Sunday, April 29, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x11 - "The Movie Star"

Yes, this recap is impossibly late.  But I have to catch up some time, and that time is now!  (And also later, when I recap the other episode I missed.  Sigh.) 

Smash's eleventh episode finally put into action what we'd all been awaiting with a combination of dread and excitement: the arrival of "the movie star" who had been hired to helm Bombshell.  She was a name on everyone's lips for a whole episode, a player in the wings, and she finally made her entrance.  And oh, was she memorable.  Rebecca Duvall stormed the rehearsals with a kind of persistent and backhanded optimism, as she simultaneously shmoozed and insulted the creative choices of the musical.  Not only that, but she's not a strong singer!  So she wants fewer numbers, longer scenes, and more of Marilyn's dark psychology.  Of course, she goes about requesting this in the sneakiest of ways, and her brand of manipulation is weird and impressive.  She shows genuine interest and wants to be involved, but can't manage to suspend reality for a music cue.  She says the writers are being too careful with her feelings, and uses her own seemingly ego-free honesty policy to make her own straightforward requests.  I'm completely dumbfounded by the way she operates.  She is neither villain nor hero, just... a mind-boggling actress with a drunk ex-boyfriend who interrupts rehearsals.

Of course, Team Bombshell has to deal with her across the board, and the braintrust is at odds.  Julia is up in arms about her forcefulness and critique, whereas Tom is simply stuck on the fact that she can't sing.  Derek placates her because he's given up hope that she'll be able to fulfill his vision anyways, and also he keeps having those pesky hallucinations of Karen playing the role.  (Seriously, how ridiculous are these moments?  But, I have to say, I enjoy them, simply because of the way Jack Davenport plays them.  Where he could easily be lascivious and indulgent of these weird-ass fantasies, he is instead completely thunderstruck that they're happening, to the point where his bewildered expression, mouth agape, is almost the highlight of the episodes for me.  Surely this'll cause problems when it's inevitably back to Karen vs. Ivy - Derek's fantasy Marilyn up against his actual girlfriend.) 

Ultimately, though, Rebecca Duvall's insistence on creative change forces Eileen into an interesting position, character-wise.  As the producer, she is tasked with the challenge of keeping everybody happy - from investors to actors to the Julia-Tom-Derek triforce.  So what do you do when your movie star's wishes go against the creative team's?  How much do you let Rebecca Duvall have her way before you draw the line and protect your writers and director?  It's another interesting challenge to give Eileen in her journey as a one-woman producing force, and I was curious to see how she would handle the situation.  She's not perfect, and honestly I wasn't going to be surprised if she sided with Rebecca in all the arguments.  The "star" is the main draw at this point, and Eileen's shown thus far to be open to suggestions about the direction of the musical, if it will ensure their shot at Broadway success.  And while she didn't disagree with the braintrust's opinions, she was far more willing to work with Rebecca to make that success happen.  I thought for sure Eileen was going to let her ambition get the better of her again.  But when push came to shove, she stood by Tom, Julia, and Derek, and it was a lovely choice.  Sure, it could have been played as part of a bigger in-episode arc for Eileen, but it was still a nice decision conceptually. 

Instead of this decision taking up Eileen's screentime, we instead were treated to more development in her love life.  Last episode, she and Nick, her ruggedly handsome bartender, finally kissed.  This episode, Eileen was unsure she wanted to go any further with him, especially when she discovered (through Ellis' detective research) that he has a criminal record.  It raised the question: does she want to get involved with any more unreliable men?  She's clearly referencing her bad relationship with Jerry, and I have to give kudos for the writers allowing Eileen this hesitation.  She is a woman emerging from an emotionally damaging marriage that also dominated her professional life, and for all intents and purposes, she is basically experiencing a rebirth.  We are given the chance to witness Eileen Rand coming into her own, and I appreciate that the writers are bestowing her with some hesitation over getting herself into another relationship - especially when that relationship has already bled into her business life, what with Nick's investment in the musical.  Even though Eileen seems to be moving ahead with Nick, I'm glad that Smash handled the situation realistically and maturely, and in keeping with what we know about Eileen and her arc.

Speaking of love blooming, we also got the initiation of Tom and Sam's relationship.  I didn't think it would be so soon, but I'm glad we're not prolonging their obviously-pending coupling.  I feel much like Julia did: stop flirting already, and just go on a date!  And luckily, she took matters into her own hands and made them a restaurant reservation.  Sam and Tom ended up ditching dinner, instead settling in at Tom's apartment for drinks and conversation - where Tom made a pretty bold first move, and Sam immediately shut him down.  Turns out Sam is an "old-fashioned" kind of guy, who believes in taking relationships slowly and really spending time together before rushing the physical stuff.  Tom looks at Sam like he's an alien until Sam asks him how old he is (37...ish) and how old his longest relationship was (5...months).  This idea also spawned a somewhat unexpected discussion of religion and God, which felt a bit out-of-left-field, but it was only one little piece of the larger picture with this dynamic.  So, with two sweet kisses and a swift departure, Sam reassures Tom that his way is better, and the slow-burn relationship has officially begun.  I'm game! 

But, as Tom and Sam's relationship moves forward, Julia and Leo's is still at a standstill.  They were forced to interact in "The Movie Star" because Leo's grades have taken a turn for the worse, presumably as a result of his parent's split.  And while I tend to groan at any glimpse of Julia's personal life, this episode's sojourn through Houston-ville didn't sour me quite as much as previous incarnations.  What really made this installment so much more tolerable was the role that Julia played in her own story.  In previous storylines, she's been held at the mercy of her husband's, lover's, and son's emotions.  Her ability to choose has been marginalized, and her access to positive reinforcement even more elusive.  But "The Movie Star" showed a Julia who was able to take charge of her own story, and make decisions!  She did not shy away from talking about her mistakes, even sharing it with Leo's guidance counselor, and speaking of it plainly to Leo himself.  Not only that, but she was also allowed a modicum of success.  She was able to talk Leo out of his bad attitude, where Frank only succeeded in yelling at him a lot.  Julia was allowed to be funny, and honest, and bold, and vibrant, even with her mistakes!  She faced her problems head-on, and dealt with them.  Maybe not perfectly or even gracefully, but courageously.  It's the strongest we've seen her, and she's even better with Debra Messing hitting every self-deprecating and brutally honest moment with clipped comedic mastery.

Other rocky relationships include Karen and Dev, as more things happened with Dev that no one cares about, and somehow it's splintering his dynamic with Karen.  It's clear I'm paying close attention, right?  Whoops.  I just... have so little invested in Dev at this point.  I like the guy well enough, but I still just don't understand how he figures into a show about Broadway.  To make matters worse, I'm not into this "work flirtation" nonsense with RJ that Karen conveniently seems to be witnessing at the dumbest moments.  Meh.  It's a cheap way to make me try and care, and it's not even working.  Especially when the reveal that Dev was having drinks with RJ comes right before a commercial, as though the writers thought they were ending it on a really intense cliffhanger moment.  I'm not nearly invested enough in this RJ-Dev storyline to warrant any sort of reaction the writers seem to be wanting me to have.

Truthfully, I'm far more interested in Karen's relationship with Ivy.  I find these ladies fascinating in that they're basically on the same team now - a team of scorned Marilyns - and have reached this place of truce.  I love that they have a tendency to end up drinking together and Ivy likes to bitch about things and Karen doesn't really want to be mean and Ivy tries to get her to loosen up.  It's a delightful dynamic that's a strong one for the show to build, and honestly speaking, when I say they're on the same team now, I almost wish that extended to their sexualities.  Smash has a strong representation for gay men; where are the queer ladies at?  Somehow I feel like Karen and Ivy could solve a lot of their problems if they just loosened up and made out a little bit.  Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty are not lacking in chemistry, is all I'm saying.

But, I'm not picky, and as long as Karen and Ivy's interactions continue to be layered with conflict yet respect and a budding friendship, I'm good.  And, because I've totally cornered the market on female relationships that blossom from animosity, let me tell you what I would like to happen with Ivy and Karen from here on out.  Now, I'm not really sure where they're headed with Ivy's pill addiction, so I'm going to leave that out.  Regardless, it'd be nice to see the two of them have one more awkward bonding experience, perhaps where a really personal thing is kind of let out in the other's presence that wouldn't ordinarily be shared freely.  Karen, Ivy, it doesn't matter.  While Karen has been privy to Ivy's drunkenness and the inside of her apartment, I'm wont to say it's Ivy's turn to accidentally get a glimpse into Karen's world.  It should be something meaningful, a way for them to see the other's true self.  Then, they're in this weird personal space with one another and neither of them really want that and so when the competition reignites (assuming Rebecca Duvall is indeed fated for departure) they are are all too happy to avoid one another completely to focus on themselves and their re-auditions.  And then, eventually, one of them gets the part and feels an unexpected twinge of guilt at their own success, and it's all because their stupid competition got under their skin. 

