Monday, March 26, 2012

The Retro RBI Report: "Preggers"

Here's the truth: in reality, "Preggers" is what's kept me from continuing the Retro RBI Report.  Because in my head, I love "Preggers."  "Preggers," as I have enshrined it in my memory, represents the best Glee has ever been, with character moments that take precedence over plot device or song choice, and enough humor and heart to charm even the grumpiest viewer into loving this underdog of a show.  

Of course, "Preggers" is only one in a handful of episodes that stir such rhapsodizing in the hearts of Glee's more embittered fans, and as I am one of them, and would like to keep the memory of simpler and happier times intact, I did not relish watching "Preggers" again with a critical eye.  What if the cynicism of my latter Glee days tarnished what I had previously thought one of the show's best?  So I did the mature and rational thing: I avoided rewatching it completely.  

But the day has come for me to yank my ostrich head out of the sand and really see if "Preggers" stands the test of time, or if it only looks good now by comparison.  

"Preggers," written and directed by Brad Falchuk.

You can stop holding your breath: "Preggers" still holds water.  (Ew.)  But I will say that after watching it, I did take it off the pedestal - or at least demoted it to a less lofty one.  It's not that "Preggers" is at all bad, but I definitely noticed that some complaints I've made with the show these days could actually be made about "Preggers" as well - especially knowing how the chips have fallen in episodes since.

What "Preggers" does considerably well with is the intersection of its storylines - and how they're delineated.  There are five main thoroughfares charting through the episode, and they're balanced nicely between character-based motivation and character-based consequence.  Almost all of them are continuations of previously-established storylines and relationships, or introduced as the beginning of a longer arc - only one rises and falls within the course of the episode.

As a result, I was astonished by the tempered pacing in "Preggers."  These days when I watch an episode of Glee, it feels a little bit like a roller coaster that might run off its tracks - complete with the exhilarating sense of bewilderment and nausea and general overstimulation.  But "Preggers" charts steadily and surely, and gave its characters moments to breathe, and express themselves, and moments for the audience to really understand them.  And you'd be shocked these days to discover a Glee episode with only one musical number - "Preggers" offers only "Taking Chances," and it's swift, understated, and over before you know it.  This is an episode that puts effort into not only delineating its characters but also purposefully crossing their paths, and for that, it easily remains one of the best that Glee's ever done. 

The one storyline that rises and falls within "Preggers" is best representative of the episode as a whole, despite the title: Kurt Hummel joins the football team.  It came in a roundabout way, thanks to a pre-daffy Brittany whose lucidity, I'm annoyed to say, felt jarring.  (This should not be, current writers!)  But how else to explain a basement homage to BeyoncĂ©, complete with sequins and unitards, than to say that you're practicing for football?  (Okay, sure, it's a stretch for Burt to believe that, but who cares?  This is really not a problem, considering the results of this storyline.)  So, knowing that Burt wants to attend a game, Kurt has to actually try out for the football team and earn his place as kicker.

There are many wonderful things about this storyline, and dammit, I'm going to try and talk my way through all of them.  First, it allows us to know Kurt beyond his original stereotype.  Previously, we only knew Kurt as a sassy, slightly haughty gay teen who was brave enough to come out to his best friend.  While dancing in his basement to Sasha Fierce doesn't necessarily break that mold right away, it still is an important - and fantastic - moment to start this episode with, in terms of Kurt.  It's like an instant shot of affection for this character, who recreates music videos in his fashionable basement and has more style and charisma in his sparkly-gloved little finger than the entire population of Lima, Ohio combined.  Already: how can you not root for this kid?  

Kurt joining the football team amidst some of his biggest high school enemies was the perfect situation to set up for his character.  I feel like it could have been an easy route to make Kurt completely intimidated in that scenario.  He joins the team, has no idea how to play the sport, and has to sit and listen to all the football players bitch and moan with no effort to hide their homophobia.  But instead, Kurt is rotated around to show that he's just what the football team needs.  The only moments he seems at all unsettled by his predicament is when he has to kick a field goal to win the game - a situation where anyone would go wide-eyed and want to pee first.  And not only is he an excellent kicker, he is an excellent kicker because he dances his way up to the football.  The storyline is constructed to show that even the most "masculine" of sports could benefit from a little showmanship and dazzle.

So this brings me to Point No. 2: this sentiment is echoed on a larger scale with the football players learning the "Single Ladies" dance.  Yes, it's completely idiotic to think that a high school football team could perform an entire choreographed dance before the snap.  But it's the idea behind it: that a barrier between football and glee could be broken down by finding a way to mix the two.  Kurt was hoisted up onto jocks' shoulders by the end of this, for goodness sake!  It's a powerful construct that Glee excelled at in its earliest incarnations, and has struggled to reiterate it in any way other than dialogue and half-baked in-episode storylines served precisely for the purpose to remind us of that very fact.  This is a show about unlikely people learning to accept one another through working together - through music.  And never has this been as powerful as it is in "Preggers."

The third point of excellence in Kurt's football storyline was a strong intersection of character motivations - with Finn.  The idea that Finn willingly brought Kurt with him to his football friends says a lot for his character, and since this is still early in his arc, we're completely on board with the idea that he has reservations about what this does to his cool factor.  But this little blight is seen through with Finn's suggestion that the football team needs to learn how to loosen up - and be a bit more like glee.  And the sentiment is almost gone altogether when Finn chooses to pull out their secret weapon with one second to go, saying: "We're already jokes.  I don't want to be a Lima Loser."  Ultimately, Finn chooses Kurt, and that choice is strong. 

