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 Beyoncé, 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?


  1. I hope one day we'll get to know what happened behind the curtains with Jenna ushkowitz. This episode is a perfect example that right from the beginning she has never been treated as a main character, and her character has been actively mistreated from day one.
    It's one thing to be shy, have trouble expressing your feelings and letting others push you to avoid confrontation. That's realistic and understandable. But having a shy character doesn't mean you can't find ways to let him or her express feelings and point of view. I can understand it's easier to write for a loud, outspoken character who can voice his mind with trouble, but a good writer should be able to get inside the minds of all kinds of character.

    ...Instead we get the first of Tina's acapella solos purposedly scripted to end badly. Ridiculously enough, up until that last note she had been doing a beautiful performance of Tonight. It could have been a fantatic (and coherent, and character-developing) plot if it had been revealed Tina failed the note on purpose to let Rachel get the solo, which could spark a subplot about Tina needing to become more confident. After all it's not only gay kids who suffer from bullying in high school, but maybe this is too subtle a subject for Glee's writers...

  2. Preggers has always been one of my favourite episodes but I'd never put much thought into why. And over the last few months I've been a little afraid to go back and watch it, and definitely afraid to think about it too much, for pretty much the same reasons you expressed at the beginning of this review, I was afraid that it wouldn't live up to the pedestal I'd put it on.

    But between watching some of the early episodes again a few weeks ago and now reading this review, I've fallen completely head over heels in love with Preggers all over again. And this time it feels justified.

    What I found most interesting when I rewatched the episodes was how surprised I was by how funny they were. Glee rarely makes me laugh these days, and when it does there still feels like there's something off. But watching those early episodes I was reminded of how many brilliant quotes there used to be. I found myself really, properly laughing and genuinely enjoying the show in a way that felt completely alien to me.

    So Preggers is funny, very very funny, with some brilliant quotes, but it's also full of emotional depth. And that is the show I fell in love with. The show that balanced these larger than life characters in a crazy world where everything is just that little bit more outrageous than in reality with these very real emotions that tug on your heartstrings so effectively.

    Preggers really is such a wonderful example of that show. (And now I'm filled with all of these feelings. Oops)

  3. Curse it, you have made me remember when (and why) I loved Glee!


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