Of course, that's just how I would handle it.  At this stage in the game I can't gauge if Smash would endeavor to do something similar, or if I'm going to be saddled with one-dimensional Karen-Ivy competition scenes again.  In any case, I find this dynamic fascinating and hope it pays off to the strength of its full potential.  For now, though, Rebecca Duvall is at the helm and both Karen and Ivy are relegated to the ensemble.

Finally, the most magical thing happened in "The Movie Star."  Ellis got his ass handed to him!  Or at the very least, got called out on his bullshit, which was the most delightful thing.  Randall, Rebecca Duvall's agent, wised up to the fact that Ellis has been pretending to like him simply to foster the Duvall-Bombshell union, and confronted Ellis about using him.  Praise be!  Go figure that the one character other than Eileen to put Ellis in his place is a random guy we barely know.  But how could you not feel badly for him?  I'm curious, though, if Randall's discovery will perhaps cause him to be less encouraging of Rebecca Duvall's participation in the Marilyn project.  In other words, if Duvall walks, will Ellis be partly to blame?  Although, given her rocky standing with the creative team, I doubt Ellis' actions will directly affect any departure from Bombshell's leading star.

So for now, Rebecca Duvall is here to stay, and she's causing change in almost all the pre-existing characters and their relationships.  It's possible that Ivy and Karen could be channeled into "shadow" Marilyns representing other parts of Ms. Monroe's personality, but it's more likely at this point that things will come to a boil with the movie star and one of the two ladies will have to step up.  But hey, is Derek still looking for fresh interpretations?  Because at this point Bombshell still needs a Joe DiMaggio, and if they need someone to fill his shoes, they're going to have a leftover stage actor from the Ivy/Karen conflict... what's more fresh and unique than an all-female interpretation of Marilyn's life?  Just a thought.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B+
Character: A
Musical Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Julia!  Finally.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The RBI Report: "Dance With Somebody"

In life, there are optimists, and there are pessimists.  The optimists out there probably thought that "Dance With Somebody," conceptually, was a touching tribute to a beloved music icon.  The pessimists probably saw it as a whored-out attempt for Glee to cash in not only on the memory of a recently-passed singer, but also her vast and chart-topping body of work.  I couldn't muster up enough energy to feel one or the other; this episode became much easier to watch when I sat back and let it wash over me like a strange wave of clammy serenity.  And now that it's all said and done, I've found the best course of action is to continue listening to Whitney Houston as if Glee inspired me to keep on loving her as I do - and didn't try to get me to buy any of their reproductions.

"Dance With Somebody," written by Ross Maxwell, directed by Paris Barclay

Honestly, what sacked this episode most was that the best performance happened before the title card even appeared.  The stripped-down version of "How Will I Know," helmed more-than-capably by Mercedes, Santana, Rachel, and Kurt, was really the only tribute needed for the late great vocal icon.  It was solemn, respectful, well-performed, and ultimately understated - something Glee struggles with on a minute-to-minute basis.  Okay, fine, they did toss in a locker-shrine to Ms. Houston, as the kids reverently passed around a framed photo, but whatever.  The performance was understated!

But unfortunately, the tribute spawned further, and as soon as Will Schuester put his marker to white board I knew we were in for a rainbow of performances that somehow manage to be forcibly-themed as well as completely random.  The framework of the episode was this: Will witnessed the Fabulous Four mourning Whitney's death, two months later, in the McKinley hallways, and decided they were redirecting their sadness for graduation into a prolonged grief for an icon.  As Emma explained, Whitney's passing is a metaphor for the loss of their youth - just like the passing of Princess Diana was for hers.  Oof.  This is not a graceful setup.

Mostly, I'm to the point where I would like Glee to come up with an episode structure that doesn't amount to Will giving the kids a themed assignment, and then lets them perform songs from that theme which also haphazardly relate to their lives.  In the case of Whitney, everything Houston-related was spelled out to the letter in the first ten minutes, and then the rest of the hour spun away from theme completely as the kids realized they were saying goodbye to their classmates.  In a way, it was doubly-themed, and honestly I wish that Will had just said, "Hey, sing Whitney this week," and the rest fell into place naturally.  Why does it have to be laid out completely at the top?  Wouldn't it be better if the theme emerged as the storylines unraveled, and the message happened subtly and simply towards the resolution?  Wouldn't that be... development?  Or, if you're going to lay out a theme at the top of the hour, why not show a twist on the message by the end?  "Dance With Somebody" presented the idea that these kids had not laid Whitney to rest because they were avoiding saying their own goodbyes, and in the end, they had not laid Whitney to rest because... they... were avoiding saying their own goodbyes.  Oh.  No new information?  Really?

Alas, we weren't in for a sophisticated framework, so we might as well move onto the actual underlying theme running through the episode: the idea that this is the beginning of 'goodbye.'  This theme works on its own, and doesn't really need a Whitney Houston hook shoehorned in there to sell it.  It's incredibly saddening to see these characters confront the notion that they'll have to part ways and leave this happy existence behind.  In fact, the episode's most touching moments hit on that idea - the reveal that Will wants the wedding in May because he can't not have the kids there, the parting words from Puck to his boys, the confession from Burt to Kurt that sometimes he wishes he could have his sweet little boy back, and the request from Rachel to Santana to keep her photo in her locker so that they can be friends for the last forty-two days of high school.  All of these individual scenes were great in concept, and pretty solid in execution as well.  The particulars of the surrounding storylines and performances are of course a bit rocky in places.

Let's start with Will and Emma.  Will swoops into Emma's office, procuring an incredibly fancypants paper decoration advertising a renowned - and expensive - wedding coordinator.  (It's cool.  Will didn't need those platelets.)  He wants to push the wedding up to May, and seems hellbent on making that happen.  In fact, when the coordinator tries to tell Will there's no place for a stage at the current venue, he fires him in a huff and keeps barreling ahead - trying to set the wedding at KOA campground until Emma finally gets him to calm down.  The idea that Will was determined to get married in May because he wanted the kids to be there was sweet, but I definitely didn't get that until Emma flat-out brought it into conversation.  Was that supposed to be an actual reveal?  It wasn't quite that revelatory, and I almost wish the suggestion came sooner, so I could feel sympathy towards Will during the earlier scenes.  Because as is, I was more preoccupied with annoyance at the fact that he totally hijacked his and Emma's wedding and started making all sorts of plans without asking her.  When she protested, he smothered her with kisses, and then he unilaterally fired their coordinator in a fit of hot temper when things didn't line up how he wanted.  This begs the question: when will the writers let Emma Pillsbury have any semblance of control over her own life?  The answer remains: not this episode.  

But, it was sweet that Emma's reassurance about the glee kids returning to Will no matter what was actually paid off at episode's end.  Each student had the opportunity to skip a glee practice, but one by one, each of them trickled in to sing "My Love is Your Love" with Mercedes and Artie.  I confess, it was heartwarming to see them all assemble and perform together, with the idea that they (and we) should treasure these moments, because they're not going to last forever.  And even greater yet was the nod to the Pilot, where Will watched them from the wings in an actually non-creepy way.  Part of me wishes that homage were even more apparent, by giving Finn, Rachel, Mercedes, Kurt, Artie, and Tina the first spots on the stage.  They were close to ordering everyone that way, but unfortunately Blaine couldn't stop at the bathroom or something on the way to the auditorium, and Tina of course paraded in last with Mike in hand.  (I assume this to mean that they were making out somewhere in the school because they had little else to do this week.)  The emotion was still there, though.

Will wasn't the only one manifesting his angsty feelings about the glee club disbanding.  Blaine too was feeling the looming gloom of Kurt leaving his side, and handled it poorly by distancing himself from Kurt without explanation.  Ordinarily, this arc would be enough to sustain a character's storyline, but the writers fussed it up a little further with the idea that Kurt, in the lack of positive attention from Blaine, sought giggles elsewhere by taking up texting with some kid named Chandler that he met at a record store.  Naturally, Blaine found the texts, accused him of cheating, diva'd out for yet another I-will-rise-above-your-emotional-abuse performance, and then the two got swept away to couples counseling.  Phew!  There was a lot on the plate for Kurt and Blaine, and of course, everything was wrapped up neatly with Blaine's confession that he feels like Kurt is leaving him behind, and Kurt reassuring him that he won't lose him. 

I'm not sure why the writers are so intent on taking Blaine so seriously.  To me, part of the guy's appeal is that he seems really put together, but that actually he is kind of ridiculous.  Because seriously, this is a young man who serenades Gap employees in plain sight of everyone, and who routinely sings songs out of the Contemporary Pop Diva Songbook.  He is the sloppiest drunk on the planet, and hasn't the first idea about how to tell Sebastian to take a hike.  He sings "Fighter" when his brother overshadows-slash-ridicules him, and "It's Not Right (But It's Okay)" when his boyfriend starts texting another guy.  This boy is a melodramatic idiot, and I mean it in the best way possible.  Because it's endearing, when it's framed as the kind of over-the-top ridiculata that it is!  When the writers try and sell the hardcore emotional aspects of his character, I have a tendency to laugh.  Because he's silly.  He has completely valid emotions, and it's great when a character is allowed to have emotions and layers and multiple dimensions... but the writers choose to express Blaine Anderson's in the goofiest of ways and I wish they would just own up to that and roll with it.