As such, I will admit that I would have loved for Finn to interact more with Kurt after the initial tryouts and before that choice, if only because it would have been better developed, perhaps.  But, I can see why they didn't pen it so that Finn asked Kurt for help instead of Mr. Schue.  It makes sense that the team would be more receptive to not only a teacher's insistence, but a straight dude's at that, and it goes against what this episode was trying to delineate about Kurt's original status with the sports guys if they all just willingly took dance lessons from him without any teacher forcing them.  So, it seems to me that it would have been something to look forward to with Kurt and Finn - Finn standing by Kurt's opinions without any fear of social repercussions.  (Arguments abound as to whether or not this moment ever happened in an earned, authentic way.  "Theatricality" more or less achieves it, but with a lot of mess along the way which might nullify the good intent, frankly.)

The last - and best, perhaps - glorious takeaway from Kurt's storyline in "Preggers" is the true reveal about Kurt's true relationship with his father - which seemed to surprise Kurt just as much as it did us.  This is a fantastic example of Glee's early mastery of a bait-and-switch approach to stereotypes.  See, we think we know Kurt and Burt.  Kurt's a boy who has a strict skincare regimen each night and refers to a sports tryout as an audition.  Burt is a man who wears baseball caps and watches The Deadliest Catch.  So when Kurt tells Burt he's gay, we think we know where this is going.  We've ticked off enough stereotypes along the way to trick us into believing that the consequence will be another stereotype.

But it isn't.  And it's beautiful.  There need to be more television shows in the world where a gay son comes out to his dad expecting to be met with confusion, denial, or disapproval - only to hear the words, "I know," and "I love you just as much."  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.  Not only is this is the push-off of one of the best - if not the best - relationship that Glee has ever created, it's also a remarkable and revolutionary moment on the timeline of gay visibility on mainstream television.  This single scene creates a place for Glee in television history because of that distinction.  Beyond that, it's a perfect embodiment of what "Preggers," as an episode, and Glee, on the whole represents: seemingly different people accepting and supporting one another despite expectation. 

Of course, you can't proffer an episode about accepting the underdog without showing the kids who are on top of the social ladder.  "Preggers" is the first episode in the show to really bring the "Cool Kids" into the mix, with focused attention on Puck, Quinn, and Finn, as well as the new football additions to the glee club by hour's end.  And it's another smart choice to show that while the Cool Kids may be more traditionally accepted by high school's social rules, they do not necessarily have it better - Quinn's pregnancy drastically affects her, Finn, and Puck.  And not only that, but "Preggers" goes out of its way to tell the audience that Puck and Finn and Quinn want something that's not terribly dissimilar from what characters like Kurt and Rachel want.  Quinn, when realizing that she's pregnant, cries, "I really thought I had a shot of getting out of here."  Finn laments that high school dads have no future, and he wants to get a scholarship to college.  And Puck's decision to support The Dancing Plan connects the idea that he doesn't want to be a Lima Loser like Quinn said he was.

The idea that McKinley's cool kids aren't trouble-free is the best approach to dealing with these characters, and furthers the idea that they have something in common with even the most socially-outcast Gleek.  The entire foundation of the glee club rests on this theory, and it only makes sense that the Original Twelve have officially come together by the time the credits roll.  

Of course, there's some messy, plot-based implications that the writers embedded in the Cool Kids' problems, which all stem from Quinn and Puck secretly having sex.  Quinn is pregnant with her boyfriend's best friend's baby, and chooses to lie about the paternity to save face and stick with the "better" guy.  This of course runs parallel to the lie that Terri, Will's wife, is perpetuating - that she's pregnant, when in fact, she is not.  Of course, it's set up that Terri needs a baby, and Quinn is going to have one she doesn't want, so you do the math.  Throw in the added complications with Will, and Puck, and Finn, and you've got yourself a sudsy multi-episode arc that will not be lacking in conflict.  

There are two other multi-episode arcs that round out what "Preggers" presented to its viewers, that are very smartly interconnected.  Let's deal with the simpler one first, shall we?  Sue Sylvester's on top of the world!  She has a featured spot on the nightly news called Sue's Corner, wherein she shares her ultra-conservative views with Western Ohio, and is still sitting on her championship status as Cheerio captain.  But in sending her top Cheerios to the glee club to spy on them, it's raising questions that she'll be able to coach her cheerleaders to victory when Quinn, Santana, and Brittany are splitting time.  Obligatory stakes: if she loses the National Championship, her TV spot will be pulled.  So, she has to ensure she wins Nationals, and somehow this means taking down the glee club at the same time.  

Okay, so the logic is a little shaky here.  There is indeed some part of me that wishes Sue's S1 arc had to do with the pursuit to win Nationals and not tear down the glee club, but perhaps that's wishful thinking.  Regardless, it still would have been a nice venture for S2, when Sue-as-villian storylines began to grow irksome and tired.  Plus, as "Preggers" endeavors into the world of football, it would only be fair that cheerleading get its due as an extracurricular at McKinley.  But alas, hindsight proves that three-dimensionality and Sue Sylvester are not things the writers like to mix often. 

