen could maybe be given something else on Marilyn other than the supporting role and the chance to snatch the role back (judging by next week) even while she's being portrayed with a doe-eyed, Midwest innocence.  Yawn.  If only Karen stumbled onto costuming, or stage direction, or something to make her relevant in this universe as something other than an Iowa girl who's supposed to be a doormat and our underdog.  She could discover she loves directing, and begin an internship of sorts with Derek.  Or she could discover she loves writing, and work with Julia, or Tom.  Something to get this girl out of hapless territory and into interesting dynamics with other characters.  

That's the other thing I don't get about Smash - they have so many randoms who just show up and gab with our main characters, and they don't mean a single thing.  It's absurd how many times in an hour I wonder, "Who the hell is that?"  Rather than bloating out their universe with meaningless walk-ons, Smash should be building these confidantes amongst their core cast.  The most effortless scenes are the ones with Julia and Tom, or Tom and Ivy, because they have a standing dynamic we understand.  If they can build those across multiple characters, introducing conflict becomes more meaningful because there's emotional conflict in the relationships, and we can understand those feelings .

I will say that I'm intrigued by how the show has chosen to portray Ivy.  She's a driven woman who probably feared every day before Marilyn that she missed her chance, and will never get the dream she's worked so hard for.  And I liked that "The Cost of Art" introduced the idea that Ivy's insecurities mean that sometimes she wants the safety of the background instead of the glaring attention of the spotlight.  That's setting up an arc for her: she has to grow into a leading role after years in the background.  (And frankly, that's a "main character" arc right there - more so than Karen's "learning the ropes" arc.  Remind me again why the roles aren't reversed between these two?)  But regardless, that concept wasn't embedded into Ivy's development in the episode; it was just half-heartedly tacked onto a conversation with Derek that served primarily to dissolve the piss-poor jealousy angle and segue them back into a semi-stable relationship.  But the idea that Ivy isn't really a diva or an attention-grabber is what makes her compelling and relatable, and ultimately, an interesting character who will be going on a journey.

Truthfully, the strongest portion of the hour was in Tom's mini-arc with his blind date, which felt like it merited the kind of restraint Smash exercises - especially when it was constructed on some charming and understated dialogue.  "Yay, mom" was the adorable call of the evening, as both Tom and his date took a chance and were rewarded by it.  Points as well for Tom getting a chance to show off his talent to Mr. Lawyer, and for showing that Mr. Lawyer was duly impressed.  More with these two, please!  (Is it bad I also want more snarky bitching between Tom and Derek?  The cross-hallway party invitation was hilarious, from both sides.)

As for the rest of "The Cost of Art," it just exemplified how Smash needs to amp up the volume and really put the power of emotion behind their characters in order to hit their stride and keep the audience.  After all, as the mellifluous Deee-Lite taught us, the groove is in the heart.  And the heart is in the characters. 

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: C
Character: B
Musical Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Tom

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The RBI Report: "On My Way"

Ladies and gents, I must begin this review with a disclaimer.  Last night's Glee tackled a hugely sensitive issue that is very real and very haunting for many people, and in no way do I intend to demean or trivialize those difficult experiences.  I am approaching this episode review in critique of how the showrunners handled the issue and how they chose to manifest their message onscreen, through the writing, for maximum storytelling effect.  There are not easy answers when dealing with teen suicide, especially when it happens as a direct result of homophobia-derived bullying, and I do not assume any position of criticism and judgment when addressing that issue independent of how the show frames it.  

"On My Way," written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Brad Buecker 

You have to wonder what Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's reactions were when he was doled out his Glee episodes this season.  His first charge was "The First Time," which dealt with the delicate issue of teen sex.  For his second go-round, he got "On My Way," which focuses heavily on a discussion of teen suicide.  Goodness gracious.  I hope they got this guy a couple sessions of sensitivity training before he put pen to paper, but he has easily had the most difficult topics to maneuver through gracefully this season.

On a larger level, "On My Way" handled Karofsky's situation delicately and compassionately - and ultimately, realistically.  There are not words to describe how heartbreaking it was to witness Max Adler's face fall when he realized his entire world was shifting and breaking apart.  There are not words to describe how stomach-twisting it was to see him dress up in a suit, check his belt for weight-resistance, and then look up at the beam in his closet with tears in his eyes.  But in that vein, I felt it was too much.  Subtlety threaded through the earlier decision: the directorial restraint through showing Dave's face, and holding there, knowing that the audience could read the emotional all over it gave us everything we needed to know.  We didn't need to see "fag" spray-painted across his locker.  We didn't need to see people's Facebook comments.  We didn't need to see the beam in the closet.  It felt like the episode was trying too hard to legitimize to the audience why Karofsky would want to kill himself, in a logical tally, when in reality: all we really needed to see was his face, when he realizes that his world has shattered.  Max Adler is a shockingly talented actor for having such limited exposure on this show, and I wish that more faith had been put in his ability to carry this storyline using simply his acting talent.

In that sense, "Cough Syrup" didn't really work for me.  I wish that we had just had a cut to black, scene end, after seeing Dave's heartbreak.  Less is more, and I don't think the audience would have a diminished emotional reaction hearing about Karofsky's actions without seeing his process.  Especially when the process is set to a backdrop of a Blaine solo that has no narrative connection to provide any authentic meaning to the real storyline going on.  

It'd be one thing if we started with Dave and then stuck with Dave for the episode.  But we barely started with Dave, then we lost him completely for the middle of the episode, as all the other characters had profound thoughts about his condition, then forgot about him so we could be overloaded with five songs in a row that meant absolutely nothing except for the fact that they're at a competition, and then finally, we got to see Dave again when Kurt visited him in the hospital.  It reminded me too much of Santana's role in "I Kissed a Girl" - Glee touts themselves an episode that will handle directly the sensitive issues of these characters, but in reality turns them into a project for the show and its ensemble to interact with.  It feels exploitative, and false.

For example, in "On My Way," we just don't see Karofsky at all for the middle of the episode, and instead we get really strange declarations of empathy.  Quinn says she's had dark days but never considered hurting herself.  Sebastian's villainy evaporates faster than a teardrop in the desert, and Finn feels compelled to inform Rachel that he'll never be so insecure about his reputation that he'd try to kill himself.  Even Mr. Schuester sits down with everybody to tell them about the time he thought about stepping off the roof to avoid disappointing his parents.  I see what the writers are trying to do: they're trying to open a discussion on suicide, treating it as something that a lot of people struggle with, and saying that while it's not something to hide away and be ashamed of, it's also not the answer.  But by having Karofsky's singular experience reverberate through the other characters in this way, it automatically opens up a can of "is that really the same thing?" worms.  Kurt himself chastised Quinn for comparing her teenage pregnancy and "bad dye job" to being bullied as a gay teenager.  It's such a difficult topic to broach, because the reality is that people's problems are exactly as real and harrowing as they feel them to be.  And frankly, good storytelling allows the audience to understand every character's struggles as deeply personal and impacting, regardless of "how bad they are" objectively.   It's why I frowned when Kurt trivialized Quinn's previous experiences.  We saw Quinn get thrown out of her house and how much pain it caused to have everything in her life ripped away from her.  Marginalizing her experience when we actually bore witness to it felt condescending, from a storytelling perspective.  It would have been stronger to keep the over-identifying and "who has it worse" comparisons to a minimum. 