On a purely objective level, yes, I feel bad for Blaine.  Who wouldn't feel badly for someone in that situation?  It sucks to think about the idea that a significant other is definitely going to leave you, and you have no control over the situation.  But the constructed storyline around this notion was bizarre, in that it tried to pin something on Kurt as well, so that they could justify Blaine singing "It's Not Right (But It's Okay)" with the double meaning of being hurt by Chandler's dumb puns as well as by Kurt's inevitable departure.  While we did get to hear Kurt voice his opinion about the negatives to being Blaine's boyfriend, I still frowned that Paris Barclay chose to assemble the New Directions behind Blaine as they sang sassy backup, as though Kurt was getting group-chastised for his actions.  Not only that, but Blaine was the only one in couples counseling to suggest ways in which he felt his partner could change behavior.  And he hauled out three examples!  Yikes.  Yes, what Kurt was doing wasn't entirely on the up-and-up.  But for as much as the "gray areas" of cheating get dusted under the rug on this show (with Santana, with Quinn, with Finn, with Puck, with Will, with Sam... although not as much with Rachel or Mercedes) it seemed strange to hold a character accountable for flirty text messages.  Between this and the recent propensity of the writers to take Blaine's emotions with sincere - and severe - gravity, I never really warmed to this storyline as a result.  (Although the argument over having bronzed hands was hilarious.)

Far stronger in relation to Kurt was of course his scene with Burt about how things will never be the same after he leaves.  Cue a million tears!  The idea that Burt and Kurt have lived their lives as a team after the death of Kurt's mother is incredibly heartwarming, especially considering how "different" these two men are.  And now, of course, it's incredibly heartwrenching knowing that Kurt's leaving the nest and this pair will be split up.  Honestly, it's 1000x sadder to think about Kurt and Burt being separated than Kurt and Blaine.  For years, Kurt and Burt were all each other had in their lives, and they had each others' backs the entire way through.  Separating a kid from a parent is upsetting enough, but the idea of separating this kid from this parent had me reaching for the tissues far before Burt even uttered the phrase "Starsky and Gay Hutch."  The conversation was a perfect segue to Kurt singing "I Have Nothing" for his assignment, but my emotions ebbed considerably when I realized Kurt was actually singing to Blaine.  Wah-wah.  This television show's expressions of love are monumentally one-dimensional in action and dialogue yet profusely preached in storyline, and I'm getting to the point where any "romantic" scene inspires no sort of emotion in me other than nausea.  Will I ever wholly love a couple on Glee again?

Methinks the answer is an unfortunate yet resounding no, as "Dance With Somebody" lined up the next pairing in rotation: Quinn, and Joe - also known as "Dreads" and "Teen Jesus."  Now, I'm terribly discriminating when it comes to Quinn's love interests.  As in, I haven't liked a single one.  (Okay, I've liked some things about some of the relationships, but mostly, I am a Quinn-should-be-single girl, and I have an arsenal of character-based proof to back up my opinion.)  And the streak continues!  There are myriad reasons why this pairing positively baffles me, and for the sake of making it look like a Laundry List of Reasons, I shall bullet-point them:
  • Quinn was just in a life-threatening accident, and the one person who rushes to her side is someone who has known her for literally three episodes.  Why does something as character-important as dealing with possible paraplegia get shuffled over to a guy we hardly know?
  • This of course only lends itself to the notion that Quinn is somehow being saved by this guy, because he is Teen Jesus and has a soothing way about him and that is all we know
  • It is also alienating Quinn from characters she has actual relationships with, especially in light of her accident.  Her bond with Artie was nowhere to be seen, and the untied threads of her dynamic with Rachel are being expressed simply with Rachel apologizing at random points in conversations that don't actually have to do with her.
  • Quinn is about to graduate in forty-two days, and seemed intent on not letting any part of her past prevent her from meeting her future.  Why on earth would she take up with a sophomore she barely knows?  (And if the reason is because she is in a wheelchair now and her opinions about her future have changed, then make the storyline about that instead!)
  • While their duet was sweet, they've been dressing Quinn so much more maturely lately that honestly as I was watching it, I couldn't help but see a housewife singing with her son's hygiene-challenged friend who hangs around all the time and is kind of inappropriate but also underage and so the mom tries to keep him at arm's length.  (Oops.)
  • This particular episode confronted the notion that Joe doesn't know how to negotiate his penis and his faith, and he sought out Sam for advice in pursuing Quinn.  Um, hi.  Does no one remember that Quinn has probably not had sex since she got pregnant because she got pregnant and is probably the most skittish person around reproductive organs?  Nope?  No one?  Oh, okay.
  • Joe's reasons for liking Quinn are that she is the prettiest, nicest, best-smelling girl he's met.  Prettiest, I'll give him.  Best-smelling, I have no evidence.  Nicest?  Oh, no, buddy.  If you think Quinn Fabray is the nicest person you've met you have clearly met exactly one person: Quinn Fabray.  And I'm supposed to want them to be together?  I don't understand.
  • Also, Quinn should be single, and I have a whole laundry sub-list of character-based reasons why, that I will not list because a laundry list within a laundry list is far too much for this review right now.
So there you have eight very valid reasons as to why this Joe/Quinn pairing is mystifying beyond all reason, and mostly I just want to frown at the show for treading the waters (again) of "how do I resist the carnal temptation of hot girls" question from dudes, and as well for trying to make Quinn's physical therapy erotic somehow.  Why?  She's recovering from a near-death experience!  Why are these moments played out to be sexual?  No!  I don't like it one bit.  I also don't like how Quinn was subjected to flattened-out "girl talk" in the bathroom, where women say things that only men think that women say, wherein every single glee girl commented on how Quinn's got a little somethin'-somethin' cooking with Joe and just encouraged her with flirty boy talk.  No!  Why couldn't that time have been devoted to a series of shots where we got a single of each girl looking at herself in the mirror, and then cut to Quinn having to put on her makeup in the reflection of a hair dryer, because that's the closest to her height?  The only Quinn development in this episode came with the hardened belief that no one could possibly love her in this condition, and it wasn't even delineated that she's regressing back to being resigned about her future.  No!  Instead, she was given awkward Bible sex talk in physical therapy sessions, and weird romantic storylines that have no business taking precedence over her recovery arc.

Again, I'm basically revolted by the majority of Glee's "romantic" expressions these days, and after "Dance With Somebody," the couple I think I liked most during the episode was Rachel and Santana.  I mean, Santana willingly put Rachel's picture in her locker when asked!  (And didn't put any weird decorations around it like the photos in Kurt's and Rachel's.)  Not only that, they banged out a hell of a duet, complete with Santana trying to adorably squirm away from the iron grasp of a Rachel Berry hug.  Yet Santana will miss her!  If only this prickly friendship could have been actually expressed on the show from time to time instead of randomly paid off forty-two days before graduation.  The scene was certainly included to supplement the inclusion of "So Emotional," which is more than any scene could say for the performance of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."  (It's because there is none.  The latter song got a strange and manic club-hit treatment, and was presented without any narrative tether - except Will Schuester's trusty Whitney theme.  It was cute, but a floater.)

As such, "Dance With Somebody" was overall a sloppy execution of themes - where one could have been strong on its own, Glee oversold the construct of including Whitney Houston, and ultimately cluttered the narrative.  However, the writers are getting good mileage out of the pending curtain calls for New Directions, and emotionally, this episode hit those notes well.  The tone of friendships on this show have always outweighed the mess of romantic relationships, and "Dance With Somebody" only served to reinforce that dichotomy.

(Now, I'm gonna go listen to some Whitney Houston.)

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A-
Dance Numbers: B+
Dialogue: C
Plot: C
Characterization: B+
Episode MVP: Burt Hummel
Poll: Rachel seemed to laugh at Kurt and Blaine for having scheduled makeouts.  Is this a) in-character, because Rachel would totally appreciate the drama of impromptu face-sucking?  Or b) out-of-character, because Rachel Berry makes cat calendars and would totally schedule mack time into her days?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Love Bloggo: "Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow"

I've been a bit lax in updating recently, only taking on Glee reviews and the perennially-tardy Smash recaps, largely because real life keeps distracting me from my more frivolous pursuits.  So yesterday, I was tangled up in some real-life business, and my mother called me to tell me Joss Whedon was speaking on NPR.  (My mom is my Buffy buddy.  The woman never warmed to any sci-fi or fantasy in her life, but somehow Buffy the Vampire Slayer really spoke to her.  I don't get it either.)

Deciding to indulge in a break from work, I flipped on the radio, expecting to hear Joss talk about Dr. Horrible and The Avengers.  But instead, a man was speaking about his own mother - and ultimately, what it was like to lose her suddenly to a lung disease.  Needless to say, this was not the Fluff Piece I was expecting; I ended up sniffling into my Kleenex, the fact that my own mother had accidentally recommended this to me made it all the more heartwrenching.