So, to destroy the glee club, Sue Sylvester decides to take it out from within - and lure Rachel Berry away from the New Directions.  I feel like in later episodes, this would involve Sue taking matters into her own hands or confronting Rachel directly, but "Preggers" finds her going through a middleman, Sandy Ryerson, who has an axe to grind due to his firing from what is now Will's position.  (He also has perhaps the episode's best line: "I'm living in a cocoon of horror!")  Sue offers Sandy a position as Arts Administrator at McKinley (with some convenient blackmailing of Figgins to get around the whole reason Sandy was fired in the first place) and convinces him to put on Cabaret so that Rachel Berry will have no choice but to audition and defect from ND.

This plot connects to the last storyline of the night: Will gives Tina a solo instead of Rachel, and Rachel threatens to quit the club.  Of course, Sue's plan capitalizes on this soured relationship, and I wish there had been some indication that Sue was aware of it - maybe a scene where she witnesses Rachel's discontent or Will's determination or Tina's hesitation, or hears about it from Quinn or Santana or Brittany.  In fact, the whole storyline could be described this way: it was well-done and in-character for all parties involved, but I still wish there had been more.

I wager that Rachel Berry haterz are quick to point out that Rachel is completely ungracious about losing a solo in this episode.  But here's the thing.  I don't care.  I've never cared.  To me, the point of view "Preggers" gives Rachel is completely understandable.  Never once does she hate on Tina or demean her abilities.  She simply says that she knows she's the best, and doesn't like being held back so that Will can provide teaching moments.  And she knows it: Rachel's conversation with Will after ballet is a fantastic demonstration of her early characterization.  She is completely aware that she's "bossy" and "abrasive," but she still deserves to be a star.  She has to believe that, because she's still getting bullied from her peers.  Never once did I not think Rachel Berry had a completely valid point to explain her behavior.

I will say, though, that I wanted more from Tina in this episode.  I appreciate Will's dedication to spreading the wealth with solos (something which is laughable now, as long as you can do so through your tears) and I appreciate that the episode never stakes out a purposeful Rachel vs. Tina conflict.  At the same time, I wish Tina's character motivations were more present.  She's still Shy Girl Tina here, and she willingly backs down when met with force.  Why is that?  It would have been nice to get a glimpse into Tina's POV, and maybe even have a direct conversation between her and Rachel where they could relate to one another as two girl Gleeks in the school.  

This leads me to my final point, which of course has to do with the treatment by Glee of its lady characters.  We all know it's grown to be nauseatingly bad, and now I can't look at any episode without paying attention to the females in the narrative.  And truthfully, "Preggers" does not get off scot-free under this lens.  It was perhaps innocuous at the time, but rewatching the episode leaves a bitter taste in my mouth realizing that "Preggers" planted seeds for Glee's self-righteous hero boys and the ambitious girls with their devious plans.  In this episode, there's Terri and Quinn telling lies to their unwitting significant others, Rachel cutting off her nose to spite her face, and Sue plotting to destroy the glee club.  On the flip side, Finn stands up for football and glee and chooses to support Quinn through her pregnancy, Will helps foster the football crossover and supports Finn, Burt supports Kurt, and Kurt gives the football team their first win.  (You could argue, though, that Kurt wasn't able to achieve the win without the support of Finn and Will, as straight guys with straight guy cred, who got him on the team and backed his dancing technique.  It's iffy territory, although I think it works based on the parameters the show has created concerning Kurt's lack of power in the social hierarchy.  And ultimately, he is the reason they win.)

When it's lined up superficially like that, it doesn't look good, and it definitely points to portrayals that do become a real issue later on.  However, "Preggers" saves itself from completely and utterly shutting down their female characters by providing them with a point of view and not denying them their agency in the storylines.  Rachel's opinions are explained and perfectly valid, especially from an emotional standpoint that's congruent to her character.  She chooses to leave New Directions, for reasons we understand.  Quinn is understandably terrified of a teenage pregnancy borne of one single mistake, made when she was drunk on wine coolers because she felt fat that day.  She chooses to lie, for reasons we understand.  Terri is terrified that Will has one foot out of the door of their marriage, and can't bear to tell him they're not actually having a baby.  She chooses to lie, for reasons we understand.  No one is yelled at, or scolded - yet.  Unfortunately, these ill-advised choices are going to collapse under the consequences eventually, and each of these women will have their noses rubbed in their mistakes by a parade of male characters.  So even though they're well-supported within the walls of "Preggers," and Sue Sylvester delivers the best advice about tuning out haters that the show's ever given, and the curtain falls on a single shot of Quinn Fabray, worried and alone by her locker... it's hard not to be frustrated by the conceptual existence of these issues and the knowledge that the shoe is one day going to drop for these flawed and fascinating ladies.