I wager to say this wouldn't have been as much of an issue if Karofsky was present and had a voice throughout the bogged-down middle where everyone was awkwardly trying to put themselves in his shoes.  And of course, the one person in the narrative who could legitimately put himself in Karofsky's shoes based on actual experience was Kurt, who was scripted to feel responsible for Karofsky's actions.  So much so that he went to the God Squad to pray for him, even though he doesn't believe in God.  This is another iffy thing for me.  Kurt wouldn't pray for his dad when his life hung in the balance.  And the idea that we found out, retroactively, that Kurt was ignoring Karofsky's calls and now feels guilty is upsetting to me.  Kurt and Karofsky's relationship is a very thin wire for the writers to walk, and it has historically been handled with a surprising amount of sophistication.  I appreciate that we don't go unreminded that Karofsky made Kurt's life miserable, and I love that Kurt is compassionate and decent, and forgives him, through empathy.  The elements that "Heart" and now "On My Way" have presented add another dimension to the Kurt/Karofsky dynamic that frustrates me.  They saddled Kurt with guilt over turning down Karofsky's romantic pursuit and didn't point out that, forgive the religious allusion, that's not his cross to bear.

Of course, if you have an overly sensitive bullshit detector with Glee, as I am cursed with, you'll notice that Karofsky's suicide attempt comes on the heels of one single scene where he's reintroduced to the audience.  He's had one other scene previously this season, in "The First Time" - but other than that, he's long been absent from our radars.  If you compare and contrast the two characters in danger in "On My Way," you'll notice that Quinn's peril comes on the heels of a complete 180 in character treatment.  Since "Hold On To Sixteen," we've had six episodes where Quinn is present in the narrative, with a reason for the audience to care about her again.  This was done to progress her arc with Rachel leading up to the car crash, where we can properly freak out about what's going on.  With Karofsky, we're not given that same opportunity.  This only fuels the argument that Karofsky was treated less like a real character and more like a plot device from the showrunners, to have their Very Special Episode where they attempt to deal with very real social issues.

And it's here where I will reiterate my disclaimer: this series of nitpicks is really addressing the show's handling of the topic, and by no means do I claim this to be beyond argument or discussion.  Ultimately, I think the right message was delivered, with the right questions asked along the way - particularly the exchange between Figgins and Emma.  "It wasn't our job to know." / "Then whose job was it?"  Heartbreaking.  I also appreciated Schue's advice to find things to look forward to, and how we got to hear what those things are for the glee kids.  And it paid off wonderfully with Kurt's scene with Karofsky at the hospital, where he asks him to imagine a happy future - and Karofsky does.  That sequence was fantastically done, with Kurt's relief that Karofsky feels enough investment to correct "lawyer" to "sports agent," capped by mutual understanding, and a commitment of support and frienship.  This was the true gem in a storyline that felt a bit overworked in all the wrong places, and I wish that the other parts of the hour fell more into alignment with this.  (Could we have gotten a little something with Karofsky and Santana?  After all, she's the only other one who knew his secret at McKinley.  And my heart panged painfully when Santana said she was looking forward to her grandmother loving her again.  If we're not going to resolve that loose thread right away, it'd be nice to remember that it existed, and this episode was a good setting for some exploration.) 

Now, to everything else.  Regionals was this episode, and frankly I couldn't bring myself to care that much about it.  The writers tried to inject some conflict into the storyline through their trusty standby - blackmail! - but it deflated quickly.  Sebastian photoshopped some n00dz (is it unprofessional to call them that?) of Finn and threatened to spill them onto the internet unless the New Directions threw the competition.  Finn and Rachel argued about what to do, because Rachel was like, "Hey, people used to tell me to get sterilized on my MySpace page, so I don't see what the big deal is," and Finn fell back on his multi-purpose, "How could you do this to me?!" argument.  (Note to writers: can we have a scenario where Finn is not the victim?  Or the hero?  Something in between, maybe, like for normal human characters who have strengths and weaknesses and agency in their own storylines without spilling it over into others'?  Just something to consider.)

But the conflict fizzled out completely because Sebastian had a change of heart upon hearing about Karofsky's attempted suicide.  Turns out Mr. Slimeball also wreaked havoc on Karofsky's self-esteem, and felt guilty.  So, n00dz begone, which was a good thing, because if nobody could get Sebastian in trouble for causing physical harm to a student in "Michael," then they sure as hell couldn't do anything about a silly 'shop job.  Even though Artie had the rulebook recited down to the letter.  (Sigh.)

The Regionals storyline continued with five songs about nothing in particular, that I think were supposed to be a little break from the episode's dark subject matter, but that really felt so tonally dissonant that I wanted them to wrap up as quickly as possible.  The Regionals numbers were treated like they were paying off some big setup, but there was nothing connected to them that would make me feel any sense of triumph at the kids' performances.  Although, I will admit that I have an involuntary contempt for the song "I Believe I Can Fly" because my sixth grade music teacher made our class learn all the words and sing it together multiple times a class period for weeks on end, and I am forever scarred by so many repetitions of a song I don't even think I cared for in the first place.  On a serious note, I do actually question the decision to include Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" in this episode, not because I don't like the song or the Troubletones (extremely false on both counts) but because it has the repeated lyrics "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," which seemed in poor taste given Karofsky's storyline.  But maybe that's just me.

Finally, let's talk about Quinn.  Ms. Fabray goes to Sue early in the episode to ask if she can have her spot back on the Cheerios.  Not really sure why the writers did this, from a character perspective.  Sure, Quinn wants to make the most of what's left of her high school career, but honestly it seemed like Cheerio Quinn was laid to rest.  But apparently Quinn wants to help the team get a Nationals Trophy, and I appreciate the idea that Glee might devote some time to putting Sue and Co. back on top without making them the nefarious villains that came with that success in the first season.  Although I confess that I'm bewildered by Sue's conversations with Quinn and Schue about her pregnancy.  Apparently the Glee writers think that pregnancy hormones really do declaw erstwhile meanies like Quinn and Sue, because Sue let Quinn back on the squad and then offered to help the glee club win Nationals.  I'm excited by this prospect, I guess?  De-villainizing the Cheerios and creating a neutral alliance between them and the glee club could be really great - especially if it means that Kurt and Mercedes rejoin the squad.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  This all kind of depends on whether or not Quinn Fabray makes it out of this episode alive.  Oh, yes.  You heard me.  CLIFFHANGER ALERT.  I'm not sure why Glee felt the need to go all hour-long drama on our asses by suspending a character's life in the balance over a seven-week hiatus, but in any case, it was of course Quinn Fabray who drew the short straw.  And if that weren't enough for a satisfying TV cliffhanger, toss in a wedding!  Yes, Rachel and Finn's wedding pushed itself up the calendar so quickly that I'm half-surprised we didn't hear that it already happened yesterday and Finn and Rachel flashbacked to it for us.  Most everybody still seems to oppose, but the lovebirds are bulldozing ahead, with a ceremony at City Hall right after Regionals.  Hiram Berry couldn't fake an epileptic seizure fast enough!