After some research, I learned that the story I heard belongs to Dan Savage, an author and journalist whom most know as a sex advice columnist as well as the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project.  The piece aired on "This American Life," with the theme "Return to the Scene of the Crime."  Dan speaks about his mother's death igniting a sudden obsession with the Catholic Church - a religion he was raised with, but ultimately rejected.  Equal parts comic, tragic, and thought-provoking, "Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow" is currently on my mind as not only a touching memoir of one man's mother, but also a poignant introspection on loss, faith, and the absurdity of death.

But instead of me telling you all about it, it's better if you just listen for yourself.  (16 minutes)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The RBI Report: "Saturday Night Glee-ver"

Finally, a Glee episode devoted to these kids and their dreams!  It's high time we've learned what mental doors have opened for these scrappy kids thanks to the power of music, theatre, dance, and acting!  And what better way to explore the nature of dreaming and success than with the seminal American music genre that best understands what it means to dream: disco.  Because, as they say: the higher your falsetto, the bigger your dreams.

"Saturday Night Glee-ver," written by Matthew Hodgson, directed by Brad Buecker.

Okay, so perhaps I'm being a bit harsh.  The idea of kids in a small town dreaming of something bigger is a central tenet of this show, and I don't mean to knock it.  But it does get re-tread an awful lot, and I honestly don't know how disco is the best vehicle for the theme.  Frankly, it felt more like the last musical genre left to get the Glee treatment - especially since the show's pilot condemned it outright.  So what better way to prove its relevance by shoehorning it into Glee's main themes?  But disco, to me, is simply fun.  If you want to do disco this close to graduation, make it so that the seniors are stressed out by their college decisions, and Will suggests they just take a break and have fun - with disco.  The kids can protest, because it's disco, but eventually learn that disco's not so bad, and reach their own conclusions about their futures with or without the help of polyester.  And while Saturday Night Fever could be summarized as a guy pursuing his dreams, the same can be said for countless other movies, and the reduction ignores a lot of Saturday Night Fever's focus on the angst of growing up and finding an outlet from harsh "grown-up" realities.  (In other words, Will could have used disco to encourage the kids to let off steam while they deal with their grown-up choices.)

The premise of disco was even more bewildering in that Glee just busted out "You Should Be Dancing," right from the top, without any explanation whatsoever.  Blaine thought it'd be a good mix of vintage and fun (which it is; I'll give him) - but only when Will worries for the futures of three of his Glee students does disco become the perfect vehicle for self-discovery.  Um, I don't think that's what Blaine meant, Mr. Schue.  What did help sell this concept was the spoonful of self-referential sugar that Sue sent with it - claiming that Will Schuester hasn't had a good teaching idea since Madonna Week.  Burn!  (And true.  Also, Madonna was Sue's idea.  Awkward.)  In other words, Glee hasn't logically assembled an artist's tribute that's both fitting and story-driven in quite some time.  We even got a further nod to that suggestion with the claim that "Rumours" was great, but had no lasting effect on the narrative.  Maybe this was Matt Hodgson's way of warning us that we were about to endure another madcap hour of themed music that would stretch the bounds of human logic and character development to facilitate its song choices, and that we should all just forget about it at curtain's fall.

Oh, how I wish we could.

Okay, okay, I'm being overdramatic again.  Of the four storylines threading through "Saturday Night Glee-ver," two were trainwrecks, one was passable, and one was downright excellent.  And guess what?  The downright excellent one had nothing to do with the episode's frame: the idea that Will Schuester is using disco to encourage three of his students to figure out what they want to do with their futures.  What does that tell you about the framework, then? 

Trainwreck #1: Finn Hudson searches for his dream, fails to realize his girlfriend has been replaced by a robot.

"Saturday Night Glee-ver" finally confronted the uncomfortable issue that's been conveniently undeveloped yet annoyingly present since the dawn of this season: what does Finn Hudson want from his future?  This is a 100% valid question to be asking, given his past confusion on the topic.  And frankly, that confusion transcends into the narrative itself.  Do the writers want him to be proto-Will Schuester, or a kid destined to take the scene by storm because he's a straight guy who can sing and dance?  Is he supposed to be a mechanic, a soldier, or a football player?  Is he going to be a pool-cleaning mogul with Puck, or is he a gifted stage performer?  He knows not.  We know not.  The writers know not.

But Finn was allowed this full episode to discover his own dreams for the future - not the ones that Puck or Rachel want for him.  Will, Emma, and Rachel all bombard him with pamphlets and brochures for college, but Finn promptly dumps them in the trash.  And finally, Will gets him to break down and confess that he's scared of being a loser, and even more terrified that Rachel will realize he has no potential.  The only thing he knows he wants is the feeling of being on the football field or on the stage, and Will tells him that deep down, he knows his dream.  He just has to watch Saturday Night Fever to discover it and embrace it.  (Yes, I laughed.  It's a ridiculous notion.)

So, Finn tells Rachel he wants to go to New York and be like Tony Manero in the Big City and take on the world.  Of course, this comes after Rachel tells Finn that they don't have to go to New York if his dream isn't there.  Because her home isn't a place - it's him.  (Yes, I gagged.  It's overly saccharine.)  She encourages Finn to have his own dreams, because what if they're bigger than hers?  They deserve to be focused on.

Here is the thing.  I'm quite tired of talking about Finn and Rachel's relationship, so I'll make this brief.  Yes, Finn deserves to have a dream.  But I dislike that the narrative and the other characters in it are so insistent that he have one now.  It is 100% okay to not know exactly what you want to do when you graduate high school.  Most people don't end up where they thought they'd be, even just one or two years down the line.  If Finn is struggling to find a fulfilled future, then why not let him find it at his own pace?  The other characters may as well be turning him upside down and shaking him, as though a wayward dream might fall out of one of his pockets.  It's okay to be unsure!  And while I love that this show positively portrays young people with big dreams, I dislike that anything other than that standard is treated like a "problem."  It's not a problem; it's simply an obstacle to overcome at one's own pace and patience.

Unfortunately, this storyline for Finn is playing out in conjunction with Rachel, to whom he is tethered via engagement band.  And here is where it gets particularly troubling.  What do you do when your couple might have to put one person's dreams before the other's?  It's unfair for Finn to tagalong with Rachel to New York if he doesn't have a dream there.  But it's also unfair for Rachel to redirect or postpone her dream simply so that Finn can find out what his is.  On any other show, this is a recipe for a healthy and amicable breakup, with the promise that perhaps their timing will realign in the future.  On Glee, this is a chance to "develop" Rachel Berry and prove that she's not the same selfish loner she was in the Pilot.  She is willing to put Finn before her dreams now!  She's grown!  She even tells Finn that she used to feel so alienated at McKinley that New York seemed the only way to go home, but now that role is fulfilled by Finn.  The writers seem to be wielding this as some sort of character development for Rachel with regards to her personal relationships, but frankly it's just upsetting that they would strip her of all her other identifiers just to make her feel loved.

This all wouldn't be so bad if Finn's dreams didn't amount to "I like it when people cheer for me," or if Rachel didn't seem so insecure about losing Finn that she offered to sacrifice everything that's defined her character for three seasons.  It also wouldn't be so bad if Finn didn't match Rachel's insecurity with his own need to fuel his own self-esteem with Rachel's approval.  The idea that he wants to be Rachel's Man, that he wants to be exactly how she sees him - capable of anything - reeks of low self-esteem and the need for someone else to fulfill that emotional void.  It's unhealthy!  This is a terribly unhealthy relationship, if one half of it is so insecure about being alone that she'll desperately set aside her own previously-unchangeable plans, and the other half of it has so little self-worth that he's banking on the validation from his loved one to make sense of his life.  Any way you spin this, it's a mess, and the writers have consistently found the messiest aspects each time they spin Finchel storylines.  This is not a healthy romance; it's just not.

Honestly, the most compelling person for Finn to interact with on this "dreamer" arc is Quinn Fabray, who spent two and a half seasons stuck in circles when it came to figuring out what she truly wanted.  It would be incredibly rewarding for them, as the erstwhile head cheerleader and star quarterback, to have a conversation about the futures that they've been forced to redirect for themselves after everything they thought they wanted whisked away on the wind.  But for whatever reason, Quinn was hardly anywhere to be seen in "Saturday Night Glee-ver," which is maddening even without the expectation that she might have an interesting interaction with Finn about self-discovery.  Apparently the writers think we have little invested in Quinn's onscreen presence, let alone her recovery storyline. 

Trainwreck #2: Santana Lopez searches for her dream; fails to realize she can't win for losing when it comes to her private life.

We all remember Matthew Hodgson, right?  He penned a little sojourn called "I Kissed a Girl," wherein Santana Lopez had details from her private life wrenched from her control and displayed for all to see - and then just had to learn to deal with it.  Does this sound familiar?  Because this is the basic description of Santana's part in "Saturday Night Glee-ver" as well.  Santana, according to Schue, is ambitious but has no focus.  She crows left and right that she wants to be famous in whatever way she can, without any real merit if necessary, and she's 1000% sure it'll happen for her.  Well, Brittany decides to take matters into her own hands and puts hers and Santana's sex tape on the internet.  Of course, Santana gets all kinds of (negative) attention for this, and is duly horrified at the consequences.  Brittany is hellbent on making Santana's dream come true, and tries to set her up on a series of reality TV shows.  In the end, Santana is embarrassed about her original plan, having seen the fallout of being publicly shameless, and decides to go to college.  Which is good, because Sue Sylvester got her into a cheerleading program in Louisville, Kentucky, with an option for majoring in business.  (Because if there's one state in the union that screams Santana Lopez, it's Kentucky.)