Even despite these early-incarnation lady issues, "Preggers" remains one of the best episodes Glee has ever put forth, with authentic character moments that both propel the plot and are affected by it.  It puts a spotlight on both the underdogs and the cool kids struggling with their own problems, and finds a way to naturally communicate that the difference between them is not something that can't be overcome.  In turns funny and heartwarming, it's still engaging even without glitzy musical numbers or Top 40 solos, and a guidepost for what all Glee episodes should strive to achieve.  Ultimately, it may not warrant its status on my memory pedestal, but it encapsulates this show as a whole - and why we love it.  So even with critique, "Preggers" will always embody that original magic.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A
Dance Numbers: A+
Dialogue: A
Plot: A-
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Who else but Kurt Hummel?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x07 - "The Workshop"

Finally, "The Workshop!"  Or, I guess I should say: finally, the workshop!  The time has come to see the first run-through of Marilyn the Musical, for family and friends and - more importantly - potential investors and financial backers.  Talk about pressure!  Of course, the workshop couldn't go off without a hitch, and naturally, there were personal problems abound - with the pesky addition of a heating problem to make everything super uncomfortable.  

The main event in "The Workshop" was Bernadette Peters - er, Ivy's Tony-Award-Winning mother - showing up and overshadowing everyone in sight, Ivy included.  Turns out part of Ivy's insecurity comes with the fact that she feels she'll never live up to her mother, who is not only extremely successful in the same field but also incredibly overbearing and slow to compliment.  She tells Ivy she won her Tony without the help of medication, which only spurred Ivy to down a sleeping pill to chase her Prednizone.  Combining that with the blow-out argument in which Ivy compared their relationship to that of Marilyn's with her mother, and we're clearing carving out an "Ivy-becomes-Marilyn" construct here.  Which, I will say, is not necessarily bad, it's just... not terribly interesting?  To me, personally.  There's worse things that the writing could be doing with Ivy at the moment, and honestly my reigning sentiment towards this character is sheer pity.  I'm still invested enough in Ivy as a character to go along with a "Marilynization" and see where it takes us.

It was good to see the support that Ivy does have in "The Workshop," because I can't believe how unencouraged she is sometimes as the shoulders this show is resting on.  You'd think the minds behind Marilyn would want to invest a little more in their lead, considering she's, well, their lead, and it's here where I can't blame Ivy for being paranoid as all get out about Karen Cartwright, even if it defies logic.  Derek was an unequivocal [insert your favorite synonym for jerk] again this episode, and I'm starting to wonder if Smash is simply intent on portraying him as an insensitive [another synonym] when it comes to the way he relates to creative colleagues.  Only Eileen seems to earn any respect from Director Grumpy-Scruff, and therefore those are the only interactions where Derek is the most wholly likeable.  Even when he gives Ivy any kind of encouragement, it's usually as an afterthought to his original message, which is usually some form of "you're not at your best" or "you can do better."  (Note to writers: this could all be fixed if we got a glimpse into Derek's POV, or at least with an introduction of some stakes to remind us why Derek is so hellbent on perfection.)

But luckily, Ivy had a good emotional moment with her mother by episode's end, where Ms. Peters - er, Conroy - reiterated that she believes her daughter is a star, and that her day will come.  There's also Tom, whose relationship with Ivy has quickly skyrocketed to favorite status.  Tom not only encouraged Ivy as a boss, but also as a friend - and was quick to defend her against Derek and his questionable directing techniques.  Go, Tom!  I'm still not sure what's really going on with his lukewarm-but-cute relationship with John, but I'm rooting for them.  Although I would root for a relationship with Sam too, if that Big Hint dropped last night is anything to go by.  But don't Michael-and-Julia us, Smash!  If you're gonna put Tom with Sam, then please, break him up with John first.  Especially when John is sweet enough to applaud Tom loudly in absolute silence.  He's a darling, supportive, and proud boyfriend, so either make it work or be nice about its end.  Please and thank you!

Of course, if Michael and Julia are indeed the paradigm for relationships on this show, then I would like to invoke a vow of platonic interactions over EVERYONE.  Because goodness, Michael and Julia are being written with maximum awful.  Smash tries to show us that they're happy, with those first glimpses and smiles and tangled fingers, but when Julia literally looks two seconds from emotional breakdown every time she's confronted with reality, it's hard to believe that this situation could ever be good.  Especially when her teenaged, pot-smoking (I KNEW IT) son knows about the affair and treats her like dirt because of it.  No amount of "hot" making out in empty rehearsal spaces (nice try with the extra-sexy leg lift, but I'm not buying) can change that.  Especially when (ooh, another one!) Michael and Julia are so not on the same page about this.

It was clever, though, to substitute Julia and Michael into Marilyn and Joe's story and let them air their grievances under the guise of running dialogue.  That was a nice touch.  This show is strongest when it's exploring the intersection between these people's real lives and their professional lives, but I realized that Smash only utilizes one aspect of this.  They've really only drawn comparisons from the characters to the text itself - showing Ivy spiral similarly to Marilyn, putting Michael and Julia in Joe and Marilyn's shoes.  This works, but truthfully, I'd like to see the characters interact with the process of creating the text just as much as with the text itself.  Of course, I'm basically a broken record with this request now, so I'm not sure it'll happen.  But I still wish we could've seen Tom and Julia pen more of the songs and the lyrics, and more of Derek sorting through his ideas for direction, and maybe even more of Ivy's process in mastering the lead.  We've had so many episodes where Julia's writing capability is paralyzed by the events of her personal life, and we didn't see her work through that at all.  This oversight only lends itself to the idea that Julia started out a capable, self-confident woman framed equally in her personal life and her working life, and has now become a woman fraught with personal mistakes, harangued by her lover and shamed by her son, with no exploration of her professional responsibilities and how she manages them.  It's tanked Julia in terms of her representation of a female character on this show.  I had hope that with Julia's seeming awareness of Ivy's discomfort and embarrassment over her mother performing that we would get the Julia/Ivy dynamic I've been wanting, but alas, Julia is stuck in Distraught Lover/Mother/Wife mode.