But the lynchpin turns out to be Quinn, who goes to Rachel after the competition and tells her she wants her to be happy, and that she wants to come to the wedding in support.  But she checks one thing first: she asks Rachel if she sang her solo "Here's To Us" to Finn Hudson, and to Finn Hudson only.  Hold the phone, shut everything down.  What is happening here?  What is that look on Dianna Agron's face as she hugs a Rachel who just said "yes" to her question?  What do you mean Finn and Rachel's wedding all boils down to Quinn Fabray?  Because in the end, Quinn ran home to get her bridesmaid's dress, and was holding up the entire wedding.  And the choice for Rachel literally boiled down to a) marry Finn now, or b) wait for Quinn, and potentially not marry Finn.  It looks like she's leaning towards waiting, as she furiously texts Quinn that she needs to hurry.  Quinn texts back "on my way," the episode's title, and immediately gets T-boned, on the driver's side, by a speeding truck.

Look, I know that there's Quinn/Rachel subtext.  And I know that historically, it's been just that: subtext.  But homies, this kind of construction is wandering out of subtext territory.  We're bubbling up into text now.  Even if Rachel and Quinn's proud smiles at hearing what each other is looking forward to in the future weren't enough, we have the maddeningly unexpected double-check that Rachel was singing to Finn and Finn alone.  What else are we supposed to think with that question, other than that Quinn might be hoping that Rachel was singing to her?  But at the same time, while this relationship has developed deliberately and meaningfully, especially recently, the writers have not ever suggested directly that Quinn Fabray would even want Rachel Berry to sing something to her.  So I'm left completely bewildered.  If the show is going to go there, it needs to commit.  Maybe they're hedging their bets because of the claim that this show already has "too many gay characters," and are working to slip it in under the radar of the broader public.

But frankly, they already committed themselves with the way the wedding arc was constructed.  Every step of the way, Quinn has firmly opposed the union, and told Rachel she had a bright future before her.  This of course is pay-off to the idea that Rachel supported Quinn when she was doubtful about her future prospects, and helped get her out of her self-destructive streak.  (Y'know, that "bad dye job.")  Then, Quinn finally commits to supporting her friend, only to get held up in actually attending the wedding.  This could all be potentially negligible, if it stopped there.  But the drama in the cliffhanger came from the construction that Rachel has to choose.  She rather harriedly refuses to get married without Quinn there, but is being pressured to go through with it - and only now is she starting to bend to the pressure.  She is literally told, "It's now or never."  Rachel Berry got ultimatum-ed with a choice between Finn and Quinn, on her wedding day, and she hesitates. 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is text.  And I don't mean the "on my way" message Quinn sent to Rachel as she was hit by an oncoming truck.  This love triangle has shifted and re-positioned itself, and we are suddenly at a place where Quinn double-checks who Rachel's singing to, and Rachel is forced to make a choice between Quinn and Finn.  So there's two choices.  There's Rachel's not going through with the wedding, and then feeling even more miserable knowing that Quinn got into a car wreck trying to come and support her when she was right all along.  Then there's Rachel going through with the wedding without Quinn, and feeling guilty when she realizes that the reason Quinn couldn't be there was because she got into a car wreck.  Either way, subtext is rising to the surface, and I think I need to start stocking up on tissues.

But, I have seven weeks to wait.  "On My Way" did its damnedest to cram in a lot of sensationalized material, and while there was certainly a multitude of emotion mined from the events, I still take issue with how some of it was handled, and how the episode was structured around its characters.  In terms of Karofsky's storyline, the best takeaway is this: if you feel like there's no hope in your existence, to the point where you'd consider taking your own life, please, step back and ask for help.  Contact The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  You're not alone, and there will always be someone to help you through your difficult times, no matter how dark your days seem. 

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x03 - "Enter Mr. DiMaggio"

So, I was a little harsh with Smash last week.  I want to like the show, but the writing has been a mess!  Luckily, this week took a step up from last week's fare, and my interest has been renewed, thanks to a couple smart decisions the show made.

"Enter Mr. DiMaggio" focused primarily on the next step in Marilyn's process: casting the role of Joe DiMaggio.  Enter Michael Swift, a Broadway performer who Tom and Julia worked with five years ago.  Michael's a devoted father who sings Bruno Mars in his free time, and who would also be perfect for the part.  But Julia's not so sure, and neither is Michael.  It wasn't difficult to guess what happened in their past, especially when Julia defended Ivy and Derek's tryst to an infuriated Tom.  Turns out Michael and Julia had an affair when he was working on their project, five years ago, and Julia is hesitant to have Michael in her life again.  But Eileen hires Michael, and so Julia divulges her secret to Tom so that he can help her to not "go back there."

The cool thing about this storyline is that it was set against the backdrop of Julia and Tom trying to pen the Joe/Marilyn duet.  I almost wish that we had known about Michael and Julia's history before we saw her working on the song, because it would inform us about the personal opinions she might be projecting onto the piece.  She spends a lot of time pondering what Joe and Marilyn wanted, and comes up with one line of inspiration: "Marriage is a good thing."  That could've meant something really powerful to the audience if we knew that this character was reliving an old affair in her mind.  And again, to me, part of the interesting part of Smash is seeing the creative process unfurl, and how Tom's and Julia's and Derek's personal lives affect their work.  I want to see that potential fulfilled to its full extent!

As for Michael and Julia, I'm not entirely sure what we're supposed to feel about them.  The show went out of their way to show us that Michael is a devoted father with a stable home life, and given that Julia is the steady center to this universe, I can't say I want to see either of them begin their affair again.  It was interesting, though, to see their part in the payoff to Joe and Marilyn's duet: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" played at episode's end, and reflected the couple's desire to shut out reality and construct a happy, simple world for themselves.  Ultimately though, it's a temporary escape, and the willingness to uphold what is essentially a delusion becomes tragic.  The performance was cross-cut with Julia reflecting on her marriage and affair with Michael, and the narrative connection was intriguing.  Julia and Michael's romance was constructed in the same bubble of fantasy, and it eventually burst.  Julia knows exactly how Marilyn and Joe feel, but at the same time she knows they're fools.  