This storyline was a downright mess.  Firstly, the sex tape part was completely glossed over for the purpose of Santana learning her Big Lesson.  Where was Holly Holliday to swoop in and discourage another possible sex tape leak?  Has Glee decided to not mention child pornography, or are we supposed to believe that Santana and Brittany are 18 and can therefore make all sex-related decisions as though they're mini-adults?  All I know is that a sex tape was casually dropped in as a plot device in a high school comedy, and nary an eyebrow was raised.

Secondly, Santana was actively portrayed as having the wrong dream.  She wished to get famous for the sake of being famous, and gets royal comeuppance when she realizes fame is on her doorstep... because her girlfriend exploited their private life for her dream.  Which leads me to the third bad part of this storyline: why is it that Santana can't be written in control of her own storylines?  Is it because she's a bitch?  Because watching Santana completely powerless in her own existence is not rewarding "punishment" for her past transgressions as one of Glee's quasi-villains.  It's upsetting.  In both "I Kissed a Girl" and "Saturday Night Glee-ver," Santana had her privacy violated with the expressed idea that it was out of love - and in the end, Santana's completely fine with it.  Not only that, but it was in her best interests.  In IKAG, she's forced out of the closet to show her how awesome she is, no matter that she isn't ready for it.  And in SNG, her sex life is displayed for all to see, so that she can discover that she doesn't want to be a fame whore.  To boot, she has her college picked out for her and handed to her in one fell swoop, and she thanks them for it.  

I call foul!  This is not okay!  Why does no one ever ask Santana what she wants, and respect that anymore?  It's terrible construction for this character, who may as well have her hands tied behind her back so that she can keep shooting off at the mouth until someone "nicer" comes along to show her that she's wrong.  It'd be one thing if Santana reacted like Finn, who is no stranger to a temper tantrum when he feels he's being walked on.  But the writers love to shove someone else's wishes down Santana's throat, and make her simply say thank you in return.  As a result, a character with incredible depth as a result of her flaws is reduced to being a body in orbit, to be yelled at or lectured, or wielded thinly to prove a point.  Hell, even Will put words in her mouth when she finished singing "If I Can't Have You."  And while she corrected his interpretation with her own intent, she was ultimately shown to be invalid in her opinions after she had the lesson shoved down her throat.  Ultimately, she wasn't in charge of her own self-discovery storyline, and what makes matters worse is the idea that Brittany, her supposed "soulmate," was involved in the denial of Santana's agency.  Sue and Brittany knew what was best for Santana, without asking her, and that's all there was to it.  Party foul on healthy relationships, Glee, and double foul on portraying Brittany as too dumb to know any better.  I really shouldn't be surprised at this point.

But let's move on to the more palatable material, shall we?

Passable Storyline: Mercedes already knows her dreams; is reaffirmed that she has the ability to achieve them.

So, Finn doesn't have a dream, Santana has the wrong dream, and Mercedes doesn't know how to go about getting her dream.  She wants to be like Mariah, Whitney, and Aretha: women who have #1 hits that inspire people.  But how does she get there?  She apparently has little parental support from her dentist father, and underneath all of this lies the nagging insecurity: what if she's only good by Lima standards?  Cream rises to the top, but what if she's only skim milk?  This notion is certainly compelling, and realistic to the situation at hand, so while I'm not usually a fan of bogging Mercedes down with debilitating and self-imposed insecurities, I was more willing to let this one through.

And of course, since this is Glee, her affirmation came in the form of a love interest.  Sam filmed her rendition of "Disco Inferno," uploaded it to YouTube sans permission, and garnered enough positive comments to help Mercedes realize that she ain't no skim milk.  It was a pretty standard way to wrap up the emotional mini-arc, and while it was cute, I can't help but wish there were something more to it.  What if Sam immediately assured Mercedes that she had nothing to worry about in the talent department, and then they set about researching the music industry?  That way, Mercedes could get an added boost of self-confidence in the fact that she's studied up and acquired some business savvy.  As they say, you can learn tips and tricks, but you can't learn talent.  Mercedes already has talent - she just might need to gain some savvy to really capitalize on it.

Of course, I also can't help but wonder why these three storylines never intersected.  Why did Mercedes, Finn, and Santana all have to receive help from their significant others, but never once did the writers purposefully cross their paths?  After all, they were scripted as having the same general problem: a lack of preparation for the future - so why not team them up and let them work through their issues together?  Mercedes and Santana could drop some (productive, not cruel) truth bombs on Mr. Hudson about his aimlessness, Santana and Finn could both easily reassure Mercedes that she's amazing (Santana in a backwards way, of course), and Mercedes and Santana could realize that they inadvertently push each other to be better simply through competition, and make a pact to keep pushing one another in the future.  Hell, both Kurt and Rachel dealt with the same insecurities as Mercedes fifteen episodes ago, and no one knows about the nagging possibility of being destined to loser status quite as well as Noah Puckerman or Quinn Fabray.  So why boomerang the wayward dreamers into their significant others only - especially when two of those relationships suffered in the execution?

Finally, excellence: Wade is Unique.

At long last, we were treated to the fourth and final winner of The Glee Project: Alex Newell.  He played Wade, a Vocal Adrenaline student who seeks out Kurt and Mercedes for a piece of advice.  He confesses to them that he's their number one fan, and that he wants to know if they think he should perform at VA's Regionals dressed as a woman.  See, Wade only feels like he's his real self when he's "Unique" - a female alter-ego.  Kurt and Mercedes tell him that Ohio isn't really ready for the likes of Unique, but ultimately Sue Sylvester urges them to encourage Wade so that VA will tank.  But when Kurt and Mercedes attend Regionals to save Wade from the pending disaster of introducing drag to Ohio, he tells them he has to go through with it.  Then he gets up on stage, in wig, dress, heels, and makeup, and performs the hell out of "Boogie Shoes" to thunderous applause.   

It is not often that mainstream television tackles the "T" in LGBT.  Truthfully, we're still trying to get the "L," "G," and "B" represented fairly and frequently.  So transgender issues are rarely scripted, and usually cross-dressing is seen as comedic device or throwaway joke, and it's almost always separated from any actual gender dissociation.  So to see Glee, a television show marketed to the mainstream, putting forth a young character who expresses his true identity without any ounce of shame or confusion - even when his true identity is a girl - is a huge deal.  They even went so far as to point out that Kurt, while being "effeminate" as a gay man, still identifies as just that: a man.  It's implied, however, that Wade identifies as a woman, and in embracing that identity, he shoneGlee made good on a promise that most television shows don't even go near, and I applaud them.

In all, disco served as a mostly random backdrop to the usual business of the glee kids figuring out their dreams and discovering their potential.  Unfortunately, the individual storylines involved some poor choices in terms of agency and character relationships, and at the end of the day I'm still not sure I feel any better about these kids' futures.  Truly, the most enjoyable part of the episode was seeing each of the kids deliver their own dance moves during "Night Fever," and I wish the episode had been more in keeping with the gang having fun and coming to conclusions more naturally than forcibly adopting the lessons of a disco film from the '70s. 

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B+
Dance Numbers: A-
Dialogue: C+
Plot: C+
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: Wade

Monday, April 16, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x10 - "Understudy"

Smash's latest episode, "Understudy," had a clear theme easily available to it after the climactic events of "The Coup" and "Hell on Earth" - the maddening concept of waiting.  What do you do with the "in-between," while Rebecca Duvall is held up in Cuba and you need to push forward on Bombshell?  How do you direct a show led by a temporary understudy?  What can you do to mend your broken relationship, when your husband won't even speak to you?  Nearly every character in "Understudy" had to deal with the repercussions of the recent changes, and for many of them, this involved navigating through an awkward "middle."  Unfortunately, Smash didn't really capitalize on that commonality, and while they attempted a thematic wrap-up with Katharine McPhee's lovely version of "Never Give All the Heart," the similarities never quite bridged where they could have.  That being said, "Understudy" provided a further look into how a Broadway musical can turn your life upside down - and the changes rolled on.  

I will say, I do think that Smash is hitting its stride in these episodes from "The Coup" onward, and there's something to be said for the fact that the writers are simply shaking things up and not afraid to force changes in their characters' environments.  Beyond that, they're finally digging into these relationships and letting the characters demonstrate their different dynamics, which knits the ensemble together more tightly.  "Understudy" in particular wove a storyline where Julia and Tom's dynamic acted as a mirror on Julia and Frank's, Tom and Sam's caused problems with Tom and John's, and Derek and Ivy's had effect on Derek and Karen's, which in turn ruffled up Karen and Dev's.  There was a nice intersectionality with these relationships that made the dynamics - and participants - feel more realistic and fleshed-out, even with their flaws.