Anyways, this hopefully will all go away with Michael Swift getting the boot by episode's end.  I can't say I'm sad to see Michael and Julia's "relationship" splinter apart, but I can say I don't think the firing is entirely fair to Michael as a performer.  This show has no issue mixing up the character's professional and personal lives, but doesn't do anything to delineate the idea that any of them knows the line between them.  Firing Michael over a personal transgression is really rough, and I can't help but think that the production will suffer from it.  I would much rather see Julia pull herself up by her bootstraps and put Michael in his place, emotionally - not professionally.  But, I tend to like "stiff upper lip" characters a little more anyways, so perhaps it's just my personal preference.  I do think it would be more rewarding to see the problem through, though, and let Julia work it out competently and with credence given to her objectives and emotional agency.  Where's Eileen to stomp a little professionalism into this troupe?

Speaking of Eileen, I must thank her for giving me my first positive emotions towards Ellis since the show began.  I swear I wanted him to spontaneously burst into flames upon seeing him eavesdrop on Michael and Julia's totally inappropriate at-work makeout - and once again when he ran to his new friend-in-high-places Eileen and dropped the bomb a little too eagerly.  But Eileen shut him down, and I could have leapt through the television to kiss Anjelica Huston's face.  I loved that someone finally (and effectively!) put Ellis in his place, and suddenly I'm totally okay with Eileen and Ellis hanging out all the time.  They have a strange mentor/mentee relationship that I can get on board with, if it means that Eileen has someone to talk to and Ellis has someone to explain to him how not to be a little weasel.  I still don't love Ellis completely, but hey - I'll take this dynamic, for sure.

I also confess to going a little Regina George in this episode, right about the time when Karen imagined herself in Ivy's place during the workshop - in fantasy sequence, no less!  Yes, I admit to yelling out loud at the television, "Stop trying to make Karen happen; it's never going to happen!"  And then I felt a little bad, because channeling Regina George is not necessarily something to be proud of.  I don't even dislike Karen!  I want her to have another opportunity, like a recording contract with Raskin or Reskin or Ruskin, or whatever his name is!  I'm just frustrated that this show in insistent on finding paper-thin excuses to keep Karen as a member of Marilyn in some way for the purposes of what's supposed to be drama, but really is, in fact, boring.  Ivy has no real reason to hate Karen, and Karen has no real reason to keep loyalty to a Marilyn workshop over a potential opportunity for personal success.  Why is Smash trying to make me think otherwise?  It's just forcibly prolonging the Ivy vs. Karen debate, which is silly and sexist and tiresome.

I will say that the highlight of "The Workshop" was, well, the workshop, in all its glory.  I still don't understand why the writers can't figure out that half the fun of this show is seeing the process of putting on a Broadway show, from all angles.  So again, I plead: why can't we see more of this?  All of the comparisons between Ivy and Marilyn and Joe and Michael are great and all, but I still have more vested interest in the combined product of these people's hard work and creativity than I do in poorly-written crappy relationships.  (Sorry, Derek-and-Ivy and Michael-and-Julia.)  Plus, with damn catchy songs and great performance value from Megan Hilty & Co., it's hard not to want to focus on that talent and what can be narratively constructed around it.

In all, though, "The Workshop" was one of Smash's stronger fares, with several well-done (if average) storylines threading through.  And I must say that the promo for next week piqued my interest more than this show has done in awhile.  Factions?  Sneaking around and professional betrayal?  Derek and Karen vs. Ivy and Tom and Julia?  Bring it, please.  I almost think this show is more entertaining when Marilyn is portrayed to be doomed instead of destined for Broadway glory.  Throw in some earned character interactions, with focus each person's professional talents, and Smash would be a stronger show all around.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x06 - "Chemistry"

I'm not sure why exactly last night's Smash was called "Chemistry," because the only compelling evidence of such a phenomenon that I witnessed was scrawled across the cover of Frank's bedtime reading, and peppered through scenes with Tom and Ivy.  You would think that "Chemistry" would want to deal with couples getting together, bonds being made, maybe even demonstrations of synchronicity and likeability when two people interact.  Alas, "Chemistry" came short.

I'm wagering that the couple who was supposed to bear the title's standard was Michael and Julia, who capped last week's "Let's Be Bad" with a curbside makeout session that could potentially renew their affair.  If you're talking basic sexual chemistry, sure; I guess Michael and Julia fit the bill.  But putting Debra Messing in a men's-style pajama shirt and removing Will Chase of his shirt altogether is cheating.  (No pun intended.)  The reality of the situation is that Michael and Julia are really unlikeable in each other's company, and there's basically only a tiny sliver of opportunity for the audience to want these two to get together in any way.

The fundamental problem is Michael's pushiness.  He spent all episode pursuing Julia, browbeating her to agree to meeting him in private.  He tells her he can't sleep.  He calls her at home.  He needs to see her.  He even threatens to cause a scene if she doesn't comply.  I'm sorry, are we dealing with a grown-up adult, or a two-year-old here?  This automatically makes Michael extremely unlikeable, especially when we see how distressed Julia is in her home life.  She's having difficulty finishing the lyrics to Marilyn; she's distracted and upset.  We are far more likely to understand what's going on with Julia, emotionally, because we're witness to it - and not only that, but this little bud of an affair seems to be destroying her already.  She tells Michael no, time and again, and we understand that to be in keeping with her emotions as we've seen them.