This aspect of the narrative was so interesting to me I almost wish more storylines converged into the duet to provide an extra layer of meaning.  It certainly could have been done with Derek and Ivy, who seem to genuinely enjoy seeing one another, despite the fact that it's going to get complicated given their professional roles.  Kudos to Smash for allowing these two characters to actually want to date, and taking sexual favoritism off the table.  Good choice!  It's far more interesting when real feelings are involved.  I only wish we got to that moment of security a little faster, so that we could see Derek and Ivy start to construct their fantasy bubble for themselves.  Then, during the "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" duet, we could maybe get some foreshadowing of the problems they're going to face.  And points further if they're willing to hit them head-on, and if we're wanting them to make it through!  After all, Derek and Ivy are basically Michael and Julia, in their earliest incarnations, and I wish that we got a stronger line drawn between those parallels.  Or, maybe like Michael and Julia, maybe Derek and Ivy are doomed.  Either way, they're going to face a lot of obstacles if they plan on dating through the production.

Meanwhile, as Marilyn the Musical searched for its Joe, Eileen found herself struggling to secure investors for the show.  It's blatantly put forth that her contacts won't back her without Jerry, and even though Jerry is trying to team up with her again, Eileen's digging her heels in and refusing the help.  I can't decide what I'd like to see more out of this storyline.  On the one hand, it amuses me that every conversation between Eileen and Jerry results in Eileen tossing her drink in Jerry's face.  Plus, Jerry's jealousy is annoying, and the obvious lack of faith the investors have in Eileen is so patronizing I want to vomit.  Putting all those together, I'd like to see Eileen step up and get the money and put on the show herself and basically kick everyone's asses.  On the other hand, I like the idea of seeing Eileen and Jerry resuming their business partnership without restarting their relationship - it could be interesting.  Either way, there's plenty of drama to mine, and hopefully will amount to another couple Manhattans in Jerry's face.

The financial pressure is also put on Karen, who is now in the ensemble for the workshop, and facing a situation that not only sucks, emotionally, but that will also put a hurting on her wallet.  Dev offers to support her, but she's not sure she's ready for that, and so she returns home to Iowa for a weekend to take a break from both her Broadway fantasy and reality.  (Oh hey, is that another thematic connection we could've built on?  Perhaps.  It's a stretch, but something could've been done; sure.)  In the end, her dad gives her a check to extend her dreams, and hopefully something good will come of her willingness to accept a part in the ensemble of a workshop that's not even guaranteed the stage.

I'm not sure where Smash is taking Karen, but it'd be nice if they could find something that's not full-throttle moping about rejection but also far from throwing a wrench in Marilyn's production.  Granted, I don't know exactly what that could be, but hopefully the writers will find something for Karen to do that allows us to see her talent, and keeps her engaging in the storylines.  I will say, Katharine McPhee performed the hell out of "Redneck Woman," and I wish that we'd seen that Karen at some point in the first two episodes.  That's a lady who can carry a Broadway show!  Spunk, charm, and a powerhouse vocal?  Seeing is believing, and damn, girl, I saw it.

Finally, I have to talk about Ellis.  I say this with immense reluctance, because I'm pretty sure that if I could dropkick any character off of a TV show's roster, it would be this guy.  Seriously.  Why is he the source of all this conflict?  He's an assistant!  He has no power in this universe!  Why is he written to have all this power?  It makes me hate him.  I get that there's supposed to be conflict, and that sometimes an audience loves to hate a villain, but I don't think this is a suitable manifestation of either of those points.  Conflict should not be boomeranging in from an outside presence who should legitimately have nothing to do with the main decisions being made by main characters.  I'd much rather see conflict that arises naturally through complicated relationships and difficult decisions, not as a result of some asshole twerp stealing Julia's notebook for kicks and plotting some sort of blackmail against her because he eavesdrops on everything.  Ugh.  Go away, Ellis!  No one likes this guy.  Give me my conflict elsewhere, please.

Unfortunately, it looks like Ellis has some tricks up his sleeve, and I'm going to scoff annoyedly at every turn.  But, Smash presented a third episode that was solid and entertaining, with a handful of good choices for these characters that make it much easier to stay engaged in their storylines.  I'm glad!  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to "Redneck Woman" a few more times and try not to think about Ellis' existence on this show. 

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Character: B
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Karen

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TV Report Card: Cougar Town 3x01 - "Ain't Love Strange"

Cougar Town is back, ladies and gentlemen!  With exactly as many cougars as they had before their eight-month hiatus: zero.  (Unless you count Jules and Laurie's attraction to dirty long hairs.)  No, Cougar Town is the best show on television that you're not watching, complete with a terrible name that's the reason you're not watching and the reason that the creators of Cougar Town include a self-deprecating disclaimer about it on every title card.  We all know the title sucks, so let's just move on and enjoy the show, yes?

Season Three began with "Ain't Love Strange," and after I finished stress-crying from the joy of the show returning to my life, I could actually cry at the episode itself!  That's right, I got a little teary-eyed at the end.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  "Ain't Love Strange" reintroduced the gang for anybody who may not be in the know: these are adults who sit around and drink all the time.  So much so that Jules, Courteney Cox's character, wants to change their habits... by inventing wine necklaces so that they have free use of their hands.  Immediately, Cougar Town wasn't missing a beat.

The main storyline of the hour was in the fallout from Grayson's suggestion that Jules is predictable.  Of course, everyone else backs up this claim, with a hilarious series of pantomimes, that results in Grayson in the doghouse and Laurie and Ellie getting off scot-free.  Jules claims to want surprise in her life, but Grayson has her (slightly longer) morning routine memorized to a tee, which she worries makes her boring.  Where most shows would fall easily into a well-worn trap of dwelling on this conflict through arguments, or throwing out punchline after punchline, Cougar Town instead supplies kooky and original gags that illustrate the idea without being formulaic.  Funnily enough, the show really does zag when you think it'll zig, and it keeps the pace quick and the comedy fresh.

Even throwaway jokes circle back around with new meaning - like Jules trying out her new one-two-punch of sneezing followed by a cute noise.  We saw it happen twice without consequence, but the third time it got her caught by the police (or Grayson pretending to be the police, rather).  Jules' mouthguard made it into the Slightly Longer Morning Routine Song twice, and the third time we saw it, she was using it as leverage in an argument with Grayson, to lighten the tone of the scene.  Say, is this also the Comedy Rule of Threes?  Damn, Cougar Town, it's like you're professionals or something!

The second storyline in "Ain't Love Strange" went to Ellie and Andy, and the struggle for them to deal with the fact that they're apparently raising a Devil Baby.  Stan, who grew a crap-ton since we last saw him, terrorizes his parents, and apparently wanders the neighborhood to smash things with a hammer when he gets angry.  Not gonna lie, I love that the show treated Stan kind of like a horror villain - we didn't really see him take action, but we saw him carrying a hammer, and we saw the slashed pillows, and the demon artwork on the fridge... making Ellie and Andy's real terror all the funnier.  Plus, a baby walking around with a hammer is funny.  I mean, when it's not real.