Of course, Eileen is still steering the Bombshell ship, for better or for worse, and struggling to hold onto investors as Rebecca Duvall takes her sweet time showing up for rehearsal.  While it's a bit on-the-nose to give dialogue like "Jerry would never put us in this situation!" to dubious financiers so that Eileen has a clearly-constructed obstacle in front of her, I still like the idea behind the premise.  Eileen's a scrappy broad, and I love that her arc is about her coming into her own and learning to produce a show come hell or high water.  And how great that she's assembling the most unconventional type of investor for a Broadway show?  It was a bit laborious (read: dull) to get Eileen and Nick the Bartender to Randy Cobra and his oodles of money, but I still loved the payoff.  Eileen is putting this musical together the only way she knows how, and she's not apologizing for it.  And she's still yelling at Ellis!  Her insistence that he stop being a nosy snoop about Nick and put his co-producer credit to work by tracking down Rebecca Duvall instead was so delightful.  Eileen Rand continues to earn her place as Queen of this whole operation.

Meanwhile, as Eileen tries to secure money, Derek is faced with a star-less production for a week.  Naturally, he asks that Karen step in.  Because unlike "fetch," Karen is destined to happen.  But honestly I didn't mind Karen's storyline because it wasn't about her triumphing over the material: she's simply the Marilyn of the Week.  And in that temporary concept, it allowed for her storyline to be more about her relationships with Dev, Derek, and Ivy.  Karen's novice comes to light as she can't remember to bring pencils and which way is downstage, and Derek yells at her a lot.  So because of this, Karen lets slip to Dev that Derek sexually harassed her, and Dev flips out.  The wedge is driven further between them when Dev loses a promotion and possibly has a job offer in Washington DC - aka "Not-Broadway."  Adding that with Ivy's insistence that Derek be nice to Karen and baby her, √† la Marilyn, and we get a gentler Derek, an apology scene for aforementioned transgression, and Dev punching his face in.  Phew, that's a lot.

But this quadrangle of character interactions was pretty compelling, perhaps because the conflicts were well-reasoned and emotionally-resonant - instead of Ivy suspiciously side-eying Karen who's suspiciously side-eying RJ who hugs Dev perhaps more often than coworkers should.  There was much more depth in "Understudy," and it all stemmed from Smash rehashing something I wasn't sure they would: Derek and Karen's late-night song and lap dance from the pilot.  It was indeed sexual harassment, but situations like that often get played out on television to demonstrate "sexual tension" to the audience and create a scenario where two people who shouldn't be together are made more titillating because it's taboo.  (Katharine McPhee in a men's shirt doesn't hurt the constructed appeal.) So I thought it was just Smash trying to pique our interest with a Derek/Karen romance, and chalked up the power play to baser storytelling and let it go.  But no!  The scene boomeranged back with consequences, as Dev found out and blew into outrage, Karen thought it was nothing to make a big deal over, and Derek conveniently apologized for it by episode's end.  I do wish that maybe someone else in the industry could have weighed in on the incident, in contrast to Dev's inexperience with showbiz and Karen's naivet√©: Ivy, perhaps, or even one of the nameless ensemble dancers that pirouette through when needed.

But, even as is, each aspect of this four-way character tangle found interesting notes to play.  It resulted in Derek softening around the edges, Dev and Karen having a real argument about issues with their relationship, and a strangely appealing Derek/Karen dynamic.  That last one I find particularly intriguing: she clearly doesn't bend to his bluster easily (as evidenced by their scene in the pilot) and he clearly goes all gooey in the face when she sings.  Also weird-yet-fantastic was his hallucination of Karen-as-Marilyn and the subsequent reaction.  Who knows what Derek might do to secure Karen as the lead, but if his dumbstruck expression is anything to go by, I wouldn't put anything past the guy. 

Ivy's part in all of this was half-fascinating, half-idiotic, as she apparently is playing Ms. Nice Gal so that she can get back in the good graces of Bombshell's Powers that Be.  I don't get why Ivy couldn't just be reasonably nice, and let her build a prickly relationship with Karen without chalking up kindness to duplicity.  Do the writers just not intend to make Ivy a nice person?  Do they not think a slow-burn progress towards real yet complicated friendship would be superior to a hastily-and-thinly-written frenemy dynamic?  Especially when there doesn't seem to be any actual benefit for Ivy being sugar-sweet to Karen or Derek or even Tom and Julia!  Can't she just tell Derek to be nice to Karen because Derek directed her rather brutishly and she hated it?  I don't get why she has to play an angle.

Regardless, one thing is sure about Ivy Lynn: she is old news.  If Karen is the Marilyn of this week, Ivy is the Marilyn of last week, and "Understudy" did well communicating that disappointing sense of disposability in Ivy's character.  We even got an angsty-yet-eager solo to "Breakaway" - usually reserved for Karen! - as Ivy witnessed the people of Bombshell continuing their routines without her.  I do wish there had been more emotional build-up to this performance, simply because it had all the trappings of an emotional moment, without any emotional cues before it to set the stage for Ivy pouring her heart out.  I got whiplash: I wasn't with Ivy at the start, but then my heart broke for her when I realized she was fantasizing about putting all the Marilyn makeup on and being received with open arms and applause by the people who fired her.  Even more painful was the moment where Ivy spied on Karen's final Marilyn solo, and passed by Rebecca Duvall in the hallway.  Ivy is officially out of the picture, and I'm excited to see what that means for her relationship with Karen now that they have both been dumped by Bombshell's neverending changes - did I spy a quick peek of them talking together in the preview?  Scorned actresses bitterly griping about the same show that screwed them over?  Sounds like a place to find comedy, drama, and unlikely friendship!  Sign me up.

Of course, commiserating a little too much got Tom and Sam in trouble with John, who picked up on their connection and called Tom out on in pretty immediately.  To this, I say: smart choice.  It's best not to let John be seen as a doormat by the audience, and it was a lovely gift of maturity for the character to simply tell his partner that he sees how he lights up with someone else.  Is this it for John, though?  Honestly, the fact that this scenario has dodged the cheating plague while simultaneously abbreviating the love triangle makes me intrigued to see a Tom/Sam pairing happen.  But will Tom let John go without a fight?  The Tom/Sam thing seems like a crush, and Tom/John appears to be more of a secure relationship.  So I'm duly interested, Smash.  Let's keep it way, shall we?

Even with all this romantic change, though, Tom was still loyal to his one true significant other: Julia, with whom he was celebrating ten successful years together as writing partners.  Julia, of course, is mourning the loss of her actual marriage, as Frank has moved out and won't speak to her.  As such, it's an awkward time to have a publicized-for-funsies work marriage talked about like it's no big deal.  Especially when Julia storms out of an interview with a smile on her face and runs out on Tom's (public) anniversary speech with tears streaming down her face.  Sure, they seem like slight overreactions, but as an audience we get her POV.  So when she finally tells Tom about Frank's exit and accepts the reality of the situation, mostly I just want this character to see happier days.  Her personal life has fallen apart disastrously, and her professional life currently consists of a musical she's had little control over and that brought a piece from her past back to haunt her.

And, here we are, ten episodes in.  Bombshell has devolved from a twinkly magical Broadway offering with all the potential in the world to a down-but-not-out stage show limping along to the needs of the wallets and egos in charge.  Now that we know this is how it's going to be, it's a pretty fascinating devolution to witness, and I almost hope Smash keeps it dark from here on out.  It'd be strange and false, frankly, to see a glossy and perfect Bombshell triumph with a curtain call, and no bittersweet layer of the "could-have-beens" that were shed along the way.  "Understudy" certainly presented some darker and deeper moments in conjunction with progress made by Eileen's perseverance.  Even though it missed some easy commonalities in theme, the character dynamics and consequences were interesting, well-founded, and continued to create questions for next week.  So we'll just have to see what fresh hell Rebecca Duvall will bring into this equation and how it upsets the balances that have been evening out in recent weeks!  Surely things will shake up - again - and Bombshell will continue to change, and cause change.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B-
Plot: B+
Character: A-
Musical Numbers: B+
Episode MVP: Eileen Rand.  Again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The RBI Report: "Big Brother"

Seven weeks ago, Dave Karofsky tried to commit suicide, Rachel and Finn were two breaths away from saying "I do," and Quinn Fabray fell victim to a pretty nasty car crash (cut to black, natch).  Intense, right?  Glee went hard in "On My Way," and so naturally it seemed like a good idea to follow the episode with an introduction of Blaine's brother and how mean and stupid he is. 

"Big Brother," written by Michael Hitchcock, directed by Eric Stoltz

As you can probably already guess, I'm incredibly perplexed as to why this episode was constructed the way it was.  When you end on a big-ass cliffhanger, it only seems logical to pick up where the cliffhanger left off.  But "Big Brother" found us a month or so later, with Finn and Rachel casually talking about how Quinn's accident stopped the wedding and Quinn and Artie joyfully performing wheelchair choreography.  Honestly, I couldn't enjoy "I'm Still Standing" because I just kept thinking, but... what happened to her?  We finally got the rundown on the heels of the performance, with the Glee writers' new favorite material for Quinn: a half-page monologue about how okay she is and how she solved all her problems offscreen.  