But Smash is apparently expecting the audience to tsk tsk at Julia's protests and say, "You don't really mean that."  Michael even approaches it that way.  Instead of respecting her decision and her privacy, he hounds her until he's got his fingers on her shirt buttons in the middle of an empty rehearsal room.  As self-appointed referee on this storyline, I'm throwing a flag.  Because the result of this construct is a Michael who doesn't respect Julia's wishes, a Julia can't stick to her decisions because a man is undressing her, and a relationship that is textually terrible for both of them.  There is absolutely no reason given to make the audience want to root for these two to be together, and yet the storytelling seems to be nudging its viewers with a wink as if to say, "How hot is this?"  

The fact of the matter is that it's not.  It's actually a serious detriment to both characters - especially Julia, who is an established main on this show and seemed to be built of different stuff but never had a chance to show it.  Boo.  And I can't decide if it's better or worse that Smash tried to cover their "Nice Guy" and "Look, She Totally Wanted It All Along" bases by having Michael ask Julia twice if she wanted him to stop.  Yeah, you know when that question would have been nice?  The entire episode during which you were stalking her.  Not when you've got her shirt off and backed onto the couch.  Not cool, Smash.

Of course, the other eyeroll-inducing part of this is that Leo, Julia's son, knows that his mom's fooling around.  It would have been so much better to give Leo some semblance of  POV this episode, because honestly I forgot that he knew.  I just thought he was bitching his mom out over burnt pancakes, which frankly didn't seem that inconsistent with what we've been shown with the two-dimensionally bratty teen.  It wasn't clear that Leo was pissed about his mom's actions at the end of "Let's Be Bad," and it should've been.  If you're going to have Leo witness his mom kissing a man other than his dad, then Leo deserves a stake in the story.

Another couple that didn't have any chemistry in "Chemistry" was Derek and Ivy.  I'm not entirely sure what they're going for with Derek and Ivy these days.  Derek has been reduced to a paper-thin representation of a moody but "brilliant" (I assume?) director, simply so that Ivy gets caught in the emotional cross-hairs of having your boyfriend yell at you in a professional environment.  This alone isn't terrible, but Smash kind of hid the best part of it - the idea that Derek cares first for Ivy's voice and second for her wellbeing, which upsets her.  We only got a hint at this when it was time to pay that emotion off, and suddenly I realized, a bit bewilderedly, that that was the point of showing Ivy's interactions with Sam and Tom.  Ah!  If only that had been more clearly set up - the payoff would have been much stronger, because the idea itself is compelling for Derek and Ivy and their relationship.

And frankly, how great was it to see Ivy dig her heels in and call Derek out on his bullshit at episode's end?  I loved that Smash didn't try to play it as a "Diva Moment," and instead let it be Ivy standing up for herself and the way she wanted to be treated.  What I didn't love is that this moment was somehow blamed on Ivy being hopped up on steroids.  Honestly, everyone on Smash needs to be this expressive, just to jolt a little life into their characters.  (I felt the same way about Tom walking out on rehearsal in protest of Derek yelling at Julia over Marilyn's incomplete status.  Yay, Tom!  Characters who take a stand are inherently more likeable.)

Ivy-on-meds was a strange but intriguing concept to introduce, especially when she hallucinated Karen-as-Marilyn as the voice of her self-doubts.  Deeply insecure Ivy is something worth exploring, I think, and if Smash is going to go all Black Swan on our asses, I'm okay with that.  But will this continue?  I'm unsure they can prolong Ivy's vocal issues long enough to unravel her - but perhaps they'll find another way.  They're certainly hammering in the fact that Karen unsettles Ivy, which frankly seems unwarranted.  I can't really believe that Ivy would find Karen to be a threat.  This is a girl who's getting Ivy's hand-me-down Bar Mitzvah job, twice removed.  She's Ivy's cast-off's cast-off.  The rivalry feels forced.  I would root for Karen so much more if Ivy didn't have any clue that Karen could be competition for her, in whatever way this show is trying to construct that.

Instead, we just watch Karen sing at a Bar Mitzvah for the episode, as she simultaneously gets yanked around by the producers who may or may not need her to perform at Marilyn's first workshop for investors.  Not a whole lot going on here, except for the business card Karen earned by the end of the hour.  Hopefully this little victory will pay out in success for Karen - something for Karen to do on this show - as opposed to bitchiness from Ivy as Karen lays in wait, although I'm not holding my breath.

In addition to Karen's sojourn to Long Island, there were two pocket-sized storylines in "Chemistry" that didn't amount to much.  The first belonged to Tom and John's budding but awkward romance.  Tom meets all of John's friends, despite his hesitation about moving too fast, and discovers that John only just came out to his mom a year ago.  When he confronts him about it, John replies that he's come out to his mom four different times since he was eight - his mom just has memory problems.  I don't understand this.  Is John being serious?  Or are we supposed to believe that his mom has been in denial of her song being gay, and he just has to keep telling her?  Adding that to the pre-established notion that John's mother set him up with Tom via Tom's mother... I don't really understand what's going on here, but I'm willing to watch and see.  Truly, though, the best product of Tom and John's storyline was seeing Tom tell Julia and Ivy about his new boyfriend.  Julia reacts neutrally and with support, but Ivy reads right into Tom's reservations, and they snark about his minimalist decor.  Giggle!  More of this, Smash, please.  