Laurie intersected with Ellie and Andy's storyline, first to fuel their fears, in classic Laurie style, then to bond with Stan and cause Ellie to worry that Stan could end up just like Laurie.  (It bears stating that Laurie is currently wearing an ankle bracelet after she punctured some lady's eardrum during a spiritual/sexual retreat gone wrong.  Eat Pray Tampa, indeed.)  But then the show smartly switched gears, as it does, and gave Laurie and Ellie a genuine scene to resolve the storyline: Laurie assured Ellie that Stan won't turn out like her, because he has two amazing parents, whereas Laurie had a lot of bum stepdads.  See, just because Ellie isn't always a lovely person, and Laurie is flirting dangerously with a "third strike" from the law, doesn't mean that they can't bond and be genuine friends.

The final storyline in "Ain't Love Strange" belonged to Travis and Bobby, whose father-son storylines get stronger and stronger.  It'd be easy to mine Bobby's shortcomings as a parent, and give the bulk of that angst to Travis.  But Cougar Town does the reverse, which is a smart move: Bobby is written as completely aware of his self-perceived failures as a parent, and worries that Travis thinks he doesn't owe his dad anything.  See, Bobby needs Travis to take in his dog (who, naturally, is named Dog Travis) and goes through the trouble to try and convince him, instead of just asking - because he's afraid Travis will say no.  Inversing these character's emotions works because it's unexpected, and defies a lot of comedy traditions: Bobby gets to be self-aware, which he usually is not, and Travis gets to be respectful of his dad through action, thereby allowing for some wiggle room on the jokes he can make during the rest of the episode.

Of course, Bobby and Travis' dilemma got the same type of Cougar Town treatment, with the best payoff in Travis' college-house green screen providing the rainy backdrop to the father and son reunion.  Andy would pay $12 to see that, and so would I!  There was also, of course, the previous incarnation of green-screening: Andy and Bobby holding hands and pretending to be flying while they worked out the real reasons that Bobby didn't want to ask Travis to take the dog.  Here, it was touching to see absurdism mixed with genuine emotions in order to balance out what could be saccharine.  Not only that, but the jokes weren't embedded in Bobby and Travis' flawed relationship, but rather in how the characters negotiated that like real human beings who care about one another.  It works out to be funnier, and more touching at the same time - a win-win!

At the end of the hour, Jules' attempts to precisionally gain revengenceance on her greasy-haired nemeses resulted in a true surprise: turns out Grayson, knowing full well how Jules would react to every step of the skater boys feud, had staged the whole scenario so he could propose to his girlfriend in the only fairy tale setting that involves toilet paper.  I adored the simplicity of his proposal, and I loved as well that Jules prefaced her answer with, "I'm gonna say yes, so don't get nervous."  And don't worry, Jules, you're a crazy person - you could never be boring.  (This is of course proven by the episode's tag, which featured Grayson gamely going along with the green screen recreation of his proposal in full romance-novel costume set against the beautifully digital backdrop of the Swiss Alps.  I love that Grayson goes along with Jules' crazy just as much as he pokes fun of her for it, and that it's clear he loves that about her.  Smart relationship plotting, Bill Lawrence.  Bring on the wedding!)

So, Cougar Town is back in our lives, with its trademark absurdism, humanity, and fantastic running jokes.  ABC did us a solid by bringing it back earlier than intended, but it's hard to believe that it can retain any audience from Last Man Standing, which doesn't seem congruent to anything Cougar Town fans would watch.  But I have hope!  Revengeance will be mine!  ...or something.  Regardless, you should be watching this show, no matter what name is on the title card.

The Best Jokes...
  • The repeated assessment of what the gang "should" be - everybody minus Bobby and Laurie, then just Ellie and Julie, then Ellie deciding it should just be Ellie.
  • That damn green screen.  So many good jokes out of that one piece.
  • "Oh no, it's the fuzz!"
  • Seeing the wine necklaces a second time in the episode.
  • Bobby admitting that he's susceptible to picking up other people's emotions, which Travis immediately picks up on and tries to get Bobby to leave by yawning and claiming he's really tired.  Hilariously, Bobby starts to yawn uncontrollably.
  • Sneezing with a cute noise tacked on the end... it's advised by Jules' therapist!  (Don't expect her to tell him the truth all the time, though.)
  •  The entirety of Laurie's scene with Andy and Laurie about Stan's fridge artwork.  Seriously.  Every little part of it.

The RBI Report: "Heart"

Friends, far and wide: what year is it?  Is it 2009?  The early months of 2010, even?  Because I have not enjoyed an episode of Glee this much in many, many moons.  This is, by far, the best episode of Season 3.  And frankly, it's better than 90% of Season 2 as well.  This is an episode firing on all cylinders when I wasn't even sure there was an engine left in the car.  I am flabbergasted.  And happy that I don't have to be such a grumpster, for once.

"Heart," written by Ali Adler, directed by Brad Falchuk.

The biggest thing that "Heart" had going for it was the strongest and most genuine sense of ensemble this show has been able to display with its ever-growing, ne'er-shrinking cast of characters.  There were six - count 'em, six - story threads that wove together without being too plotted or theme-y, that progressed naturally and entertainingly, with interesting conflict and relatable emotions.  At this point, what more could we want?

The episode's frame came quickly and easily.  It's all about love, baby!  And this year, love at McKinley gets the Sugar Motta treatment - aka, it's rolled in money and glitter and waiting for you under your chair.  (Unless you're Artie, in which case it's hidden in some other location nearby.)  Putting Sugar as the episode's instigator was a great decision, because it allowed for her to be involved and true to her character, but it didn't force her on a super-serious character arc, which we can save for characters that we're already emotionally invested with.  Sugar got to be the comic relief, where she shines, and plus - she solved a huge problem lurking behind all of Glee's glitzy performances: how are they paying for all this?  Well, Sugar's got a rich dad and throws money around like nobody's business.  Problem solved!  No more bake sales for Regionals - plus, we get a Breadstix turned into the Sugar Shack, providing a Valentine's Day party that awaits us at episode's end!

But, Sugar wasn't just a plot device - she did get a fun and silly storyline where she had to decide who's going to take her to her own soirée.  Artie and Rory both stepped up to woo her, and this mini-thread was given the right amount of screentime.  Better yet, Ali and Brad employed the most magical filmmaking tool, and to great effect: a montage!  Mike and Tina serenaded us with a damn adorable version of "L-O-V-E" while we witnessed Rory and Artie's efforts to win over Sugar with confetti and puppies.  Doubled-up, it was cute, charming, and a nice bit of Valentine's Day fluff.  (Plus, how great did Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr. sound on that song?)

Of course, there also was some good serenading - Artie turned out a silky smooth performance of "Let Me Love You," and Rory crooned a melancholy version of "Home" to thank the glee club for being so hospitable during his year abroad.  Turns out his visa expires at the end of this school year, and so he's going to return to Ireland.  This tips the scales in his favor with Sugar, because she feels worse for him than she does for Artie, and thus Rory got the V-Day dance at the Sugar Shack.  Something tells me he might have been lying about his departure, but honestly I'm not terribly fussed with the particulars of this storyline.  Sugar is great because she's hardly connected to reality in any way, so truly: anything goes.  Bring on the absurdity!