Why?  If you want to do a time jump, that's fine, but at least use it to create a mystery about what happened in that interim period.  Create conversations, conflicts, and interactions that allude to it and make the audience wonder what happened - all the while slowly revealing that information and answering those questions.  But "Big Brother" forced a time jump simply to avoid having to answer complicated questions about Quinn's accident and the cliffhanger.  For instance: how exactly did it stop the wedding?  I don't get it.  Unless Quinn's red Beetle somehow plowed through City Hall, I don't see how the events are actually related - unless Rachel refused to get married without Quinn there and sent everyone home, which you would think would have some emotional fallout in her actual relationship.  I don't see how the timeline works logically, where Judy Fabray would have gotten a call and rushed to the hospital and maybe had the forethought to text... who?  Who at Rachel's wedding would have merited immediate contact from Mrs. Fabray about her daughter being in a potentially fatal car crash?  Santana?  Brittany?  Sam?  Rachel herself?  I just don't get it.

There was also so little focus on the derailed wedding it makes you wonder what the whole point of it was in the first place.  Finn and Rachel express that it was indeed rushed and too soon, but keep their engagement.  It's like Quinn's accident was designed as a "saved by the bell"-type intervention, but that didn't actually create any wake-up calls.  We're just back to neutral, and the amped-up drama feels especially overblown and unnecessary in retrospect.  (And that's not even considering the fact that Dave is just nowhere to be seen - did he and Quinn somehow cross paths in the hospital?  Is Kurt still visiting him?  Or has he magically found the soulmate from his vision and adopted a kid already?  Who knows?  Who cares, apparently?)

Ultimately, this all adds up to lazy writing, and the clear and incontrovertible suggestion that the dramatic events of "On My Way" were entirely done for ratings, without any intention that they'd be treated with even a modicum of commitment.  Evidence persists as well in Quinn's complete lack of struggle until halfway through the episode.  It would have been nice to see actual development, as this teenager, who has had her share of troubles throughout her entire high school career, is faced with perhaps the most difficult challenge she could imagine - on the heels of an acceptance letter to Yale and the chance to start over some place new.  How are we to expect that Quinn Fabray, dark and angry and self-centered Quinn Fabray, would not be incredibly bitter in this situation?  Instead, she just burst onto the scene, completely cheery, having forgiven Rachel, bonded hardcore with Artie, with confidence for her future still intact.  She was even armed with a no-texting-and-doing-ANYTHING-ELSE message for all to hear and learn from!  She smiled, she hugged, she was good-natured about her misfortune.  She made no mention of the wedding she was hellbent on preventing, then accepting.  She uttered nothing of her previous plans to join the Cheerios and win a title - plans that are now null.  I was beginning to think Quinn Fabray actually suffered amnesia from the accident, or that there was some freak body switch at the hospital.  Regardless, this was the most pageant-y Quinn's ever been, and it alarmed me.

She spent the majority of the episode with Artie, in a friendship that's cute but also merits a slight double-take.  On the one hand, it's good that the writers bypassed the inevitably-awkward "oh hey we're in wheelchairs let's be friends now" conversation and went straight to cavorting and smiles times.  But it also robbed their dynamic of some emotional depth that would have come in handy when the actual conflict arose - when the episode was more than half over.  Because we finally saw a glimpse of our old Quinn, optimism begone.  Quinn Fabray is not an optimistic soul.  She is equal parts realist and self-deluded, a maddening symbiosis of polar concepts which makes her difficult to riddle through and shake out.   It was certainly incongruent to the sunny, smiling Quinn who pep-talked Rachel with hugs and cackled maniacally with glee at the triumph of wheeling herself up a ramp.   Realist she was not, in the first half of "Big Brother," but finally the self-deluded shoe dropped: Quinn is absolutely opposed to hearing any suggestion that she may not walk again.  Aha!  Here's the Quinn we know: clinging desperately to a concept because she's terrified of the alternative and what it means for her. 

In that this idea is the most compelling (and in-character) for Quinn, I wish that it had been revealed sooner, or, at the very least, stronger.  It's certainly a fascinating conversation to have with Artie, who has to deal with managing expectation and reality every day.  It would have also been a fascinating conversation to have with Rachel, who rivals Quinn with her ability to block out unpleasant truths in favor of a happier mindset.  Especially combining that similarity with the fact that Rachel was handling Quinn's accident in the exact opposite way: she was a big gloomy mess about it.  She took the blame and set it squarely on her own shoulders, crying about it and bringing it up in irrelevant situations, while Quinn didn't even shed a tear.  It would have been a good starting point, although perhaps formulaic, for Rachel to push Quinn to talk about her emotions and have Quinn snap back and show that she won't let herself.  The idea was skated around with Artie, but because the writers didn't really give any emotional depth in their relationship, it didn't quite support the scene as well as it could have.  Or hell, the purpose of the scene could be to give the relationship more emotional depth.  But instead, it remained the visible tip of a compelling iceberg that will likely stay below the surface.

Even so, the question now stands: will Quinn be able to walk again, and is she prepared to handle reality if she can't?  I can only imagine that this will play out in conjunction to Artie, who so far has been great support, and will hopefully not lash out at Quinn if she does get to dance across the stage at Nationals.  (Awkward that she didn't make any mention of rejoining the Cheerios right before losing her ability to walk.  Maybe she did get a little amnesia.)  The Quinn-Artie interactions were cute, although I think that's mostly thanks to Dianna Agron and Kevin McHale bringing their real friendship into their scenes, but there's textually something compelling about the dynamic and I fear the writers will botch it.  As is, Artie's point-of-view is not as present as it could be, but it still seems completely plausible that the writers will give Quinn her ability to walk back and reroute the storyline into angst for Artie and send the dynamic out-of-balance in the other direction.  In any case, I am both intrigued and trepidatious about the emotionally-sensitive angles of this relationship and hope it will play out equally on both sides of the duo with fair treatment given to opposing points of view.

But this episode was not called "Quinn and Artie;" it was called "Big Brother," and so I must talk about the A-plot and the episode's emotional focus: Blaine and the complicated relationship with his older brother Cooper.  "Big Brother" served to finally give Blaine his own emotional depth and development.  On the one hand, yay!  I've wanted character progress and dimensionality for Blaine for ages, but now that it's happened I'm not sure I wanted it this way or at this time.  Glee seems to be making meta jokes that are more painfully ironic than occasionally delightful.  Like the oft-ignored Tina playing a dead body, for example, or the solo-and-screentime-saturated Blaine getting a storyline that focuses on how he feels underappreciated and marginalized.  Ouch, Glee.  We know you're reading our quibbles, but you don't have to throw salt in the wound.  (For those keeping track at home, delightful bits of meta included Sue Sylvester proclaiming that Will Schuester needs adult friends, and Cooper having difficulty determining if material is comedic or dramatic - he must be watching Glee.)

It's not that I don't want a Blaine storyline.  I'd love for this character to be fleshed out and made real, with wishes and objectives and strengths and flaws.  But "Big Brother" was just not the place nor time, truthfully.  Especially when Blaine sings Christina Aguilera's "Fighter"about his only-recently-explored bad sibling relationship in an episode where two characters are supposed to be canonically recovering from near-death experiences.  Forgive me for playing devil's advocate, but where was Kurt to tell Blaine that his problems are not that important compared to Karofsky's?  I just don't get why anyone thought it was a good idea to use Blaine's A-plot inauguration to supplant any real development or resolution on previously-standing plotlines (cliffhangers, no less).

But enough complaining about concept; let's talk execution.  Maybe I haven't been paying enough attention to Blaine, but I wouldn't have pegged the character for shouldering an inferiority complex.  He's an extremely-put-together guy, who's not easily ruffled, and should maybe avoid alcohol sometimes.  I suppose you could argue that the whole thesis of "Fighter" was that Cooper's magical existence pushed Blaine to excel in everything he did and thus created the Unflaggingly Cheerful Gel-Bot we know and love today.  But it honestly didn't make enough sense for me.  And it didn't help that Cooper was such an idiot.  It'd be one thing if Blaine was overshadowed and put down by a brother who was in any way intimidating - but instead, Cooper was dopey and misguided, and not even in a way where he was secretly insecure underneath the bravado.  He shmoozed through scene after scene, and everyone ate it up, completely oblivious to the bullshit.  Only Blaine saw through his brother's nonsense, and it was only used to underscore his - what, jealousy?  Feelings of neglect?  