The second miniature storyline in "Chemistry" went to Eileen, who gadded about town with Ellis and Ellis' Unnamed Real Estate Friend.  This made absolutely no sense to me, because I didn't really see what the trajectory of the storyline was supposed to be until the very end.  It had a great payoff with very little setup - not unlike Ivy's conflict with Derek over his treatment of her.  Eileen's Big Moment came when she got Ralph, the Broadway Investor, to commit to seeing the Marilyn workshop - and she picked up her video game gun and uttered the words, "Watch out, it's my turn."  How great is that?  For a character who's been so frustratingly under the thumb of her ex-husband, it's fantastic to see her triumph over that and taste a little exhilarating success.  But that setup was not in the episode at all.  We met Ralph, never got a clear view of his inclinations, and then hung out at Bushwhack and in empty penthouses until Eileen apparently made the deal - offscreen.  Why couldn't we witness Eileen working through that obstacle so that her kickass moment with the toy gun could feel earned?  It's frustrating.  Even if we're meant to understand that Eileen is now at peace with having less money and getting out of the lap of luxury, it's simply stronger to show her competence as a Broadway producer independent of her businessman husband.

The thing that plagued "Chemistry" the most was the fact that scenes rose and fell without any clear indication of their real purpose.  Do we need to see Karen pick out her Bar Mitzvah outfit with Dev?  What is the point of having Julia and Tom talk about their love lives but not reach any conclusion as to what they're feeling?  Do we need to witness Eileen discover the joys of a video game if we're not sure why it's happening?  There were so many instances in "Chemistry" that felt untethered from character intention and story direction that it was difficult to be involved, as an audience member.  These scenes need to be tighter, with a clear purpose that progresses the story.  That's what was wrong with the Michael/Julia storyline.  They wanted to end the episode with them having sex, but refused to plot anything interesting leading to that - so we just got repeated scenes where Michael pursued Julia and she said no.  Carousel storytelling is not good.  There was no new information given in a huge number of last night's scenes, and that's a problem.  Every scene should be moving the story forward - or else you're just stuck in neutral.  Neutral plot, neutral feelings about the characters, neutral investment about what's going to happen next.

There's still potential.  Julia had writer's block all episode, and could have worked through that in conjunction with her romance issues.  Eileen had the possibility to triumph in business through convincing Ralph to attend the workshop.  We skipped over Leo's POV, Derek's POV, even the interesting part of Ivy's POV - until the very end.  There's so much possibility in dealing with these characters and their emotions, especially as the plotted actions get soapier and more complicated - and Smash just isn't hitting the right notes.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: D
Character: C
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Ivy

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x05 - "Let's Be Bad"

I'm guessing that based on the events of this episode, the title "Let's Be Bad" is supposed to be in reference to Karen getting in touch with her feminine wiles, Leo getting kind-of-arrested for kind-of-smoking-pot, and Julia and Michael resuming their illicit affair.  Now, there's an easy joke here about "Let's Be Bad" taking its own advice, but I'm not gonna make it.  The episode wasn't awful; it was on par with what Smash has been giving us: poorly developed conflict, with a few interesting character moments and strong musical numbers.

Let's check in with Marilyn the Musical's status: Julia and Tom are still writing the script, and it's getting down to the wire, making Eileen nervous.  Turns out Julia's the one holding things up, and it's sort of alluded to that she's getting stuck on Joe DiMaggio's part.  This is kind of a duh, considering that Michael Swift is the real-life DiMaggio stand-in for Julia, and obviously she's conflicted about DiMichael-o's role in her life.  Is this her great love story?  There was a great conversation early on where Michael questions Joe's likeability as Julia is currently writing it, and Julia declares that she wants to make this more than a love story - even though Michael disagrees.  The idea that Julia is having writer's block because of her relationship with Michael is rather compelling, and I wish the writers had brought that concept to the forefront to mine the conflict and create a second layer of tension.  Julia would have pressure from Eileen to finish the story, but she's not sure what story she's writing, or how it will end - just like with Michael.  If handled properly, it could be a sophisticated container to frame Julia's real life with her creative work, which is what they're trying to do anyways.  (And not just with Julia.  But more on that later.)

Instead, we got a poorly realized storyline where Julia's son Leo gets caught with marijuana in Central Park, and she's forced to deal with the fallout.  Cover to cover, it was kind of a snoozer, and the only real consequences we felt for it were in the possibility that Leo's actions could jeopardize the family's ability to adopt.  But we didn't know that until after Leo wound up at the police station.  We should've known before Leo's bad decision what kind of consequence said bad decision could reap, so that we had a stake in the scenario.  Otherwise, we just don't care.  And the overarching idea that Julia missed Leo's brush with the law because she was flirting with Michael Swift, as Tom so deftly pointed out, was not really necessary.  We get that this is a family vs. Michael situation.  It's unnecessary to throw this guilt Julia's way - we already know, as Julia does, that getting into a relationship with Michael is bad because they're both married.  Making Julia look like a neglectful parent already is just salt in the wound, and needless.