We got an extra dose of absurd this week with, finally, the introduction of Rachel's dads into the fold.  Welcome, Fathers Berry!  We've been waiting for you.  Leroy and Hiram showed up to offer their full and unconditional support of Finn and Rachel's engagement, and encouraged them to shout their love to the rooftops.  These characters were so delightful to see, especially when they share the same manic showmanship as their daughter.  Of course the Berries would invite the Hudson-Hummels over to sing for them at the piano.  Of course. Expectations were met and exceeded with the cadence of these characters.

I confess though, during the first few scenes with Rachel's dads, I wasn't sure where we were headed.  They ran long, and didn't really contain much other than Leroy and Hiram being adorably blathering over their kid's happiness.  There seemed to be little point to their inclusion.  But the conflict was dropped in a reveal!  In an effort to deter Finn and Rachel's pending marriage with the realism of relationships, they schemed with Burt and Carole to force Finn and Rachel into each other's evening routines.  For Finn, this means waiting around while Rachel conducts an evening regimen that lasts longer than the entirety of Gone With the Wind.  For Rachel, this means having to know that your fiancé is taking a dump in your bathroom.

Somehow, a huge fight escalates out of this tiny and ridiculous (and kind of hilarious) conflict, and suddenly it's clear: with one champagne clink, we see that the Elder Berries are behind this ruse.  Giggle!  Turns out Hiram and Leroy are at-home members of the Support Group to Prevent Finchel Marriage, and the most conniving ones at that.  (Somehow I think Quinn and Kurt would be impressed, and proud.)  But they echoed what everyone else is voicing: that Finn and Rachel are too young and immature to get married right now, no matter how much they think they love one another.  Rachel and Finn are committed to this runaway train engagement, though, and survived their first fight, more devoted than ever.  The dads' sneaky plan did nothing, and Finn and Rachel are now planning to get married in May.  And not only that, but Rachel's officially down two potential bridesmaids in Kurt and Quinn!  Dammit!  Can nothing go right?!  (I kid.)

The most interesting storyline of the night, though, goes to the intersection between the "God Squad," the New Kid, and Santana's fight for her rights.  Automatically, doesn't that sound like the greatest thing ever?  And truthfully, it kind of was.  Sure, introducing an out-of-nowhere Christian club could feel a little like a plot device.  But the discussion it sparked was well worth any clunky establishing.  Not only that, but it fueled three different displays of excellent character development, so there is absolutely no complaining from this party.

The God Squad consists of Mercedes, Sam, and Quinn, all characters that we've previously known to be church-going, and a new kid, Joe -  played by the Glee Project winner Samuel Larsen.  Introducing a Christian character on Glee is dangerous territory.  It's easy to write a character that's so conservative they become an exaggeration, someone akin to Quinn's original rendering, way back when.  But Joe is already played against type: he has dreads, a nose ring, and could have easily been cast as "the bad boy."  So kudos for originality!

The four kids decide to sell singing Valentines at school, and successfully deliver Finn's to Rachel with a solid rendition of "Stereo Hearts."  Santana, witnessing this, puts a plan into effect.  See, what with Valentine's Day and all, she and Brittany tried to smooch in the hallways, only to get reprimanded by Principal Figgins for inappropriate PDA.  Obviously, the real issue is not the affection, but the affection between two female students, and Santana calls Figgins out on the bullshit double standard.  So when the Christian group offers to sing Valentine's messages, Santana puts tolerance to the test: will the God Squad sing a romantic song for a same-sex relationship?

Essentially, this is a huge, real-life, hits-close-to-home topic for many people, shrunk down to fit a high school environment.  It delineates the conflict of Christianity vs. Homosexuality, using characters whose points of view we understand, without any heavy-handed messages where the kids learn a Very Important Lesson.  Yet, the point is clear.  Quinn, Mercedes, and Sam all have no issues with it, having been in the glee club's culture of tolerance for so long.  Joe is the wild card, and we're not sure what he'll say - after all, he thinks he's never met a gay person.  Truthfully, the message of the storyline lies with Quinn, someone who's had to look at her religion and scrutinize her relationship with it during difficult times in her life.  She knows her stuff, and not only points out that the Bible says nothing about gay people (or about slavery being an abomination) but that to her, being a true Christian means looking at hard questions and really thinking about the truths.

Quinn, thus, is the first person to receive benevolent character treatment by this storyline.  She not only speaks her mind, but supports Santana, who (lest we forget) is her oldest friend at McKinley.  It was a rewarding and touching choice to give the bulk of the Santana-Brittany valentine song to Quinn, who at some point had to negotiate her religion and her best friends' feelings - and has always proven to be at least quietly supportive.  So, witnessing that support take shape into an action was a wonderful payoff to the original Cheerios' relationship.  Maybe we'll get more: Quinn's treatment by the writers this season has done a complete 180, and I couldn't be happier.

Santana was the second character to get the boon of the God Squad storyline, in that she stood up for her beliefs, called out an authority figure on his bias, and didn't back down from showing the world she loves Brittany.  This is a far cry from the girl who was scared of the looks and the talks, and although it's been an inconsistent and bumpy ride from then to now, it's still rewarding to see Santana's change manifested so strongly.  This is the girl we know and love, and I would much rather see commentary on gay teenagers with this message rather than gay panic and social ostracization (especially when the latter is so poorly handled).  Plus, we finally got Brittana's first onscreen kisses, with two bookending their story arc: a quick peck to demonstrate that they're not all over each other like Finn and Rachel (hee) and a meaningful kiss at the Valentine's Day party.  I never thought I'd say this, but it was well worth the wait.

Lastly, Mercedes was the third beneficiary of the God Squad Holy Trinity, with the realization that cheating on Shane with Sam didn't align with what kind of person she wants to be.  This was slyly included as a consequence of Quinn's definition of a "true Christian," but Mercedes' epiphany was not overtly religious - she simply was the first character on this show to not only experience remorse for cheating, but also to do something about it.  She told Sam she couldn't be with him.  And not only that, but she confessed to Shane, and he was heartbroken.  There are already a few things at work here that are excellent choices, but I was mainly thrilled that no one shamed Mercedes for her transgression.  We didn't see Shane yell at her.  We didn't see Sam yell at her.  I was worried for a moment when Sam wordlessly walked away to leave Mercedes to her tears, but I think his part in the performance of "I Will Always Love You" clarifies Sam's emotions.  Because goodness, how heartwrenching were Chord Overstreet's reaction shots?  The idea that he understands Mercedes' emotions, but at the same time he's clearly heartbroken by the turn of events... ugh, I couldn't handle that face.  Throw in Amber Riley's bone-chilling performance of the late Whitney Houston's classic, and the only outcome is soaking through a box of tissues.

(Can I just say as well that I loved the minor character detail of Mercedes taking a leadership position in the God Squad?  She had turned out to be a damn fine leader in the Troubletones, and I love that this gets to be an actual character trait for our girl.  Go Mercedes!)