Truthfully, this storyline just didn't make sense to me.  The conflict was supposedly about how Cooper constantly screws Blaine over, and then blames him for it - at least, according to Blaine.  But it also seemed to be about Cooper getting more attention than Blaine, and overshadowing him.  And this was all resolved simply by Cooper saying he's tough on Blaine because he's so damn talented and wants the best for him.  So all Blaine really needed was some affirmation - but there weren't really any feelings of insecurity there.  It was never, "Oh, my brother is so great I don't think I'll ever measure up."  It was always, "Oh, my brother is so full of shit and no one else sees it but me."  The conflict was messy and unclear, perhaps to make sure the audience really felt badly for Blaine, and it was resolved neatly and about three miles away from the whole point.  Maybe if the storyline had been about Blaine trying to get his brother to not be a big Hollywood poser, it would have made more sense.  He could have been completely bewildered by this person who is unrecognizable from who they were as kids - the fame has gone to his head, and now he treats Blaine like he's his acting coach, not his brother.  That way, Blaine would have had an objective in working through this relationship and the writers wouldn't just be piling on unnecessary and confusing angst.  Not only that, Cooper could be dimensionalized as well as Blaine, and there would be a stronger foundation for wanting them to be friends as well as brothers in the first place.

The one thing that worked nicely in the "brothers" arc was Kurt insisting to Blaine that brothers are important - and relating that it's not always easy being Finn's brother, but it's still family.  (Margaret Thatcher Dog was also great, but slightly irrelevant.)  Part of me wonders if perhaps something could have been fleshed out with Kurt and Finn involved - especially considering that Cooper hails from Hollywood, which is exactly where Finn is thinking of heading after graduation.  It could have been an interesting intersection, to put Puck and Finn in a room with Cooper and have them talk about Los Angeles.  Then perhaps the brothers angle could have been played with Cooper and Blaine, Kurt and Finn, and - to a degree - even Finn and Puck.  

Puck and Finn's storyline in "Big Brother" was not terribly unexpected: Puck wants to move to a sunny clime, in order to beef up his pool-cleaning business.  He invites Finn to move with him, saying that he doesn't have to sacrifice everything to be with Rachel - she can do movies in LA.  (Broadway is indeed dead, says Cooper!)  Finn agrees to help Puck back home, and receives enough positive enforcement from his mechanical competence and a half-naked forty-year-old to believe that he could be successful in LA.  He broaches the topic with Rachel, who really only wants to move to New York, and so Finn feels like their future is one-sided.  He accuses her only caring about his dreams when they don't interfere with hers, and tells her he could provide for her in Los Angeles.  She replies that she needs him in New York, and he counters that he needs to be sure she's really in love with him.

Then, in my notes, I wrote, "this is dumb."  

Can we get this endless Finchel drama over with?  I want both these characters to be happy and have a chance at their dreams, and it frankly doesn't seem plausible for them in their relationship's current incarnation.  Even discounting all the problems the writers have written for them over three seasons, there's an undeniable and immediate roadblock between their individual fulfillment and a future together.  And why should either character sacrifice?  Why should Rachel entertain anything other than what she's dreamt of all her life?  If she's going to, it needs to be coming from her own sense of preparation and from nowhere else.  (In other words, she maybe needed to apply to a couple of other schools, in New York or elsewhere.)  The issue with this is that Finn doesn't have dreams like Rachel does.  Finn bounces from football scholarship to garage job to active duty to pool-cleaning, and doesn't seem to have any clue which is right for him.  Rachel is hellbent on her one specific dream, and Finn is hellbent on just trying to find one. 

What's unfortunate about this construct is that it can often paint Rachel as, in Quinn's words, a self-obsessed bitch who's inconsiderate of Finn's aimlessness.  Somehow, the scene at the end of "Big Brother" became about how Rachel doesn't love Finn enough to consider sunny California simply because Puck had a brain wave about hot weather and pools.  Eurgh.  Let's amicably break these two up, please, so they can find their own ways in life!  Especially because the writers keep flirting with this idea that Finn is scrambling to find a dream simply so that he can feel important to Rachel, which is sad and also a little bit toxic for a relationship.  The fact that part of his argument for LA was supporting Rachel financially made me gag a little bit, and combined with the sensitive question of what the hell Finn's going to do in New York while Rachel's at school, it seems like Finn is insecure about being in a relationship with someone who could be advancing faster than him and even possibly leaving him behind.

All of this, if explored, could be fascinating character development on a much more sophisticated show.  But instead, we get scenes where Finn just gets upset at Rachel and Rachel back-pedals and confirms her support, and we're all just annoyed and wishing that somehow the two of them could have maybe also gotten second-hand amnesia from Quinn's accident.  Wedding?  What wedding?!  Alas.

The final storyline of the night came with the continuation of Sue Sylvester's Baby storyline.  The writers are trying to use this concept - along with the existence of Roz Washington - as a means for professional stakes, which works... but could be better.  It's communicated early on that Sue is neglecting her coaching duties because of her pregnancy, and Figgins threatens to replace her with Roz Washington.  First of all, I don't understand how running a full-fledged political campaign didn't get in the way any more than having a baby on board, but whatever.  I'm slightly annoyed at how this show represents pregnancy and women's relationships with babies, but I'll roll with it.  The part that really doesn't make sense to me comes with the promise that Sue Sylvester will help the glee club win Nationals - and the cash prize - so that she can keep her job as Cheerios coach.  I don't get that.  Isn't Cheerios Nationals sooner than glee club's Nationals?  So shouldn't she actually focus on winning Cheerios Nationals to get the money and keep her job?  I'm all for finding a way to make Sue relevant, but I'm not sure this is it.  (Not to mention, the glee club seems poised for a Nationals win, and I'm wondering if the writers intend to suggest that the reason for winning might be Sue Sylvester's involvement.  This amuses me.)

What would honestly be a stronger concept is the idea that Sue has to win Cheerios Nationals, but is now down Quinn Fabray - someone who she thought was going to step back up and help take the title.  She doesn't need Roz Washington breathing down her neck; Sue's already at a disadvantage.  Sure, if you want to add Roz and the baby as secondary obstacles, that's fine, but the fact of the matter is that Sue's cheerleading squad needed to strike back - and now doesn't have their secret weapon.  So the arc for Sue would be about overcoming the odds to put her own team back on top.  Get Quinn involved by making her a sort of assistant coach to help Sue with the workload, and mine storylines from that.  And it also gives Brittany and Santana something to do.  Hell, involve more of the glee kids - who cares?  It makes more sense than having Sue hang around New Directions all the time.

But perhaps this is too harsh, because in all honesty, "Big Brother" did much better with a Sue-and-ND storyline than many episodes in the past.  She didn't rhapsodize about how mean she is or how nice Will Schuester is, but complimented the glee kids' optimism and even proved she pays attention to them (and Kurt's glitter poops), so it wasn't nearly as dreadful as the Sue-is-mean-and-needs-gleehabilitation instances of yore and yester-season.  And while I don't love the idea that Sue feels she must nurture her hellish womb with the glee club's kindness, I'm always on board for the construct that Sue respects the kids, but hates their leader.  She did vote for them at their first Regionals competition, after all.  Sue and those glee kids are not all that different!  And being reminded of that is always welcome. 

What helped as well was the fact that Sue's mini-arc was propelled emotionally by Becky, who gently reminded her to have patience, and thus spared Sue getting yelled at or subjected to the trappings of an after-school special.  The idea that it's possible that Sue may give birth to a special needs child was handled tastefully, and in keeping with the heartfelt construct that Sue will always support and fight for the care of those with special needs.  I also enjoyed seeing Emma be supportive of Sue, and the fact that she and Will accompanied Sue to the doctor's - made even better by Sue's acknowledged bewilderment at being friends with these people.  Those scenes hit the right balance of animosity without being mean, and the storyline was better for it.  (I'm still waiting for a prickly Sue/Emma friendship, because those ladies have a lot to learn from one another if they could just somehow find a way to be on the same team.)  So even with the confusing set-up, the emotional payoffs of Sue's storyline were well-handled.

In all, even though the "don't-text-and-drive" messages were a bit heavy-handed, "Big Brother" tread carefully and tastefully with the "lessons" that Glee tries so hard to teach.  The suggestion that Sue was at first scared, but then accepting of having a special needs child was graceful, as was the inclusion of Artie helping Quinn with her time in the wheelchair.  I was nervous Glee would try to load the episode with Artie lecturing Quinn about being in the chair, or Quinn being unreceptive to Artie's world, but in fact, "Big Brother" did something incredibly smart: they took a trip to the skate park for Senior Ditch Day.  All they needed was to show the participants at the park, and the message was received.  How amazing were all the background players in that scene?  I'm assuming they're all real people and not actors, and I tip my hat to Eric Stoltz for getting enough footage of their athleticism to include in the montage and really show off their abilities.  Glee prides itself on including people from all corners of life that don't often get their stories told on television, but frequently misses the mark through sloppy storytelling - but "Big Brother" made good on the promise.

So, when it's all said and done, it's still bewildering that so much of this episode skirted the issues that created the drama and cliffhangers of "On My Way," but there were still strong moments in several of the storylines.  Character moments and plot execution could have been stronger if just rearranged, but perhaps the episodes to come will capitalize on the potential.  A girl can dream, right?  (Right, Finn?)

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B+
Dance Numbers: B+
Dialogue: B+
Plot: C
Characterization: C
Episode MVP: Quinn Fabray
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