I'm not sure entirely how Michael went from zero to pursuant in an episode or so - maybe Julia's propensity for stealing his dessert was charming enough to put him in first gear.  (Though I can't say I blame him.  Debra Messing remains enchanting as ever when acting opposite food.  Miss you, Grace Adler.)  But regardless, I was a bit bewildered by how strongly Michael was coming on this episode, and miffed that he and Julia kissed at the end.  It's not necessarily that I don't want these kids to get back together, but I do want it to be told well.  I didn't think the kiss was earned yet, and beyond that, I am frustrated beyond belief that Leo witnessed it.  As soon as the camera started panning up, I groaned, because it was so predictable in its "drama."  They may as well have had Ellis lurking behind a fire hydrant like a devious troll, watching the situation unfurl as he cackled wickedly into his sweater vest about this new piece of blackmail.  Sigh!

Speaking of cartoons, let's talk about Derek.  Monsieur Directeur was so broodingly pissy this week it was difficult to take him seriously.  See, he was frustrated with Ivy's shortcomings, and lashed out at both her and Karen when he was met with questions instead of blind obedience.  Look, I get that the guy's Mr. Dark Artist about his material, but it was too much for me.  Seeing Ivy become a mess of insecurities because she's not getting positive feedback from her boss-slash-boyfriend is not the strongest incarnation of her character, especially when she just falls back into his arms at the end.  (And fondly looks on while he works on the play during the midnight hours.)  Truthfully, the episode's strongest moment for Ivy came when she nearly fell apart in rehearsals, but, with tears in her eyes, she pulled it together and performed her heart out.  That was a great character moment, and I almost wish we didn't have such a blatant cutaway to fantasy, so we could revel in Ivy's triumph a little more.  But, the "Let's Be Bad" fantasy sequence seemed to serve a different purpose: to almost draw a parallel between Ivy and Marilyn herself.  Based on Ivy's fragile psyche and sex appeal, I wonder if the show will really turn Ivy into Marilyn, for all intents and purposes.  It could be interesting, in a Black Swan kind of way.

But frankly, I think there's something more interesting afoot - or at least, more grounded in reality and character-based drama.  Before, I mentioned that Julia is penning this musical - Joe and Marilyn's relationship in particular - while putting herself in Marilyn's shoes and trying to make heads or tails of the love story.  It's incredibly personal, right?  Julia is overidentifying with Marilyn.  There's this potentially fascinating idea that both Julia and Ivy are projecting themselves onto Marilyn's identity and vice-versa, and it allows for the possibility of these two characters having a rather intriguing dynamic.  It's not really there yet, but it could be, if the writers tried it, and I'd honestly rather see a parallel drawn between Julia and Ivy through the nature of their creative work as opposed to the one between Michael and Ivy through their troublesome relationships.

I will say, I enjoyed that "Let's Be Bad" allowed us to witness Ivy and Karen actually interacting, one-on-one.  We got to see face-to-face competition and animosity, instead of just the random cloud of catfight surrounding these two ladies.  It's much better this way, even if Ivy is still bitchily threatening and Karen just trying to be nice.  Smash seems to be toying with the construct that these ladies can learn something from one another - Karen learns to understand "what she brings to the table," and Ivy has to learn a little humility.  I feel like the show could bring something even deeper to Ivy and Karen's dynamic, and I hope they find it.

As for Karen herself, she got in touch with her sexual side, as Marilyn would, and inadvertently gained some important work information for Dev as a result.  I didn't mind this storyline terribly, considering that it played out simply and in the background, but I'm not sure I get the whole "Karen-isn't-sexy" thing.  Haven't we been over this?  Didn't Karen work on that during her audition process, and didn't she sing "Happy Birthday Mr. President" on Derek's lap, and wasn't that referenced in this very episode, reminding us that Karen is sexy?  I do not get it.  It's also not cool to make Karen the conservative Midwesterner who actually says out loud that she looks down on overtly sexual women.  Party foul for slut shaming, Smash!  I don't understand why this show is going to great lengths to make their creative piece about Marilyn Monroe, showing all sides of the real woman, and then only bring the sexuality aspect to Ivy and Karen's foil relationship.  It's unclear, and could really be more three-dimensional and meaningful for both character's relationship to Marilyn Monroe and her identity.  There's potential there!  But unfortunately, Smash just isn't pinpointing it - yet.

Finally, there was Tom.  Tom was the charming scene-stealer of the hour, as he (with his lawyer date) saved Leo's butt, then merrily turned the teenager's woes into Broadway riffs at the piano.  How great is that?  He's firmly ensconced himself, alongside Julia, as the most likeable character in this ensemble (it of course doesn't hurt that their dynamic with one another is delightful as well).  He's even managed to make a trope-filled work-vs-date storyline intriguing.  Trying to date Lawyer John is difficult, because of Tom's schedule and their career differences, but they try to make it work - and gamely admit to each other that the sex is bad.  These two are charming, even though we hardly know Lawyer John, and I hope their motto becomes "try, try again."  They deserve a chance as a couple on this show!

In all, "Let's Be Bad" was marked with some good character work, but still left a lot of stones unturned in what's really interesting about these characters and their interactions.  The conflict is still only engaging about half the time, and Smash continues to create drama in all the wrong places.   

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: C
Character: B
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Tom
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...