The final thread in tonight's episode dealt with Kurt, and paid off in a much larger way than anyone could have guessed.  Kurt started receiving messages from a secret admirer, and due to Blaine's continued recovery from eye surgery, we all assumed they were offscreen gifts from Blaine.  Cute, right?  But the writers threw us for a loop, and Kurt's admirer was revealed to be Dave Karofsky, who's finally come to terms with not only his sexuality, but also his feelings for Kurt.  I'm unsure yet what path this storyline is going to take, but it was handled well within the episode - Kurt said all the right things to Karofsky and in all the right ways, and it was, again, rewarding to see these two's evolving dynamic, after all they've been through together.  I'm guessing that whoever that Nick guy is, he's not good news for Karofsky keeping his sexuality a secret, and we'll see where this goes from here.

But even with all this conflict, everyone convened for Sugar's Valentine's Day extravaganza, and we got to see not only the wrap-ups for most of the characters, but also the return of Blaine, who remembered to bring his glittery heart eyepatch.  Phew!  Then, "Heart" ended with the one-two punch of "Cherish" and "Love Shack," the latter of which was so much more fun than I could have ever envisioned.

In all, that seemed to be the theme of the night: Ali Adler and Brad Falchuk assembled a damn solid episode that exceeded every expectation I could have ever had.  "Heart" demonstrated a fine ensemble, and allowed its characters interesting conflict, genuine moments of development, and some damn good comedy on top of that.  (Even besides Sugar, Hiram, and Leroy, we got some great bits of humor from all parties.  Puck still proves to be one of the best go-to guys for background bits, and Sam and Mercedes' debate about which apostle could be gay had me in stitches.  Imagine what those two talk about all the time - it's wonderful.)  Happy Valentine's Day, indeed!  I'm feeling the love.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A
Dialogue: A
Plot: A
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Ali Adler (heyo!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x02 - "The Callback"

Previously, I had high hopes for Smash.  The Pilot held a lot of promise, despite some iffy issues in storytelling that I'd hoped they would clear up.  "The Callback," the show's second offering, unfortunately doesn't do much to polish up the shortcomings from the Pilot - and combined with the dip in ratings from Week 1 to Week 2, I'm getting nervous for the future of Smash.  

The main problems Smash has boil down into writing for their characters, and their conflicts, which, when you add them up, equals most of the storytelling in an hour of television.  "The Callback," for example, was intended to finish the casting process for Marilyn, with the final decision about the lead.  Would it be Ivy, or Karen?  It makes sense, then, to give Ivy and Karen the biggest plotlines in the episode - give them the spotlight!  Put them front and center!  Make us invest in these ladies and their struggles!  But every glimpse into what it was like for Ivy and Karen was fleeting, and one-dimensional.  Poor Ivy was saddled with the "sleeps with the director" plotline that Karen side-stepped last week, and Karen was not much better off with the "stood up boyfriend because of rehearsal" trope.  It would be one thing if these storylines were well-supported... but they weren't.  

A much stronger choice for these characters would have been to look at their characteristics, and manifest story out of those.  And frankly, those characteristics are already on the table, thanks to Smash's endless onscreen analysis of what makes each woman right and wrong for the part.  Karen is inexperienced and innocent.  So, give her a storyline where her innocence gets her into trouble, or where it benefits her.  Ivy has experience, but she's trying too hard.  So, she should have a storyline where her perfectionism and experience pays off, or is her downfall.  Without connecting Karen and Ivy's strengths and weaknesses into the plot, Smash is forcing the conflict to stretch out across too many scenes, and it's not building at all - it's just breaking.  We see Ivy reading a Marilyn book.  We see her practicing.  We see how badly she wants it, but we don't feel it.  We see Karen struggle with a scene.  We see Karen struggle with dancing.  And we all hear, over and over, the exact same thing: Ivy's experienced, but Karen could be a star!  We get it.  Either use it as a starting point to give us more information that changes our opinion, or wrap it up more quickly.

It's frustrating, because as a result, we're not sure what the writers are trying to do with these characters, and it's easy to check out from caring about them.  What are we expecting will happen to Karen, now that the part isn't hers?  What are we supposed to think about Ivy sleeping with Derek?  (We know nothing about the consequences of that action, or the intentions behind it, frankly.)  Should we be worried that Eileen can't handle the business side of producing?  Should I wonder if choosing Ivy was the wrong decision?  It's not enough for the writers to just lay their plot out in sequence; they have to help the audience engage with the material - which is most easily done by establishing character empathy and character intentions.

For example, part of "The Callback" dealt with Julia's family life.  Before I say anything, let me preface: Julia is the character I care about most, given what Smash has presented about her.  This is because I know what Julia wants: she wants to write a musical, and she wants to adopt a baby.  Boom!  Clear objectives, right from the beginning.  Julia's husband is not so clearly defined.  Last episode, he griped at Julia for working on a musical when they're supposed to be pursuing the adoption process.  This episode, he balks at the long timeline, tells Julia he doesn't want to continue with the process, and that he wants to go back to teaching.  But then he magically shows up to hear Julia's letter to her daughter's birth mother, and changes his mind.  This guy is all over the place, and we're not with him at all.  It's even more poorly constructed when their son, whom we hardly know, bursts onto the scene to yell at Julia about how badly he wanted a sibling.  As an audience, we had no idea either of these characters were feeling these things until it was time to barf them into a plot point.  It's cheap!  As an audience, we need to see that set up.  Clear intentions make for clearer conflict - and clearer resolution.  How hard would it be to see Frank's point of view before he just lurks in the doorway like a creeper and resolves the conflict?  It feels false, because we're not with his character at all.

Poor conflict was also found in Dev and Karen's storyline, wherein Karen stood up Dev at an important business dinner.  There are several things wobbly about this endeavor, most of which can be chalked up to logic more than anything else.  Firstly, this is 2012.  I'm not sure why all the wives and girlfriends have to go along on a business dinner like it's a night out with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Secondly, Karen knew what she was doing, and her phone was sticking right out the top of her bag.  Really?  She's that meek around the director that she won't take a second to fire off a text?  I'm not buying it.  (And yes, this is technically an area where Karen's "innocence" could be incorporated into plot, but it wasn't.  And last week, she was on Derek's lap in just a button-down, so I'm leaning towards the 'Karen can take care of herself' verdict.)  Not only that, but I found it ridiculous that Dev couldn't recover from his girlfriend's absence, unless he was worried about her physical safety - in which case, it should have been mentioned.  The amount of problems this paper-thin conflict created was, frankly, underwhelming.  Not only that, but signs seem to be pointing to Dev and Karen's demise in favor of whatever "sexual tension" she may have with Derek, which... well.  Consider me underwhelmed with that development, at least from this place in the narrative so far.

There was one conflict that held promise - but it rose and fell in the course of one scene.  Turns out Derek was being pursued to helm the My Fair Lady project, which was obliquely referenced as well in the Pilot.  At the end of "The Callback," Derek reveals to Eileen that he was asked to do My Fair Lady, but he turned it down.  Mr. Grumpy Director chose to do Marilyn!  How great is that?  But it wasn't a storyline at all - it was barely mentioned!  Truthfully, it should have been the episode's third major plotline.  It would've allowed Ivy, Karen, and Derek to take centerstage as the main trio working through callbacks, and given Derek a choice to make, which in turn would let us understand him as a character.  This is a guy who hates one of our mains (Tom) and who tried to sleep with both of his leads.  Not only that, but he was approaching Marilyn like a business decision.  So to see him work on the show all episode, with a decision to make about whether or not he would stick with it, would be a nice little mini-arc for that character.  We could see him enjoying himself, and the choice to stay with Marilyn would tell us that Derek does indeed care about the project.  It would also cement a relationship between Derek and Ivy and Karen better than any private lesson could.

But unfortunately, Derek is left like most of the other parts of this ensemble: with offscreen objectives, who renders slightly two-dimensional because of the way the writers are choosing to write these characters into their conflicts.  It's frustrating, because Smash has the potential to be dazzling, fun, and cathartic - these characters are clearly talented, have the potential for interesting working and personal relationships, and ultimately do have dreams.  But they're not being scaled down into scene-to-scene objectives to help us stick with them through their struggles.  And I have a feeling that unless Smash can get us engaged with their characters' objectives and demonstrate meatier conflict, it'll be seeing more and more audience members tuning out.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: C
Plot: C
Character: C
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Julia

Monday, February 13, 2012

10 Things: the 2012 Grammy Performances

My relationship with the music industry is about an inch deep and a mile wide, so I don't usually get excited about the Grammy awards.  But, after the untimely passing of Whitney Houston, I sat down for the show just to see Jennifer Hudson's tribute - and got sucked into the entire show.

Really, the Grammys aren't truly an awards show.  Yes, they hand out awards, but at essence: they are the coolest concert you could possibly go to in the current year.  They stage performance after performance, that compile old acts and new, honoring music history as well as indulging in the jams that fancy today's populace.  For that reason, they are actually entertaining to watch, and I found myself glad I tuned in.  So, let's talk ten of the acts from last night:

I. Jennifer Hudson honoring Whitney Houston
This was the reason I was there, and it did not disappoint.  It was a touching tribute by one of the only women today who can rival Whitney's vocals - but the best part about it was that she didn't try and imitate Ms. Houston in the slightest.  Instead, every note resonated simply, and hung heavy in the air with gravitas.  Even Whitney's big vocal moments translated to a gravelly crying out of pain, and watching Jennifer Hudson summon all her resolve to not break down on stage was heartbreaking.  This was basically a perfect tribute, and kudos to J. Hud for not only the vocal but for also making it through without crying.  A+ 

II. Coldplay and Rihanna
When you hear that Coldplay and Rihanna are teaming up, it's an immediate hook, line, and sinker.  These are two different genres, two different kinds of musicians - what sort of amazing synthesis are they going to create?  Well, they only overlapped a little with a stripped-down performance of "Princess of China," and it all kind of blew away anyways with Rihanna tearing up "We Found Love."  It still boggles my mind how anthemic that song is, and I'm pretty sure you could've powered the Staples Center on the amount of electricity the performance generated.  As for Coldplay, they delivered a predictable piece of sublime melancholy, and I confess that my attention wandered.  B+

III. Nicki Minaj and the exorcism of Roman
Oh, Nicki.  This, of course, is the one everyone's talking about - and not in a good way.  Bogged down with overt Catholic symbolism and an unnecessary narrative, "Roman Holiday" left a sour taste in most people's mouths, and I can't say I'm not one of them.  Obvious comparisons between this inflated showmanship with Adele's stripped-down tour de force don't help the matter.  I love Nicki, but I love her for her talent first - especially when she's such a rarity in the music industry.  She's a successful lady rapper!  I wish she had just gone up there and torn a song apart the way she's clearly capable of, without any of the controversial distractions.  Curse you, Roman!  D 

IV. Glen Campbell and "Rhinestone Cowboy" 
This performance came on the heels of the Band Perry and Blake Shelton paying homage to the legendary Glen Campbell, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and dedicated himself to living out the rest of his days performing for as long as he can.  It wasn't hard to forgo tissues, though, seeing how joyful a performance "Rhinestone Cowboy" was.  Perhaps the best tribute was seeing everyone onstage singing along, because they loved the song and knew all the words.  A 

V. Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean
First things first: I love this duet!  It's a nice break from the anthemic girl power tracks that load Kelly Clarkson's album (although I love those too) and even better to hear Kelly's voice showcased in a different genre.  Confining her to pop/rock is a disservice to her abilities!  That being said, the sound guys had it in for this one, as Kelly's mic messed up at the beginning, and Jason Aldean's cut out completely during the climax of the song.   Even despite that, the harmonies alone were worth the listen.  Also, Jason Aldean's hat was intenseB+

VI. Adele's return
This, alongside the Whitney tribute, was what everyone was waiting for.  We all knew the story: Adele had to be silenced earlier this year and have surgery to remove a benign but hemorrhaging polyp on her vocal chords.  And the 2012 Grammys would be her first live performance since the successful surgery.  Oh, the anticipation!  In the end, she delivered a fantastic rendition of "Rolling in the Deep," and even though she seemed hesitant to strain herself at the start, she loosened up towards the end, and everyone in the audience gave a collective sigh of relief that the most compelling voice to emerge in recent history wouldn't be deprived a future.  (They threw in six Grammys for good measure.)  A+

VII. Chris Brown did something presumably less offensive than physical abuse
Yeah, I'm including him just to make the point that I didn't watch it.  Putting Chris Brown onstage for people to cheer for him is just not something I want to witness, or support.  So, I turned it to Rush Hour 3 and chuckled at Chris Tucker for a few minutes.  F    

VIII. Katy Perry
Katy Perry doubled up with two songs last night: "E.T." and "Part of Me."  Vocally, she sounded great, and I loved that she put two of her songs into the same piece, but I didn't really understand what the intention was with the set performance.  It attempted to be pyrotechnic, but stripped down, but with backup dancers, but with elaborate staging - and somehow didn't really achieve a cohesive version of any of those things.  Mostly, it left me confused.  Maybe singing two songs was therefore both the strength and weakness of this attempt.  C

IX. Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt honoring Etta James
This is what I love to see at the Grammys: two artists from different backgrounds coming together in one single performance.  Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt did a solid tribute to Etta James, equipped only with one piano, one guitar, and two great voices.  "Sunday Kind of Love" only sounds better when Etta's singing it, and that's how it should have been.  A

X. Bruno Mars
I confess, I'm not the biggest fan of Bruno Mars.  It's not that I don't like, I just don't really listen.  So I wasn't entirely sure what to expect with him last night.  But damn, did that man put on a show!  With a James Brown pompadour and moves like Elvis, his performance jump-started the Grammys and provided a great contemporary performance that tipped a hat to the past, showed off the present, and most of all - didn't overwork itself trying to show up Lady Gaga.  Of course, I couldn't tell you for the life of me what song Bruno sang, but I am happy to report that I was completely entertained for the duration of it.  A

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